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The Front Porch Campaign
While Bryan stumped up and down the land, McKinley let the voters come to his lawn in Canton—and they came
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
At a time when the nation still suffered from the depression that followed the Panic of 1893, McKinley’s silence on the currency question was the cause of the most valid and effective attacks on his candidacy. Anxious to avoid any commitment that might damage his popularity in the western mining states, he maintained that his position was perfectly understood from his public utterances. But, when McKinley stood on his record on the financial question, his footing appeared perilously insecure both to his political opponents and to the goldbugs of his own party. His refusal to speak, in the face of his endorsement by western silverite conventions in 1896, antagonized and frightened businessmen, and a vociferous demand came from the Republicans of the East that the candidate should explicitly avow his opinions and intentions.
Hanna had originally favored plumping for the gold standard, but McKinley had declined to listen. He was determined to bid for the nomination on the tariff issue alone. He still regarded the furor over the currency as a passing flurry, which might be calmed by the bimetallist program. The search for an international agreement on a ratio between gold and silver had been generally consigned to the trash heap of optimistic theorizing. McKinley belonged to the die-hard band of hope. He did not believe that the United States should take independent action by legislating for the unlimited coinage of silver at the old ratio of sixteen to one, but he did not intend to alienate support by discussing the question during his preliminary canvass.
The compromise of bimetallism had raveled out in the furious strain of dissension. McKinley had nothing to offer but threadbare arguments that satisfied neither side, but silence was of extreme disservice to his reputation. The candidate’s denial of the legitimate public demand for enlightenment on his views lent justification to the onslaughts of the opposition. Its press rummaged through McKinley’s record for evidences of inconsistency. He was cartooned as a sphinx, ridiculed as tongue-tied and dumb, taunted as a sly time-server with no convictions at all. McKinley’s mute effacement in Canton was interpreted as unanswerable proof that he was muzzled by Mark Hanna.
The approach of the Republican convention in June, at St. Louis, made it necessary for McKinley to submit his opinions, and in conference with Hanna and other advisers, he drafted a statement on the currency. It contained the usual pledge for sound money, with silver used to the fullest extent consistent with the maintenance of its parity with gold. While extending a welcome to international bimetallism, McKinley’s proposal declared that it was meanwhile “the plain duty of the United States to maintain our present standard,” and that the Republican party was therefore opposed to the free and unlimited coinage of silver.
Hanna had come to approve McKinley’s evasiveness because of its favorable effect in the Far West; but, arriving early at St. Louis for the meetings of the national committee, he discovered a strong sentiment for the gold standard among the other delegations. While he was busy with committee affairs, a number of friends met in his room to consider the question of stiffening McKinley’s statement.
Over the discussions, as menacing as an explosive, hung the bright syllable “gold.” Tacitly accepted as the money standard of the United States, it had been mentioned in previous Republican platforms only in relation to silver and paper. The little group at St. Louis at last ventured to insert the word alone. For McKinley’s phrase, “to maintain our present standard,” was substituted the statement that “the existing gold standard should be preserved.” The change did not alter the meaning. Everyone perfectly understood what “our present standard” was, and the silverite leader, Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado, told newspaper correspondents that the original version would have been equally unacceptable to the silvermining states; but to sound-money Republicans, the quibble was portentous. Crisis had forced them, with trepidation and high resolve, to dare to speak of gold.
Hanna expressed his approval, and McKinley was convinced by the united recommendation. But Hanna artfully concealed his hand from the anti-McKinley delegates. He intended that the candidate and his manager should appear to yield to the overwhelming sentiment of the convention. By conveying to eastern leaders like Tom Platt of New York and Cabot Lodge—the junior senator from Massachusetts—the impression that he was still reluctant to call the money standard by name, Hanna incited them to consolidate the delegations who were in favor of the explicit definition. When the resolutions committee finally produced the platform, the currency plank was essentially the statement that McKinley had approved. There was a rush to claim credit for the fateful monosyllable, “gold.” H. H. Kohlsaat, who was a late-comer at the conferences, insisted that he alone was responsible. Platt and Cabot Lodge, who had never been present at all, were leading contenders for the honor. Hanna did not disillusion them. The McKinley delegations from the South had been comfortably seated. St. Louis was plastered with McKinley posters, and waving with McKinley banners. Men with McKinley badges, canes, and hatbands rested in the McKinley lounges of the hotels, and refreshed themselves with McKinley drinks of bourbon, lemon juice, and sugar. Hanna had done his work well. He was satisfied to remain in the background.