1910: The Most Consequential Midterm in American History

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If you haven’t already voted, before you go to the polls today Republicans and Democrats wish to remind you that this is the most important election of our lives! David Corn of Mother Jones tells us so. Valerie Jarrett tells us former President Obama thinks it is the most important election in his lifetime. The emphasis on this midterm led me to thinking, what was the most important one in history? I have a solid candidate, and none of us were alive for it: 1910.

In 1910, the United States had in the White House its fattest and last mustachioed president, William Howard Taft. There was much dissatisfaction among the public as he had allied himself with conservative leaders Speaker Joe Cannon and Senator Nelson Aldrich. Aldrich in particular had been responsible for compromising tariff reduction reforms, resulting in a paltry overall cut in tariffs of 5% from the Dingley tariff rates, the highest in American history. A parliamentary revolt earlier in the year that stripped Speaker Cannon of a number of his powers was a bad omen of the upcoming election for the GOP. The Ballinger-Pinchot Affair, which involved the freeing of millions of acres of forest for development, had angered progressives who were interested in conservation.

That November, the GOP lost the House, taking 57 losses and lost 10 seats in the Senate. More significantly, they took epic losses in state legislatures, which actually changed the course of American history. These Democratic state legislatures ratified the 16th and 17th Amendments, permitting the federal income tax and instituting the popular vote for senators. The former in the short run enabled significant reductions in tariff rates combined with a 7% maximum income tax rate with the Underwood tariff law and made Prohibition feasible as there was now less reliance on alcohol taxes for revenue, but in the long run it made a massive expansion of the federal bureaucracy and increased government services possible. The latter reduced the political emphasis on states and enabled challenges to Republican domination of New England. This was apparent in 1916 when Rhode Island elected its first Democratic senator since before the Civil War, and when Massachusetts followed suit in 1918. This midterm also built momentum for the Wilson program, which included the Clayton Anti-Trust Act which imposed rules on competition as well as the creation of the Federal Reserve to control the money supply.

Many of the issues conservatives have with the government can have their origins traced to the consequences of the 1910 midterms. The income tax enabled government developments such as those of the New Deal, reduced the emphasis on states’ rights,  and made the creation of our modern federal government possible.


Corn, D. (2018, October). The Most Important Election of Our Lives. Mother Jones.

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Mitchell, A. (2018, November 5). Valerie Jarrett: President Obama thinks this is the most important election of his lifetime. MSNBC.

Retrieved from


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