Given the enormous amounts of money used to shore up one candidate or another in every modern federal election cycle, the uproar over Truman Handy Newberry's financing of a 1918 campaign almost seems quaint. While the total expenditures admitted by Newberry were the equivalent of about $2.76 million in today's dollars, there were suspicions that the campaign had shelled out more than six times this amount. Even this upper limit would not seem out of place in today's elections, where the average cost of a Senate campaign is $10.5 million.
Yet in Newberry's time, a new electoral system in the Senate and a nascent effort at campaign finance reform made voters suspicious of anyone who poured too much money into an election. The Seventeenth Amendment had taken the power of appointing senators out of the state legislatures, which were considered more vulnerable to corruption, and placed it in the hands of the electorate at large. The amendment had only been in effect for five years at the time of Newberry's election, and even members of his own party were horrified by the frenzied spending of his campaign.
The Newberry affair was one of the earlier examples of a candidate being accused of trying to buy his way into elected office. The case would also lead to a Supreme Court ruling that obliterated the early Progressive efforts to keep money from having too great an influence in politics.
Newberry was part of a wealthy family, with several businessmen among his relatives who had profited from timber and mining enterprises. He was born in Michigan (in Detroit, on November 5, 1864), but much of Newberry's childhood would be spent outside of the state. After attending the Michigan Military Academy, he went on to the Charlier Institute in New York City and L.F. Reid's Classical School in Lakeville, Connecticut. He remained in Connecticut to attend Yale University, graduating in 1885.
Newberry became the superintendent of construction, paymaster, and general freight and passenger agent for the Detroit, Bay City, and Alpena Railway. He was soon promoted to manager of this railroad, holding the position until 1887. Following his father's death, Newberry took over the family business and became president and treasurer of the Detroit Steel and Spring Company. He remained here until 1901 and concurrently served as a director of several other businesses including the Union Trust Company, Union Elevator Company, and Michigan State Telephone Company.
In 1893, Newberry organized a naval militia in the state known as the Michigan State Naval Brigade. When the United States went to war with Spain five years later, Newberry was commissioned as a lieutenant and served aboard the cruiser Yosemite off Cuba.
Soon after his return from military service, Newberry became involved in the automotive business. He and his brother-in-law, Henry Joy, were walking through New York City when a Packard automobile caught their eye. They were impressed when the driver was able to quickly start the vehicle and race off to a fire. Newberry and Joy subsequently invested in the Packard Motor Car Company and oversaw its relocation to Detroit. Newberry began serving as director of the company in 1903.
Newberry's first foray into politics in 1904 would help lead to the creation of Michigan's campaign financing law. He sought the Republican nomination for a House of Representatives seat but lost to Edwin Denby, who spent three terms in Congress and later became Secretary of the Navy under President Warren G. Harding. Newberry spent a good deal of money in the race, and one publication would describe his conduct as "not illegal, although contrary to public morals." Michigan subsequently limited candidates from spending more than $3,750 of their own money on a campaign. The Federal Corrupt Practices Act, passed in 1910, would limit the funds a candidate could personally put toward a campaign to $5,000 in House races and $10,000 in Senate races.
Despite the 1904 loss, Newberry found himself in a government office within a year. He was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy, taking over for Charles H. Darling after his resignation at the end of October of 1905. When Secretary of the Navy Victor H. Metcalf resigned in November of 1908, Newberry moved into this post. Since Roosevelt was not opting for a third term, Newberry was only Secretary of the Navy for seven months. He spent this time working to reorganize the Navy bureaucracy and improve the ability of the land-based portion of the service to respond to emergencies.
In September of 1911, Newberry was involved in a tragic incident in Narragansett, Rhode Island. A young girl named Helen Ellis from Milton, Massachusetts, had nearly finished crossing the street when her mother warned her of an approaching car. For some reason, the girl turned back into the street and stepped directly into the path of Newberry's vehicle. He was unable to stop, and Ellis was killed instantly. Though Newberry was briefly charged with manslaughter, the court soon dismissed the matter. Ellis's father said he did not blame Newberry for his daughter's death and prosecutors concluded that he was not criminally responsible in the accident.
