(Almost) President Hughes: The Benson Decision
By Doug Pahl
On a cool summer evening 100 years ago, a confident Republican presidential nominee, Charles Evans Hughes, sat in his ornate suite at Portland’s Benson Hotel and made a decision that likely cost him the election. In 1916, the Republican Party needed a unifier. Four years earlier, the party had split in two when the Old Guard clashed with the party’s progressive wing—throwing the 1912 election to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Nowhere were the Republican wounds more raw than in progressive-leaning California, where the feud of 1912 continued.
Just back from a drive along the new Columbia River Highway and a stroll at the foot of Multnomah Falls, Hughes now needed to calm the warring Republican factions in California, the next and most troublesome state on his whistle-stop western tour.
It was August 16, 1916, and the presidential election was in full swing. That evening, Hughes met with an impatient Chester Rowell, emissary from California’s most popular politician, Republican Governor Hiram Johnson, the irascible progressive who was in the midst of his own campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Old Guard Republicans, especially in California, hadn’t forgotten Governor Johnson’s betrayal. In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt boldly came out of retirement to challenge incumbent President William Howard Taft on the grounds Taft wasn’t progressive enough. When the party bosses gave the nomination to Taft, Roosevelt angrily gathered his progressive supporters and bolted from the party. Governor Johnson bolted too, serving as Roosevelt’s running mate on the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party ticket. The Roosevelt-Johnson ticket split the Republican vote, causing the unthinkable—a defeat for Taft and a victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson with just 42 percent of the vote.
The fractured Republican Party was stunned and angry. It desperately needed a healer if it hoped to retake the White House in 1916. President Taft had appointed Hughes, the popular former governor of New York, to the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1910. Politically sidelined, Hughes played no role in the unpleasantness of 1912 and was therefore uniquely positioned to reunite the party in 1916. In June 1916, Hughes resigned from the court to run for president— the only justice in the history of the court to do so.
The wounds of 1912 were still fresh in California. Old Guard Republicans deeply resented Governor Johnson and attempted to keep him from basking in Hughes’s considerable national glow. Remarkably, on the eve of his four-day visit to California, the Hughes campaign had scheduled no joint events with Governor Johnson, nor had Hughes endorsed Johnson for the California Senate race. Feeling disrespected, Governor Johnson sent Rowell to Portland for a face-to-face with the Republican nominee.
Although he may not have realized it at the time, Hughes likely determined the election that evening in Portland. Rowell pleaded with Hughes to schedule events with Johnson in the coming days and asked that Hughes endorse Johnson in his Senate primary race. “For the sake of your candidacy, you ought to come out for Johnson. If you do, you’ll be elected. If you do not, you may not carry California.” Hughes indicated that he very much wanted to appear with Johnson during his California visit and instructed his staff to arrange it. However, Hughes declined to endorse Johnson in the primary, not wishing to play favorites in local political matters. “I couldn’t possibly comply with your request,” Hughes said, “even if it should mean my defeat.”
Prescient words by the candidate. Hughes spent four days traveling through California, never once seeing or appearing with Governor Johnson. By sheer unfortunate coincidence, the two candidates spent several hours in the same hotel—the Virginia Hotel in Long Beach. After checking in, Johnson became aware of the presence of the Hughes party, but he felt he was being excluded and did not make his presence known. Hughes left without knowing of Johnson’s presence.
Intentional or not, Governor Johnson’s progressive supporters in California took the entire Hughes visit as a snub, one that would loom large.
Although before the advent of modern polling, Hughes appeared heavily favored to win. Two days prior to the November election, President Wilson wrote an extraordinary letter to his Secretary of State Robert Lansing. At that time, the presidential inauguration took place in March, not January, as it does today. In addition, unlike today, after the vice president, the secretary of state was next in the line of succession. Standing, as the nation was, on the verge of entering World War I, Wilson believed that a five-month lame duck presidency would expose the country to grave risks. Wilson wrote to Secretary Lansing:
I feel that it would be my duty to relieve the country of the perils of such a situation at once. The course I have in mind is dependent upon the consent and cooperation of the Vice President; but, if I could gain his consent to the plan, I would ask your permission to invite Mr. Hughes to become Secretary of State and would then join the Vice President in resigning, and thus open to Mr. Hughes the immediate succession to the presidency.
Early in the evening on Election Day as the lights of Times Square flashed “President Hughes Elected,” it appeared Wilson would have to act on his letter. Hughes had quickly secured the delegate-rich northeast. Major newspapers called the race for Hughes. Wilson needed a near sweep of the rest of the county to win.
Despite the news, Wilson withheld his concession until morning. By then, there was hope. Wilson had dominated in the South, and run much stronger in the Midwest and West than expected. It took days before the counts were final.
In what turned out to be one of the closest elections in history, Hughes carried only one western state: Oregon. Sadly for Hughes, the election came down to California. The winner of its 13 electoral votes would be president.
When the California results were finally official, Wilson had won the state by 3,773 votes out of one million votes cast. Incredibly, if just 1,887 Californians had voted for Hughes rather than Wilson, we would have had a President Hughes.
Meanwhile, Hiram Johnson won his California Senate race by an enviable 300,000 votes.
Wilson never had to act on his remarkable letter.
Despite the loss, Hughes continued his impressive career, serving as secretary of state under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. In 1930, President Hoover appointed Hughes to be Chief Justice. From this position Chief Justice Hughes guided and transformed the court throughout the tumultuous New Deal era.
One wonders if Hughes ever thought back on his western tour and his momentous decision at the Benson Hotel.