Irvine Lenroot: A Man Who Could Have Been President

On October 21, 1917, Senator Paul Husting of Wisconsin is duck hunting with his brother. Spotting one, he tells his brother Gustave to fire. However, Husting rises in his rowboat and his brother accidentally shoots him in the back. He slips into a coma and dies later that day. Husting, a Democrat, had been one of the most pro-Wilson senators, and his death is politically consequential. His elected successor in the special election the next year is Republican Representative Irvine Lenroot (1869-1949), and in the next Congress Republicans hold a 49-47 majority. Had Husting lived, the Democrats would have had a majority through the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Thomas Marshall.

Lenroot got his start in Wisconsin state politics as a strong ally of Governor Robert La Follette in the Assembly. From 1903 to 1906 he was the Assembly’s speaker and was key in getting La Follette’s reforms through, including a primary election law and a railway tax. In 1906, Lenroot and La Follette backed each other’s bids for higher office. La Follette won his Senate bid, but Lenroot lost the Republican primary for governor. In 1908, with the support of La Follette, he defeated Congressman John J. Jenkins for renomination to the House. Jenkins was a conservative supporter of Speaker Joe Cannon and had been backed by President Roosevelt. In the House, he would often vote against legislation supported by President Taft including the Aldrich-Payne Tariff and he backed the 1910 revolt against Speaker Joe Cannon. In 1912, Lenroot sided with Theodore Roosevelt in the Republican split and tried to get an alliance between La Follette and Roosevelt, but neither man liked each other. Roosevelt thought La Follette too progressive and La Follette saw Roosevelt as compromising too much to business interests. Although the two patched up their relations, this was the beginning of a political separation between La Follette and Lenroot. He was also growing more conservative during the Wilson years and the split between the two was complete in 1917 when La Follette voted against American entry into World War I while Lenroot voted for. Among Republicans from the Wisconsin delegation, he was joined only by Representative David Classon in support of war. To get the Republican nomination for the Senate, Lenroot had defeated La Follette-backed James Thompson on a platform of patriotism. This was bitter for La Follette, who was accused of being “pro-German” and was even subject to a campaign to get him expelled from the Senate.

La Follette was not pleased with his former lieutenant as a senator, thinking of him as having compromsied too much, like he thought Roosevelt. In 1920, as Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio won the nomination for president, party bosses selected Lenroot as their choice for vice president. Harding was a staunch conservative while he was a moderate, including on the Versailles Treaty, being one of the mild reservationists. They supported the Versailles Treaty with only modest alterations and such figures would be the precursors of the post-World War II internationalists in the GOP. This would have been a solid ticket balance, but there was a popular cry at the Republican National Convention for Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts to get the nod as he had been popular for his calling in troops to stop a Boston police strike in 1919. Coolidge won 674 delegate votes to Lenroot’s 146. Lenroot remained in the Senate, and both Republicans on the presidential ticket were conservatives. Had the delegates gone along with party bosses, Irvine Lenroot would have been our 30th president. He would be considerably more supportive of Republican presidents Harding and Coolidge than he was of Taft, voting for the Mellon tax cuts. However, he retained his general opposition to high tariffs. In his final term in Congress, Lenroot’s MC-Index score reached an 82%, and many Republicans in the state were not pleased with his conservative turn. In 1926, they picked Governor John J. Blaine, a Republican of the La Follette mold. Lenroot’s lifetime MC-Index score was a 58%, indicating a moderate record. He was subsequently nominated by President Hoover to the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. Confirmed by the Senate, he served until his retirement in 1944.


Husting is Killed By Brother In Hunt. (1917, October 22). The New York Times.

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Jenkins Defeated In Wisconsin Fight. (1908, September 3). The New York Times.

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Lenroot, Irvine Luther. Wisconsin Historical Society.

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Marguiles, H.F. (1977). Irvine L. Lenroot and the Republican Vice-Presidential Nomination of 1920. The Wisconsin Magazine of History, 61(1), 21-31.

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