The Republican National Convention
St. Louis, Missouri, 16-18 June 1896
Due to the severe ongoing depression, which had started during the administration of Democrat Grover Cleveland, Republicans entered the 1896 campaign with high hopes of victory, ready to appeal for a return to "Republican prosperity."
Several famous contenders from former years--such as Senator John Sherman, sponsor of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Silver Purchase Act--were aging and declined to run. From the start, Ohio's William McKinley was the clear front-runner. A former Congressman and governor of his state, McKinley was famous for having steered a high-tariff bill through Congress in 1890. As Republicans gathered in St. Louis, McKinley's name was mentioned everywhere, though according to the custom of presidential hopefuls, he stayed home.
McKinley had no clear position on the currency question, and opposition to him came from two directions on this issue. Henry Teller of Colorado, a 66-year old railroad lawyer who had served in the U.S. Senate for twenty years, led the Western delegates who sought a "free silver" plank. They lost overwhelmingly. Most of these pro-silver Republicans, like Teller, were lifelong Republicans whose deep loyalties to the party of Union victory were sorely tested. After a dramatic speech, Teller and 22 other Western Republicans walked out of the Republican convention in protest.
On the other side, Thomas Platt and fellow Easterners feared that McKinley was not dedicated enough to the gold standard, which was popular in their states. Platt, the boss of New York state's Republican machine, discovered that McKinley's friends had worked skillfully in advance and secured a lock on the nomination. McKinley won easily in the first round of balloting.
Management of the Campaign
McKinley's friend Marcus Hanna of Ohio had engineered his nomination, and after the convention directed the party's national campaign. An industrialist in the coal and iron industries, Hanna seems to have had a local reputation for fair dealings with his workers. An excellent strategist, he was helped in his fundraising efforts by the Democrats' free silver and income tax planks, which terrified the nation's elite. Hanna collected enormous sums from leading industrialists and financiers, leading to widespread accusations that Republicans were in league with trusts. The total amount spent by Republican headquarters is unclear, but it was at least $4 million. McKinley's face appeared everywhere on posters, pamphlets, and signs. Theodore Roosevelt allegedly remarked later that "Hanna marketed McKinley like a patent medicine."
McKinley's Running Mate
Garrett A. Hobart, a New Jersey businessman and legislator hand-picked by McKinley's team, easily took the vice-presidential slot.
The Republican Platform
Republicans stressed maintainance of the gold standard and of high protective tariffs that would protect American jobs and wages. Both were old ideas that had been promulgated by a succession of Republican candidates and administrations before the depression of 1893. Despite a vague promise to seek international agreements for looser monetary policy, the platform was economically conservative. Urging support for Armenians and for Cubans who sought freedom from Spain, it pointed toward the issues of foreign relations that would take center stage by 1900. But it contained none of the reform goals, such as antitrust and worker protection, that Republicans' progressive president Theodore Roosevelt would advocate effectively after the turn of the century.
With few new ideas, Republicans concentrated on warning of the dangers posed by free silver. With this theme, they tapped a deep vein of anxiety among the middle classes, especially in the East, shared by many Gold Democrats. Fears of a radical alliance between farmers and industrial workers pervaded Republican rhetoric. Party spokesmen lumped together Silver Democrats, Populists, and Socialists, depicting them as a single threat to national order.
Republicans often accused these opponents of seeking tyrannical state power, while claiming in the next breath that they were anarchists--basing most of their assertions on the so-called "anarchy plank" in the Silver Democrats' platform. Charges of anarchy largely stemmed from the Chicago Pullman strike of 1894, and made ""Altgeldism"" a key issue of the campaign. Some cartoonists even linked Bryan to Charles Guiteau, an embittered would-be civil servant who had assassinated President James Garfield in 1881 (biography link here is from the White House history pages).
In many of the attacks, Republicans took note of the prominent role of women in the free silver camp, including stump speakers such as Populist Mary Lease. Republicans framed their attacks in terms of gender roles, for example when Andrew White dismissed Bryan supporters as "unbalanced men and hysterical women." Many Republicans claimed that free-silver men and women had the roles backwards: men were weak and effeminate, while women were aggressive and "unsexed."
In other appeals, the Republican party "waved the bloody shirt," reminding the nation of Republicans' accomplishment in winning the Civil War. Bryan's Western and Southern supporters were sometimes accused of plotting another secession movement, and more often of setting sectional interests ahead of the common good.
