Willoughby: 2016 was much like 1916
Legends & Legacies
We think of 2016 as an unusual election year. If you had lived a century ago you may have felt — as many do now — that the year’s events foretold change for the nation.
In 1916, Aspen residents viewed politics through a Democratic eye, specifically that of Charles Dailey, editor of the leading newspaper the Aspen Democrat Times. For most of its history, B. Clark Wheeler owned and dominated Aspen’s papers, and under his control the Times was a Republican rag. Dailey began reporting the presidential race in January always with his editor’s bias.
Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson ran as an incumbent. From a political standpoint the election was his to lose, except for the national divide over World War I. After Germans torpedoed the Lusitania in 1915, Wilson forged an agreement that Germans would not sink American vessels again. He built his campaign around keeping us out of the war.
Charles Hughes, Wilson’s opponent, is the only Supreme Court justice to have run for president. Although his resume may be considered as unique to the field as that of a reality-TV star, he at least had government experience. Hughes campaigned to prepare for what many believed was our inevitable entry into the war. The senselessness of the war had become evident, dished out in daily headlines such as, “Germans capture 700 yards of the Alsace region.”
In addition, Wilson proposed a 1-cent-per-gallon tax and a 50-cent per horsepower tax on the sale of a new automobile. The Associated Garage Owners of America fought these proposals.
The Progressive Party sought a 1916 equivalent to Bernie Sanders. But they could not recruit a candidate — not even Teddy Roosevelt, the first choice for many.
During 2016, a call went out to “build the wall” across our southern border. In 1916, Wilson sent troops across that border. Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who had lost most of his troops during the ongoing Mexican Revolution, raided a town in New Mexico. Wilson sent Gen. John J. Pershing with 8,000 mounted troops on a “punitive expedition.” They spent nine months chasing Villa without success.
The vote was so close that Hughes would not concede until several days after the election. As the tallies from California and a couple of other states came in, Republicans considered a recount. Wilson won 277 electoral votes to Hughes’s 254. Wilson achieved a mere 600,000-vote margin in an election with about 17 million votes. In Aspen, however, the count was not close. Wilson got 908 votes, Hughes won 273, and Allan Benson of the Socialist Party placed third with 63.
Like 2016, anger over the influence of money led to “the most sweeping election investigation” into candidate funding. Railroads, banks and other big corporations had contributed illegally. Members of the Senate introduced a bill to end the Electoral College.
The 2016 election placed women in the spotlight with the first female candidate from a major political party. The results spirited the Women’s March after Inauguration Day.
In 1916, women would have to wait until the following presidential election before they all would be allowed to vote. Back then they paid close attention to suffrage initiatives that took place in South Dakota and West Virginia. And they cheered Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to run for Congress. Her win placed her as the first woman to hold a national office.
In 1916, the “largest assembly of women in America’s history” took place in New York City. The Federated Women’s Clubs of the United States, with a membership of 2 million, attracted 20,000 attendees. Session titles included The Price of Peace and Petticoats, The length of Love and Lingerie, and Women’s Spheres and Women’s Tears.
Editor Dailey capped off the political year with a quote from another newspaper, “Life is just one darned election after another! And what’s the use? Look what we elect to Congress?”
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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