The Front Porch Campaign

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In 1896, the depression which had followed the Panic of ’93 was in its third year. Debt, business failure, unemployment, and labor unrest were spreading; to many, revolution seemed just a step away. This was the setting for the bitter presidential contest between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan, and the great debate between the advocates of “sound money” and the supporters of the inflationary panacea, free silver. In a chapter from her long-awaited new book, In the Days of McKinley , Pulitzer prize-winner Margaret Leech tells how McKinley and his famous manager, Marcus Alonzo Hanna, conducted and won a campaign in which the candidate never left home. The book is published by Harper & Brothers.

In the later years of the nineteenth century, the American scene was ornamented by three celebrated friendships. The letters of John Hay and Henry Adams attest that the “hearts” of their exclusive Washington salon were joined in a rare intellectual communion. The correspondence of Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt, concerned though it was with their grosser political ambitions, reveals an affinity scarcely less elevated in refinement and sympathetic exchange. The love of William McKinley and the Ohio business magnate, Marcus A. Hanna, has not left a comparable record. Their few surviving letters are confidential rather than intimate. There are formal missives from McKinley, most of them dictated and faintly odorous of the letter press or carbon copy; and some scribbled notes from Hanna on minor political questions, usually matters of patronage. Perhaps not much has been concealed or destroyed. When parted, these two communicated over the long-distance telephone, or through that more ancient medium, the private emissary. They were practical men, without a trace of the scholar or dilettante. The basis of their alliance was the commitment of the Republican party to the business interests.

Hanna’s first overtures to McKinley had disclosed the harmony of their minds, both in political purpose and in the choice of the human instrument for its fulfillment. Hanna had shrewdly appraised the America of his day. He saw that the problems of government had become problems of money. He wanted to place the corporations in the saddle, and make them pay in advance for the ride. McKinley looked upon the great industrialists as the leaders in the march of national progress, the source of high wages and full employment for all the people; and he thought of their financial backing of his presidential candidacy as a contribution to the patriotic cause of protection. Hanna put the situation in balder terms, but both arrived at the same conclusion.

 

The partnership had naturally involved a close personal association. Hanna was an expansive man, bluff, hearty, and dynamic. Though his speech was rough and his manner aggressive, he made warm friends, as well as hot enemies; and his advanced opinions on the relations of management and labor, and his just and cordial dealings with his own employees had brought him the esteem of the workingmen of Ohio. In choosing McKinley as the object on which to lavish his energies, Hanna had not made a purely rational decision. He had been magnetized by a polar attraction. Cynical in his acceptance of contemporary political practices, Hanna was drawn to McKinley’s scruples and idealistic standards, like a hardened man of the world who becomes infatuated with virgin innocence. That his influence ruled McKinley was the invention of the political opposition, of young Mr. Hearst’s newspapers in particular. Hanna, on the contrary, treated McKinley with conspicuous deference. The Kansas City reporter William Allen White, who thought Hanna the better man of the two, was obliged to admit that he was “just a shade obsequious in McKinley’s presence.” Charles G. Dawes noticed in his close association with both men that McKinley gave the orders, and Hanna obeyed them without question. Herman Henry Kohlsaat, the Chicago newspaper proprietor, wrote that Hanna’s attitude toward McKinley was “always that of a big, bashful boy toward the girl he loves.” Hanna told the story himself. He said that somehow he felt for McKinley an affection that could not be explained; but he explained it very well.

It made Hanna feel twenty years younger to spend a social evening with his friend. On a house party, McKinley was like a big boy. When he laughed, “he laughed heartily all over,” enjoying a joke on himself and loving to get a joke on Hanna, and ring all the changes on it. At their Sunday evening concerts, he would urge Hanna to raise his tuneless voice, insisting that it was a sweet tenor. He was “a pleasant tease.” He was fond of the theater, and delighted in meeting the actors who came to Hanna’s house.