Sunday May 19, 1996 Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine article about Marcus Hanna and the 1896 presidential election.
THE ELECTION OF 1896 MUCH OF WHAT WE WILL SEE AND HEAR DURING THIS YEAR’S PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN ORIGINATED AT A TIME WHEN MANY WONDERED IF THE NATION WOULD SURVIVE
Marcus Alonzo Hanna had to be stunned.
He had planned it all so beautifully. His man had barely cracked a sweat while capturing the Republican nomination. Even Ohio’s notoriously Balkanized GOP had fallen in line. When the Republican National Convention ended, the White House looked like a lock. And Mark Hanna, Cleveland millionaire-turned-political guru, was sharing the spotlight. “All eyes are on Hanna,” proclaimed the Associated Press. Reporters and well wishers tailed him everywhere. He was the kingmaker. The nominee’s alter ego. The No. 1 FOB – Friend of Bill.
Bill McKinley, that is.
It was the summer of 1896. And William McKinley Jr., Civil War hero, former governor of Ohio and the pride of Canton, was supposed to cruise to the White House.
Only in politics, no lead is permanent until the votes are cast. And by August, a whirlwind of emotion and momentum was blowing out of the West. Its name was William Jennings Bryan. And at its center was an issue no less fundamental than how the American economy would be organized.
Conventional wisdom shifted almost overnight. McKinley’s lead crumbled. Republican bigwigs panicked. But neither McKinley nor Hanna wavered. They simply went out and invented the modern political campaign.
That fall, Hanna would pioneer the art of framing issues and targeting voters. He would experiment with polls and spreading his message through motion pictures. He would stroke and spin the press. Above all, he would spend whatever it took to put his friend in the White House.
And McKinley – along with the tireless Bryan – would begin the long process of making candidates, not parties, the focal point of presidential campaigns. Make no mistake, issues were paramount in 1896. But it was also a campaign about image and character. About what sort of person should lead America into a new century.
On the 100th anniversary of McKinley’s run for president, we take such things for granted. But much of what we will see and hear this election year had its origins at a time of such national unrest and tumult that serious commentators wondered if the nation would survive.
“Many people think that campaign marked the transition from the Old America to the New America,” says Cleveland State University professor Allan Peskin. “It was in many ways the first modern campaign, and McKinley was the first modern president.”
As 1896 began, it appeared to many that America, Old and New, was coming unraveled. Americans today worry about the country’s direction. Americans then had reason to fear it was headed straight off a cliff.
The nation was locked in the third year of a vicious depression. Bank failures, bankruptcies and foreclosures were rampant. Credit was virtually impossible to get. Unemployment lingered around 20 percent nationally, but in resource-producing regions like southeastern Ohio or northern Minnesota, almost everyone was out of work. Bread lines snaked through the streets of every major city. Drought strangled the Great Plains, yet commodity prices were so low that farmers burned corn for fuel. Violent strikes at Homestead Steel and the Pullman rail car plant dominated the news. In western Pennsylvania, angry miners beat an engineer to death and stuffed his body in a coke oven.
An increasingly isolated and uncommunicative Grover Cleveland occupied the Oval Office. Many of his fellow Democrats urged him to do something to spur the economy or at least ease the nation’s pain. Some called for a federal jobs program. Even more urged him to take the country off the gold standard and tie the money supply to silver, a cheaper, more plentiful precious metal. That, advocates of “free silver” argued, would inflate the economy, raise prices and create jobs. But Cleveland stubbornly refused. In his limited vision of government’s role, such things simply weren’t done.
Cleveland’s intransigence led to bloody retribution against his party: In 1894, Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress, dropping 117 seats in the House of Representatives and five in the Senate. A generation of leaders was wiped out. On the eve of their convention, the Democrats did not have a true front-runner for their nomination and seemed destined to be torn asunder by the emotional battle between gold and silver.
No wonder Republicans expected another banner year. Oh, they had divisions over the currency issue, too. A few “free silver” delegates walked out of the GOP’s June convention in St. Louis. But most Republicans could unite around a competing economic vision: Their desire for a tariff on imports so high that it would protect American industry, jobs and profits.
And for two decades, no one had been more identified with that philosophy, had fought harder for it in the halls of Congress, had talked up its merits at more party rallies from New England to California than William McKinley. McKinley’s protectionist line had been so appealing to the party faithful that in both 1888 and 1892, large groups of GOP delegates tried to draft him for president.
But McKinley would have none of it. He was a man of principle, and in each year he had promised his support to others. Besides, he also was one of the shrewdest politicians around, and McKinley had determined that 1896 was to be his year.
