The election of 1912 stands out for several reasons. That year, the Republican Party tore itself apart. President William Howard Taft secured his renomination at the G.O.P.’s national convention in Chicago through shrewd control of the party machinery, preventing the seating of delegates supporting his rival, former President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s forces rebelled, bolting the convention and forming a new party to support their man’s bid to recapture the White House. The organization known variously as the Progressive or Bull Moose Party went on to win well over 4 million votes in the general election, translating to 88 electoral votes across six states. By comparison, Taft won fewer than 3.5 million votes – just eight electoral votes from two states. It was the best showing by a third-party candidate in the history of the modern U.S. party system. It also guaranteed the election of the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson won a lopsided majority in the Electoral College, racking up 40 states with 435 electoral votes. He did not, however, win a majority of the popular vote. His total fell just short of 6.3 million. It’s tempting to look at those numbers and conclude that, had the Republican Party remained united, it would easily have held the presidency. That may have been the case if Roosevelt had somehow managed to win the Republican nomination. It seems less likely if TR had admitted defeat and sought to rally his followers behind Taft.
While Roosevelt ran as the candidate of the Progressive Party, both he and Wilson advocated the political philosophy known as progressivism – roughly defined as a movement favoring political reform and advocating economic and social justice. Read in this fashion, the 1912 election was an overwhelming victory for progressivism over the Old Guard conservatism of which Taft was champion. Had the contest been a two-man race between Wilson and Taft, many progressive Republicans may have voted for Wilson or stayed home. In any event, Wilson took the election as a mandate for progressive legislation on everything from banking regulation to the introduction of the eight-hour work day. The tide of progressive legislation ebbed with the U.S. entry into World War I, but it served as an inspiration to Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR’s New Deal owed much of its existence to the groundwork laid by the 1912 platform Wilson called the New Freedom.
By contrast, the election of 1916 appears rather less consequential. It was a straight two-man contest between the Democratic incumbent Wilson and the Republican challenger, Charles Evans Hughes. There was very little to differentiate the two in terms of their domestic platforms. Hughes supported many, though not all, of Wilson’s economic and social reforms. He was slightly ahead of Wilson in endorsing women’s suffrage, and his views on civil rights were decidedly more forward-looking than those of the Virginia-born president.
But the issue that largely decided the election was that of America’s entry into the First World War. Both Wilson and Hughes argued for the U.S. to remain neutral. Hughes campaigned on a Republican platform argued that the U.S. needed a much stronger army and navy as a deterrent – in theory against any foreign power that might threaten the U.S., but with Imperial Germany utmost in mind. Wilson campaigned on a more straightforward message of peace and isolation, under the slogan. The contest was much closer than 1912. Wilson garnered a larger share of the popular vote. But the Electoral College broke for the incumbent by a much narrower margin of 277-254, with 30 states going Democratic and 18 Republican.
Before Wilson could take the oath of office for the second time, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and attempted to entice Mexico into declaring war on the United States, with the promise of restoring the territory it had lost to the U.S. in 1848. The U.S. learned of the latter when British intelligence intercepted, then leaked, a coded telegram from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to Germany’s ambassador to Mexico. Having won reelection by campaigning under the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War,” Wilson began his second term by asking Congress to declare war on Germany.
Arguably, the election of 1916 was significant in at least two respects. First, Wilson became the first Democratic president since Andrew Jackson to win two consecutive terms in office. Second, Wilson’s belated (and forced) conversion to the Allied cause led him for the first time to apply his progressive ideology to foreign policy rather than domestic. It led him to adopt the position that the national interests of the U.S. and of world peace would best be served by spreading representative democratic government as widely as possible – ideally through diplomacy and free trade, but if necessary by force. This philosophy entered the lexicon as “Wilsonianism,” and it remains one of the leading schools of American diplomacy.
The U.S. would have entered the Great War soon after Inauguration Day 1917 regardless of who took the oath of office, given Germany’s actions in the months since the election. So how much difference would a Hughes presidency have made to the ultimate outcome? Answering this requires a closer look at Hughes, both in terms of what led him to the Republican nomination in 1916 and what he accomplished after his defeat that November.