A Front-Porch Campaign
Unlike Bryan, who toured the U.S. by railroad, McKinley followed the precedent of other candidates and received visitors at his home in Canton, Ohio--though his goal was hardly to maintain privacy. In the Republicans' "front porch campaign," multitudes of party loyalists (and some Gold Democrats who rejected Bryan and the Chicago platform) journeyed to Canton, often using free or discounted passes from friendly railroads. Addressing the crowds from his porch, McKinley promised a return to good times if Republicans took office in Washington. After the speeches, Ida McKinley often served lemonade to the thirsty crowds. The McKinley's were not always repaid kindly: visitors ripped apart their picket fence, little by little, and took the pieces home as souvenirs.
Apparently McKinley's well-run campaign, added to middle-class fears in the face of labor unrest and Bryan's warnings, persuaded a majority to vote for the Republicans, who won an overwhelming victory. During the first years of McKinley's administration, in 1897 and 1898, the economy improved substantially. Though economic historians still debate whether Republican policies had much to do with this result, McKinley's friends argued that he had proved to be the "Advance Agent of Prosperity," as Hanna had promised. Certainly Silver Democrats' prophecies of doom had not proved accurate, and in 1900 McKinley handily won a second term.
My opposition to Governor McKinley proceeds almost entirely from my belief that his nomination would bring the Republican party into turmoil and trouble. . . . McKinley represents the most radical extreme view of protection. I foresee the greatest dangers to the Republican party as the result of extreme tariff legislation. Fully as important as the tariff bill--yes, more so--is the measure that must be devised to render our currency system intelligible, safe and elastic. If Major McKinley has any real convictions on the subject of the currency, they are not revealed in his votes or his speeches. He voted once for free and unlimited coinage of silver. . . . He has described himself as a bi-metallist; as in favor of free coinage of both metals. . . . This should remove McKinley from the list of Presidential possibilities.
--Thomas Platt, 6 May 1896, in his Autobiography
I see that the Republicans busted at St. Louis and "Teller and his men took their hats and left." Sacred Writ informs us that "a house divided cannot stand."
--People's Party Paper, 3 July 1896
Abundantly supplied with money, and able to command any number of millions he needed, Hanna really began his campaign to make McKinley President immediately after the defeat of Harrison in 1892. He had the South practically solid before some of us awakened. Then he picked off enough Western and Pacific Slope States, before the convention met, to render him and McKinley invincible in 1896. Hanna's success as chairman of the National Committee was due to the confidence business interests had in him and the unprecedented and unlimited campaign fund on which he could draw. . . . Hanna was a lovable character personally. His heart was as big as the house in which he lived. McKinley and he were as brothers. McKinley's tragic death quite broke Hanna's heart, and hastened his own demise.
--Thomas Platt, 1910, from his Autobiography
McKinley is the pliant tool of Mark Hanna, the most vicious, carnal, and unrelenting oppressor of labor and crusher of its organizations in existence. He is a man who would stop at nothing--not even murder if he could do it, as he has done, in an indirect way--to keep laboring men from assuming position to defend themselves in their right to living wages and decent treatment at the hands of corporations and monopolies.
--People's Party Paper, 16 October 1896
Canton, Sept. 12--Two trainloads of the Commercial Democratic McKinley Club of Chicago reached Canton this morning. They were met at the station by the Canton Commercial Travelers' escort and the Canton Troop. The party numbers between 900 and 1000. They were escorted to the hotels for breakfast, and prepared to call on McKinley at 11 o'clock. As they paraded past Mother Nancy Allison McKinley's home they cheered, the venerable woman bowing her acknowledgement.
A thousand people joined the Democratic Chicagoans at the McKinley home at 11 o'clock. The meeting waxed enthusiastic as Maj. McKinley appeared on the doorstep. Chief Marshal Frank Higbee introduced President Hoffstadt, who said, in part:
"Maj. McKinley: In behalf of the Commercial Democratic McKinley Club of Chicago, comprising only men who have always voted the Democratic ticket, and representing every branch of the mercantile interests of our city, I extend to you our most cordial greeting, and pledge to you our earnest support."
... Following closely upon the call of the Chicago commercial men came the first Pennsylvania delegation, the steel workers of the Carnegie Mills at Homestead. They came in a special train of thirty-three coaches.... The cheers were mingled with the music of a dozen bands, and the noise all over the business section of Canton was simply deafening.
--Los Angeles Times, 13 September 1896
© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College