The 1918 midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 15, resulted in a Republican sweep of the federal government. The year’s voter turnout was the highest on record, with 92% of eligible voters casting ballots. The Republican Party won all of Congress, sweeping the House, Senate, and White House. The Democrats were decimated, with just 28 of the 435 seats in Congress. The GOP’s “Red Scare” campaign focused on alleged Communist sympathizers and subversives, though many Democrats were accused of being “sympathizers” as well. The Democrats who were booted from office argued that they were unfairly targeted for prosecution because of their political views.

The election of 1918 was one of the most controversial and divisive in American history. Since the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, Congress had taken the responsibility for regulating money creation out of the hands of the nation’s central bank, the U.S. Treasury. However, the Fed had been set up as a private corporation, and therefore disliked the idea of Congress regulating it. With the election approaching, the Federal Reserve Board, which consisted of Fed presidents, appointed by the President, and Treasury Secretary, Thomas W. Gregory, disagreed on what the Federal Reserve’s response should be to Congress. President Wilson strongly supported a continuation of the Fed’s private status, while Secretary Gregory believed that it should be a fully government-run entity. ~~

The United States of America has a long and storied history, which many people are familiar with thanks to our popular history books. However, there are many topics that people know little to nothing about, and which are even more interesting than many of the things we do know about. Since there are so many of them, we thought we’d share a few of them with y’all.

Wilson’s war was nearly ended, and women’s suffrage was on the horizon, but the country was divided over Prohibition due to a pandemic.

Americans appeared to be flocking to the polls for the November 5, 1918, congressional election, despite the fact that the country was at war and the Democratic Party held a slim majority in both the House and Senate. The afternoon South Bend News-Times in Indiana reported, “Voters began as soon as the polls opened at 6 o’clock this morning.” “Up until 2 p.m. this afternoon, there was a constant stream.” The Wilmington, Delaware Evening Journal stated, “Heavy early voting was recorded.” According to an Associated Press report, there was a “early rush for the polls” across New York State. The Bridgeport Times reported that a large turnout at 9 a.m. in Bridgeport “showed the curiosity was keen.”

Hot Issues in 1918 Midterm Election Roil U.S. Politics Today

Soldiers and sailors rush a polling station in New York City on November 5, 1918, as the German army crumbles and an armistice approaches. They decisively rejected candidates who backed President Wilson’s internationalist agenda. (Image courtesy of FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.) )

The voters were well aware that they had just witnessed an election campaign unlike any other in American history, one that took place in the midst of a vicious war and a pandemic, with parties spending unprecedented sums begging for their votes, presidential propriety thrown out the window, and a million women enfranchised for the first time in New York. What voters in 1918 couldn’t have realized was that they were voting in one of the most pivotal midterm elections in American history, a watershed event that forever altered American politics and foreign policy.

“With the country enjoying unprecedented wealth and the great struggle for democracy approaching to a successful end, the odds of President Wilson being repudiated at the elections seemed remote,” historian Seward W. Livermore later wrote. Wilson was defeated by voters, and the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in a decade—the Senate by two seats, and the House by 41. Republicans used their power to reduce the United States’ worldwide influence. The Grand Old Party, rejecting Wilson’s vision of “America as the world’s savior,” declined to approve the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, and to join the League of Nations. By delivering the states two speedily passed constitutional amendments, the 66th Congress set the stage for the Roaring Twenties. The first outlawed “intoxicating liquors,” ushering in an era of speakeasies and bathtub gin; the second enfranchised women across the country, paving the way for the rise of the flapper. According to Livermore, the 1918 campaign was one of the most bitterly fought in history. That election story weaves together a variety of narratives that came together on November 5. Political campaigns—and politics in general—had evolved into a new kind of game. 

Hot Issues in 1918 Midterm Election Roil U.S. Politics Today

In October 1918, the influenza pandemic had reached a severe stage. Masked medics pushed victims onto a Red Cross ambulance in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/PhotoQuest)

The first strand occurred in March 1918, when a soldier at Fort Riley, Kansas, contracted an unusual type of influenza that proved extremely contagious. Within a week, 521 more men were admitted to the camp hospital, suffering with the same sore throat, chills, fever, and potentially dangerous lung damage. A large number of instances were reported by authorities. The majority of victims recovered rapidly, and the virus appeared to have died out in the United States that summer, despite the fact that it was still ravaging much of the rest of the world. However, in the fall of 1918, the flu resurfaced in the United States in a more severe form and in pandemic proportions. During the month of October alone, influenza claimed the lives of 195,000 Americans. Because they were more likely to live in cramped quarters, persons in their 20s and 30s considerably outnumbered those who died from the flu. Soldiers crammed into barracks and crammed into troopships going for Europe were particularly vulnerable to the sickness. Representative Jacob Meeker (R-Missouri) died of the flu on October 15.

