The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015
The presidential election of 1896 has a deep influence on American culture. The classic book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, first published in 1900, may have been an allegory of the election. The election re-aligned political coalitions which gave Republicans the White House (minus the Woodrow Wilson exception) from 1896 until 1933. McKinley’s election also swept away much of the lingering bitterness of the Civil War.
The infamous Bush-43 insider and political consultant Karl Rove also thought the election of 1896 was a cultural milestone, and he wrote a non-fiction book about it. Now, why exactly should one read a book by a Bush-43 political operative with a slimy reputation? First, the slimy reputation could be a bit unfair. Karl Rove has never purported to be anything other than a play-for-keeps campaign consultant. In that position he was highly successful getting a very flawed candidate elected and then re-elected in the teeth of the increasingly apparent problems of the Iraq War. Karl Rove is therefore a man at the top of a highly competitive career field.
I must confess that even after the rationalizations in the above paragraph I still started to read the book with a great deal of skepticism. It was hard to simply just not believe since I’d personally listened to the Neocon swill from the Bush-43 Administration (which Rove was a part) on Fox News piped in to my F.O.B. by the Signal Corps only to watch Iraq fall apart with my own eyes way back in 2003.
As I continued to read, my skepticism started to shed. Rove writes in a clear, simple style. An 8th grader could read and understand the difficult economic and political ideas as Rove writes them.
Karl Rove also writes with a partisan, political operative’s pen. He starts this trend on page one when he details one of William McKinley’s incredible acts of courage during the Civil War. As a brigade staff officer, McKinley, was ordered to give a message to the 13th West Virginia Infantry to re-position to avoid the brigade being flanked. McKinley then rode across a field swept with cannon and rifle fire to deliver the order. McKinley’s commander, Colonel Rutherford B. Hays, was surprised when McKinley returned alive. In the next paragraph following that tale of heroism, Rove explains how McKinley’s action in the Shenandoah Campaign affected the Lincoln Administration’s re-election chances.
In other words, one is reading a historic work from a point of view unlike that of most histories. Rove continues with his political operative’s style of writing. It’s sell-candidate-McKinley all the way, even giving a nod to the all-important Evangelical Protestant vote of Rove’s own campaigning days. For example, Rove writes that McKinley, after learning the basic GOP platform from various politicians, “. . . refined their ideas and converted them into his own words, leavened by the values of his faith and upbringing.”
McKinley’s political career was helped by the heroism he showed during the Civil War. In a war were millions served and much heroism occurred on both sides, McKinley stood out as an exceptional hero. He did three extremely dangerous, near-suicidal actions, one at the battle of Antietam — the single bloodiest day in American history. Later, after he’d been a successful politician McKinley’s friends attempted to get a Medal of Honor. McKinley called them off, insisting he’d only done his duty. I can’t help but contrast this with the actions of the Japanese man with American citizenship Senator Daniel Inouye (D – Hawaii), who had a combat decoration for actions in Italy during WW2 upgraded to the MOH by President Clinton after Inouye had been in the Senate for many years.
William married the former Ida Saxton of Canton, Ohio. Ida was attractive and had a wealthy father. She bore two children, but when her mother and those two daughters died between 1873 and 1875, Ida broke down. Although Ida lived in a time when it was common for childhood illnesses to sadly carry off a number of children, she still couldn’t recover from the deaths. She never had more children and became an invalid for the remainder of her life. The cliché, often mouthed by feminists, that behind every great man is a great woman is certainly not true in President McKinley’s case. Ida joins a group of First Ladies who were mentally unstable (Mary Todd Lincoln) or sour in personality (Bess Truman) and who often provided little effective help to their husbands. Ida was doted on by McKinley throughout her life, even to the point that waiting upon the First Lady meant important Administration business was delayed.
McKinley was not a writer, intellectual, adventurer, “what you see is what you get” sort of fellow like his successor Theodore Roosevelt. He was a very middle class Midwesterner who focused on practical issues of immediate concern. Also, those who were McKinley’s intimates said the man wore many masks. McKinley was much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt or President Obama. Nobody really knew what he thought.
The central, consistent issue of McKinley’s day was economic policy. The economic problems were two-forked. The first was paying the debts from the Civil War as well as getting the paper-backed currency called “greenbacks” used to fund the war out of the economy. One way to pay the debt was through tariffs. Tariffs also protected domestic manufacturing from foreign imports, especially in Ohio and its surrounding Northern States. However, tariffs made goods more expensive with no perceived gain for Americans on the Great Plains and in the South.