When Republican campaigners tapped Newberry to run for political office in 1918, he said he would be willing to run for any position they thought he was suited for. In addition to the biennial House of Representatives race, Michigan voters would also choose a new U.S. senator to replace William A. Smith, a Republican who was retiring after 11 years in office. Newberry's supporters decided to run him in the Senate race.
Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson had personally urged Henry Ford to run for the same office. The renowned automaker had been a notable opponent of the decision of the United States to join the Allies in World War I, even sponsoring a much ridiculed expedition of a "Peace Ship" to Europe in 1915. Yet Wilson considered that Ford's aversion to the conflict would make him a guaranteed supporter of his postwar initiatives to avoid other major wars. Michigan state law permitted a candidate to enter both the Democratic and Republican primaries, and Ford accordingly did so in an effort to become the choice of both major parties.
Newberry was at a distinct disadvantage in the election. While Ford was a household name across Michigan and the United States as a whole, Newberry was relatively unknown. Moreover, he had returned to the Navy when the United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917. When he joined the race for the Republican primary, he was stationed in New York City as a lieutenant commander of the Navy Fleet Reserve and an assistant to the commandant of the Third Naval District of New York. With the war not yet over in the run-up to the 1918 election, Newberry was duty-bound to remain at his post and had no chance to hit the campaign trail in person.
While Ford ran an inexpensive and muted campaign, relying mostly on name recognition, Newberry's campaigners mounted a massive public relations effort to promote their candidate. His campaign manager, Paul King, oversaw a staff of about 20 people at the campaign headquarters. Field operatives and organization representatives were dispatched throughout the state to drum up support for Newberry. Publications were packed with advertisements lauding his character.
While some of the effort sought to promote the virtues of Newberry as a candidate, there was also a sustained smear campaign against Ford. His pacifist and anti-Semitic views were criticized, and his son Edsel was painted as a draft dodger. Ford had tried to get Edsel a deferment from military conscription so that he would be able to oversee the Ford company's munitions production, but the request was denied; however, Edsel was later exempted from service after the draft board declared him to be indispensable to the war effort. Capitalizing on the ongoing war fervor, Newberry's campaign contrasted their candidate (who, along with his two sons, had served in the military) with the Fords. Newberry even won endorsements from former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, with the former criticizing Edsel's deferment while praising the service of Newberry's sons.
Newberry's opponents soon began to question the unrestrained spending in his campaign. Though critics would later charge that Newberry must have known about, approved, and likely supplied the vast amounts of money that were being committed to the race, the candidate maintained that he was focused on his naval duties and had no knowledge of any wrongdoing. "The campaign for my nomination for senator has been voluntarily conducted by my friends in Michigan," he said on August 21. "I have taken no part in it whatever and no contributions or expenditures have been made with my knowledge or consent."
Six days later, Newberry won the Republican primary. The victory ensured that Ford, who won the Democratic primary, would not be uncontested in the general election. However, Newberry was already being pressured by some GOP colleagues to resign due to the allegations of excessive campaign financing. Lieutenant Governor Loren D. Dickinson wrote to him shortly before the primary, formally requesting that he withdraw from the race.
The campaigns were required to disclose how much they had spent on the primary, and Newberry's team reported an astonishingly high sum. The vast PR effort had cost $176,568.08, the modern day equivalent of almost $2.8 million. The official paperwork suggested that the funding had been above board, since Newberry had not contributed any of his own money. However, almost $150,000 of the total had come from the candidate's relatives. Newberry's opponents suspected that he had personally funded his campaign and exceeded the limits set by Michigan law and the Federal Corrupt Practices Act many times over. While a resolution was introduced in the Senate on September 17 to investigate the primary, this was later dismissed in committee.
