The Front Porch Campaign

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For eight weeks, every day but Sunday was circus day in Canton. The quiet Buckeye community had never dreamed of such delirious excitement. Past the dazzled eyes of the citizens flashed flags and banners, McKinley and Hobart umbrellas, tin canes and horns, tin plumes and streamers, glass canes, glass lilies with McKinley’s portrait, badges of raw wool, gold badges, gold neckties, gold hatbands, sprigs of goldenrod, goldtrimmed bicycles. The downtown streets were glutted with parades waiting their turn, and the neighborhood of the McKinley house was black with crowds “as thick as flies around a railroad pie stand.”

Like an army that does not advance to meet the enemy, McKinley had brought destruction to his own borders. The front porch was in a state of dilapidation. The slender posts had been so weakened by the grasp and pressure of the crowds that the roof was in imminent danger of tumbling on the Major’s head. The demolished fence and grape arbor had been picked clean by souvenir-hunters. The once-green lawn had been trampled to a brown plain of earth, on which farmers’ families picnicked while they waited for the speeches. In the rains of early autumn, it became a lake of mud, and North Market Street had a brief interval of respite, while the meetings adjourned to Canton’s gloomy public hall, the Tabernacle.

The McKinley house was filled with a monstrous clutter of gifts, and the debris that the retiring delegations left in their wake. The bunches of flowers faded. Cheese and butter and watermelons could be eaten. Badges and glass canes made acceptable presents to children. A place was undoubtedly found for a marble bust of McKinley, a bouquet of artificial flowers made by a bedridden Cleveland lady, a cane of weldless cold-drawn steel tubing, a miniature gold reproduction of a one-hundred-pound steel rail, and a gavel formed from a log of the cabin occupied by Lincoln at Salem, Illinois. But it is difficult to imagine where the McKinleys put the finely polished stump of a tree from Tennessee, the largest plate of galvanized iron ever rolled in the United States, the equally record-breaking sheet of bright tin, or the strip of jointed tin, sixty feet long, embellished with the names of the candidates. Live American eagles were the most inconvenient remembrances of all, and McKinley made haste to present them to the city of Canton, as they were received. Five fine specimens, christened Major, McKinley, President, Hobart, and Hanna, were lodged near the wolves in the pavilion in Nimisilla Park.

The national excitement mounted as election day drew near. The Democrats had the Solid South. They had a nearly solid Far West. Labor organizations and labor journals were all vociferous for free silver. Bryan’s fiery and aggressive campaign seemed to have infused his cause with “a sinister vitality.” In tones sharp with alarm, great Democratic and independent newspapers defied the forces of insolvency and ruin. Preachers fulminated against Bryan from their pulpits. A trainload of Union officers aroused the old soldiers of the West with bands, cannon, rockets, and speeches for Comrade McKinley. Monster torchlight parades wound through the streets of the cities, with captains of finance and industry marching in line. For a few days, business almost came to a standstill. Banks refused to make loans. Orders to factories were subject to cancellation. Workers were warned that their wages and even their jobs were contingent on the outcome of the election. With fear in their hearts, sound-money men cast their votes on November 3, and waited in suspense for the returns.

The time for suspense had ended weeks before. The great American middle class had awakened from a summer’s dream of the glories of free silver. Some men had been persuaded by argument, some by the coercion of their employers. Others had been estranged by the increasingly radical tone of Bryan’s speeches, and disillusioned by the knowledge that this demagogue was backed by the magnates of the silver mines. The price of wheat soared, nullifying Bryan’s arguments to the farmers. The Gold Democrats, conservative members of the party who had nominated their own candidates, concluded in large numbers to gag at the tariff and vote for McKinley. Late on election day, the newspaper bulletins began to flaunt the tidings of Republican success. Middle western and border states of the South tumbled into the gold column. At midnight it was known that, by a goodly majority in the electoral college and a popular vote larger than that received by any candidate since Grant, William McKinley had been elected President of the United States.

Late that night, H. H. Kohlsaat made a telephone call to Canton from his office at the Chicago Times-Herald, which had given valuable support to the Republican candidate. He was finally connected with Mother McKinley’s house, and spoke with her grandson, James. After some delay, James came back to report that the newly elected President was in his mother’s room. She was kneeling beside her bed, James shouted over the long-distance wire, with one arm around Uncle Will and the other around Aunt Ida. All that James could hear was “Oh, God, keep him humble,” and that, apparently, was all that Mr. Kohlsaat got for his telephone call.