1907: Governor Fred Warner Fights To Establish Primaries

October 19, 2018 all-day

Michigan did not always hold election primaries.

Prior to the 20th century, candidates at both state and national levels were nominated behind closed doors by party bosses. Ordinary citizens had little say.

In 1907, Michigan Governor Fred Warner of Farmington made it his mission to change that.

gov warner


Michigan’s initial attempt at a primary election law was passed in 1905, Warner’s first year of office. But it was not mandatory, and proved too expensive and confusing to implement.

Warner wasn’t about to give up.

The battle began in April 1907, when Warner suggested several amendments to the 1905 law. Among them were campaign expense reports, nominations for U.S. senator, and one set day for all Michigan primaries.

Front and center was a clause requiring candidates for governor/lieutenant governor to win 40% of the vote—rather than a majority—to obtain nomination. Otherwise, it would revert to the old system. Warner saw this as a power grab and wanted the clause dropped.


A bill with Warner’s requests passed overwhelmingly in the Michigan House of Representatives. The Senate, however, clashed over the 40% clause, splitting the vote 16-16.

Party politics weren’t to blame. All 32 senators were Republicans, like Warner. But while half supported the governor, the other half had formed an anti-administration faction, nicknamed the “Boxers” after the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China.

The Boxers wanted to keep the 40% clause in. And with half the Senate consistently voting against the governor, no reform could be passed. Frustrated, Warner called an additional session for October. But the Boxers still stood firm. “The special session approaches its close with a rattle and a bang and confusion,” one witness wrote as bill after bill failed in succession. Finally, on October 17, after eight hours of debate, the Senate came to a compromise.

The reformers had lost on the 40% clause. And primaries remained optional, requiring districts to petition for inclusion. “Obnoxious provisions,” Warner labeled them. (Wider reforms would come in 1909.) Yet the new bill had one real advantage: Unlike the status quo, it was workable enough to be implemented.

Despite the compromise, the fireworks were far from over. As the session prepared to conclude, Warner sent a message to the legislature, slamming the Boxers for blocking true reform.

The Boxers called for a half-hour recess to craft a reply.

Then, unbeknownst to them, all but one of the governor’s supporters fled the Senate.


When the recess ended, the Boxers found themselves in a bind: They had a resolution, but no one to hear it, and no quorum. A call of the Senate was made, demanding complete attendance, with the Boxers insisting on the “haste and hailing of the absentees…if they had to be brought in shackles.”

Then came the question of how one sergeant-at-arms was to capture 15 truants. A.J. Tuttle, the Boxer leader, was in a white-hot heat, and called out the Lansing police. As a precaution, the remaining senators were locked inside the chamber, so none could escape.

At 10 p.m., a report came in that Senator Thomas Allen of Flint had been captured at the Grand Trunk train depot and was being brought back, handcuffed and hooked to ball and chain. A moment later, another report said that four others had been arrested at an opera house.

Unfortunately for the Boxers, all managed to escape. Allen somehow outran the police chief. The opera-goers “tweaked” their fingers at the officer and walked away. Another senator jumped a moving train. The only one brought in was Fred Martindale of Detroit, nabbed from bed at his hotel.

He was enough for a quorum, though, and the Boxers ended up delivering their protest speech to two administration-friendly senators.


Revised primary law went into effect with the new year. And despite predictions that Warner had signed his political death warrant, he won a third-term victory, becoming the first governor elected under Michigan’s primary system.

“I think there should be as large a turn-out as possible,” said Warner, referring to the state’s first primary.

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