The View from the Front Porch: William McKinley and the
Campaign of 1896
Presented on the occasion of the 12th Hayes Lecture on the Presidency, February 18, 2001, in the Hayes Museum auditorium.
By H. Wayne Morgan
In January 1896, Governor William McKinley of Ohio left office after two successful terms and returned home to Canton. His two-storey frame house there sat on a shady lot facing busy North Market Street. A spacious front porch ran the width of the house, where he and friends and family often relaxed and talked. McKinley was a nationally known Republican party leader, and this front porch would soon become the most famous in the country as he moved toward the White House.
There was logic to McKinley's prominence. He was born in Niles, Ohio in 1843, on the developing industrial frontier. After a brief education, he volunteered for army service in 1861, reflecting his family's strong anti-slavery and pro-Union views. He rose from private to brevet major, a title that became part of his persona. After the war he studied law and established a successful practice in Canton. Politics attracted him, and he had a strong fatalistic belief that he would rise in the political milieu. He won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1876, and quickly earned a national reputation for supporting the protective tariff, which he saw as the basis of American prosperity and national development. His views appealed to both labor and business, especially small business, in Ohio and the nation. He lost his seat in the bitter contest of 1890, when the opposition made every effort to defeat him as the symbol of tariff protection and the act of that year that bore his name. He served as governor of Ohio from 1892 to 1896, a position that gained him a national following, especially as the intense economic depression after 1893 made tariff protection attractive as a way of restoring prosperity.
McKinley's public record and beliefs appealed strongly to mainstream Republicans. But voters also identified with his personality. He was one of the self-made men the era admired, having risen to prominence through politics rather than business. He was calm and orderly but not dull; cautious but active; committed to his ideas but not flamboyant or unpredictable. His personality radiated competence, realism, and safety, which attracted voters in the turbulent 1890s.
As governor, McKinley successfully appealed to Ohio's turbulent electorate, which according to Kansas journalist William Allen White, required of its politicians the talents of the serpent, the shark and the cooing dove. As economic depression engulfed the land after 1893, McKinley emphasized both the economic merits of tariff protection and its role in harmonizing interests. It would restore prosperity, and continue national development.
He was a formidable national figure by the early nineties. Congressional service had made him familiar with almost every significant politician in the country. He had campaigned for many friends in all parts of the country. He was an accomplished and familiar speaker on the campaign trail, where he learned first-hand of the nation's diverse human and economic interests. The remarkable congressional campaign of 1894 illustrated his stature. In that year Republicans sensed the coming collapse of the second Cleveland administration under the weight of hard times and the Democratic party's internal stresses. McKinley responded then to almost every request from friends and other good Republicans to speak on their behalf. He repaid past favors, and acquired claims for future support in 1896. The statistics of the contest were striking, almost incredible. He traveled 12,000 miles by rail, and spoke to an estimated two million people in over four hundred speeches. He spoke twenty-three times in one day, beginning in Des Moines at breakfast-time, and ending in St. Paul at bedtime. He was not a spread-eagle orator, but spoke in a clear precise voice, and had a special talent for making economic statistics and ideas human. His message was simple. The Cleveland administration's insistence on tariff reform had intensified the depression. The Democrats could not govern. Only a Republican victory in 1894 and then in 1896 would restore good times with tariff protection. When the contest was over, one editor said: "If anyone says 'tariff' to you, shoot him on the spot." It was an understandable feeling, but the tariff and its chief apostle were at center stage. He had really conducted an intense, successful pre-presidential campaign. McKinley's amazing campaign made him the best known politician in the country.
McKinley was thus the logical candidate for the Republican presidential nomination as 1896 opened, but nothing in politics was ever certain. He assembled a talented staff in Canton who followed political events across the country, and dealt with likely supporters. The point was to win committed delegates at the state conventions that chose delegations to the national nominating convention. McKinley's chief agent was Mark Hanna, a wealthy Cleveland businessman who had adopted the Major's cause in the 1880s. His drive, organizational skill, money and belief in his friend matched McKinley's charm, persuasiveness, and appealing record. Hanna was always the loyal lieutenant, and nothing more, carrying out instructions and offering advice. The two men together were one superb politician.