The outbreak threw campaign preparations into disarray. The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, claimed on October 7 that both major parties may “cancel every speaking appointment between now and the November election.” With state after state prohibiting public rallies, the parties’ massive rally itineraries were put on hold. Some areas still allowed outdoor religious gatherings, which candidates in Kansas tried to take advantage of until the loophole was closed. Nebraska’s rally restriction was only removed on November 1st. Some campaigns attempted to exploit the flu as a tool for campaigning. Although the liquor industry stated in an Ohio newspaper ad that “liquor has spared many a life recently in this dreadful epidemic of influenza,” the liquor industry argued in an Ohio newspaper ad that “liquor has saved many a life recently in this awful epidemic of influenza.”

Many candidates, notably Senators Charles L. McNary (R-Oregon) and William E. Borah (R-Idaho), chose to remain in Washington, DC rather than return home to campaign. Electioneering, which used to be done face to face, was now done through paper. The Salt Lake City Deseret Evening News reported on November 2 that “the campaign has been particularly unusual this year in that it has been carried on primarily through literature.” The parties focused more on public relations, attempting to gain more—and more favorable—public attention. They spent more money on newspaper ads. They also sent out a large number of broadsides and leaflets to voters’ houses. “Direct mailing had been employed before,” says J. Alexander Navarro of the University of Michigan, “but this gets really ramped up as a result of candidates not being able to meet directly with voters.” The parties enlisted loyal volunteers to write letters in support of their candidates and make phone calls to friends and neighbors—methods that proved so effective that they became part of campaign arsenals for good two years later, aided by Republican millions spent on advertising, most of it in national magazines. Warren Harding spent his successful 1922 presidential campaign primarily on his front porch (“Po”), aided by Republican millions spent on advertising, most of it in national magazines.

Election-day mechanics were changed by the virus. Election officials clamped down since few states offered any other method of voting besides in-person voting. Waiting for a booth had to be done outside because poll staff and fellow voters disallowed smoking inside. Restrictions were tightest in the far West, where the pandemic was at its peak. Some polling places in Sacramento, California, did not open due to a lack of healthy personnel. Booths were put up outside in the sunshine in Spokane, Washington, and inside tents in Salt Lake City. In Idaho, voters had to queue in a single file rather than standing side by side. San Franciscans who were caught outside without masks faced a fine of $5—roughly $100 today.

Despite a high degree of interest in the election and a strong desire to vote, turnout was around 10% lower than in 1910 and 1914. Because so many women felt forced to stay at home and nurse the sick in the dozen states where women could vote, female involvement slowed. The early voting surge was shown to be primarily motivated by a desire to avoid historically packed polling places in the afternoons. According to Jason Marisam of Hamlin University School of Law, “the low turnout did not appear to raise doubts about the legitimacy of the 1918 election results.” “In general, the public appeared to accept the results.”

Hot Issues in 1918 Midterm Election Roil U.S. Politics Today

As an officer relays the news of the ceasefire, a mass of soldiers on the Western Front explodes in cheers. (Image courtesy of Archive Photos/Getty Images) )

The war was, of course, the overarching factor in 1918. On May 27, long into his second term as President, Woodrow Wilson encouraged Congress to forego reelection campaigning and stay in Washington since “politics is adjourned” during wartime. Early in October, campaigning was again put on pause due to a government push to urge Americans to buy liberty bonds to help pay for the war. By late October, peace seemed imminent; talks with the Central Powers had progressed to the point where the State Department had asked Wilson not to vote in New Jersey because he could be needed in Washington. On November 3, Austria agreed to Allied terms to end the war; Democrats distributed copies of the Austrian capitulation at polling stations in an attempt to persuade electors to vote for Wilson.

However, warfare in Europe had been fierce during the summer and early fall. Both parties attempted to sway voters by exploiting the issue. Republicans claimed they would be tougher on peace terms than the current government. At a kickoff ceremony, Republican campaign chairman Representative Simon D. Fess (R-Ohio) declared, “Republican success will not only ensure robust prosecution of the war, but will also be a guarantee against compromise and, as a result, an inconclusive peace.” The Republican Party claimed to be better equipped to deal with life after the war. The Republican minority leader in the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, contended that “when the time comes for rebuilding, the Republican party—which has always been the constructive party—is best fitted for the work.”