The second economic issue was managing the massive growth of the American economy. After the Civil War, the ups and downs of the business cycle were extreme. Karl Rove really brings to life the causes and consequences of the Panic of 1873. In that year, the economy unraveled when a broker committed suicide after he realized a bankrupt firm was about to take down several other companies. In a time where food was often only available seasonally and transportation networks were still developing, the crash led to pioneers in Nebraska and other places not having food at all. When the Federal Government started to withdraw greenbacks from the economy in 1875 and go to the Gold Standard, many politically concerned people felt that the Panic of ’73 was artificially extended by the gold straightjacket. A political issue over currency was born and it was to influence elections for decades.
At the same time that McKinley was pursuing his rise to power, silver mines were being developed across the west, especially in Nevada. Many economic thinkers felt that coining silver would increase the money supply, making debt easier to pay and easing the shocks from the business cycle. Other thinkers argued for sound money. That is to say, the value of the currency would be stable and backed with gold. They argued that stable currency was the key to prosperity. McKinley studied the issue throughout his career, but was a “squish” on the matter until the campaign for President in 1896.
McKinley worked his political magic by having a base of Northern Industrial states and finding groups on the margins of his Democratic opposition who would ally with him on various issues. During one tariff fight against the Cleveland administration, McKinley appealed to rural, Northern wool producing districts to kill a lowered tariff bill. McKinley was knocked out of congress twice in his career. In 1882, McKinley barely won one election so the Democratic majority in Congress contested the election and refused to seat him. In 1890, McKinley was gerrymandered out of a congressional district by when Democrats took over the state. However, he was a famous politician by then and he was elected governor of Ohio in 1891.
Karl Rove doesn’t mention this, but Ohio is an important state in American politics because different region of America’s traditional folkways from colonial times meet up there. Virginians settled in the southwest of the state after the American Revolution. Connecticut got a specific reserve for its own veterans of that war in the northeast of the state. Much of the southeast was settled by Scots-Irish arriving from the nearby mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The center and east of the state was pioneered by those with Quaker roots — along with their Pennsylvania Dutch and German allies.
As McKinley’s career played out, his prestige within the National Republican Party grew during the presidential conventions. By 1890, McKinley knew the presidency was within his grasp. He had struck up both a genuine and political friendship with his fellow Union Army Veteran and Ohioan Mark Hanna. Together they decided that to win the GOP nomination they needed to outmaneuver the Republican party bosses. This group was called “The Combine.” If he won with the support of the party bosses, McKinley would be “mortgaged” to them. McKinley didn’t want to owe the bosses any favors. Hanna realized that while the Republican Party didn’t win elections in the South, they could win Republican Delegates to the GOP Convention by cultivating the Southern black Republican vote and if McKinley wooed them — he’d win without “The Combine.”
It is important to mention here that the black vote, even under suppression of the (then starting) “Jim Crow” Era, has a warping effect on elections. After the Civil War and the end of the 3/5ths Clause the white Democrats in the South increased power as they gained Electoral College Votes while shutting out the black vote. Ironically, in 1896, black voting within the Republican Party greatly increased black power because blacks could vote in the Republican Primaries, and there were no Southern whites to counter them. Mark Hanna organized this black force for McKinley. This situation continues today with some differences. Blacks vote for the Democratic Party at this time, and within the party their vote is outsized especially as Super Tuesday has most Southern states voting at the same time. From an Alt-Right point of view, one must question if this alien people’s continued influence upon the destiny of whites is moral and justified.
Mark Hanna’s black voters in the South were unleashed against “The Combine.” In Texas, blacks who supported McKinley violently attacked supporters of “The Combine” 1895.
McKinley also wished to gain Catholic supporters of the Republican Party. In McKinley’s time religious wars of Europe between Catholics and Protestants were still part of the folk memory of American culture. As a result, a large section of the GOP’s core supporters were highly uncomfortable with the Roman Catholic Church. The American Protective Association (APA) was formed to combat the Catholics, and this group was powerful in the Midwest and exerted influence on the Republicans. McKinley realized that he needed to win Catholics to win the Presidency, so he carefully snubbed the American Protective Association. He had a Jew pray the invocation at the GOP Convention to show to voters that McKinley wasn’t a Catholic, but wouldn’t follow the orders of the APA. The American Protective Association endorsement would have been implied if a Protestant had said the invocation. Needless to say, McKinley was nominated as Republican presidential candidate and got the endorsement of prominent Catholics.
Meanwhile William Jennings Bryan, a former congressman from Nebraska, was about to launch his spectacular career as the greatest US presidential candidate that never won the presidency. In the 1896 campaign season, the Democratic Party was going through a civil war. The incumbent, Grover Cleveland was a gold standard Democrat while the United States suffered through a terrible depression (the Panic of 1893). Many Democrats wished to goose the economy by putting the US on the silver standard, and they were frustrated with President Cleveland’s stubborn ways. An enormous metapolitical structure developed around the silver standard. One such artistic work was Coin’s Financial School. This was a graphic novel which explained the advantages of free coinage of silver printed by William Harvey, a lawyer, prospector, publisher, and silver lobbyist. The comic was “read by almost everyone.”
