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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
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.
The best times of all for Hanna were the hours late at night in the den at his house in Cleveland, when the other members of the house party had gone to bed, and just the two of them had their heart-to-heart talks, puffing their cigars and looking into each other’s faces. Years later, he could still see the kindly, quizzical look in McKinley’s eyes when he said, “Mark, this seems to be right and fair and just. I think so, don’t you?” Hanna remembered too how McKinley’s eyes would sparkle at the suggestion that the tariff bill which he had sponsored as a congressman had brought Republican defeat in the presidential election of 1892, and how he would admit it might be so, “but wait and see, Mark—wait and see.” Hanna remembered that McKinley said, “A good soldier must always be ready for duty,” and another time, “There are some things, Mark, I would not do and cannot do, even to become President of the United States.”
Together these two made one perfect politician. In the foreground was the zealous protagonist of his party’s causes, the speaker who could inspire faith in well-worn platitudes, the moralist who spurned commitments, the diplomat who avoided unpleasantness. Behind him moved the practical businessman, whose brain was unclouded by muzzy ideals; the clever organizer, who could push and publicize, make deals and raise money; the blunt and bad-tempered fighter. McKinley’s indirection of mind and method combined with his cautiousness and diffidence to unfit him for openly promoting his own advancement. His reticence was always his great flaw as a leader. With the growth of his importance, he had become increasingly formal and guarded, wary of committing himself on all points except the tariff. McKinley’s political skills were instinctive. He did not comprehend or cultivate the art of public relations. His excessive modesty was a curious defect in a man of such resolute ambition. McKinley could freely ask favors for others; he could work boldly for the party; but he shrank from seeming to put his own interests forward, and preferred neglect even to favorable personal notice in the newspapers.
On the candidate’s behalf, Mark Hanna pulled the powerful strings of money and organization and publicity. “He has advertised McKinley,” Theodore Roosevelt would exclaim, “as if he were a patent medicine!” McKinley was like a talented artist who needed an impresario, a press agent, and an angel. In Mark Hanna, he found all three.
McKinley, in retirement at his home town, Canton, Ohio, had not passed the spring of 1896 in untroubled contemplation of the progress of his preconvention canvass. His emergence as a formidable contender for the Republican nomination had started the yellow press snapping at his heels, with the New York Journal leading the pack. McKinley’s record was bare of hidden scandals. He had worked hard. He had not accumulated money. His public career had been as honest as his private life was upright. He had few enemies, and his Canton neighbors had nothing but good to tell of him. His bankruptcy while he was governor of Ohio was the only incident on which the Journal could fasten scurrilous assertion and innuendo. The Hearst correspondent, Alfred Henry Lewis, raked over the story, and produced tales of McKinley’s reckless extravagance and his bondage to the men who had aided him. Some of the mud splashed. McKinley’s financial failure became a favorite sneer, vigorously exploited for a time by the respectable Nation . Lewis caught public attention when he wrote, “Hanna and the others will shuffle him and deal him like a pack of cards,” but he went beyond the bounds of partisan credulity in his aspersions on McKinley’s backers as a syndicate “gambling for a White House.” The Journal did far better when it concentrated its venom on the alleged chief of the syndicate, the wicked millionaire, Mark Hanna. To strike at McKinley through his manager became the established policy of the Democratic opposition. Before the campaign ended, Hanna had been made the scapegoat for all the sins of money and corruption. The Journal did not scruple to brand him as a union-smasher, the warmest enemy of the workingman, who for thirty years had “torn at the flanks of labor like a wolf.”
Still more effective in influence than Lewis was the Journal ’s talented cartoonist, Homer Davenport. In the spring of 1896, he made an unknown Ohio businessman the most infamously caricatured figure in America. Hanna was depicted as a brutal, obese plutocrat, the symbol of sly malice and bloated greed, covered with moneybags and dollar signs. Behind this monster the little candidate cowered in his big Napoleonic hat. Hanna was the puppet-master who pulled McKinley’s strings; the ventriloquist who spoke through the dummy, McKinley; the organ-grinder for whom the monkey, McKinley, danced. Davenport, at this time, had never seen Hanna. It was considered a clever political stroke that the cartoonist had been taken to call on McKinley; he was unable to repeat the savage drawings after he met their original. Nevertheless, the representation of McKinley as pitiable and victimized was a poor service to his reputation. The graphic impression of his spineless subservience to Hanna would long outlast the lies of Alfred Henry Lewis.
