Early in the afternoon on Saturday, July 20, 1912, more than 100 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all of them Democrats, got off the train in Sea Girt, New Jersey, and walked down the dusty road toward Woodrow Wilson’s summer cottage. Wilson had recently accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, and he’d been entertaining political visits at his seaside home ever since. As Speaker Champ Clark and the others approached his front gate, Wilson met them halfway and led the group to his veranda. After a meet-and-greet with Wilson’s family, they all gathered on the lawn for this group photo before a round of cake and punch. (Wilson, in middle, is seated in the rocking chair on the left; Clark, scowling, is seated next to him in the other rocker.)
The visit to Sea Girt is remarkable for a few reasons, not the least of which was that it coincided with the Democratic Party’s brief return to power in the House after 16 years of Republican dominance (1895–1911). If the new majority wanted to adjourn for the weekend in order to visit their party’s presidential candidate, well, it could—and it did.
Secondly, the trip tells us a lot about what Members of the House thought of the federal government and the act of governing 100 years ago. Judging by what Clark said that day, it’s pretty clear that the Speaker wanted to remind (read: warn) Wilson about his responsibilities if he became President. “History has shown that those Presidents have succeeded best who have been on the best terms with Congress,” Clark said, “and most of them who have come to grief have come to grief because of quarrels with Congress.” Clark’s admonition may have also been an attempt to reclaim some political leverage after Wilson beat him out for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Whatever his reason, Clark didn’t tell Wilson anything new. Before he entered politics, Wilson had essentially created the field of congressional studies as a young professor, and probably knew more about the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill than most of his visitors that day. In a good-natured reply to the Speaker, Wilson said “that the real value of the House of Representatives is not entirely summed up in its own deliberations, but in those things that happen outside the sessions, when men confer intimately with regard to the interests and the opinions and the purposes of their fellow citizens.” In other words, he appreciated their trip. Still, it all left him exhausted. The next day Wilson wrote to a friend to say that as a presidential candidate he was “now in a cage . . . a man without individual freedom or privacy.”
Wilson won the presidency that fall and for six of his eight years in the White House, Champ Clark was Speaker.
Sources: Washington Post, July 15, 1912; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 20, 1912; New York Tribune, July 21, 1912; Atlanta Constitution, July 21, 1912; New York Times, July 21, 1912; Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1912; Indianapolis Star, July 21, 1912; Detroit Free Press, July 21, 1912; Chicago Daily Tribune, July 21, 1912; Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 1912; Congressional Record, 62nd Cong., 2nd sess. (19 July 1912): 9351; H.W. Brands, Woodrow Wilson (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2003); Arthur S. Link, ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 24 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977).