The Democrats, however, adopted the opposite tack, claiming that military victory required continuity in leadership and support for Wilson. The Democratic National Committee’s vice chairman, Homer S. Cummings, officially launched the party’s campaign. “Our President has emerged as the world’s most powerful figure,” Cummings added. “There is only one question: should we assist or obstruct the President?” The White House had always remained out of legislative elections, at least publicly, but Wilson himself got involved, urging fellow New Jersey residents to vote for Democrats in the two Senate seats up for election that year.

Wilson took it a step further on October 25. “If you have approved of my leadership and wish me to continue to be your unembarrassed spokesman in matters at home and abroad, I earnestly beg that you will express yourself unmistakably to that effect by returning a Democratic majority to both the Senate and the House of Representatives,” he wrote in a letter titled “My Fellow Countrymen.” The difficulties and complexities of our current mission make it important that the nation offer its undivided support to the Government under a unified leadership, and that a Republican Congress would split the leadership.” To bolster his case, Wilson warned that electing a Republican majority in either chamber of Congress “would be interpreted on the other side of the water as a repudiation of my leadership,” and that America’s allies “would find it very difficult to believe that the voters of the United States had chosen to support their President by electing to the Congress a majority controlled by the Republican Party.”

Wilson had overstepped his bounds. Senators elected directly and House candidates elected through primary elections were both relatively new phenomenon. Individual voters had played a considerably smaller role in electing members of Congress before 1912. They were now electing solons directly in federal and state elections, making Wilson’s direct appeal to voters unprecedented—and especially outrageous, given his May demand that campaigning be halted to help the war effort.

The reaction was swift. According to the Washington Post, a Republican senator stated, “The gloves are off.” “From now on, we’ll fight with our bare hands.” The Republican Old Guard had pushed the party’s progressive wing aside in February 1918, installing Indiana politician Will H. Hays as chairman of the national committee. Wilson’s claims that Republican legislators were less supportive of the war effort than Democrats, and that Republican victories would make it more difficult for the country to win, were ridiculed by Hays. “An autocrat calling himself a servant but bidding for the mastery of this great, free people,” Hays likened those claims to “an autocrat calling himself a servant but vying for the mastery of this great, free people… The most rash stump orator, let alone the President of the United States, has never made a more ungracious, unfair, wanton, or mendacious accusation.”

“This isn’t a personal battle for the President. “This is not a congressional war,” Republican House leaders grumbled. “This isn’t the Democratic Party’s war. It is the American people’s war.” On the eve of the election, the two most recent Republican presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft—joined forces to announce that the only way to rein in Wilson was for “all Americans who are Americans first to vote for a Republican Congress.” They were successful. In New Hampshire, Delaware, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado, Republicans picked up 24 House seats while Democrats lost only one Senate seat. Most observers conclude that Wilson’s October 25 letter was directly responsible for the Democratic losses 11 days later.

The outcome “turned in all probability more fully on one issue than ever before,” as the Lamar Register in Colorado editorialized on November 6. The president’s letter, which essentially demanded that voters elect a Democratic Congress to carry out his war program, was instantly made an issue…. The people’s answer is enough indication that they do not want to confront a dictator in Germany by electing one in America.”

Hot Issues in 1918 Midterm Election Roil U.S. Politics Today

After decades of popular outcry against the ills of alcohol, the 18th Amendment was ratified by state after state in 1918 and 1919. Indiana Governor James P. Goodrich signs the state-wide prohibition statute on January 14, 1919. (Alamy Stock Photo/GL Archive)

The most shocking of the Democratic losses was in Michigan. Wilson personally convinced Henry Ford, the 55-year-old auto magnate, to run for the available Senate seat in that state. Ford was so confident in himself that he anticipated to win the Republican Senate candidacy as well. The second race raised a topic churning beneath the surface of American politics—the role increasingly played by big money, the third thread that made the 1918 election one for the history books—when another tycoon entered into the GOP primary and secured the party’s nod.

Concerns about mammon in politics prompted Congress to create the Federal Corrupt Practices Act in 1910, and then to strengthen it a year later. The law limited how much money House and Senate candidates could spend on their campaigns using their personal money and required multi-state political party campaign committees to report their spending. As the 1918 campaigns came to a close, these rules yielded statistics that Democratic National Committee Vice-Chair Cummings used to back up an allegation that “lavish expenditure of money appears to comprise the Republican leaders’ 11th hour program.” Cummings cited a $100,000 payment made by the Republican Party to sitting New York Senator William M. Calder to help Republican candidates in the state. The Justice Department launched an inquiry into unauthorized campaign spending in New York, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan in September 1918.

The Justice Department filed no charges in the other states, but the Michigan race became a focal point of concern about how money might influence elections. Ford lost the August 1918 Michigan Republican primary to Truman Handy Newberry, the son of a former Michigan congressman and a wealthy heiress. In November, with Ford running for Senate on the Democratic ticket, the two faced off once more.

