The Front Porch Campaign

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There was a breathless moment when the handle of the door turned, and a blast of cheers when McKinley appeared on the front porch. The spokesman stepped forward to deliver an address in which expressions of allegiance to the candidate and to Republican principles were blended with complimentary allusions to the community or organization or industry represented by the group. McKinley listened with rapt attention. He would stand, said Captain Harry Frease of the Canton troop, “like a child looking at Santa Claus,” until the speech was finished. Then, mounting a chair, McKinley talked to the people. He bade them welcome to his home, and thanked them for the honor of their call. He said a few words on the campaign issues, adapting the discussion to suit the special interests of his audience. In conclusion, he expressed a desire to shake the hand of each and every one, and held an informal reception on the porch steps.

Warmed by McKinley’s cordiality and impressed by his sincerity, the excursionists carried to all parts of the country enthusiastic reports of the Republican candidate. They had been right close to him, they had shaken his hand. They had seen him in his setting, and it was all exactly right—the friendly town; the neat, unpretentious house and the porch hung with trumpet vines; and the First Methodist Church where McKinley worshiped with his mother every Sunday. Many of the visitors saw the dear old mother, sitting beside her son or rocking on her own front porch. Many saw and stared at the invalid wife. The curiosity about Ida McKinley was so intense that she was sometimes sent to stay on a nearby farm, but it does not appear that these absences were frequent. Canton talked, in any case, regaling the trippers with tales of Mrs. McKinley’s queer ways and her husband’s selfless devotion.

In his campaign speeches, McKinley made no mistakes. He could ill have afforded to do so. A careless word or misplaced allusion would not only have alienated the prideful deputation on the lawn, but would have been spread before the newspaper readers of the country. Though McKinley’s addresses seemed unstudied and spontaneous, they had been carefully prepared. Precautions were also taken to avoid extempore indiscretions on the part of the spokesmen. They were required to send in advance a copy of their intended remarks, which McKinley approved and occasionally edited.

McKinley was obliged to discuss the financial question every day, but he dexterously kept the tariff to the fore by means of lightning transitions, which at first were seriously disquieting to his critics. He slipped smoothly from sound money to high wages, from good dollars to good times, from free silver to free trade, from open mints to open mills. At the end of July, in addressing the McKinley and Hobart Club of Knoxville, Pennsylvania, the candidate made some remarks that excited great attention. “That which we call money, my fellow citizens, and with which values are measured and settlements made, must be as true as the bushel which measures the grain of the farmer, and as honest as the hours of labor which the man who toils is required to give.” This was merely a good sample of the kind of oratory with which McKinley charmed rural and labor audiences; but he had more to say. “Our currency today is good—all of it as good as gold—and it is the unfaltering determination of the Republican Party to so keep and maintain it forever.”

At last, the friends of the honest dollar had cause for relief and rejoicing. For the first time, the candidate had uttered the word “gold.” He pronounced it, the Nation said, “in a somewhat furtive way, … hastening to take a good pull at the tariff to steady his nerves.”

As August passed, the Nation and the big Democratic dailies, which were supporting McKinley only because of a still stronger antipathy to Bryan, began to look with increasing favor on the Republican candidate. They had confidently expected a fumbling and mediocre campaign. They were astonished by the versatility and political sagacity of the front-porch speeches. McKinley’s remarks on the currency grew progressively pointed and emphatic, and with the publication that month of his letter of acceptance, all doubts were set at rest. The money question was placed foremost, and presented in a lucid and incisive discussion that silenced the criticisms of McKinley’s “wobbliness” and mental incapacity.