By late spring 1896, McKinley's bandwagon was on its way to victory. He had defeated the party's local leaders and favorite sons one by one in a show of broadbased popular strength with the slogan, "The people against the bosses." His nomination on the first ballot on June 18 at the St. Louis convention was more of a coronation than a contest. The party platform endorsed the single gold standard and the tariff as means to restore prosperity. Only a small number of free-silver Republicans were alienated, but did not threaten party unity. McKinley and other leaders looked forward to a traditional low-key campaign. The Democrats could not endorse the unpopular Cleveland administration, or find a candidate strong enough to harmonize the party's fragmented interests. Surely they would self-destruct, or settle on a lackluster harmony figure whom McKinley would defeat easily.
Fate decreed otherwise. To almost everyone's surprise, the Democratic convention nominated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska in mid-July. Bryan's militant and dramatic championing of free silver overrode his lack of political visibility and experience. Just as McKinley offered tariff protection and "sound money" as panaceas to restore prosperity, Bryan offered free silver and the alleged increase of income it would produce for many interests as a way out of the depression. And he hoped to enfold every disaffected group in a diffuse demand for change. He also immediately broke with precedent to announce that he would tour the country in a special train. There would be no staid, conventional campaign, in which the candidates remained home, aloof from partisanship, while party machinery pressed the issues.
This turn of events shocked McKinley's advisors, and forced them to do some soul-searching. The Republicans seemed safe in New England and the industrial mid-Atlantic states. The Democrats would carry the South, and free silver would bring them most of the West. The upper Mid-West would be the battleground. How could the Republicans counter Bryan's dramatic gestures?
Hanna quickly advised McKinley to organize a whistle-stop campaign train. He had done enough such speaking in a long career to avoid making mistakes. The Major declined, and suggested some more thought about the problem. Hanna asked several friends to press the candidate to campaign personally. McKinley heard them out in Canton, but was blunt in refusing. "I might just as well put up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan." He added an unkind cut. "I have to think when I speak." He immediately grasped the larger problem in Bryan's break with precedent. He would play the underdog in a contest of the disaffected against the traditional. "I will not try to compete with Bryan," he told one group of anxious visitors. "I am going to stay here [in Canton] and do what campaigning there is to be done." He would not risk enhancing either Bryan's role and momentum, or losing his own message in sound and fury. "If I took a whole train, Bryan would take a sleeper," he reminded the group, "if I took a sleeper, Bryan would take a chair car; if I took a chair car, he would ride a freight train. I can't outdo him, and I am not going to try." Bryan's basic appeal was to the unusual, the untried. McKinley's was to the time-tested, familiar and rational. Facts and sobriety must triumph over showmanship.
But just how to accomplish this? Written statements, interviews with newsmen, and a few speeches at formal occasions would not likely counteract Bryan's challenge. McKinley began to think of an alternative that could be just as striking as Bryan's proposed train tour. Benjamin Harrison, for instance, had received some delegations of supporters at his home in Indianapolis during the campaign of 1888. And McKinley thought back to the local reactions to his own nomination in June. When the news arrived on the telegraph, Canton went wild. Factory whistles blew the rest of the day, and well-wishers converged on his lawn to offer congratulations. He was especially impressed to see several thousand people arrive on trains from nearby towns. All wished to congratulate him and to hear of his ideas for victory in November. By nightfall that day his lawn was a desert, the picket fence was gone for souvenirs, and the house seemed to be the next logical target for enthusiastic supporters. The seed of a front-porch campaign flowered from the first responses of his neighbors.
