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John Lockwood Wilson
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Washington’s first midterm elections of 1890

John Lockwood Wilson. (Courtesy US Congress)

In all the hubbub from the aftermath of the 2018 midterms, it’s worth taking a look at the very first time Washington voters took part in a midterm election back in November 1890.

And those were male voters, of course, since women wouldn’t permanently get the right to vote in Washington until 1910.

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In 1890, it was the middle of Republican President Benjamin Harrison’s one and only term in the White House.

But first, a little context.

Washington Territory had became the state of Washington in November 1889.

The Washington Territory

During the Territorial Era, from 1853 to 1889, Washington Territory had one representative in Congress. This “Territorial Representative” was chosen by territory-wide vote of men, and went to the nation’s capital, to Congress, to advocate for local interests. But, officially speaking, the Territorial Representative didn’t have a vote in Congress. In addition, nobody in Washington Territory was allowed to vote in presidential elections from the 1850s through the 1880s.

At the dawn of the Statehood Era, beginning in November 1889, Washington was apportioned one member of the House of Representative who did get to vote (and male Washingtonians would be able to vote for president in 1892). Washington also had two US Senators beginning in 1889, but both were elected by the Legislature; direct election of US Senators wouldn’t come until 1914 with the 17th Amendment.

With statehood on the horizon, the first race for Congress in Washington took place in October 1889. Republican John Lockwood Wilson, a 40-something Indiana-born lawyer from Spokane Falls, beat Democrat Thomas C. Griffits of Tacoma by a margin of 34,039 to 24,492, or 58 percent to 42 percent.

Stepping back a bit further, Republicans had held power almost continuously in Washington Territory pretty much since the Civil War. During that conflict, former Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats melded into a Republican majority here that lasted for decades.

Representative John L. Wilson had just one year in Congress before he had to run again in the midterms of 1890.

McKinley Tariff

The big national issue in 1890 was an act of Congress that was known as the McKinley Tariff. Future Republican president William McKinley was chair of the House Ways & Means Committee. He authored a bill that raised tariffs on pretty much everything, and then merchants raised consumer prices before the tariffs even officially kicked in.

Because of the backlash against the McKinley Tariff, the midterms of 1890 were a disaster for Republicans across much of the United States. In the final tally, Republicans lost 93 seats and the Democrats gained 86 seats for a 238 to 86 majority. Back then, the House had a total of 331 seats; seven seats in the 1890 midterms went to the Populists.

But how did Republican John L. Wilson fare here in Washington? Did an anti-McKinley Tariff “blue wave” wash over the Evergreen State?

Wilson’s challenger in 1890 was Democrat Thomas Carroll, an attorney from Tacoma.

Carroll was born in Philadelphia in 1842. He was a Civil War veteran and was badly wounded at Vicksburg. He came to Tacoma in 1883 and was known for having defended, pro bono, those Tacoma residents charged with anti-Chinese violence during the Chinese expulsion riots in the 1880s.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called Thomas Carroll “a respectable man of moderate abilities.”  They also characterized his willingness to accept the Democratic nomination as something of a lost cause.  Nobody else wanted the job, the P-I wrote, and it was “fully realized that there was not the ghost of a show for success.”

When the ballots were counted, in spite of the 1890s edition of the “blue wave,” Washington’s Republican member of the House of Representatives John L. Wilson beat back his Democratic challenger. The margin was about half what it had been in Wilson’s race a year earlier.


John Lockwood Wilson

John Lockwood Wilson went on to serve three terms in the House, and then was elected to the US Senate. As a senator, he was credited with helping secure the federal Assay Office here during the Gold Rush, and in getting funding for the naval shipyard in Bremerton and for Mt. Rainier National Park. Wilson later became publisher of the Seattle P-I, and it was front page news on that paper — and The Seattle Times — when Wilson died, unexpectedly, in 1912. Tellingly, he was buried not in Washington, but in his native Indiana.

Fast-forward to two years after the 1890 midterms, and in 1892, the Democrats lost several seats in the House, but they maintained a majority. Here in Washington, the state had been apportioned a second member of Congress, and Republican William Hall Doolittle was elected. For the presidency, Democrat Grover Cleveland beat Benjamin Harrison (who had defeated Cleveland in 1888), and in the US Senate, the Democrats gained a slim majority.

Grover Cleveland was inaugurated in March 1893, becoming the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. A few months later came the Panic of 1893, and all hell broke loose, economically and otherwise.

There was one more noteworthy issue on the statewide ballot back in November 1890.

It was the final vote on locating the state capital. Olympia had been the territorial capital since 1853, and had survived an earlier vote in 1889. In the final tally, North Yakima garnered 6,268 votes and Ellensburg had 7,757, while Olympia crushed both challengers, with 37,382 male Washingtonians voting to keep the capitol in Thurston County.

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