Celebrating 1916 — The other side of ‘a thinking machine’

Republicans had an image problem in 1916.

Presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes had a reputation as an emotionless, aloof, mere “thinking machine.”

Grasping to portray the former New York governor as “a regular fellow,” the Hughes campaign opted for “campaigning in the most modern fashion” — taking the candidate to the big screen.

The campaign hired a motion picture company to convey the little-seen, animated personality of Hughes, who had just resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge incumbent Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

“Charles Evans Hughes, whiskers, smile and all, is to look every American square in the eye and prove to each that he is not an iceberg,” the Rogue River Courier of Grants Pass, Oregon reported on June 13, 1916. “The movies will be the medium.”

The movie house was the gathering place of the public in that era and where many people got their news.

The motion picture was a short-lived political campaign method that would be replaced in the 1920s by radio and eventually television.

Hughes campaign advisers got the idea for a motion picture after noticing how personable Hughes appeared in news reel footage.

“Mr. Hughes has been importuned ever since his nomination by the movie men, and the value of that kind of advertising has not been lost upon his managers,” the Chicago Tribune reported on July 1, 1916.

Film crews started tailing him the morning after Hughes was nominated.

“Candidate Hughes walked to the Calvary Baptist Church yesterday, heard a sermon by Rev. Dr. Samuel H. Greene, its pastor, and walked back to his home, accompanied by his daughter, Catherine,” The Evening Gazette of Port Jervis, NY, reported on June 12, 1916.

But it wasn’t the usual two-mile walk to church.

“Their way was blocked by a squad of moving picture men who kept pace with them for two squares,” The Poughkeepsie Eagle reported on June 13, 1916.

Hughes wife and younger daughter, Elizabeth, who made the commute by automobile, were waiting when Hughes and the older daughter arrived.

“The moving picture men had made the family late for church,” The Eagle reported.

Hughes had just resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Hughes previously was New York governor.

The goal of the campaign film was to bring out in motion picture the inner Hughes generally unknown to all but family and newspaper reporters — the Hughes that mimicked Calvin Coolidge and Will Rogers at the supper table and joked with reporters that he hoped that something more than just “useful information and sawdust” would be found in his body if an autopsy was performed.

“I remember only happy dinners with much laughter and light conversation,” daughter Elizabeth Hughes Gossett would write in 1976, in an article in the “Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook.”

“The great Republican serial photodrama ‘Charles Evans Hughes In Action’” was filmed at Bridgehampton, Long Island, where Hughes spent his few days off during the 1916 campaign and was a member of the Maidstone Country Club.

An alternate title “A Reunited Party,” signified Hughes’ role in reuniting Republicans and Progressives after Teddy Roosevelt split the GOP in 1912.

“The grinders of its reels are expected to dispense themselves in such as way to show forth the Hughes style of home life and recreation,” The Chicago Tribune reported on July 2, 1916.

The film featured scenes of Hughes and his family along with testimonials from prominent men and women, such as Mrs. Vincent Astor, wife of the prominent New York City businessman and philanthropist, and Mrs. Marshall Field III, wife of the heir to the Marshall Field Department Store fortune.

“The movie director in charge pronounced Mr. Hughes a very good actor and predicted he would register well not only on the film but also on election day,” The Arizona Republican reported on July 10, 1916.

Hughes did do relatively well on Election Day, but not well enough.

He narrowly lost to Wilson in one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history.

Hughes also would dispel his image of aloofness in person as he campaigned throughout the nation — traveling some 30,000 miles by rail, delivering at least 500 speeches and greeting an estimated 5 million people.

“The misguided individuals who have been expecting Charles E. Hughes would prove to be a cold proposition and therefore easy to beat are in for a shock that will make them think they have been hit by an uninsulated trolley wire,” The Dee of Farmington, KY reported on Aug, 25, 1916.

“Many lies lapsed and died when Charles Evans Hughes talked straight into the eager, attentive faces of West Virginia hosts on Wednesday, and one of them was about him being ‘cold,’” The Daily Telegram of Clarksburg, W. Va., reported on Oct. 12, 1916.

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Maury Thompson

Freelance history writer and documentary film producer from Ticonderoga, NY