The Realignment of 1896
My advice to readers of this very fascinating history is to ignore the name of its author. Karl Rove is extraordinary as he is controversial as a political strategist. Nevertheless if a reader checks her political baggage at the door, she will find a very well written biography of William McKinley that focuses on his election to the presidency in 1896.
McKinley a Civil War hero and the last of the Civil War presidents was a highly organized politician and a strategic thinker. Although McKinley is remembered today as an establishment politician he, in fact, ran against the bosses of his day, successfully represented striking workers in Ohio and he opened up the Republican Party to masses of immigrant workers that were flooding into America’s factories. He practiced the politics of inclusion by having a Rabbi open the 1896 Republican Convention and was very comfortable working with the black politicians who represented the core of the Republican Party in the South. He understood the fundamental truth that political parties grow by addition, not subtraction. Unfortunately all too many of today’s Republicans have failed to heed that lesson.
In Congress McKinley was known as the “Napoleon of Protection”. Instead of arguing for Capital, he argued that protection set a floor underneath American wages therefore his high tariff policies protected workers as well as factory owners. In 1896 he wanted to run on that issue. Instead the locomotive of history made the “money question” the issue that year. It was the question of the gold standard versus free silver and its champion was William Jennings Bryan.
Rove is especially good at covering the Democratic Convention of that year and he shows step-by-step how Bryan won the nomination. You can almost hear the crowds cheering his “Cross of Gold” speech. The money question split both parties, but in the end it hurt Bryan more than McKinley as the “Gold Democrats” ended up with more heft than the “Silver Republicans”. Further Rove explains how McKinley successfully convinced working class voters that it was against their interests to be paid in a debased silver currency. Simply put, what was good for indebted farmers was not necessarily good for the urban working class.
Along the way Rove introduces us to the master insider Mark Hanna who runs and finances McKinley’s campaign, the 30 year old Charles Dawes who runs McKinley’s Midwestern operation who later becomes a Vice President and authors the Nobel Peace Prize winning reparations plan in 1925 and Theodore Roosevelt who greatly aids McKinley’s efforts in New York.
My quibbles with the book is that Rove spends too much time on inside baseball minutia and leaves out important details as to how McKinley financed his campaign where on a conservative basis he outspent Bryan 10-1. He also credits the rise in crop prices in the fall of 1896, the October surprise of that year, which undercut Bryan’s free silver campaign to bad crops in Australia and India. A closer look would have indicated the gold shortage of the 1890s that was deflating the economy was coming to end with the introduction of the cyanide process that was ramping up South African gold production and the discovery of gold in the Yukon in August of that year which set off the Klondike Gold Rush. With gold no longer scarce, the deflation ended and the need to inflate the currency with the introduction of silver disappeared. Thus what McKinley accomplished laid the basis for Republican dominance over the next 36 years.
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