1918 : Truman Newberry Defeats Henry Ford for the U.S. Senate

November 5, 2018 all-day

On November 5, 1918, Truman Newberry, a modest, well-mannered scion of an old-money Detroit family, suddenly found himself under federal indictment and his very name synonymous with political corruption. Newberry’s “crime”? He had run for the United States Senate as a long-shot underdog against the President’s handpicked candidate and nation’s most famous man, Henry Ford. And thanks to a skillful ad campaign financed by nearly $200,000 contributed by Newberry’s family members and friends (the equivalent of about $3 million in 2013), he had won.

Before Super PACs, McCain-Feingold, “soft money,” and the Keating 5; before Watergate, and even before Teapot Dome, there was the Michigan Senate race of 1918. In Curbing Campaign Cash, Paula Baker, an Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, has written a lively account of one of the nation’s most contested elections and earliest campaign finance “scandals.” A brief 150 pages, Curbing Campaign Cash takes the reader on a fascinating tour through Michigan industrial and political history, the boardrooms and rivalries of Detroit’s business and social elite, and the machinations of national and progressive politics in the early twentieth century.

Unlike the typical political saga, however, Baker presents the story not as a morality tale of honest government corrupted by big money, but rather as a cautionary story about big government regulation of honest money and the political choices of the electorate.

For more information, see “The Election Case of Truman H. Newberry of Michigan (1922)”, U.S. Senate Art and History.

Bradley A. Smith, “The Campaign Finance Merry-Go-Round”, Library of Law and Liberty Blog

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