It sure started out that way. McKinley cruised to the nomination. Potentially powerful rivals like House Speaker Thomas Reed had been trampled by Hanna’s campaign machine. Illinois Sen. Shelby Cullom shelved plans to run when he realized he had been out-organized in his own state by McKinley insurgents.
The GOP convention was more coronation than brawl: Credentials fights pitted rival McKinley delegations against one another. When the nomination was won at 5:17 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, all of McKinley’s hometown, Canton, came to a screaming halt. By that night some 50,000 people from as far away as Cleveland and Niles trooped to William and Ida McKinley’s modest frame house on N. Market St. for a glimpse, a few words, maybe even a handshake from the man they felt sure would be the next president of the United States.
A month later all bets were off. The Democrats, meeting in Chicago, had selected William Jennings Bryan as their nominee. On paper, it looked like a colossal mismatch. Bryan’s political resume was thin: Two terms in the House of Representatives, a failed Senate run in 1894. He was from Nebraska, which was great for growing wheat but lousy for building a national electoral base. And to top it off, he was 36, barely old enough to be president under the Constitution. During the Civil War, 19th-century America’s defining experience, Bryan had been a baby; “Major” McKinley had faced death at Antietam and in the Shenandoah Valley.
But in the late summer of 1896, William Jennings Bryan had something more precious than biography, more valuable than 20 years of political achievement. He had A Cause and for a moment, it seemed, he had The People.
His nomination was the stuff of political legend. Despite two years of relentlessly stumping on behalf of free silver and himself, he had arrived in Chicago a very dark horse. Bryan wrangled a place on the platform committee, maneuvered to give the final speech on the currency plank. In a steamy hall wrought with emotion, he had bounded to the podium two steps at a time. He confidently stepped into the spotlight and declared himself a humble man, yet one made powerful by “the armor of a righteous cause. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty – the cause of humanity.”
This cause pitted gold against silver, Bryan said, West against East, “hardy pioneers” against “the few financial magnates.” Delivering his call for class warfare like a revival preacher, Bryan built to an emotional climax.
“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns,” he thundered. “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”
He thrust out his arms like Christ on Calvary. Silence. Then pandemonium.
Twenty-four hours later, Bryan was the nominee of the Democratic Party.
Reaction was electric. The Populist Party, a rural-based reform movement that had drawn more than a million votes in 1892, endorsed Bryan. As he made his way East – to speak at Madison Square Garden, then take a short vacation – his train was mobbed. Thousands turned out in Omaha, Des Moines, Joliet, Chicago, even Canton.
Through August, Bryan’s wave built. In Cleveland, cannons heralded the arrival of his train and thousands marched with him to the Hollenden Hotel. He spoke to 16,000 people in the Central Armory, to 8,000 at Music Hall and to tens of thousands who could squeeze into neither place from a hotel balcony.
At the armory, he was embraced by Jacob Coxey, who in 1894 had led a ragtag “army” of unemployed workers to Washington only to be met by police clubs and jail cells. People wedged into every corner of the mammoth hall. “Not only were the aisles jammed, but men were clinging on windowsills high up and hanging in all sorts of impossible places,” the Associated Press reported.
In Columbus the next day, Bryan spoke to more than 50,000 people at the Statehouse. There were 20,000 more at Springfield, 40,000 at Toledo.
“What is the meaning of this enormous outpouring of the people,” Bryan asked in Cleveland. “No ordinary occasion would produce this scene. No ordinary campaign would stir men’s hearts as they are being stirred now.”
Republicans’ hearts were surely stirring. News reports told of Hanna going to Chicago – one of two national headquarters for the GOP – to “assume personal control of the campaign in the West.” Canton’s Evening Repository, an unabashed McKinley booster, reported that anxious Republicans were prodding “Major McKinley to enter the campaign upon the stump.” McKinley insiders hinted that he would agree.
Understand that until 1896, American presidential candidates clung to the quaint fiction that, like George Washington, they were above actually seeking the job. Parties would campaign – aggressively – but candidates would rarely engage the voters personally. James Garfield in 1880 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888 had invited supporters to come to their homes for short speeches, but even such “front-porch” campaigns were considered innovative.
Now Bryan was destroying the mold. In the fall of 1896, he would travel 18,000 miles and give up to two dozen speeches a day. He loved the roar of the crowd, fed upon it. Besides, he had little choice. The Democratic Party was broke. Most of its best organizers and fund-raisers were Cleveland backers and “gold bugs,” now relegated to political Siberia. If Bryan were to have any campaign at all, he had to stump.