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.
A break with the Far West was a foregone conclusion. Anticipation marred the drama of the scene that followed the adoption of the money plank. “Silver is, we think,” the Nation commented, “the first raw metal that has ever been wept over.” Senator Teller in pathetic periods took farewell of the party to which he had given his lifelong devotion, and led the sad procession of delegates from the convention hall. As the silver men filed out, a tall Nebraska reporter and excongressman came striding down over the desks from his place in the back of the press stand. William Jennings Bryan looked after the Republican bolters with a gleam in his eye and a faint, satisfied smile; but the loss of the mining states did not jar the enthusiasm of the convention’s proceedings, nor dim Republican confidence in the future. Glittering refulgently in the platform, gold seemed a word of magic power to purge the party of inflationists and make it with a new consistency the organization of the business interests.
On Thursday, June 18, when the nominations for the Presidency were made at St. Louis, the city of Canton was undecorated and noiseless. Bicyclists, pedaling along North Market Street, cast curious glances across a shaven, dewy lawn, brightened by two white urns spilling over with flowers, and by circular beds of blazing red geraniums. The candidate’s house was looped like a Christmas package with important coils of wire, which directly connected it by telegraph and long-distance telephone with the convention hall in St. Louis. Reporters had taken over the front porch, occupying the wicker armchairs and splint rockers, sprawling on the floor and steps, and perching on the railing. Privileged friends arrived, and passed inside. A group of nervously vivacious ladies clustered around McKinley’s wife and mother in the parlor. McKinley himself was seated in the library, near the telephone apparatus, in the company of his one-legged Civil War comrade, General Russell Hastings, and a few other men. The instruments of the Postal Telegraph and Western Union companies clicked competitively in the upstairs hall, and Mrs. McKinley’s young cousin, Sam Saxton, read off the bulletins that came over the telephone.
Now and then McKinley crossed to the parlor to speak a cheerful word to his wife or ask her twittering entourage, “Are you young ladies getting anxious about this affair?” To the veteran Cincinnati editor, Murat Halstead, his calm, grave face looked “marvelously like Daniel Webster,” as he sat in the revolving chair beside his desk, with pad and pencil in hand. The news arrived almost simultaneously over the three wires that Ohio had been reached in the roster of the states, and Ex-Governor Joseph B. Foraker was making his way to the platform. He was about to speak. His pronouncement of McKinley’s name had thrown the convention into an uproar. The telephone was silent for half an hour. Stepping over to pick up the receiver, McKinley was amazed to hear a distant confusion of cheers. Others followed his example, and shared his astonishment. The circuit in the convention hall telephone booth had been left open, and McKinley had actually had the extraordinary experience of hearing himself acclaimed six hundred miles away. The sound, Halstead said, was “like a storm at sea with wild, fitful shrieks of wind.”
It was hard on a speaker, McKinley remarked, to be held up that way—“like stopping a race horse in full career.” The St. Louis operator came back to the telephone. Foraker was trying to resume his speech. “You seem to have heard the name of my candidate before,” Sam Saxton read out. “Ah,” McKinley said, “that is like him. He knows what he is doing, and is all right.” Mark Hanna and the governor of Ohio were embracing, Sam reported, and another delegate was wildly fanning Hanna’s head. The tension in the parlor relaxed in smiles of amusement.
Suddenly, the bulletin came, “Alabama, 18 for McKinley.” The gentlemen in the library grabbed their tally sheets. McKinley sat quietly keeping score at his desk. The roster of the states rushed on. The figures mounted fast. Quick calculation soon showed that Ohio’s forty-six certain votes would settle the nomination on the first ballot. Before they were reported, one of the men threw down his pencil, and offered his congratulations. McKinley went to the parlor and kissed his wife and then his mother, as he told them that Ohio had given him the presidential nomination.
