Boss Hanna

Plain Dealer article written by Bob Rich and published on Sunday April 7, 1996



Author: BOB RICH


Teddy Roosevelt once said of Mark Hanna that, “The oddest thing about Hanna was that numbers of intelligent people thought him a fool …” 

Well, Mark Hanna WAS a very complex man who became to political cartoonists the embodiment of the bloated, corrupt, political boss, representing the rich against the worker. 

The Hearst papers characterized him as the Red Boss of Cleveland politics, ruling the city from his office, terrorizing unions and ruining rival street railways … “He sent poor sailors out to sea on his ships on the wintry Lakes, cold and starving, unpaid and mutinous. He had corrupted Gov. William McKinley’s government, etc.” 

And yet, according to his biographer, Thomas Beer, when fellow Republican George Pullman brought on a very violent general strike in 1894 by his refusal to negotiate with his workers, Hanna raged against him publicly in the Union Club: “The damned idiot ought to arbitrate! What did he think he was doing? A man who won’t meet his men halfway is a [expletive] fool.” And this was the same man who lent his money to Union veterans so they could attend Ulysses Grant’s funeral in New York. 

In 1894, Mark Hanna, president of a bank, director of street railways, partner in three rolling mills, executive in a ship-building company, gave up all these businesses to devote himself full time to getting his friend, Ohio’s Gov. William McKinley, elected president of the United States. 

By the time the Republican convention gathered in 1896, Mark Hanna’s organizing ability and drive, and $100,000 spent out of his own pocket, had already sewn up a majority of the delegates for his candidate. Then came the amazing, so-called “Front Porch” presidential campaign. McKinley didn’t want to campaign away from his invalid wife, and he couldn’t match Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan’s oratory, so Hanna moved the campaign to his front porch in Canton. The governor made dozens of speeches a day to large crowds brough in by the railroads at discount rates. According to Cleveland historian George Condon, Hanna flooded the country with 30 million pieces of McKinley literature a week, had his face on drinking mugs, posters, badges, spoons and lapel buttons. Little boys sang: “McKinley drinks soda water, Bryan drinks rum; McKinley is a gentleman, Bryan is a bum!” 

Successful? McKinley won the 1896 election by more than 600,000 votes. 

The new president, and his “political prime minister,” as one observer called Hanna, upset the accepted wisdom when the president appointed political moderates to his Cabinet, and paid very little attention to Wall Street. Everybody figured Hanna wanted to be secretary of the Treasury, but he said to a friend, “Me in the Cabinet? All the newspapers would have cartoons of me stealing the White House kitchen stove!” 

What he did want was to be U.S. senator from Ohio so he could help his great friend McKinley be a successful president. This was neatly arranged by the appointment of Ohio’s Sen. John Sherman as secretary of state, and having the Republican governor of Ohio appoint Hanna to succeed him for the remaining year of his term. 

But that year was soon up, and Hanna at the age of 60 – a man who had never faced a voter – was going to have to face election before the Ohio Assembly – that’s the way it was done then. 

The campaign turned out to be just possibly the meanest, nastiest, most bitterly fought senatorial election in American history. Biographer Herbert Croly, says, “He [Hanna] was portrayed as a monster of sordid greed, as the embodiment of all that was worst in American politics and business.” 

Hanna campaigned across the state, speaking in large cities and small towns; audiences liked his blunt, plain-spoken ways. 

In January of 1898, with the state Assembly ready to vote, this is how Croly saw it: “Columbus came to resemble a medieval city given over to an angry feud between armed partisans. Blows were exchanged in hotels and on the streets. There were threats of assassination. Timid men feared to go out after dark …” The 73 legislators who were committed to Mark Hanna were marched under armed guard to the Statehouse to vote for their man and give him a three-vote margin of victory! 

Mark Hanna’s star would never shine brighter!


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