New York Tribune via Chronicling America
New York Tribune via Chronicling America

Wilson Wins Reelection

New York Tribune via Chronicling America
New York Tribune via Chronicling America

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 256th installment in the series.  


The 1916 U.S. presidential election saw the acceleration of a major political realignment, as the Democratic Party led by Woodrow Wilson sought to build a stable majority by co-opting many of the activist ideals previously espoused by the “Progressive” wing of the Republican party, while the latter struggled to heal the ideological fractures laid bare in the 1912 election.

In the end the GOP was unable to rebuild its coalition in the face of Wilson’s wily policy poaching, handing the election – and with it, the direction of U.S. foreign policy towards war-torn Europe—to the Democratic incumbent.

On November 7, 1916, after a hard fought campaign, Wilson squeaked out a win with 277 electoral votes to 254 for his Republican opponent Charles Evan Hughes, drawing on the Democratic Party's traditional Southern strongholds, as well as relatively new converts in the Mountain West and West Coast. The final decision hinged on one of the big swing states, California, with a modest 13 electoral votes (the full tally wasn’t known for almost a week afterwards, reflecting the technology of the era).

Erik Sass


Of course the war itself was a major issue in the 1916 election, along with the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa, but these were just two controversies among many. Vast and inwards-looking by nature, the United States was also energized and divided by a range of domestic questions, which were at least as important to the outcome of the contest as the debates over American intervention in Europe and Mexico.

The arguments which most divided public opinion in these years generally concerned the social and economic impacts resulting from the country’s rapid industrialization over the preceding half-century, which had provided a new host of ills for the crusading Progressive movement to attack following the demise of slavery. Internal disagreements over these issues had contributed to the open split in the Republican Party in 1912, pitting the Progressive wing under Teddy Roosevelt, who supported organized labor and trust-busting, against the laissez-faire conservative wing under William Howard Taft.

In the unusual four-way presidential contest of 1912, between Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, and the socialist Eugene Debs, this dissension in the Republican ranks ended up giving the White House to Wilson with just 41.8% of the popular vote. Stung by this largely self-inflicted defeat, in 1916 the GOP resolved to unite around a single compromise candidate who could win back Progressive voters. They eventually settled on Associate Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who resigned his position to run for office (and was later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Herbert Hoover, making him one of only two justices in U.S. history to be appointed twice).

Facing a resurgent Republican coalition, Wilson decided to tack towards the center by adopting a slew of Progressive policies, including the formation of new agricultural banks to lend to farmers – a move which naturally appealed to Wilson’s Democratic base in the rural South, but also curried favor with Midwestern farmers previously more likely to vote Republican. A workmen’s compensation act for federal employees was also passed with relative ease, since it didn’t affect the private sector.

Other Progressive moves by Wilson required a careful balancing act to avoid alienating key members of the Democratic coalition: for example his decision to support a law banning child labor annoyed Democratic Senators from southern states with lots of textile factories, but in July 1916 they finally heeded the president’s call and passed the bill (probably swayed by the inducement of the agricultural banks).

Perhaps the clearest signal of this new direction was Wilson’s appointment, in January 1916, of the pro-union lawyer Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, a major victory for organized labor. Also shocking was Wilson’s support for trade tariffs and anti-dumping legislation to protect American industry from foreign competitors, reversing almost a century of Democratic support for free trade with the brazen theft of a plank from the Republicans’ 1912 platform.


The war undoubtedly played a role in the presidential contest of 1916, but it would be hard to argue that it was decisive, considering that key players on both sides were at pains to highlight their opposition to U.S. intervention, and both presidential candidates left their stances ambivalent at best, exemplified by Wilson’s famous slogan “He Kept Use Out of War” (with no guarantee he would continue to do so).

No surprise, these stances mirrored the state of American public opinion. On one hand, a vocal minority – exemplified by the bellicose former President Teddy Roosevelt—had favored U.S. intervention on the side of the Allies almost from the beginning, citing Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality and the “outrages” (atrocities) committed by German troops in Belgium and northern France. Later some Americans were swayed to the pro-war side by the German submarine campaign against neutral shipping, including the sinking of the Lusitania, with the loss of scores of American lives.

Indeed, some Americans were so committed to the idea of intervention that the Preparedness Movement, as it was called, set up privately funded officer training programs to teach citizens military skills at so-called “Plattsburgh Camps,” named after the chief training facility in Plattsburgh, NY. Altogether around 40,000 young men, almost all drawn from the college-educated upper class, underwent training at these camps.