While he bent above them in a tender tableau that moved some ladies to tears, a clang reverberated from the city hall tower and hell broke loose in Canton. Gongs and bells, cannon and guns and firecrackers, tin horns and whistles, the music of the bands, and the citizens’ roars of triumph were blended in a single, deafening, discordant din. Flags were thrown to the breeze, bunting smothered the buildings. Carriages, horsemen, and bicyclists whirled up North Market Street, followed by a racing crowd on foot. Sam Saxton was calling for “Central,” but the announcements could not be heard in the din of victory. The crowd made a rush to the front door. McKinley’s companions fled. “You have my sympathy,” General Hastings dryly remarked, as he hobbled out the back way. Thousands of people flung themselves into the house, with shrieks of congratulations and “God bless you,” and the ladies of the community, carried away by excitement, danced in circles around the Major, as McKinley was generally known, from his brevet rank in the Civil War.
Long before the arrival of the band and the veterans, who had formed in the public square according to the program, McKinley was obliged to mount a chair on the front porch and respond to the calls of the multitude on the lawn and street. He made another speech when the parade arrived. He passed through the kitchen to address a deputation from Alliance, which stormed the back door. A special train (brought a monster delegation from Massillon. As twilight fell, four thousand arrived from Akron. Villagers poured in from Carrollton, Osnaburg, and Minerva, and at ten o’clock the proud citizens of Niles, McKinley’s birthplace, paid their respects. Between five o’clock and midnight more than fifty thousand people heard McKinley speak, and it was claimed that he shook hands with most of them.
When the Major at last retired to rest, the pandemonium in Canton was unabated. An arc light on McKinley’s lawn illuminated a scene of devastation. The grass was trampled. The iron fence was broken. Shrubbery, geranium beds, and rosebushes lay in ruins. Strewn across the wreckage, a dozen rifled purses bore witness that pickpockets, as well as honest citizens, had found cause for rejoicing in Canton’s rise to national importance.
McKinley had received 661½ votes in the final ballot, while Speaker Thomas Reed of Maine, his nearest competitor, had 84½. A motion to nominate by acclamation was quickly carried, and the delegates wound up their proceedings by nominating Garret A. Hobart of New Jersey for the Vice Presidency. He was a rich corporation lawyer and businessman, scarcely known to the country, but influential in the Republican party in his state; and he had been Mark Hanna’s choice for the nomination. Hanna had carried everything before him. He had managed a political canvass as though it were a business enterprise. His astounding success was saluted by the cheers of the convention, and by his selection as chairman of the national committee. Hanna was a new wonder in the political firmament—the boss of the Republican bosses.
When Hanna presently ran down from Cleveland to Canton, he had a glimpse of the turmoil with which McKinley was surrounded. The candidate was making speeches every day. He greeted parading workers from the protected industries of Ohio and adjacent states. He beamed on the big contingent from the new tinplate mill at his birthplace, with its banner, “From Niles to the White House.” To all and sundry, in speeches and friendly greetings, McKinley appeared as a tariff candidate, standing on a tariff platform. His references to “good money” and “full dollars” were as secondary and indefinite as though the admission of the gold standard had never been written into the Republican platform.
The declaration had produced an unfavorable reaction in many parts of the Middle West, and Hanna’s reports led him to conclude that he was going to have a fight on his hands in the Mississippi Valley. He intended to get his work of education on the money question started before his summer holiday; but he did not look forward to a difficult campaign. For a short time after the St. Louis convention, the Republican nomination seemed tantamount to election.
As the Democratic convention gathered in Chicago in July, it did not seem a formidable assemblage. The division on the money question had cut deep. As the party had disintegrated, it had been infiltrated with Populist sentiment. In many parts of the South and West, by a process of burrowing from within, the third party had taken over the Democratic organization, making common cause with its candidates. The inflationists were expected to wrest control of the convention from the conservative elements; but, though they were numerically dominant, they had no outstanding leaders. In the headlines of the city press and in the confabulations of political sages, no importance was attached to the youthful ex-congressman, recently engaged as a lecturer and newspaper writer, who was a member of a contesting delegation from Nebraska. William Jennings Bryan was scarcely known to the East. His fame lay in the small communities and scattered farms of the West and South. He had traveled about, preaching free silver; and he had also taken an active part in an organization of silver Democrats, who planned to capture the party’s national convention. Their political ideas were strongly tinctured with Populist tenets. Bryan, demagogue and evangelist, was their natural leader.
