Modern political campaign sprung from election of '96

March 05, 1996|By Nathan Miller

BIG BUSINESS and industry were donating huge sums to hand-picked candidates. The voters were assailed by a never-ending drumfire of propaganda. Candidates were being packaged and marketed like new products.

Part of the preliminaries of the current presidential campaign? Hardly. These were all part of the presidential campaign of 1896, a full century ago, exactly a century agoin which William McKinley, the Republican, soundly defeated William Jennings Bryan in the election that introduced modern campaign techniques to American politics.

It was the most expensive campaign in American history to that time, and remained so for another quarter-century.

The election took place in the wake of the worst economic depression since the Civil War. Factories and business had closed, railroads went bankrupt, farm prices and industrial wages plummeted.

But the only step to deal with the crisis taken by the conservative Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, was to order federal troops to break strikes by workers protesting firings and wage cuts.

Critics of this policy of non-intervention in the face of economic and social chaos called for inflationary measures to revive the economy, among them the use of silver to back the currency.

The amount of money in circulation was limited by law to the amount of gold held in government reserves, and this was seen by free silver supporters as the reason for the depression.

Silver as remedy

They believed a healthy economy would ensue if the government issued currency backed by silver, as well as gold, because it would increase the amount of money in circulation, driving down the value of the dollar and making it easier for debtors to pay off mortgages and other debts.

On the other hand, sound money advocates rejected "free silver" as dangerous radicalism that would lead to ruinous inflation.

Today, it is impossible to re-create the heated passions stirred by the struggle over the coinage of silver. Gold and silver were transformed into symbols of the struggle for control of the government between the agrarian West and South and the hated eastern financial interests.

The gold bugs found their candidate for president in 1896 in William McKinley, a one-time Ohio congressman and governor. An unimaginative party wheelhorse who reminded some observers of a statue in search of a pedestal, McKinley had the unstinting support of Mark A. Hanna, a Cleveland businessman turned political manipulator.

Hanna craved power and sought it in politics. Not by running for office, but through the efficient management of others, and he used his good friend McKinley to obtain it. He saw a natural alliance between big business and the Republican Party and in time became the closest thing to a national political boss the country has ever seen.

Democrats gathered in Chicago. They repudiated the conservative wing of the party, called for the coinage of silver on a ratio of 16-to-1 to gold, and in Bryan, the 36-year-old Boy Orator of the Platte, found their Moses.

Black eyes flashing, he strode to the rostrum to denounce the eastern bankers with a revivalist fervor that soon had the 20,000 spectators beside themselves with excitement. As he neared his peroration, Bryan let the tumult diminish and then, throwing out his arms as if on a cross, roared:

"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 campaign of 1896 roused the country to extremes of emotion and hatred. It was Silver against Gold; the People against the Interests; the common man against the banker and speculator.

Bryan seemed to alarmed Republican and Democratic conservatives to be the harbinger of bloody revolution. They feared that his election would men the end of the capitalist system.

Breaking with the tradition that presidential candidates did not openly campaign, Bryan swept across the country from New England to California like a prairie tornado. Sometimes he delivered as many as 36 speeches a day, making a near-religious appeal to laborers and farmers, liberals and progressives. Some 5 million Americans may have heard him.

To combat Bryan's energy and dramatic appeal, Hanna created the nation's first sophisticated campaign organization. The land was papered with copies of McKinley's speeches, the mails were deluged with McKinley posters, tracts, badges and buttons.

McKinley was packaged and merchandised as it he were a patent medicine, according to Theodore Roosevelt, a supporter.

But money spoke louder than oratory in Hanna's opinion, and the Republicans amassed a campaign chest of over $7 million. Insurance companies and banks were assessed one-quarter of 1 percent of their assets.

Financier J.P. Morgan and Standard Oil each contributed $250,000. In contrast, the Democrats were only able to gather a total of about $500,000.

Front-porch campaign

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