His staff now devised and oversaw a complex system that allowed delegations from anywhere in the United States to come to Canton and pledge their fealty to McKinley. He focused on the content of the speeches involved. The leader of every delegation had to send a draft of his proposed remarks before arriving. McKinley reviewed these brief statements to eliminate anything that might be divisive, or detract from his own speech. Once the remarks were approved and the delegation's schedule established, the group arrived in Canton, marched up North Market Street with appropriate banners and musical accompaniment. At the Major's house they took a place on what was left of the lawn. After seeing off the previous delegation, McKinley stepped through the front door onto the now famous front porch and listened to the spokesman's remarks as if he had not seen them before. One newsman reported that despite having heard almost anything a delegation leader might say, McKinley was attentive and courteous to everyone, often listening to a speaker as if the man were Santa Claus. McKinley then responded in a brief, pithy address that touched on the delegation's special interest, and on the contest in general. He then invited the group to shake his hand as they went through the house, out the back door, and back to the train station with a guide. Once home, they reported on the exciting trip, extolled McKinley's virtues, and went to work for the national and local tickets. Between late August and November, some 750,000 people had this experience. Its chief effect was to make the candidate seem human, interested and interesting, and competent. McKinley had found a way to be as real, dramatic and personal as Bryan.
Many groups answered the call. Sound money clubs, GAR veterans, and others with traditional party interests abounded. But there were also many special delegations. McKinley extolled the virtues of "wheelmen," or bicycle devotees and good roads enthusiasts, of pumpkin growers, women's auxiliaries, young people, glee clubs, sportsmen, mothers, the spectrum of loyal Republicans. All were welcome but some groups did seem odd. For instance, there were several delegations of men over six feet in height, including the "Six Footers Club of Pittsburgh," and the "Six Footers Protection and Sound Money Club of Wheeling, West Virginia." McKinley looked over them and insisted that tariff protection would help them as much as anyone else, though whether to cope with height or how to become shorter he did not say. Everyone involved obeyed exacting schedules. McKinley often appeared from dawn to evening, and had no privacy, but never complained. He took the gifts of food, flowers, live animals, crochet work, and all the rest in stride, and never misspoke or appeared ruffled.
McKinley was a cautious and deliberate personality. He was noted in Congress for informative, carefully argued speeches that depended for impact on logic and realism rather than on histrionics. He was a strong partisan, but without overt rancor. He was more likely to attack the oppositionÕs ideas than to be personal. He therefore prepared his front porch speeches with great care, directing them to the national press as well as to his visitors. He wanted to appeal to and convince as many people as possible and avoid division. He knew that the contest with Bryan would be intense, and prudently always treated the outcome as uncertain.
He gave over 300 front-porch speeches, which were models of clarity and brevity. He was often animated or humorous but the general tone was matter-of-fact and realistic. He did not talk up or down to audiences. Like any seasoned politician he focused on a few understandable issues rather than on a complex program that might confuse people. He was very effective at discussing a specific point, then enlarging it into a conclusion that affected both individuals and society. Thus additional silver money would probably mean lower purchasing power for workers, but also would affect the national credit and the growth of industrialism. He could be acerbic and aggressive in denouncing the Democratic program. But he embodied the calmness, stability and courtesy the electorate seemed to want.
McKinley liked people and dealt with them skilfully, whether as individuals, members of a group, or as an abstraction like the public. He was a seasoned campaigner and knew that the electorate was well informed, however partisan. He also knew that voters expected to see and hear candidates, and to be part of a campaign. It was the era of the torchlight parade, party picnic, and local meeting. The delegations to the front porch did not disappoint him. They expected a substantive but not abstract or pompous talk with him. Many times well meaning people would call out, "Give it to the Dems, Major!" or "That's right, Major, they're wrong!" or "Amen, and then some!" He often joked or laughed in response, but treated these interruptions as welcome dialogue with voters. They also showed that both he and the occasion were real and personal.
His first task was to decide what subjects to avoid. Alcohol use was foremost among these. McKinley was personally dry, but had opted for education and local laws to regulate the liquor traffic. Elements in the Republican party, especially in the Midwest, had spent a good deal of time and effort in the 1880s to regulate closely or to outlaw alcohol consumption and its most dramatic symbol, the saloon. By and large, this effort cost the party support where people did not want to regulate personal habits. McKinley generally believed that law could not ban liquor, or perhaps anything else, where the people did not agree. He recognized the issue's divisive power. Now in 1896 he simply refused to make it important in the campaign, and stood on the party's platform declaration: "We sympathize with all wise and legitimate efforts to lessen and prevent the evils of intemperance and to promote morality."