As soon as the Nebraska contestants were seated at Chicago, Bryan claimed and obtained a place on the resolutions committee, for which his delegation had favored him. The Democratic platform of 1896 sounded a new note in the pronouncements of the major parties of the United States. It was a declaration made on behalf of the masses of the people. The money plank stood first. It uncompromisingly demanded the free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold at the ratio of sixteen to one, without waiting for the consent of any other nation. The platform condemned governmental dealing with banking syndicates, to their profit. It denounced the protective tariff as a prolific breeder of trusts. It demanded stricter federal control of trusts and railroads, specifying the enlargement of the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission to protect the people from robbery and oppression. Its denunciation of arbitrary federal interference in local affairs was an attack on President Cleveland’s action in the Pullman strike. Its censure of “government by injunction” in labor disputes and the recommendation of an income tax defied the Supreme Court and impugned its judgment, with a plain hint that the problem might be solved by packing the Court in future.
After the platform was reported, Bryan arose to address the Democratic convention. He said nothing new, nothing that he had not said hundreds of times before. He had twice employed in public speeches the very rhetorical figure with which he concluded at Chicago: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The Republican press took what comfort it could from the fact that the Democrats were stampeded by “a chestnut.” Bryan’s impassioned periods had electrified the convention, and made him its presidential candidate.
The inflationists had found their leader. The dissension over the currency flamed into open conflict in the campaign of 1896. It was a sectional conflict, the debtor farmers of the West against the eastern magnates. It was a class conflict, the crusade of the proletariat against the entrenchments of privilege. The scattered and impotent forces of protest united to assail the existing economic system and the dominance of the “money power.” To Bryan’s standard flocked Populists and Silver Republicans, who soon held conventions to endorse the Democratic nominee. He enlisted farmers and workingmen, and all the radicals, chronic objectors, bankrupts, and visionaries to whom he was an inspired prophet. But his clarion voice reached a far wider audience. It rang across a country weary of hard times with the confident promise of plentiful money; and, when Bryan called on Americans to renew their allegiance to the rights of the common man, he awakened an ancient faith and a desire for social justice. Like the old slavery issue, the moral cause of Bryan’s campaign shattered the bonds of party loyalty.
Bryan was of service to his country in laying bare the abuses of concentrated wealth and its control of government. He touched the laggard conscience of America, and disturbed its complacent absorption in material success. But over his crusade, belittling its purpose and confusing its significance, floated the banner of fiat money. Bryan knew nothing of economics. He preached free silver as he might have preached Christ crucified, the hope of man’s salvation. The inflationists surpassed the high tariff advocates in provincial exclusiveness of outlook, for they proposed that a great commercial nation should be isolated and self-sufficient in its money system. They were heedless of the country’s financial structure, and indifferent to foreign trade. Their most reckless demand was that the technical question of the currency, understood only by financial experts, should be settled at the polls. With the national solvency at the mercy of the sovereign and uninformed people, the campaign of 1896 became a grandiose farce—democracy reduced to an absurdity.
Bryan’s conservative contemporaries were shocked by his folly. They were also appalled by the strength of his cause. In July, the masses seemed spellbound. Had the election been held in the first weeks after Bryan’s Chicago speech, the Democrats would have carried the country. It does not now appear that the United States was in imminent jeopardy, or that the wildest measures of inflation could have long availed to arrest its progress and stamp out its production. But, in 1896, Republicans and Gold Democrats believed that they faced a crisis more serious than that of the Civil War. This was the rise of bankruptcy, nihilism, anarchy. This was red revolution.
The Republican leaders rallied to meet the challenge and man the barricades. Hanna gave up his holiday and began a summer of hard work, directing campaign headquarters established in New York and Chicago. The old lines would hold in the East, but Republican morale sank dangerously low in midsummer. The firm ground of the tariff had been swept from under McKinley’s feet. The champion of protection appeared a feeble defender of the gold standard—a candidate as illogical, the Nation had observed, “as a Methodist preacher would be in an election for Pope of Rome.” Bryan began a tremendous campaign, taking the Middle West by storm.
