Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter


The 1916 Presidential election pitted incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson against Republican Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes.  The election was a very close one and had significant ramifications for the “progressive” movement.

The Candidates

Woodrow Wilson was President of Princeton University from 1902 until early 1910, when he resigned from Princeton University to run for Governor of New Jersey.  Wilson won the governorship and focused on an agenda of reform.  In 1912, he ran for President of the United States.  The Democratic Convention was one of the most dramatic and closest in history.  After 46 ballots, Wilson was finally nominated as the candidate.  In the general election in 1912, Wilson faced the incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft, and also former President Teddy Roosevelt, who had formed the Progressive Party (Bull Moose Party).  Eugene Debs rounded out the ballot on the Socialist Party ticket.  As Taft and Roosevelt divided support among Republican voters, Wilson won with more than 40% of the popular vote and 435 electoral votes.

President Wilson took office as the only Democrat other than Grover Cleveland elected President since 1856, and the first Southerner to occupy the White House since 1869, when Andrew Johnson left the White House (the last elected Southerner was in 1849).  During his first term, Wilson focused on banking reform and keeping the United States out of World War I.  On a personal level, his first wife died during his first term.  Wilson remarried and became reenergized as the 1916 election approached.

Like Wilson, Charles Evans Hughes’ entry into governmental service was as a state governor.  Hughes taught at New York Law School with Wilson for a short period of time.  He was elected Governor of New York in 1907 and served until 1910.  Hughes focused on reform of government processes as well as expanding general governmental, police and welfare powers.  In 1910, Hughes was nominated by President Taft as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  On June 10, 1916, Hughes resigned his justiceship to accept the Republican nomination for president.  Hughes was also overwhelmingly endorsed by the Progressive Party.  Hughes became the first and only Supreme Court justice to be nominated for president by a major political party.

The Election of 1916

The Democrats used the slogan, “He Kept Us out of War,” warning the country that war in Europe and in Mexico was almost certain should the Republican candidate, Hughes, be elected.  Hughes pushed back on this attack, noting that the Wilson administration had intervened in the Mexican Civil War.  Hughes’ campaign was boosted by strong support from former President Roosevelt, but Hughes failed to obtain the active support of influential California Governor Hiram Johnson.

The election was one of the closest in American presidential history.  The nation waited for several days for the western states to report final results.  When the dust had settled, Wilson had won the Electoral College, 277-254, and won 30 of the 48 states.  At the time, 266 electoral votes were needed to win; had Hughes carried California with its 13 electoral votes, he would have been elected.  Wilson became only the second president in our history to win re-election with a lower electoral percentage than his initial victory (James Madison was the other president with a decline in re-election).  Wilson also became the first president to receive fewer overall electoral votes in re-election (only Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama would have similar results).

Constitutional Impact of 1916 Election

The 1916 election had no direct impact on the United States Constitution, but did as noted, mark the emergence of the progressives in the political landscape.  However, Hughes’ defeat would eventually have consequences for the judicial branch. On February 3, 1930, President Herbert Hoover made his first of three Supreme Court nominations when he nominated Hughes to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Hughes was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 13, 1930, replacing Chief Justice Taft, who had also lost a presidential election to Wilson.  President Taft had nominated Hughes to his position as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Faced with President Franklin Roosevelt’s court packing plan (stemming from FDR’s frustration with the Supreme Court’s hostile treatment of his New Deal initiatives), Hughes worked behind the scenes to make sure that new Congressional acts quickly moved up to the Supreme Court for review and were found to be constitutional.  One element of Hughes’ work to slow Roosevelt’s attempts to revamp the Court became known as the “Switch in time that saved nine”- Justice Owen Roberts and Hughes had discussed Roberts’ positions before the court packing plan had been unveiled, and Roberts began to side with the four more liberal justices.


Had Hughes defeated Wilson in 1916 and become President, it is unlikely he would have become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Hughes presided over the Supreme Court during a time when the Court had become more progressive, and Hughes joined his brethren in voting that way.  For 11 years, he served as Chief Justice and earned a reputation as one of the greatest chief justices of the Supreme Court.  A few electoral votes’ difference in the fall of 1916 would have altered Supreme Court history to a significant extent.

Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies.  He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.

1 reply
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    I did not know Hughes was a Supreme Court Justice and a progressive. Also that he was re-elected to SCOTUS as Chief Justice replacing President → Chief Justice Taft. Life is stranger than fiction.

    In essay 63 it was noted that Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis to SCOTUS who served till 1939. It appears progressives had a friendly court.

    Peculiar Fun Facts only the Electoral College could produce:
    1. As noted, had Hughes carried CA we would have been President. He only needed 3,773 votes, or 0.38% of CA voters or 0.0204% of all voters.
    2. Wilson received 578,140 more votes than Hughes, or 3.12% more than Hughes.
    3. Combining #1 & #2, a change of 3773 votes and Wilson would have received 574,367 more votes, or 3.10% margin of victory, but lost.
    4. If Hughes had received 56 more votes in NH, 1,735 in ND and 2,375 in NM he would have received 12 more EC votes and beat Wilson 266 to 265. Again a mere 4,166 votes, or 0.022%.

    It seems 1916 was very close to producing another instance of Jefferson’s unlucky chance of hitting a lottery. “I have ever considered the constitutional mode of election…as the most dangerous blot on our constitution, and one which some unlucky chance will some day hit.” TJ, 1823

    I wonder how much different the 2016 election would be if we did not have winner take all State EC votes. The people could more easily elect a 3rd party candidate sending a strong message to the Dems/Rep’ns, “we do not have to and will not accept such lousy candidates.” “Neither candidate is electable, but one of them will win.” Dick Morris.



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