Religion was another divisive, indeed explosive, issue that he sought to keep out of the campaign. McKinley was a devout Christian, a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, but seldom discussed religion, and never sought to use or control it. Some people in 1896 thought otherwise, and drew on a long tradition of anti-Catholicism in judging politicians. In the spring of 1896, before his nomination, McKinley faced such a challenge from elements in the American Protective Association, a vocal anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant organization. They branded him pro-Catholic, if not a secret Catholic, who had favored that faith's partisans over others. This charge threatened to introduce religion into the campaign. McKinley's staff responded accurately to inquirers. "Governor McKinley, as perhaps you know, is a broadminded man," one wrote to a correspondent. "In his appointments [as governor of Ohio] he applied no religious tests, and it certainly is untrue that he catered to the Catholic Church or to any other church."
Should McKinley respond publicly? Would a denial advertise the issue? If he did not respond, would the APA seem to be correct? He sought advice and in the end followed his own inclinations. The subject was distasteful; he would not publicize it or risk injecting it into the campaign. Silence was the best response. But he spelled out his views privately in a letter to his cousin and political confidant William McKinley Osborne, who would transmit his views to supporters in private. "Think for a moment - the leaders of a secret order seeking through its organization to dictate a presidential nomination," he wrote. "It may hurt locally here and there but in the broad sense it cannot hurt. But whether it does or not, we cannot afford for any stake to narrow our platform, or consent to countenance any abridgement of the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom." As long as people were responsible citizens, they were part of the community, and private beliefs were private. "We have always practiced the Golden Rule," he said later. "The best policy is to 'live and let live'."
Of course, the core issues of the campaign were economic. The Republicans would win only if they could convince voters that their programs would help individuals, end hard times, and develop the new industrial economy. McKinley had spent twenty years explaining the virtues of the protective tariff. He accepted protection's basic postulate: favoring domestic producers over cheaper foreign imports would increase domestic wages and consumption. Cheap goods from abroad meant lower wages at home. And who could buy these fabled cheap goods if they did not have a job? The protective system also matched the country's resources. Each section produced different raw materials, and had different needs. The tariff could align these interests to make goods for an expanding "home market."
But he recognized the emerging world market. The United States could benefit from carefully devised reciprocal agreements with individual countries that would open their markets to some American goods, and permit importation of some of their goods that did not compete with American labor and business. The act of 1890 that bore his name contained a reciprocity system aimed chiefly at South America. McKinley proposed to expand it carefully once out of the depression. He also believed that the industrial system, especially in world affairs, had to rely on "sound money" of predictable value, which meant a gold standard
McKinley repeated and elaborated these themes to delegations of workers of all kinds. He spoke in terms they could understand, and regularly expanded this individual focus to a general view of what a Bryan victory would actually mean to the ordinary person. He saw Bryan as a good Democrat, believing in free trade or at the very least a low tariff that would not in fact protect American labor or business. Bryan drummed the themes that free coinage of silver would raise commodity prices and expand investment capital. McKinley had been a bimetallist in Congress. He had supported the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 that provided for coinage of a limited amount of silver dollars in an effort to increase the money supply and generate economic activity. He had also supported the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 which was designed to do the same thing through expanded paper money redeemable in gold or silver. But these measures had failed, and he now believed that tinkering with the money supply was not an answer to the country's problems. A single gold standard would put the country in step with the industrial world, stabilize prices, and sustain recovery. The world needed confidence, not experiments. Democratic victory would result in a total crash. If a President Bryan tried to enact his ideas into law, capital would flee the country as he sought the necessary legislation. Business confidence would evaporate. This would delay or prevent recovery. Further more, the Democratic party, from his viewpoint, had demonstrated its inability to govern after 1893. Their victory in 1896 would simply be a disaster.
McKinley understood the appeal of his specific ideas to the delegations of workers in all kinds of industries who milled around the front porch. Many were unemployed or on partial wages because of the depression. Tariff protection seemed likely to help their enterprises. But he also realized that people did not live by jobs alone. Bryan was campaigning dramatically on the specific merits of free silver, and the larger emotional appeal to experiment, and to change the economic system. McKinley steadily countered this emotional appeal with one that combined both the material and the ideal. His program would assist the individual producer. That individual would enhance the general system. He was an important part of the national economy; he was the national economy. McKinley also decried Bryan's appeals to class and sectional antagonisms. He never rhetorically set one group against another, but saw them as interdependent, and fluid. In short, he promised immediate economic help, and long-term benefits in upward social and economic mobility.