In the general election, Newberry defeated Ford by 7,567 votes out of about half a million cast. It was an especially narrow victory, considering the Republican candidates in the races for governor and five other state offices won with majorities of more than 100,000. The Republicans had only a two-vote majority in the Senate after the 1918 election. Had Ford won in Michigan, the chamber would have been evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
While a New York grand jury voted 16-1 that Newberry had done nothing for which he could be indicted, the criticism of his campaign and challenges to his ability to hold office were only just beginning. Ten days after the election, Michigan resident Albert H. Fowler filed charges of corruption against Newberry.
Ford filed his own petition on January 6, 1919, demanding a recount. While the second tally reduced Newberry's plurality to 4,337 votes, it affirmed that he had still been the winner in the general election. Newberry took the oath of office on March 4, and Ford filed another petition a day later accusing the newly seated senator of unlawful expenditures and voter intimidation. The matter was sent to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.
Determined to prove that Newberry had not won the election fairly, Ford used some of his personal wealth to hire private investigators to look into the matter. Some of the information they gathered would be used by a federal grand jury, which on November 29 indicted Newberry and 134 associates who had worked on his campaign on charges of violating state and federal election laws. This development finally spurred the Senate to start its investigation into Newberry's eligibility; it adopted a resolution to look into the election in December.
Newberry maintained his innocence, suggesting that it was hypocritical for his opponent to criticize him for spending too much money on the election and then dedicating a large sum to investigating the campaign. "Such charges are lies made out of the whole cloth, and I believe the country will realize the political animus inspiring them," he said. Surprisingly, Ford said he did not hold Newberry personally responsible for any violations of election law; rather, he said the "big interests have simply victimized him."
The indictment charged that the Newberry campaign had ultimately spent between $500,000 and $1 million on the campaign leading up to the primary and general election. The modern day equivalent would be between $7.9 million and $15.7 million.
Several newspapers criticized the amount of spending in Newberry's campaign. Some suggested that the amount spent to win the Senate seat was unprecedented, noting that William Lorimer's slush fund only came to $100,000 while Isaac Stephenson (a former GOP senator from Wisconsin) had been criticized for a mere $107,793 in election spending. "The chair of a Michigan senator should be onyx and gold inlaid with glittering gems, if we may accept the findings of the federal grand jury," commented the Grand Rapids Press. The Brooklyn Citizen said that even if Newberry was innocent of personal malfeasance, he was still "the beneficiary of perhaps the very worst misuse of money ever made in an American election." The Raleigh News and Observer in North Carolina was especially harsh, saying Michigan had "defiled her political system and shamed the whole country."
The humorist Will Rogers would take a more tongue-in-cheek view. One joke he wrote to appear on theater screens before a show declared, "A senator in Michigan was convicted for buying his seat in the Senate. The law says you can buy your seat but you must not pay too much for it."
Some of the 135 people indicted in the matter would quickly admit guilt. Allie K. Moore, a former staffer at the Marquette Mining Journal, and printer William E. Rice each entered a plea three days after the indictment. Meanwhile, several witnesses testified to a variety of malfeasance in the election. One witness estimated that the election cost Newberry's campaign about $800,000, while another claimed that he had seen a pile of money in King's office that looked like it amounted to at least $1 million. Prosecutors alleged that Newberry's supporters had forged signatures on a petition supporting candidate James W. Helme in the Democratic primary against Ford. In one of the more sensational incidents, former Flint mayor Bill McKeighan said the Newberry campaign told him to swing his district for the GOP candidate or face the entirety of a two to 15-year sentence for his conviction of accessory to robbery and assault with deadly weapons; the district went for Newberry, and McKeighan's sentence was later reversed by the Michigan Supreme Court.
Along with 16 co-defendants, Newberry was found guilty on March 20, 1920. He was sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The Senate had again proved sluggish on pursuing an investigation. Spurred by the verdict, the Committee on Privileges and Elections directed a subcommittee to look into the 1918 election on April 9. It would not issue its findings for another 17 months.