McKinley faced neither money nor organizational problems. And after listening to his advisers, he quickly and firmly declined to stump. The thought seemed to offend him. According to historian Gilbert C. Fite, he told Hanna, “I might just as well put a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athletes as go out speaking against Bryan. … I have to think when I speak.”
Yet if McKinley was not in Bryan’s league as an orator – almost no one was – he still was considered one of best public speakers and debaters of his day. His reluctance to stump may have stemmed from a desire to keep his wife, Ida – who suffered from depression and epilepsy – out of the public eye. But it also appears to have been strategic: He and Hanna calculated that Bryan’s one-note appeal would ebb. “In 30 days,” McKinley told intimates in midsummer, “no one will be talking about silver.” He was wrong about that, but he correctly guessed that Bryan’s frenetic style would produce diminishing returns. Eventually, McKinley figured, restraint would reassure voters.
Hanna took charge of reaching the voters. Using Big Business’ fear of Bryan and free silver, he raised a war chest of some $4 million – at a time when daily newspapers sold for a penny. And he spent every last dime on innovations that would rapidly become standard political fare:
He used polls – albeit primitive ones – to gauge the strength of the two candidates in critical Midwestern states.
He dispatched 1,400 surrogate speakers to sing McKinley’s praises and deliver a unified message of the party’s plans, its “Contract With America,” if you will. Some took along a grainy moving picture of the candidate.
He created campaign teams aimed at specific groups such as women, German-Americans and “coloreds.” They got information tailored to their presumed interests, just as direct-mail appeals attempt to target subsets of voters today.
Most important, he ordered up some 200 million pamphlets, newspaper inserts and other pieces of literature to make the GOP case. Voters in what Hanna and his lieutenants believed to be swing areas were deluged with pamphlets, many of them 20 or more pages long, with graphs and lengthy text that laid out the Republican case.
“Hanna believed that people must be educated on the heresies of free silver and told about the virtues of the protective tariff,” wrote Fite. “This could be accomplished, he believed, by flooding voters with the printed word.”
He also decided to flood Canton with voters. If McKinley would not go to the country, Hanna would bring the country to him. He negotiated special rail fares and started hauling supporters to Ohio. The modest “front porch” campaigns of years past would be lifted to new levels of intensity and sophistication.
From Labor Day on, every day but Sunday found McKinley meeting and greeting visiting voters. Some would be from Republican clubs; others represented businesses, labor groups, ethnic societies, even, on one memorable fall afternoon, thousands of bicycling enthusiasts who pedaled through the streets of downtown Canton. On Saturdays, the politicking lasted from dawn until well into the evening. McKinley biographer Margaret Leech estimated that between his nomination and Election Day, at least 750,000 pilgrims journeyed to the GOP mecca.
A routine was born: Arriving delegations were met by local partisans, often including a marching band. They would parade to the N. Market house, through city streets festooned with flags and bunting and red, white and blue Chinese lanterns. McKinley would come out on the porch and a spokesman for the group would make a few remarks – drafted and read by McKinley in advance. Most bemoaned the bad economy back home and suggested how it could be improved by a good dose of protection.
Then McKinley spoke. He usually started with an anecdote or observation about his visitors. “The history of Illinois sparkles all over with great events and achievements like the heavens above with their glistening stars,” he told a delegation from the Land of Lincoln.
He would speak of sound money and protection: “I do not know what you think about it, but I believe that it is a good deal better to open up the mills of the United States to the labor of America than to open up the mints of the United States to the silver of the world.”
He would talk of law and order and warn against class conflict: “Let no man who is homeless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence, when built.”
And he would talk, unashamedly, much as Ronald Reagan would nearly a century later, about the inherent goodness of America and Americans: “There is just one class under our flag and all of us belong to it, and the poorest boy in the Mahoning Valley, thank God, under our free institutions can aspire to the confidence and honor of his countrymen. What a splendid, glorious Republic we have. Nothing like it under the sun!”
The cumulative impact was powerful. Hanna’s operation was careful to make sure each delegation’s hometown papers got complete texts of McKinley’s remarks – in plenty of time for the next edition. Paul Kleppner, a professor of history and political science at Northern Illinois University, wrote a book about the 1896 campaign. He says he was struck by the extensive coverage the visits received, especially from small-town papers throughout the Midwest.
It is an article of faith among political strategists that a winning candidate must control the debate. By October, McKinley had done just that. The campaign was no longer about gold vs. silver; it was about protection, his turf. That allowed him to woo urban workers, a group of voters who had been Democrats throughout the 19th century but who deserted the party after 1893. Although Democrats at the time charged that employers browbeat their workers to back McKinley, it’s not clear labor needed much prodding.