Most of the delegations McKinley addressed were interested in bread-and-butter economic issues. But many combined specific concerns with some special status as individuals and as a group. This included women. McKinley certainly did not discount women's political power because they did not vote. He understood their influence on public issues deriving from the home, church, and civic institutions. He knew how powerful they were in the temperance movement. Both parties regularly organized special "women's auxiliaries" to support candidates at every level of politics. They were especially visible in presidential campaigns, and marched in parades, hosted events, spoke their minds, and got out the vote. Women were involved in a broad national effort to attain equal treatment in the marketplace, to vote, and to affect national life on an equal basis with men.
McKinley agreed with the direction of this drive for equality and influence, which was spelled out in the party's national platform: "The Republican party is mindful of the rights and interests of women. Protection of American industries includes equal opportunities, equal pay for equal work, and protection to the home. We favor the admission of women to wider spheres of usefulness, and we welcome their cooperation in rescuing the country from Democratic and Populist mismanagement and misrule." The national party was not yet ready to endorse women's suffrage, but the code words in this plank marked a clear direction: "wider spheres of usefulness" included the public sphere. McKinley did not discuss the specific issue of suffrage, but doubtless agreed that the country would endorse it in due course. He was a supreme realist, and knew that public opinion moved in steps not strides. Equality would come as women's roles expanded and they gained visibility.
McKinley was cordial and relaxed in talking to the groups of women who came to Canton. He spoke in the masculine discourse of the times, emphasizing women's roles in educating and nurturing the young, and in ameliorating civic affairs. But he could be more specific and candid. "The opportunities for her are greater now than ever before," he told a delegation of several hundred women from Cleveland. "This is singularly true here [in the United States], where practically every avenue of endeavor is open to her. Her presence is felt in art, science, literature, song and government." He added emphatically that "our general business interests are more than ever each year directed by her." He refined this view of expanding women's roles as the campaign progressed. He was candid with a group of stenographers from Akron. "I am glad to know that the women of the country can do so many things," he told them, "and can do them equally well with the men, and I believe [that] when they perform like service to men, they ought to be paid as well. I have always believed it was right- I am sure it is just- and I hope the time will come when the public will everywhere recognize it as an act of equity and justice to all the women who work for their living throughout the United States."
African Americans also sent delegations to the front porch. McKinley enjoyed good relations with the black community. He often praised their patriotism and bravery during the war. He had supported equal accommodations and treatment for blacks in party affairs and at conventions. He hoped to foster equal civil rights through the ballot, while economic progress improved their general status. McKinley agreed with the GOP platform of 1896 that called for the "free and unrestricted ballot" for all citizens. He had supported the Federal Elections Bill of 1890, which would have introduced a federal presence into state elections where appropriate to safeguard the black vote. He had also favored the Blair education bill of the 1880s, named for Senator Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire, designed to apportion special federal funds to the states on the basis of illiteracy, which would have helped blacks. He knew prominent black leaders on the state and national levels, and they supported him in turn. That said, McKinley understood that Reconstruction was long since over, and that the likelihood of reviving a strong federal protective presence for blacks was unlikely. He could only believe that a growing and diverse economy, together with protected citizenship, would change the status of African Americans in their long drive toward equal treatment with whites.
He could entertain African American delegations in Canton with a record on race relations that was as good as almost any politician's, and better than most. Those who came to the front porch represented black veterans, church groups, workers, and special clubs. One group from Columbiana County, Ohio, reminded him that they had supported his candidacy for the congressional nomination in 1876, thus setting him on his way to success. The l'Ouverture Rifles of Cleveland, "the crack colored independent military organization in the state," named for Toussaint l'Ouverture, the black liberator of Haiti, came. Their spokesman praised McKinley's "wonderful career as a soldier and statesman," and the Major hoped that they could obtain equal treatment under the GOP. As with other groups, he enfolded them into his appeal for unity and mutual interdependence. He spoke with idealism rather than hyperbole. "It is our pride and glory that in free America we know neither race, color, class, caste or distinctions; the native born and naturalized, black and white, all have equal rights in our constitutional laws; they are equal in responsibility, opportunity and possibilities."