Like Wilson, Hughes was the son of a clergyman and raised in a religious household. But where Wilson’s father moved to south from Ohio and became a slaveholder, Hughes father was a lifelong New Yorker and an abolitionist. Like Wilson, Hughes trained as a lawyer. But where Wilson grew bored with the actual practice of law, Hughes became obsessed by it, frequently working himself to exhaustion. His intelligence and dedication, particularly in his work as a special counsel for a commission investigating utility rates for New York City, drew him to the attention both of Roosevelt and Taft.
In 1906, Roosevelt drafted Hughes to run for governor of New York. Hughes beat heavily favored Democratic candidate William Randolph Hearst, in a campaign later immortalized in the film Citizen Kane. Hughes distinguished himself as a reform-minded executive, enacting social reforms, fighting political corruption, and attempting, unsuccessfully, to replace the state’s convention system for selecting political candidates with a direct primary. In 1910, while he was still governor, Taft named him to the Supreme Court as an associate justice. Hughes distinguished himself there as an advocate of regulating business and of civil rights.
Republican Party leaders had attempted to draft Hughes for the presidency as early as 1912, on the theory that he would make a good compromise candidate acceptable to both the Roosevelt and Taft factions. Hughes refused, saying it was improper for a sitting judge to involve himself in politics. Four years later, G.O.P. leaders tried again with the same argument but much more strenuously. This time, Hughes agreed. Taft endorsed him. Roosevelt, whose personal opinion of Hughes had cooled – he referred to him as a “bearded iceberg” – decided he would rather support Hughes than risk giving Wilson another victory. Hughes won the nomination on the third ballot. The convention nominated as his running mate Charles W. Fairbanks, Roosevelt’s former vice president.
The one man who could conceivably have rallied these forces to Hughes was Hiram Johnson, the Progressive governor of California and Roosevelt’s 1912 running mate. In 1916, Johnson was running for the Senate as a Republican but remained in a bitter fight with the state’s Old Guard leaders. Hughes came to California to campaign in the midst of this fight and was briefly in the same hotel as Johnson. Due to a screw up by Hughes’ campaign manager, the two failed to meet, though Hughes did wind up meeting with several of Johnson’s conservative antagonists, including banker and state G.O.P. leader William H. Crocker. Hughes then compounded the slight by giving a speech at which he saluted Crocker as “California’s favorite son.” Johnson took this as a deliberate insult. He never forgave Hughes and thereafter refused to lift a finger on Hughes’ behalf. Hughes lost California by a narrow margin and with it the presidency.
Hughes had a reputation as an extremely quick study. Had he met with Johnson, he would have realized very quickly how bitter the blood was between the governor and Crocker. He would not have made the blunder of publicly saluting Crocker as he did, certainly not without lavishing equal or greater praise on Johnson. With Johnson in his camp, Hughes would have carried California at the very least. That alone would have been enough for Hughes to edge out Wilson, although it would have been the tightest electoral contest in nearly thirty years -- 267 Hughes to 264 Wilson. It’s possible, though, that with Johnson in his corner, Hughes might also have carried Washington, which Roosevelt and Johnson carried in 1912. That would have tipped the balance to 274 Hughes to 257 Wilson, not much different from the margin by which Wilson actually won.
President Hughes would have taken the oath of office on March 4, 1917. He would have recognized at this point that U.S. entry into the Great War was all but unavoidable, but he would have wanted to do as much as he could to strengthen America’s position, both militarily and legally, before committing to the fight.
The new president would have had a deep bench of foreign policy and defense expertise on which to draw: Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. senator from Massachusetts and ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Elihu Root, secretary of war under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt and secretary of state under Roosevelt; Henry Stimson, secretary of war under President Taft; and Major General Leonard Wood, U.S. Army chief of staff under Presidents Taft and Wilson. The men were all architects of the Preparedness Movement, pushing for universal military training and naval expansion. He would also, no doubt, have had to fend off helpful suggestions by Roosevelt himself.