At the Democratic Convention in July 9, 1896 in Chicago Bryan, delivered his “Cross of Gold” Speech which eloquently put the emotions of the struggling people from the western part of the American Midwest into clear words. The speech is still stirring even when read today, and is made more biting after the long economic grind following “The Panic of 2008.” When he finished the speech, Democrats were silent for a second, and then they exploded with cheers. Bryan was nominated.
The elections were carried out using considerably different strategies. McKinley had the support of the railroads and they offered cheap train tickets to visit McKinley on his own front porch in Canton, Ohio. McKinley was visited by more than 750,000 supporters. McKinley’s campaign carefully crafted an experience for the visitors. Prohibitionists were given booze-free lunches, and “wets” were discretely offered beer. There were brass bands in McKinley’s lawn, and visitors took pieces of wood from the porch as trophies. Because Bryan took up the silver issue so passionately, McKinley took up supporting the gold standard. McKinley used the many arguments for the gold standard to counter Bryan.
On the other hand, William Jennings Bryan traveled across the nation delivering speeches to vast audiences. He called out and heckled McKinley supporters (identified by wearing gold ribbons) in his audiences, and referred to New York City as “enemy territory.” At the end of the campaign, Bryan had lost 15 pounds despite big meals and no healthy physical exercise.
We all know that McKinley won, and Bryan would never win despite running a second time in 1900 and again in 1908. Karl Rove gives an excellent summation of why McKinley won in his last chapter. Essentially, Bryan ran a campaign of subtraction while McKinley ran a campaign of adding various groups to his coalition. McKinley’s skill in navigating Ohio’s stormy political waters proved overwhelming to Bryan’s experience in Nebraska.
Both candidates spoke to thousands, Rove states that Bryan drew spectators while McKinley drew supporters. Rove mentions that McKinley was content to not be the smartest man in the room (referencing an Obama gaffe) and thereby find advisors smarter than he. McKinley also bore no grudges, especially with his slippery Ohio rival Joseph B. Foraker. Rove writes that the personal is not political, a reference to much of political explosions today.
McKinley was also able to appear to be everything to everybody. McKinley also was able to draw incredibly talented people to his orbit, including Charles G. Dawes and Theodore Roosevelt. Notable here is that Roosevelt and McKinley weren’t really friendly, yet McKinley was able to use this difficult person throughout his presidency. Perhaps though, the contest was really decided by factors outside the candidates’ respective organizations. In the fall of 1896, the United States enjoyed a good harvest while Russia and Australia fared poorly. Farm prices were up and gold flowed into the coffers of Bryan’s rural farm supporters. The Panic of 1893 was over and McKinley’s arguments for gold appeared correct. McKinley went on to win and then be re-elected in 1900.
Rove’s Book from an Alt-Right Point of View
The key thing about the Alt-Right is that the movement has broken the chains that bind the minds of people such as Karl Rove. McKinley is a good example of a president that the Neocon/Cuckservative Wing can look to. McKinley took few risks in 1896 and sent his campaign consultants forward to promise various groups what they wanted. Ultimately, the central issue of the 1896 campaign was a backwards-looking. The gold standard’s promoters had a powerful body of literature to counter the silver narrative and sound money was supported across the establishment. McKinley recognized this and used his considerable coalition-building skills to carry the day. McKinley was a bit like Ronald Reagan, who implemented ideas of the anti-Communist Right in the late 1940s after they were increasingly proved to be correct as the Cold War dragged on. Ronald Reagan in the 1980s pushed the gas pedal on a philosophical engine created by thinkers who were very out of step with fashion four decades earlier. Essentially, McKinley had no new ideas, and like Reagan, he came along at a time with the old ideas still worked, and he could just push the metaphorical gas pedal to achieve success.
Bryan’s campaign and the Democratic Party turned out to be far more forward looking. The Democratic Party’s platform in addition to free silver was, “a national income tax, end of lifetime tenure for judges, a tariff for revenue only, expanded antitrust regulation, stricter railroad regulation, restrictions on immigration, and arbitration of labor disputes.” Nearly all of William Jennings Bryan’s issues were eventually adopted, and economists throughout the 20th century have verified that yes indeed, the gold standard was an economic straight-jacket.
McKinley, both as a rising political superstar and president did not directly address the critical issue: immigration. Strangely, while McKinley argued that high tariffs were good for the workingman’s wages he never seemed to realize that immigration restriction would also raise wages. In retrospect, much of the immigration in the 1890s was not entirely bad. Norwegians, for example, caused no trouble, but other groups arriving at that time caused great many problems for decades, even unto today. Many of the ancestors of neoconservative Jews that did so much damage during the Bush-43 years, such as Paul Wolfowitz, would have been kept in Europe if McKinley had been more far sighted. It is easy to say that compared to the lingering negatives of some Great Wave immigrant groups arriving in the 1890s the free coinage of silver issue is completely irrelevant.