On the other hand, a majority of Americans continued to oppose U.S. intervention well into 1916, and what limited support for intervention there was tended to wane when Germany appeared to satisfy U.S. diplomatic demands by backing down from unrestricted U-boat warfare, as it did in 1915 and 1916. Meanwhile the British naval blockade of the Central Powers and blacklisting of companies that traded with them, which hurt American businesses, dampened pro-Allied sentiments considerably.

Always mindful of these attitudes, Wilson sought to placate the pro-intervention segment of public opinion by launching his own “Preparedness” drive, with new bills expanding the U.S. Army and Navy, and constant diplomatic pressure on both Germany and Britain to cease threatening American lives and interfering with American commerce on the high seas.

These measures allowed him to avert war while maintaining American prestige at home and abroad, which in turn enabled him to both preserve the loyalty of the Democratic Party’s staunch pacifist wing, led by William Jennings Bryan, and deprive his Republican opponents of political ammunition at the same time. In fact, Republican grandees nixed a possible run by Teddy Roosevelt in 1916 because they feared, probably rightly, that his open pro-war stance would cost them the election. During the campaign Republicans criticized Wilson for being too soft when it came to German submarine warfare, but hardly committed to armed intervention themselves.

Despite that Wilson’s reelection came as a disappointment to pro-Interventionists who viewed him as practicing what a later generation would call “appeasement.” Edmond Genet, an American volunteer fighting with the French air force as a pilot, was typically despondent in a letter home written November 15, 1916:

"Hughes lost and there’s another four years ahead of us with Wilson at the helm… we have lost every bit of hope… Where has all the old genuine honor and patriotism and human feelings of our countrymen gone? What are those people, who live on their farms in the West, safe from the chances of foreign invasion, made of, anyway? They decided the election of Mr. Wilson. Don’t they know anything about the invasion of Belgium, the submarine warfare against their own countrymen and all the other outrages which all neutral countries, headed by the United States should have long ago rose up and suppressed and which, because of the past administration’s “peace at any price” attitude have been left to increase and increase?"


But behind the scenes the U.S. was already drifting towards war as 1916 drew to an end, even if most ordinary Americans didn’t realize it. Abroad, the new military high command in Germany, led by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his close collaborator Erich Ludendorff, was usurping the authority of the civilian government by pushing Kaiser Wilhelm II to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare, on the assumption that the United States either wouldn’t fight or would declare war in name only.

Even before the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare became known, Germany and the U.S. were on a collision course, due to individual submarine commanders overstepping their bounds, apparently with the winking acquiescence of Berlin. Thus on November 20, 1916, Wilson’s personal confidante Colonel E.M. House wrote to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, relating a conversation he had with the German ambassador, Bernstorff, in which House warned the German diplomat “we were on the ragged edge and brought to his mind the fact that no more notes could be exchanged: that the next move was to break diplomatic relations.” Across the Atlantic, in his memoirs the American ambassador to Germany James Gerard, recalled that sometime in the autumn of 1916 Ludendorff “had stated that he did not believe America could do more damage to Germany than she done if the two countries were actually at war, and that he considered that, practically, America and Germany were engaged in hostilities.”

Other, possibly more powerful forces were also pushing the U.S. towards war. Beginning in 1915 U.S. banks had loaned colossal sums to the Allies—with Wilson’s tacit permission—and the country was enjoying an economic boom as these loans were funneled back to U.S. manufacturers for weapons, ammunition, vehicles, food, fuel, and other supplies (giving rise to the U-boat controversy). As much as the Allies now depended on U.S. production to sustain their war effort, it was also becoming clear that American banks and industry were equally dependent on the Allies for their solvency.

Caught in a tightening vise formed by two interrelated pressures—the threat of renewed U-boat warfare and America’s growing entanglement with the Allies—Wilson was running out of room to maneuver.

See the previous installment or all entries.

The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.


A roasted turkey on a platter.

Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!


Pan of breaded stuffing.

Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.


Dish of cranberry sauce.

Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.


Bowl of mashed potatoes.

Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.


Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.

Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!


Plate of corn.

Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.


Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.

In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.


Plate of green bean casserole.

Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at, contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.


Slice of pumpkin pie.

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?


For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.


Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."


Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.


Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”


Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn


Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.


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