Hughes immediate priorities would have been enacting the platform of military preparedness on which he had campaigned. The Democrats held majorities in both houses of Congress. But the renewed U-boat attacks on American shipping and the revelations of the Zimmerman Telegram would have undercut Democratic resistance to Hughes’ proposals. These would have included the enactment of conscription, which Congress had been considering as early as the previous December, and appropriations for a massive naval construction program.
Hughes would then have informed the German government – through neutral intermediaries, as Wilson had severed diplomatic relations with Germany in February – that any further attack on American shipping would be considered an act of war. To drive the point home, he could have ordered the seizure of German government assets in the U.S., pending Germany’s abandonment of unrestricted submarine warfare and payment of compensation to the families of those killed or injured in previous submarine attacks. Germany’s military leadership would almost certainly have ignored such an ultimatum – General Erich Ludendorff, who had insisted on resuming unrestricted submarine warfare, would scarcely have risked American entry into the war if he considered the U.S. a serious threat.
In our timeline, Wilson found one excuse after another to avoid calling for a declaration of war, with more than two months elapsing between the renewal of U-boat attacks and Wilson’s appeal to Congress. In this scenario, the declaration could have come within a matter of days after Hughes took office, roughly a month early compared to our history.
How much of a difference would this have made? The U.S. would still have had to build a mass army virtually from scratch. The peacetime U.S. Army had roughly 100,000 men. The American Expeditionary Force had about 2 million men in France by the time of the Armistice. American industry would also have faced the same limitations mobilizing its capacity to manufacture arms, ammunition, and other military supplies to meet U.S. needs, let alone those of the Allies.
Against this, we can weigh the likely appointment of Wood as the commander of A.E.F. instead of John J. Pershing. Wood was a more experienced combat leader, had greater experience leading large bodies of men, and had a record as an effective military reformer. Leading Republicans had argued strongly for Wood’s appointment to the post in our own timeline, but his political activities in the Preparedness Movement had made him anathema to Wilson, who chose Pershing as a non-partisan alternative. Wood, who built up a record as a military reformer and one of the fathers of American combined arms doctrine, would have been more likely than Pershing to absorb the bloody lessons the Western Allies had learned about the futility of mass assaults against fortified trenches. Pershing ignored those lessons and wound up repeating many of the same mistakes at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, particularly during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
At the height of the American effort on the Western Front, Britain and France requested the U.S. send 5,000 men to assist with a mission in Eastern Europe. Russia had erupted in civil war. The Allies wanted to intervene to keep German troops from seizing Allied stockpiles at the Russian port of Arkhangelsk, to rescue Czechoslovak troops who had become trapped behind the Bolshevik lines, and to reopen the Eastern Front against Germany. Underlying all this was the goal of overthrowing the nascent Bolshevik government.
In our timeline, the U.S. War Department rejected the request, but President Wilson overruled it. The result was what became known as American North Russian Expeditionary Force, colloquially known as the Polar Bear Expedition. It had no effect on outcome of Russian Civil War, but effectively poisoned U.S-Soviet relations from the start. Hughes was no more a fan of bolshevism than Wilson, but he would have recognized the mission as an unnecessary distraction from the Western Front. Odds are, he would have taken the War Department’s advice.
On the home front, progressive domestic legislation would have been as a low priority for a wartime Hughes Administration as it was for Wilson’s. But Hughes could have accomplished a significant civil rights goal during this period by executive authority. Wilson had effectively introduced southern “Jim Crow” laws at the federal level, banning African-Americans from higher level jobs in the federal civil service and reintroducing segregation in government office buildings. It would have been entirely within Hughes power, and character, to reverse these moves. In doing so, he would only have been restoring the status quo, as there was ample precedent under prior Republican administrations for keeping the civil service integrated.
Wilson, in asking Congress for a declaration of war on Germany, used the argument, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” This made for excellent propaganda, and it gave American involvement in the war the character of a crusade. It held out the promise of a postwar world where democratic governments would thrive the world over. Wilson raised hopes further with his January 8, 1918 speech to Congress, outlining America’s war objectives. What became known as the Fourteen Points included calls for national self-determination, freedom of the seas, free trade, an end to secret diplomacy, international disarmament, and the formation of a League of Nations. They also called for Germany to evacuate Belgium, give Alsace-Lorraine back to France, and to give up Polish territory that Prussia had held since the eighteenth century. But these seemed modest enough demands by October 1918, when German armies were collapsing in the field. Imperial Chancellor Max von Baden asked for an armistice on the expectation that the Fourteen Points would be, as advertised, the basis of a permanent peace settlement.