In the time it took for the Senate committee to reach its conclusions, Newberry's case proceeded to the Supreme Court on appeal. The 5-4 decision in Newberry v. United States, issued on May 2, 1921, determined that the state had the authority and responsibility to regulate primary elections and party nominations. For this reason, the majority opinion declared, measures passed by Congress such as those in the Federal Corrupt Practices Act would "interfere with purely domestic affairs of the state and infringe upon liberties reserved to the people." The justices were also unanimous in finding that the judge in Newberry's case erred in his instructions to the jury.
Four months later, the Committee on Privileges and Elections finally reached its own conclusions regarding the 1918 election in Michigan. The majority report concluded that Newberry had been elected legally and that the charges of voter intimidation and fraud were unfounded. The findings reflected Newberry's own claims of innocence: the candidate had been in New York as a naval officer, the money in the race had been largely contributed by his family and friends, and he had not known about or solicited such campaign donations.
The majority report did express disapproval of the amount of money spent on the election, concluding that Newberry's campaign had used at least $195,000 to get their candidate elected. However, it found that "there was no concealment whatever...and it was spent entirely for legal and proper purposes." The report declared that Newberry was entitled to his seat and should continue to serve in the Senate.
The minority report was written by three Democrats on the committee. While it agreed with the majority in determining that Ford had not won the general election, it also concluded that Newberry had been fully aware that his campaign was breaking election laws and acquiesced to this behavior. The report concluded that Newberry was not entitled to hold his seat and that his office should be declared vacant.
Extensive debates on the issue took place between November of 1921 and January of 1922. Senator George W. Norris, a Progressive Republican from Nebraska, said that one of Michigan's seats in the Senate had essentially been up for "public sale" in the 1918 election. He argued that exonerating Newberry would lead to a Senate full of wealthy tycoons in future years, sarcastically commenting that this would "insure a high-class membership."
Newberry spoke in his own defense on January 9, 1922. He regretted that the spending in the 1918 election had reached the level it did, though he claimed to have no knowledge of how much money his campaign received, where it came from, or what the funds were used for. He said his lack of knowledge about the campaign was the reason he had opted not to appear before the investigating committee, but that he wanted to speak before the Senate as a whole to clear up any misunderstandings. "I did not solicit or spend, directly or indirectly, one single dollar in the campaign," he said. "Nor did I know of the contributions made until afterward."
There were three attempts to adopt the minority view and declare Newberry's seat vacant, but each one failed. Before a vote was taken on the majority report, it was amended with a statement that "severely condemned" the expenditures in Newberry's campaign as "harmful to the honor and dignity of the Senate and dangerous to the perpetuity of free government." Some senators were appalled by the amendment. William S. Kenyon, a Republican from Iowa, questioned how the Senate could vote on a measure that validated a member's eligibility while simultaneously claiming that their behavior had been injurious to the nation's principles. "My God!" Kenyon exclaimed. "You can never lessen the dignity of the Senate after today."
The amended majority report was approved in a 46-41 vote, which split largely along party lines. Nine Republicans joined 32 Democrats in opposing the decision to declare Newberry's election to be valid. While many observers thought that five Progressive Republicans would join the opposition, they unexpectedly swayed the result by casting their votes in favor of seating Newberry.
It would prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for the senator and his supporters. The exorbitant spending in Newberry's campaign had had been criticized from all quarters, and the practice was even nicknamed "Newberryism." Campaign spending became an issue in several elections in 1922, and Ford eagerly donated to candidates who were running against the senators who had voted in favor of Newberry.
One of the incumbents defeated in the 1922 election was the other senator from Michigan, Charles E. Townsend, who lost the general election to Democratic candidate Woodbridge N. Ferris. Though the GOP retained a majority in the Senate, it lost six seats to the Democrats. Since Newberry had retained his seat by only five votes, the shift was just enough to pose a new threat. Robert La Follette, the Progressive Republican senator from Wisconsin, promised to bring the issue of Newberry's election up again.