McKinley was equally realistic in dealing with the issues of immigration and ethnicity. He was quite aware of the divisive rhetoric and nativism about immigration, especially in hard times when labor feared cheap foreign competitors. The GOP platform favored enforcing existing immigration laws and excluding illiterates. McKinley offered a more measured view. In his formal letter accepting the nomination, issued in August, he opposed allowing the "debased and criminal classes of the Old World" to enter the country. By this he meant anarchists, the terrorists of the time, and any others who threatened the existing American system. That said, he praised the immigrants who had produced wealth and who were committed to the country's values. He welcomed immigrants like them, stating simply that "we want no immigrants who do not seek to become citizens." He hoped that in the end, economic growth and diversification would at least ameliorate and subdue the human problems of living together.
He also knew that many delegations, especially of workers, included new or recent immigrants. He went out of his way to praise both "the native born and the naturalized citizens, all equal in privilege and power before the law...." He found something special to say to each ethnic group that appeared, emphasizing their past contributions and future prospects under restored prosperity. He did not fear diversity as long as it sustained civic stability and economic productivity. In the end, he won the votes of large ethnic blocs in industrial areas.
McKinley's basic appeal was to restoring and enhancing the economic well-being of the country in general. He could have enfolded every delegation into a bland statement about the need for cohesion. He did not have to refer to minority groups. They might safely have disappeared into the category of "good Americans." He did not have to praise blacks, or even to invite them. He did not need to say that women deserved equal pay for equal work. He might have been safe in holding that they were part of the great work force that would prosper in his system. He could have avoided the risk of controversy by saying that immigrants and naturalized citizens were simply part of the broad working people he represented. Instead, he noticed them and emphasized their special roles. He was trying to broaden the party's appeal, and meant what he said.
The front porch campaign was just as exciting, novel and memorable as was Bryan's swing around the circle. McKinley's speeches, the nature of the delegations, and the day's doings in Canton were reported everywhere in the press. In the process, McKinley encountered a cross-section of the electorate from the thousands of people from thirty states who came to Canton. Behind his efforts, an efficient campaign distributed 200,000,000 pamphlets in every important language. There was also an army of speakers, and some special public celebrations, as on Flag Day. The GOP raised an unprecedented fund for this campaign, which went to advertise the candidate, his attractions and abilities, and the party's program to restore prosperity. Theodore Roosevelt complained that Mark Hanna had advertised McKinley as if he were a patent medicine. This was true enough, and a sign of the times, as politics adapted to the new industrial society. Bryan also had advertised himself as if he and his ideas were products in hundreds of speeches. His campaign received ample press coverage. One thing was certain. It was inconceivable that anyone anywhere could not discover what the candidates espoused in 1896.
The proof was in the ballot box on November 3. McKinley received 7,100,000 popular and 271 electoral votes, chiefly from the industrial and urban areas of the Northeast, upper Middle West, and mid-Atlantic. Bryan had 6,500,000 popular and 176 electoral votes, from the South and West, except for California and Oregon. Voter turnout was remarkable, somewhere in the eighty percentiles on average. McKinley was the first presidential candidate since Grant to win a majority of the popular vote.
These results concealed nothing mysterious. A majority of the electorate believed that McKinley's proved talents and ideas could restore prosperity and promote national unity. But they and later analysts realized that 1896 was not an ordinary presidential election. The fuss was not about mediums of exchange or uneven sectional development. The symbolism of the contest was much stronger than the issues alone. The country seemed to be at a crossroads. Behind it lay an economy and society, and above all a tradition of thought, based on mercantile and agricultural activities on a small scale. By the mid-nineties, it was in the midst of a complex phenomenon called industrialism, which both produced wealth and changed human relationships and cultures. McKinley's victory illustrated the power of this process. That of course, was a later interpretation. The people of 1896 only lived through the process. And William McKinley was the principal actor in the drama.