The collapse of Republican confidence was evident in Ohio, but McKinley was tranquil. He benignly received his many visitors, and with his “buoyant spirit” sustained Hanna and the other campaign managers. McKinley’s attitude was like that of a parson who sees his congregation carried away by the excitement of a camp meeting. He deplored the hysteria, but felt sure that his flock would soon be back in the old pews. The common people, he told his friends, would put the matter right. It was only necessary to make them understand the principles. Hanna was preparing an educational program of unexampled extent and thoroughness.
While Bryan’s eloquence was the greatest single asset of the Democrats, he was not conducting a one-man campaign. In challenging “the interests,” the transformed party had not antagonized the mining magnates, and it was supplied with funds to spread the gospel of silver. Hanna’s plans for counterpropaganda would be costly beyond the resources on which he could ordinarily rely; and while his organization was forming he undertook to shake down the New York financiers, who had most at stake in the election. Wall Street was apathetic, cold to McKinley, and unacquainted with his manager. Hanna’s first efforts met with rebuff and discouragement. Bryan had succeeded, John Hay wrote Henry Adams in September, “in scaring the Gold bugs out of their five wits; if he had scared them a little, they would have come down handsome to Hanna. But he has scared them so blue that they think they had better keep what they have got left in their pockets against the evil day.” In the end, Hanna’s salesmanship prevailed. The financiers paid up, and lent Hanna their assistance in organizing a systematic collection. Banks were regularly assessed for subscriptions, and corporations and life insurance companies were induced to make liberal contributions. A campaign fund of more than three and a half million dollars—unprecedented at that time—was disbursed by the Republican National Committee. The greater part of the money came from New York and its vicinity, and it was largely expended in the doubtful states of the West.
With it Hanna undertook to counteract the emotional fascination of “free silver” and “cheap money” by instructing hundreds of thousands of plain people in the meaning of the terms. The committee reached out to work with rural newspapers and schoolhouse meetings. The country was invaded by an army of paid speakers, and deluged with tons of literature, printed in a dozen languages. More than a million copies were distributed of a single pamphlet, William Allen White’s mocking anti-Populist tract, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Simple economic lessons stressed the disadvantage of inflation to people of limited means—to those dependent on pensions, to holders of insurance policies and depositors in savings banks, to all who owned a bit of property, or were trying to save something for their old age or for their children. In persuasive presentation and efficient organization, the educational campaign was proof of Hanna’s genius for political management.
Hanna was not a boastful man. He fully acknowledged the contribution of “McKinley’s strong and noble personality” to the campaign. McKinley’s conception of his candidacy was so passive that he at first gave the impression of intending to make no campaign at all. He had decided to stay at home and address only the people who cared to visit him there. Before his nomination, he had made two speaking engagements, both nonpolitical in character, requiring his presence in July at the Cleveland Centennial celebration and at Mount Union College. Except for three days’ absence to keep these appointments and one weekend of rest in August, McKinley remained in Canton from the date of his nomination until the election, available at all hours to the public on every day but Sunday.
McKinley was no match for his younger opponent in dramatic presence and oratorical power, and he refused, as he told Dawes, to enter the competition. He may have been influenced by the example set by Benjamin Harrison in his second and losing campaign in 1892, but the idea of the “front porch campaign” seems to have been a natural outgrowth of the many groups that visited Canton. McKinley preferred the attitude of responding to the demands of his friends, of desiring election without going to seek it. He was so reluctant to stimulate interest in his campaign that he expressed himself as “averse to anything like an effort being made to bring crowds here.” The Republican National Committee was active, nevertheless, in drumming up delegations, and the railroads were glad to co-operate. Low excursion rates from all parts of the country made the trip to Canton, as the free-silver Cleveland Plain Dealer disgustedly remarked, “cheaper than staying at home.” For the eager Republican pilgrims, the journey combined the excitement of a political demonstration with the pleasure of an outing. Decked in campaign badges, caps, and neckties, they tumbled off the trains into the welcoming arms of Canton. Committees of greeters were on hand at the depot, with the well-mounted and nattily uniformed squads of the troop that Canton had organized for escort duty. The parades then formed around their bands and banners, and guided by the clattering horsemen, wound through a town ablaze with red, white, and blue, and noisy with the cheers of the citizens on the curbstones. At the foot of North Market Street the delegations passed beneath the ornate plaster structure of the McKinley arch, surmounted by the candidate’s portrait, and at last broke ranks to crowd onto the McKinley lawn.
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.