Soon after the election, Newberry announced that he would resign effective November 21. He cited Townsend's defeat as the reason for his departure, noting that the discontent over his campaign spending had probably played a role in this result. "[A] fair analysis of the vote in Michigan, and other votes where friends and political enemies alike have suffered defeat, will demonstrate that a general feeling of unrest was mainly responsible," he said.
Newberry maintained that he had been elected fairly, and suggested that he would continue to be "hampered by partisan political persecution" if he stayed in office. Cordell Hull, the chairman of the National Democratic Committee and future Secretary of State under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, interpreted Newberry's resignation differently. The senator's departure in the face of an altered Senate, he said, was "a confession of moral guilt of the offense charged."
Governor Alexander Groesbeck appointed James Couzens, the mayor of Detroit, to fill the remainder of Newberry's term. It was something of a belated victory for Ford; Couzens had worked as the automaker's business manager between 1903 and 1915. Couzens was re-elected in 1924 and 1930, but was not nominated in 1936.
The Newberry v. United States decision would endure for two decades, frustrating Progressive efforts to limit corruption in elections through campaign finance rules. A newly revised Federal Corrupt Practices Act, based on the Supreme Court ruling as well as the Teapot Dome scandal, was passed in 1925 to adjust the federal campaign finance law. While it repealed the disclosure requirements for primaries, it also declared that all committees operating in two or more states had to file quarterly reports for all contributors giving $100 or more. The law also raised the personal financing limit on Senate races in some states with large populations to $25,000.
Unfortunately, the new law proved easy to skirt and difficult to enforce. The Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925 would only exclude two people from office due to campaign violations, and both offenses occurred in 1927; though the law granted the authority to levy fines for these violations, no candidates were ever ordered to pay a penalty. It was finally replaced by the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1971.
In 1941, the Supreme Court reversed itself in United States v. Classic. This 4-3 decision determined that the Constitution gave Congress the ability to regulate primary elections.
After his resignation, Newberry returned to his work in manufacturing in Michigan. He died in Grosse Point on October 3, 1945.
Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Historic Elmwood Cemetery and Foundation, The Miller Center, "Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses" by the United States Justice Department, "The Election Case of Truman H. Newberry of Michigan" at Senate.gov, "Newberry Car Kills Girl" in the Gazette Times on Sep. 6 1911, "No Prosecution Against Newberry" in the Lewiston Saturday Journal on Sep. 11 1911, "Lieutenant Governor Demands Withdrawl of Truman Newberry" in the Oswosso Argus-Press on Aug. 22 1918, "Two Confess Guilt in Newberry Scandal" in the Ludington Daily News on Dec. 2 1919, "Newberry Aide Had 'Money Pile'" in the Spokesman-Review on Feb. 13 1920, "Sensation Stirs Newberry Trial" in the Milwaukee Sentinel on Feb. 13 1920, "Ford-Newberry Contest Case Reported" in the Deseret News on Sept. 29 1921, "Newberry Spoke in Own Defense" in the Lawrence Journal-World on Jan. 9 1922, "Senate Seats Newberry; Censures Vast Spending" in The Day on Jan. 13 1922, "Newberryism Means Death to Democracy" in The Searchlight on Jan. 31 1922, "Newberry Resigns from U.S. Senate" in the Lawrence Journal-World on Nov. 20 1922, "Newberry Quitting Confession of Guilt, Chairman Hull Thinks" in the Schenectady Gazette on Nov. 21 1922, Successful Men of Michigan, Michigan Biographical Directory, The Literary Digest Vol. 63, Reforming the Electoral Process in America by Brian L. Fife, The Papers of Will Rogers edited by Steven K. Gragert and M. Jane Johannson, Drawing Conclusions on Henry Ford by Rudolph and Sonya Alvarado, Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections by Larry J. Sabato and Howard R. Ernst, Making and Selling Cars: Innovation and Change in the U.S. Automotive Industry by James M. Rubenstein, The Power of Money in Congressional Campaigns, 1880-2006 by David C.W. Parker, The New International Yearbook: A Compendium of the World's Progress for the Year 1918 edited by Frank Moore Colby