The Treaty of Versailles was, of course, far harsher than anything Wilson had proposed. Wilson sailed home from France in the middle of the conference to lobby for American membership in the League. By the time he returned, Wilson’s health was in decline. French Prime Minister George Clemenceau effectively dominated the proceedings. The resulting peace terms for Germany included the assumption of guilt for starting the war, near total disarmament, and a bill for war damages that, adjusted for inflation, would amount to nearly half a trillion dollars in today’s currency. The nascent government of the German Republic never recovered from the humiliation of those peace terms.
Wilson came away from the proceedings with only one thing that he truly wanted, the creation of a League of Nations. He’d done nothing to assuage concerns of Republicans, who had by now taken control of both houses of Congress, that joining the League would infringe on American sovereignty. Senate Republican leaders, including Lodge, demanded revisions before they would ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson refused, demanding they accept the treaty, and the League, as was. He then embarked on a nationwide speaking tour, hoping to build popular support for the League and force the Senate to cave. Instead, Wilson destroyed his health, suffering two major strokes that left him an invalid for the remainder of his presidency. The U.S. never joined the League of Nations. The American withdrawal from world affairs did almost as much as the Treaty of Versailles to prompt Germany to risk another devastating war with Britain and France just two decades later.
With Hughes as president, there would have been no call for a democratic crusade. No Fourteen Points. No reason for the German government to expect lenient terms if it sued for an armistice. The fighting might well have continued until the German Army was forced back onto German territory. That would have made it far more difficult to argue, as Ludendorff and many other German generals were to do, that the German Army was never defeated in the field and that only the betrayal by civilians on the home front, particularly Jews, had led to Germany’s defeat.
The American president and chief negotiator that arrived in France in 1919 would have been younger, healthier, and free of the messianic hopes that Wilson raised in our timeline. He would likely have been accompanied by Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, and a senior Democratic senator. Wilson’s decision not to include any Republicans in his negotiating team was a major reason Senate leaders distrusted the resulting treaty.
The resulting negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles between Hughes, Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando would have been every bit as complex as those of the treaty in our own history. The best gauge of President Hughes’ success would have been Hughes’ signature diplomatic accomplishment in our own timeline.
In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Hughes as secretary of state. Hughes, with no prior experience in diplomacy, soon found himself overseeing a five-power conference to head off a naval arms race among the victorious powers in the Great War – Great Britain, the U.S., Japan, France, and Italy. Each power had a strategic interest in building the largest, strongest, most-technologically advanced navy possible. For all to follow this course, however, would have been to risk recreating the conditions that many blamed for touching off the Great War. Such an arms race would also have been economically ruinous for all powers involved, with the possible exception of the U.S.
Hughes oversaw the Washington Naval Conference with the assistance of Lodge, Root, and Senator Oscar Underwood, the Senate’s ranking Democrat. It was Hughes who ultimately persuaded the other great powers to accept naval construction limits, at a ratio of 5:5:3:1.7:1.7 – that is, for every 5 tons’ worth of U.S. battleship construction, Britain could build 5, Japan could build 3, and France and Italy 1.7 each. As an aside, the U.S. negotiators convinced Britain that the only way they could approve the deal would be if Britain allowed its alliance with Japan to lapse. Japan accepted the limits, in large part for economic reasons, but considered the treaty deeply unfair. This, and the American-enforced breakup of its alliance with Britain, went a long way toward convincing Japanese military and naval leaders that they would ultimately have to fight the United States to protect their interests in the Pacific.
