One of the more positive aspects of American presidential politics is the relatively orderly, entirely peaceful succession process. Every four years, on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November, voters across the nation go to the polls and cast their ballots. Those votes are translated into votes for state-wide (usually — Nebraska and Maine differ a bit) electors, and a few weeks later, those electors cast the votes which actually determine who is going to be inaugurated into the office of the President on January 20th of the subsequent year. Even though the campaign can be acrimonious, to date at least, no sitting president has ever attempted to disrupt this process.
But there was, almost, an exception. In 1916, incumbent President Woodrow Wilson faced a challenge from Republican Charles Evans Hughes. The election was exceptionally close. Wilson earned 277 Electoral Votes to Hughes’ 254, and that 23-vote gap meant that California’s 13 Electoral Votes effectively decided which candidate would win the election. Wilson carried California by less than 4,000 votes out of nearly one million cast, and because of the technology at the time, California was slow to tally and report its results. For a few days, at least, the outcome of the 1916 Presidential Election was in doubt.
In today’s world, you’d expect some sort of shenanigans here — a Hail Mary attempt by one if not both candidates to claim the Oval Office for themselves. But in this case, the opposite happened.
According to the book “The Shadow Presidents: The Secret History of the Chief Executives and Their Top Aides,” Wilson was concerned about World War I, even though at that point, the United States had not entered the war. At the time, the gap between the Presidential Election and the swearing-in of the new President was even longer than it is today when Presidents are sworn in on January 20th. Until 1933, Presidents were inaugurated on March 4th in the year subsequent to their election. Had Wilson lost the 1916 election, he would have been what’s known as a “lame duck” President for nearly four months. That could end up being problematic, Wilson concluded, because depending on the results of the war in Europe, whoever occupied the White House could be called upon to make a decision that impacted the next administration. This, Wilson decided, was an outcome best avoided.
So, per the book, Wilson had a plan. Had Hughes beaten Wilson, Wilson was going to immediately appoint Hughes to be his Secretary of State. Once Hughes was confirmed, Wilson and his vice president, Thomas Marshall, were going to resign. At the time, the Secretary of State was next in line to be President in such a situation. Charles Evans Hughes, therefore, would have become President months early, expediting the Presidential transition process, and quite possibly putting America in a better position regarding World War I.
As it turned out, the gambit was unnecessary, as Wilson triumphed. Barely.
From the Archives: Swing Vote: The man who decided the 1876 election.
Related: “Wilson,” a biography of the president. 4.3 stars on well over 350 reviews.