Hanna Was At The Forefront of U.S., City Politics

Plain Dealer article written by Bob Rich and published on March 17, 1996



Author: BOB RICH
You can’t talk about the political history of the United States or Cleveland in the late 19th century without taking Mark Hanna’s career and times into account. 

He was more than just Tom Johnson’s chief antagonist during the early years of the street railway wars. He was the Boss of Bosses of the Republican Party, the man who could make a president, tough, brilliant and ruthless. 

And Mark Hanna was nobody’s hired puppet; he firmly believed that if Big Business was left alone to make big profits, it would employ more workers, pay them better wages, and they in turn would buy more American goods, keeping the wheels turning in a beautiful circle. Later generations would call this the “trickle-down theory.” 

Hanna was born to prosperous New Lisbon, Ohio, parents, Dr. Leonard and Samantha Hanna, who moved to Cleveland in 1852 when the Ohio Canal bypassed their town. Mark was 16 years old when he attended Central High School, where his classmates included the Rockefeller brothers, William and John D., and the latter’s future bride, Laura Spelman. 

Young Hanna enrolled at Western Reserve College in Hudson in 1857, and departed after only four months to his and the college’s mutual relief; apparently, the college didn’t appreciate his practical jokes. 

Mark got a job in his family’s wholesale grocery and commission house business in the Flats, where he kept the books, acted as purser on their lake steamers, and was a traveling salesman through Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. 

Mark Hanna cast his first Republican vote in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln, and wanted to enlist a year later when the Civil War broke out. But he was the only one who knew the family business inside out; he stayed, and brother Howard joined the army. 

Mark met Charlotte Augusta Rhodes of Franklin Circle at a bazaar about a year later, and she returned his affections. But she was the daughter of Dan Rhodes, the richest coal-and-iron merchant in town and the town’s leading Democrat, and he didn’t want his daughter to marry any “damned black Republican.” True love and Cleveland society, who wanted this match, persevered; Mark and Charlotte were married at St. John’s Episcopal church in September 1864. 

Now Hanna set to work building a business empire: lake steamers, iron ore, his father-in-law’s coal mines, oil refining – and Cleveland politics. But here he found that he couldn’t interest his friends in, say, a Republican caucus, and he bored them by pushing them to attend political meetings or give up their duck-hunting and go to the polls on Election Day. Years later, he would say, “Your newspapers used to gas about the great excitement of some election … and then we had to hire livery hacks to get the voters to come and vote!” 

Local Republican machine politics infuriated him with their buying and selling of immigrant votes, so much so, in fact, that he and some fellow Republicans bolted the party in 1873 to help elect a reputable Democratic mayor. 

That was the year that the worst financial panic in America’s history – up to that point – broke out. Hundreds of thousands were thrown out of work as banks and stock markets collapsed, and businesses, mines and railroads failed. The price of coal, along with everything else, plummeted. When mine owners cut wages, a new coal miners union was organized and sent delegates to beg the owners for living wages. Only Mark Hanna even listened to them, and offered to help them. He had formed a coal operators association and believed in what would now be called collective bargaining. Hanna also believed, his son said in later years, “that some corporations and large industrial concerns were deliberately bleeding their workmen as a matter of selfish economy.” 

When operators reduced wages again in 1876 – against Hanna’s advice – the union couldn’t keep the men from striking. Two of Hanna’s mines were set on fire, the militia was called out, and a company employee shot. Hanna found himself, as head of the operators association, with the responsibility of seeing that 23 half-starved miners were punished by law. 

No reputable lawyer from the mine counties would touch the case except one: Major William McKinley of Canton, a staunch Republican who was being mentioned as a congressional candidate. McKinley would win his clients’ freedom – and he would win something much more that would change his life forever: the respect and admiration of his courtroom opponent, Marcus Alonzo Hanna.


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