A President Hughes at Versailles would have faced a set of foreign leaders every bit as protective of their own national interests. His task would have been to convince them that staking out the strongest possible gains at the expense of a defeated Germany would be counterproductive. Unless the Allied Powers were prepared to occupy Germany indefinitely, they could not keep it down forever. And the harsher the peace terms they imposed, the more determined Germany would become to seek revenge. In the meanwhile, the high level of reparations France and Britain were demanding would damage not only Germany’s economy but theirs as well. Here, he could use the leverage of the war debts France and Britain owed to America extract concessions on how much they would demand from Germany.
All this may appear more insightful that reasonable. If Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau could not see the consequences of a harsh peace with Germany, why would Hughes? There was one person at Versailles who foresaw exactly these consequences. Economist John Maynard Keynes attended the conference as an advisor to the British government. He wound up publishing his views later in 1919 as The Economic Consequences of the Peace. The book greatly undermined the legitimacy of the Treaty of Versailles both in the U.S. and Britain, providing a strong argument for those who later supported appeasement of Germany in the 1930s.
Hughes was no economist, but he had spent a good deal of his early public service dealing with economic issues, particularly in cases involving the federal regulation of interstate commerce. It’s likely that he would have drawn some of the same conclusions as Keynes and have done his utmost to convince his fellow world leaders of the potential consequences of their approach. As the Washington Naval Conference negotiations proved, Hughes at his best could be extremely persuasive.
With Hughes involved, the resulting Treaty of Versailles would have been far more likely to provide the framework for a lasting European peace. The U.S. Senate would have ratified the treaty with little trouble. The odds that the U.S. would have retreated into postwar isolationism would have greatly diminished. From a foreign policy and national security standpoint, Hughes first term as president would have been far more successful than Wilson’s second.
None of this would necessarily have guaranteed Hughes winning a second term. With demobilization, U.S. prices started to fall. The economy tipped into a deep recession starting in January 1920, which lasted until July 1921. One only need look at the U.S. election of 1992, in which Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, to see how a recession can prompt voters to reject a popular wartime leader. Still, this might have been where Hughes early support of women’s suffrage paid off. The Nineteenth Amendment took effect in August 1920, making that November’s election the first in which women’s votes could decide the outcome.
With so many changes from our history over the course of a first Hughes term, it would be nearly impossible to predict what a second term would look like. Two things, though, are certain. First, Hughes would have had a different vice president. Charles Fairbanks died in June 1918. Under the law then governing U.S. succession, the vice presidency would have remained vacant until the beginning of the next presidential term on March 4, 1921. Who Hughes would have picked to replace Fairbanks is anybody’s guess. It would not have been unreasonable, though, for him to turn to one of the men who had helped put him in office in 1916, Senator Hiram Johnson.
Second, Hughes would have had a dramatic opportunity to reshape the Supreme Court. Between March 4, 1921 and March 4, 1925, five justices left the bench. These included Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, who died in office. One could reasonably assume that Hughes would have proposed justices with judicial views similar to his own.
In our own history, President Herbert Hoover named Hughes chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1930. He served in that position for eleven years, a period of tremendous controversy in which the court acted as a conservative check on the New Deal. President Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to break the court’s opposition to his programs by packing it with liberal justices resulted in one of the most serious political defeats of his career. It seems implausible that Hughes would have become chief justice in such an alternate timeline, but his ultimate impact on the Supreme Court and on U.S. law would arguably have been far greater.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I first wrote on what a Hughes presidency might look like seventeen years ago in Point of Divergence, No. 21. The occasion was an editor’s challenge to describe a history in which Leonard Wood won the both Republican nomination for president and then the presidency in 1920. I concluded the general would have made a poor candidate, focused as he was on the single issue of military preparedness. Instead, I wrote about what might have happened if Hughes had won the election in 1916, named Wood as his commanding general in World War I, and then appointed him secretary of war after winning a second term. The centennial of the Wilson-Hughes contest struck me as the perfect opportunity to revisit the issue, with a focus on Hughes instead of Wood. Thanks to Matt Mitrovich for the opportunity.
* * *
Andrew Schneider is the politics and government reporter for Houston Public Media (KUHF), NPR’s affiliate in Houston. His work has aired nationwide on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. He holds degrees in history from the University of Chicago and Duke University. Andrew recently completed work on a memoir based on his experiences as a war correspondent in Afghanistan.