Newberry, as one of the organizers of the Packard Motor Car Co., was already a rival of Ford, who was notoriously quiet and wary of public appearances. Newberry was an active-duty lieutenant commander in charge of the 3rd Naval District, based in New York City, and served briefly as Secretary of the Navy under Theodore Roosevelt. He and Ford did not campaign in person. Newberry, on the other hand, harped on Ford’s rabid anti-Semitism and trying to keep son Edsel out of duty, despite the fact that Newberry’s twin boys had enlisted in the Navy. The knowledge was enough to tarnish Ford sufficiently for Newberry to win, though not without a price. According to data, the Republican had already spent $176,568.08 by October 5th, largely on newspaper ads. Newberry had to use a $99,900 campaign donation from his brother to get around a federal restriction that limited him to putting out no more than $10,000 of his income.

Ford was enraged when Newberry defeated him again in November, after losing the Republican primary. The automaker enlisted the help of a team of 40 private investigators to investigate both Newberry campaigns. Ford petitioned Congress to remove Newberry from his seat, armed with a two-inch-thick report detailing what his shamuses claimed campaign law infractions. The Senate launched a formal investigation on December 3. Newberry, on the other hand, had been indicted by the Justice Department for excessive electioneering spending in the primary by that time. He was convicted in March 1920 and remained in office while appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court of the United States. The portion of the campaign expenditure legislation under which Newberry had been convicted was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in May 1921, deciding 5-4 that Congress lacked authority to regulate state primary elections. Newberry’s primary victory was ruled to be genuine four months later by a Senate committee investigating Michigan elections, with no credible evidence of overspending. Members of the panel, however, were critical of the vast sums of money spent on the campaigns. Newberry resigned, feeling vindicated.

“The case of Truman Newberry focused national attention on the particular influence of the monied candidate,” according to the US Senate website. As a result, Congress strengthened the Federal Corrupt Practices Act in 1925, extending it to additional political bodies and demanding more donation reporting. Despite these efforts, “financial irregularities in Congressional races continued to occur during the next few decades,” according to the Senate historian.

Hot Issues in 1918 Midterm Election Roil U.S. Politics Today

The right to vote was a contentious topic. In the year 1918. Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-Montana), the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, advocated for a constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote in all 50 states. Despite the fact that her bill was defeated in the Senate, the 19th Amendment was approved on August 8, 1920. (Photo courtesy of FPG/Getty Images)

Women were a fourth factor that influenced the outcome of the 1918 election. Exit polls and other methods of examining how subsets of voters cast ballots were not available at the time, making it difficult to see how the women’s vote influenced races in the 12 states where they had the vote. However, newly enfranchised women in New York State certainly voted Grace Norris as coroner of Oneida County, making her the first woman to hold such a post anywhere in the country. Both women who ran for Senate were defeated by incumbents. Anne Martin, an independent candidate in Nevada, lost to Democrat Charles Henderson. Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, campaigned on the National Party ticket and was beaten by Democrat Thomas J. Walsh.   

In 1918, however, women demonstrated their power in two ways. Strong campaigning led male voters in Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Michigan to pass ballot initiatives granting women the right to vote by large percentages. Suffragist campaigns stressed women’s significant contribution to the war effort—serving as nurses, farm hands, and other jobs vacated by men in uniform—and claimed that the right to vote was a just compensation. Furthermore, women’s outspoken opposition to sitting senators who obstructed a woman’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution resulted in the surprise defeats of Delaware Democrat Willard Saulsbury Jr. and Massachusetts Republican John W. Weeks, who were ejected from the Democrats’ only Senate seat gained in 1918. A Tennessee newspaper editorialized, “The election has shown without debate that resistance to suffrage is not politically safe for any party.”

Wilson’s tone-deaf vote-mongering, amplified by large campaign spending, had a transformative impact, as did women’s political muscle, innovations in politicking spurred by pandemic restrictions, the war, and Wilson’s tone-deaf vote-mongering. The majority rejected the bipartisan progressivism that had marked Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson’s governments. By decisively rejecting Wilson’s internationalism and the progressivism that had come to dominate American politics since the turn of the century, voters were effectively turning back the clock to the late 1890s and the soporific nationalism of the assassinated William McKinley, and doing so under the influence of significant changes in campaigning and electioneering. According to historian Howard A. DeWitt, professor emeritus at California’s Ohlone College, “the 1918 congressional election was the first step toward the return to normalcy that marked the United States during the 1920s.” “Wilson’s progressivism was abandoned in the election, and the nation returned to William McKinley’s ideals.”

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