- Historic Sites
The First Hurrah
Presidential candidates stayed above the battle until William Jennings Bryan stumped the nation in 1896; they’ve been in the thick of it ever since
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
Hanna was indeed increasing the money in circulation. The fear Bryan prompted among the well-to-do enabled Hanna to conduct a mighty levy on wealthy businessmen, much of it underground. He subjected the business community to a massive shakedown. From railroads, insurance companies, and big city banks, he demanded and got sizable contributions. Ultimately, the Republican National Committee reported expenditures of $3,500,000; the actual amount approached $16,000,000. Despite these heartening revenues, the McKinley camp began to worry about the huge, enthusiastic crowds turning out wherever Bryan went. To an adviser who was close to the candidate, Hanna declared emphatically, “We have got to get McKinley out on the road to meet this thing and I wish you would go out to him … and map out a campaign for him.” But McKinley adamantly refused to campaign. He recalled that at the campaign’s start he had declared he would not, and to reverse himself now would acknowledge weakness. “Moreover,” he said, “I might just as well put up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan.”
McKinley chose to emulate Benjamin Harrison, who on a modest scale had conducted a “front-porch” campaign in 1888. In McKinley’s expanded version, his front porch in Canton, Ohio, felt the tread of thousands of delegates from all parts of the country who took advantage of the low excursion rates of cooperating railroads. (One journalist remarked that visiting McKinley was “cheaper than staying at home.…) Before each delegation arrived, a dossier was prepared on its members and their background, enabling McKinley to make pleasant personal remarks before moving into a standard statement on the issues. Between June and November, some three-quarters of a million people visited McKinley in more than three hundred delegations from thirty states. Many snatched souvenirs, carving out pieces of wood from his picket fence, his porch, and his house and snatching leaves from trees and shrubs and plucking blades of grass until the lawn looked “as if a herd of buffalo had passed that way.”
As McKinley labored on his porch, Bryan’s on-the-road campaign intensified. In peak form, Bryan could make thirty speeches in a day—and appear again at any time during the night. Bryan survived this mad pace thanks to his sturdy athletic constitution, and an extraordinary ability to sleep between stops.
To reach crowds of forty thousand in a day innocent of voice amplifiers, and to keep pace with the resulting enormous demands on his physique, Bryan developed a monstrous appetite, consuming plattersful of food, and demanding for his breakfast double or triple servings of what ordinary people expected for their dinner. His orgiastic consumption and his rushed schedule demolished his table manners, sometimes nauseating those who watched him eat. Bryan favored radishes above all foods, and thoughtful hostesses provided them by the bagful, to be munched on as he pushed through his hyperactive day.
Even Bryan’s choice of clothing was adapted to the rigors of constant travel. He rejected linen coats because they were hard to keep clean; cool alpaca suited his needs, along with easily washed string ties. In a day of pointed footware, Bryan wore square-toed shoes that made him less apt to stub his toe and stumble as he boarded moving trains.
Marion Butler, a leading North Carolina Populist who accompanied Bryan during part of his Southern tour, was appalled at his absorption in such trivia as checking train schedules, buying tickets, and arranging for baggage and mail. Bryan rose in the middle of the night to make train changes and connections, toting his own heavy grips. At Butler’s recommendation, the national committee provided Bryan with a special car known inappropriately as “The Idler,” in which the press and local committees could travel comfortably along with the candidate.
The campaign’s most common scourge was the plague of pickpockets irresistibly drawn by the close-packed crowds. Reporters noticed as many as fifty clamber aboard Bryan’s train as the day began, take seats in the smoker, and pile out at each stop for their work. Unwittingly, Bryan aided them with his favorite rhetorical device of asking those in his audience who had gold in their pockets to raise their hands, and then those who had silver to raise theirs. While Bryan proved his point that both metals were commonly accepted, the pickpockets moved in.