By Robert Mann
On the afternoon of Tuesday, November 5, 1916 – near the end of a bruising reelection campaign – President Woodrow Wilson sat writing a letter in the study of his cavernous New Jersey summer retreat, a rented mansion called “Shadow Lawn.”
For most of the summer and fall, Wilson had presided over a flawless political operation. His small campaign staff, ensconced above a bank in nearby Asbury Park, had helped him stage the most modern and effective American presidential campaign ever. Every week, from the house’s front porch, Wilson greeted thousands of supporters who flocked there to hear him speak.
Over the late summer and fall, he had made his case in passionate speeches that emphasized his wise, sober leadership during a dangerous year in which the country inched closer to entering the murderous war that raged across Europe. Wilson’s message, trumpeted by the Democratic Party: “He kept us out of war.”
After running a virtually flawless campaign, and having tried to broker a diplomatic end to the war, Wilson was confident of victory. “I have surveyed the field,” he wrote earlier that day to his closest advisor, Colonel Edward House, “and I cannot reach any other conclusion but that the fight is won.”
And, yet, he hedged his bets. This was the reason he sat down to compose another letter that afternoon, just two days before the election.
He addressed his words to Secretary of State Robert Lansing. Prompted by an October 20 from his friend House, Wilson now laid out a stunning plan for how he would respond should he lose the election.
Wilson informed Secretary Lansing that, if he lost the election, he would immediately instigate a remarkable scheme to turn the White House over to Hughes and become the first American president to resign from office.
Wilson’s plan involved persuading Vice President Thomas Marshall and Lansing to resign at once. Wilson would then appoint President-elect Hughes as secretary of state. With the vice presidency empty, the secretary of state would become first in the line of succession (adoption of the 25th Amendment in 1967 would later render a plan like Wilson’s impossible). Wilson would then resign the presidency, making Hughes president four months before his scheduled inauguration on March 4.
With war raging in Europe, the president was uncertain how long he could keep the United States out of the fighting. During such dangerous times, however, he knew the country could not wait four months to inaugurate its new president.
More than anything, Wilson knew he could not effectively govern as a repudiated leader during a time of national crisis. “I would have no right to risk the peace of the nation by remaining in office after I had lost my authority,” he wrote to Lansing. As House had noted when he first suggested this plan to Wilson, “This would be a patriotic thing to do.” The plan would redeem an election loss “from danger and embarrassment.”
In retrospect, Wilson’s resignation letter appears remarkably wise and patriotic.
The story of this remarkable 1916 letter and the impulse behind it should be required reading for any would-be president. It will remind them and us that a president’s first loyalty must not be to his or her re-election, but to the wellbeing of the country.
It reminds us that the American people should expect any serious presidential candidate to commit to peacefully accepting the decision of the people and work patriotically to ensure the transfer of power from one president to the next.
Until this current election, candidates embracing this hallmark of a vibrant democracy was a given. As I chronicled in this post recently, losing presidential contenders in the modern era have always acceded to the will of the people.
That commitment may have ended several weeks ago when GOP nominee Donald Trump refused to say he would accept the results of Tuesday’s election against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Even today, three days until the Nov. 8 election, Trump has not pledged his willingness to abide the voters’ decision, speaking ominously of a “rigged” election.
Trump’s behavior is a disgrace. Worse, it is undemocratic.
The first thought in the minds of both major candidates next Tuesday night must not be the counting of votes or assembling a cabinet, but thinking seriously about his or her sacred duty to say or do nothing that could weaken the fabric of American democracy.
On Election Day 1916, there was nothing left for Wilson do. After driving to Princeton to vote, he and his wife, Edith, returned to Shadow Lawn to await news of his fate. That night, he and his family gathered in his study to receive the election returns from his secretary, Joseph Tumulty, who was sending reports from a telegraph office in nearby Asbury Park.
At midnight, when Wilson finally retired for the evening, the returns were inconclusive, but trending toward a Hughes victory. Former President Theodore Roosevelt had issued a statement that evening, congratulating Hughes on his win.
Despite his optimism a few days earlier, Wilson feared he had lost and might have reason to execute his historic and dramatic resignation plan. “Well, Tumulty,” he told his assistant over the telephone before heading off to sleep, “it begins to look as if we have been badly licked.”
Within the next two days, however, Wilson’s resignation letter was moot. He had narrowly won California and, therefore, a second term.
That razor-close presidential election was the penultimate moment in one of the most dramatic 15 months in American history, which would culminate in April 1917 with Congress supporting Wilson’s call to declare war on Germany. Not since Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 had war hinged on the outcome of a presidential election.
Wilson’s dramatic election-eve letter would not become public until 1935, more than ten years after his death, when Lansing described it in his memoir of the First World War. Even today, it remains a remarkable testament not only to Wilson’s character but to the bedrock American belief that the voters must have the final say about who resides in the White House.
Moreover, the letter testifies to our collective understanding that the loser, no matter how disappointed, must abide the results and do whatever he or she can to support, protect and defend the transition of power from one administration to the next.
As we await Trump’s decision on whether he will accept the will of the people should he lose Tuesday’s election, let us remember Wilson’s patriotism – and the centuries-old patriotic American tradition that is very much at stake in this election.