McKinley, argues Kleppner, offered blue-collar America a comfortable home. He had always had good relations with labor. As a young attorney, he defended Massillon strikers charged with rioting. As governor of Ohio, he pressed arbitration as an alternative to strikes. When he dispatched the militia to quell a violent strike, he kept in touch with union leaders and sent in so many soldiers that resistance was futile. And his protectionist philosophy embodied American politics at its most basic. It was, as former Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes might say, about “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
“The contest in 1896 was really between two conflicting views of economic growth, much as this year’s might be,” says Kleppner. “Protective tariffs as wage protection was the key. It was an ideology that Republicans spun out very successfully.”
Bryan never managed to trump it. And he increasing seemed a poor fit with the majority of Americans who by 1896 lived in cities, not the countryside. Just three years after historian Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the frontier closed, Bryan ran like a latter-day Jefferson, proclaiming the moral superiority of rural life. Case Western Reserve University political scientist Alexander P. Lamis notes that Bryan habitually referred to “our farms” and “your cities.” “He never really hit it off with the urban proletariat,” says Lamis. “That’s how the election was lost – the urban working class voted with their employers.”
Cleveland State historian Peskin says those workers also were voting their own interests. Bryan talked incessantly about raising food prices to help impoverished farmers. It was only natural – he had grown up in rural Illinois and made his political mark in Nebraska. But McKinley, whose parents ran a small foundry in the Mahoning Valley, settled in Canton, a slice of the emerging, industrial America. “I don’t think you had to threaten people to get them to vote against higher food prices,” says Peskin.
Peskin suggests that Bryan had another problem with city voters: His blend of politics and religious fundamentalism turned off urban Catholics and Jews who “could see they didn’t have much of a place in Bryan’s world.” And while McKinley was a devout Methodist, he was anything but threatening.
Like Reagan, he was publicly affable and consistently underestimated. History has generally been much kinder to Bryan, the silver-tongued rival he defeated in 1896 and again in 1900, and to his flamboyant successor – Teddy Roosevelt. Longtime House power Joseph Cannon of Missouri joked that McKinley kept his ear so close to the ground, it was full of grasshoppers. Democrats bitterly complained that he was merely Hanna’s puppet. But most historians agree that McKinley held the upper hand not only in that relationship, but in virtually all political dealings. He was able, wrote future Secretary of State Elihu Root, to make powerful men “think his ideas were theirs. He cared nothing about credit, but McKinley always had his way.”
Within the party, he carefully avoided what now might be called social or cultural issues. Many of his Republican contemporaries would rail about immigration or temperance, flirt with anti-Catholicism. But McKinley, says Kleppner, would have nothing to do with such talk. Though Pat Buchanan’s tirades against free trade in this year’s GOP primaries provoked some comparisons to McKinley, that analogy misses the mark: Buchanan was stridently, unrepentantly conservative on social issues; McKinley was the original “Big Tent” Republican.
“Everybody liked McKinley,” says Peskin. “He created the modern Republican Party and ushered in an era of Republican domination that lasts right up until the Great Depression.”
Finally, McKinley won – by 600,000 votes out of 14 million – by running where American winners almost always do: in the middle of the road. Bryan’s us-against-them fire no doubt won the nomination and made him a popular sensation. But he never disowned his more extreme backers: The Populist Party favored federal ownership of railroads and curtailing the power of federal courts. Fiery “Silver Democrat” Ben Tillman of South Carolina boasted on the eve of the election that he was proud to be called “an anarchist.” No wonder Hanna – 92 years before George Bush’s fabled visit to a New Jersey flag factory – appropriated Old Glory as a GOP totem.
“People liked [Bryan] but did not trust his judgment,” concluded Sen. Peter Norbeck of South Dakota, writing in the 1920s, on the eve of another national calamity. “They felt his heart might be right, but that his leadership was not safe.”
McKinley never forgot that the prize of November requires more than true believers. Even his position on the emotional currency issue had just enough wiggle room – he favored leaving the gold standard if the world’s other financial powers would also do so. Like Reagan once again, he was invariably upbeat and optimistic. Amid the woes of depression, he insisted that America’s best days were just ahead. The country may have been near financial and social meltdown, wrote historian H. Wayne Morgan, but McKinley “shrewdly capitalized on the average man’s unwillingness to believe in classes in a land that stressed individual opportunity.”
A century later, America stands at the dawn of a new millennium. Its economy is going through another transformation. Traditional manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Information, not iron or coal, is the key commodity of the moment. Over the next few months, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole will argue over who has the best ideas for managing that sometimes painful transition and for restoring order to a society that seems out of kilter.
If the history of 1896 is any guide, the election of 1996 may well turn on whose arguments – both political and personal – are more convincing.