Karl Rove calls the American Protective Society “bigots” and gives little thought of the motivations of this group. In retrospect, the Catholic Church has not been the damaging institution that the anti-Catholic groups of the 19th century feared. Cold political operators such as Karl Rove or Hillary Clinton can point to past American Nativists such as the APA and the Know Nothings and insist that ‘it’s all been said before and there were no problems, blah, blah, blah . . .” Especially when concerned voters speak about Islamic immigration. However, McKinley and his differences with the APA does need some remarks from an Alt-Right point of view.
The fact that Catholics on the whole proved not to be a danger was due to lucky circumstances. In part, the United States created its own luck in that it was able to remove government from the control of religious leaders way back with the Founding Fathers. Therefore, any dispute between monks remain in cloistered theology departments. Second, American Protestantism, no matter how radical, is really a re-interpretation of much Roman Catholic doctrine. To understand John Calvin and Martin Luther one needs to understand basic Catholic teachings first. Go back far enough, and every WASP has a Catholic Ancestor. Additionally, many American Protestants were converting to Catholicism even in the 19th century. Orestes Brownson (1803–1876), a famous New England Transcendentalist, was one such person. Catholicism turned out to be not very far removed from the traditions of many Americans.
Additionally, the Catholic Church was becoming less of a governing body in the 19th century. During Europe’s religious wars, the Pope could muster vast armies. As late as 1848, the Vatican could put down revolts with gunfire, but by the 1890s, the Vatican was surrounded by an anti-Clerical united kingdom of Italy. Additionally, any Catholic layman or minister that finds a difference with the Pope might well be considered “Protestant.” In a society such as the US, it isn’t difficult for a Catholic to find his way to the highly entertaining Protestant Mega-Church with the good youth program. American Catholics out of step with Vatican II, or uncomfortable with the current Social Gospel Pope run very close to the logic of Martin Luther.
However, luck doesn’t ratify a flawed government policy. McKinley should have been minding the immigration situation. The APA did have a point in some areas. Catholic societies since the French Revolution have a fierce anti-clericalism whose spin-off ideologies can get pretty violent. The Anarchist movement was an imported problem which was entirely fueled by anti-clerical immigrants from Catholic nations in Europe, and the movement was led by Jews. One of those anarchists, Leon Czolgosz, took McKinley’s very own life.
McKinley also expanded into the Pacific with little critical thought as to the long term consequences. While Americans can take a sort of pride in having a semi-Empire in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Guam, etc. McKinley’s policies directly caused five separate wars, the Philippine Insurrection (1899–1902), Moro Insurrections in Mindanao (1899–present), the Pacific War with the Japanese (1941–1945), Korea (1950–-1953, with ongoing issues), and Vietnam (1955–1975). Additionally, several potential conflicts remain in the region. America’s involvement in Korea is a blank check for Asian War, and there are all sorts of issues between Japan, the Philippines, and China which the US can get sucked into. Additionally, justifying American involvement in Asia requires policies which enrich Asia. As an unintended tribute to William Jennings Bryan, the Far Eastern nations of China, Japan, and South Korea use a soft money policy to be industrial powerhouses. The manufacturing in the Northern States that McKinley so carefully protected has now gone over to the Orient. This transfer was facilitated by Republican politicians that Karl Rove supported with the full extent of his vast political talent.
It is striking that McKinley could only think to use tariffs to pay the debts of the Civil War and keep the government running. After the Progressive Movement, President Wilson and his supporters changed the constitution to allow for an income tax. Whatever one thinks of such a tax, it is important to recognize that McKinley’s political rivals had considerably more radical and flexible ways of resolving governmental revenue needs.
While McKinley was not “mortgaged” to the Party Bosses, it seems that he became “mortgaged” to blacks. There is a distinct increase in politically motivated black violence after the 1896 election. In 1898 black troops “went on a rampage” in Tampa waiting to be shipped to Cuba, and in 1906 black troops shot up Brownsville, Texas. Karl Rove doesn’t say why “The Combine” was bad, and he has no critical thoughts on the costs of black support. He simply dismisses the white advocates of the 19th century as “bigots.” In more recent times, when President Obama used the death of a petty thug to rally support in 2012 election season, we can see he was following McKinley’s precedent.
These issues are more important than Free Silver at a 16:1 ratio.
2. Page 36
3. Page 109 details this situation in Rove’s own words.
4. Pages 169 to 171 shows the exact specifics of the affray.
5. Page 143
7. For a good look at the American anti-Communist Right, I suggest The Iron Curtain Over America by John Beaty. https://archive.org/details/TheIronCurtainOverAmerica
8. Page 267