A clear and direct issue had been presented to the American people, McKinley wrote, and upon its right settlement largely rested the financial honor and prosperity of the country. The mere declaration for the free coinage of silver involved such grave peril to the nation’s business and credit that conservative men everywhere were breaking away from their old party associations and uniting with other patriotic citizens in protest. McKinley cautioned his countrymen against misleading phrases and false theories. Free silver would not mean that silver dollars would be freer to the many. It would mean the free use of the United States mints for the few who were owners of silver bullion. They would receive a dollar for fifty-three cents’ worth of bullion, and other people would be required to receive it as a full dollar in payment for their labor and products. The silver dollars already in use had been coined by the government—not for private account or gain—and the government had agreed to maintain their value at a parity with gold. This at times had been accomplished with peril to the public credit. The Sherman law had failed to realize the expectation that it would advance the bullion value of silver.
Under coinage at sixteen to one, the government would have neither the obligation nor the power to maintain the parity. The nation would be driven to a silver basis, with resultant reduction of property values, financial loss and damage to commerce, impairment of contractual obligations, further impoverishment of laborers and producers, and business panic of unparalleled severity. Until the ratio between the two metals was fixed by international agreement, it was “the plain duty of the United States to maintain the gold standard.”
McKinley’s extensive dissertation on the currency question was marked throughout by composure and moderation of tone. He said that money should be free from speculation and fluctuation, and ought never to be made the subject of partisan contention. He also observed that it was a cause for painful regret that an effort was being made by the Democratic party and its allies to divide the country into classes and create distinctions that did not exist and were repugnant to the American form of government. These appeals to passion and prejudice were in the highest degree reprehensible. They were opposed to the national instinct and interest, and should be resisted by every citizen. Having administered a dignified rebuke to the Bryanites, McKinley passed on to a long discussion of “another issue of supreme importance,” the tariff. He examined the defects of the unpopular Democratic tariff of 1894 and charged to its operation all the miseries of the depression. It was mere pretense, he said, to attribute the hard times to the gold standard. “Good money never made times hard.” It was not an increase in the volume of money that was needed, but an increase in the volume of business. A wise protection policy had lost none of its virtue and importance. The enactment of a new tariff law would be the “first duty” of the Republican party, if restored to power in the autumn.
The concluding paragraphs of the document pledged the promotion of a spirit of fraternal regard between the North and South. The fervor of McKinley’s expressions attracted attention to these passages, but the predominant interest of the letter lay in its treatment of the currency, and it was scarcely noticed that the writer had repeatedly implied that the issue was transient and subsidiary. In the hours he had snatched for composing the paper in his beleaguered house, McKinley had accomplished a considerable political feat. He had eminently satisfied the sound-money men, from goldbugs to bimetallists, while firmly retaining his status as a tariff candidate.
McKinley’s prestige steadily mounted after the publication of his letter of acceptance. The Republican National Committee distributed hundreds of thousands of copies. “Good money never made times hard” became a popular campaign slogan. It was October before Hanna’s organization proved its effectiveness, but Canton was engulfed weeks earlier by the tide that rolled toward McKinley.
The correspondent of the Cleveland Plain Dealer , accustomed to scoff at the cut-rate excursions, capitulated on September 19. The opening of the floodgates, he telegraphed his newspaper, had swept Canton off its feet. That day, McKinley gave a continuous performance, making nine addresses, shaking hands with thousands. The delegations formed a solid, slowly moving procession—western railroad men, laborers from the Carnegie furnaces at Pittsburgh, Hungarian-Americans from Cleveland, hardware men, commercial travelers, farmers’ associations. The Republican National Committee had organized the railroad contingent, which arrived in ten special trains from Chicago, but the Plain Dealer man admitted that the enthusiasm was genuine. No one who saw these crowds of sturdy citizens, he said, could fail to be impressed with the “blind faith” that the wage earners had been taught to place in McKinley. Every week that followed the formal opening of the Ohio campaign saw a greater invasion. On the last Saturday in September, special trains steamed in from morning until night, bringing over twenty thousand people, who represented thirty-odd cities and towns in half a dozen states. McKinley addressed eleven gatherings, some of which comprised two, three, and even six delegations. A week later, he made sixteen speeches in one day to crowds that were estimated at thirty thousand.
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.