I have just read The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters by Karl Rove and I was struck by the continuing relevance of that election.
For me, when I thought about it at all, the election of 1896 has always been associated with the William Jennings Bryan “cross of gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention, but I had never delved deep enough into the details or the depth of issues to understand what this election really meant and how important it has been and still is.
Rove has done a masterful job of combining the blow by blow of the election year, including meticulous details of strategy and tactics which are his stock in trade, with the underlying currents of the transforming American political body and its driving issues. And the electoral tactics of this election were groundbreaking, for McKinley steadfastly refused to actively travel to campaign, to “take to the stump” as he said. His was the “front porch” campaign conducted literally from his front porch in Canton, Ohio, with hundreds of thousands of voters from across the country trekking there to meet with him and hear him speak on the issues. Another critical element of his victory also broke new ground, at least for a Republican. McKinley ran as an “outsider”, breaking the stronghold of the “bosses” and their election “machine” politics in the urban areas and going directly to the people with his message, both for the party nomination and the general election, and Rove calls it the first modern primary campaign.
As for the critical issues in this election, there were primarily only two, but they were big ones: the protection of U. S. business interests with the tariff and the currency issue—free silver coinage and convertibility vs. a gold-backed currency. On the first issue, McKinley and the Republican Party had been consistently supportive of tariffs to protect American manufacturing interests and employment, a major difference with the current Republican position, but one that produced national political dominance with few exceptions from the end of the Civil War until 1932. On the currency issue, McKinley initially vacillated, but very late in the campaign moved the issue to the forefront and came down solidly against free silver coinage and for “sound money” backed by gold. In the end it was, of course, a winning issue for him as he soundly defeated Bryan and his demagoguery on it.
Interestingly, Milton Friedman writes extensively about the currency issues of the late 19th century in his 1992 book, Money Mischief, including the debates of the 1896 election, and I referred to it during my reading of Rove’s discussion. Friedman actually (and surprisingly to me) writes that he would have favored the free coinage of silver at the time of its elimination in 1873, believing that it would have avoided the damaging deflation of the recession of the early 1890s, but under conditions in 1896 believes that McKinley’s position on a gold-backed dollar was correct.
Fast forward to today and we find that these two key issues are still very much with us. On the tariff, we have the leading Republican candidate for President who would return his party to the support of protectionist trade policy for the first time since the early 20th century, which would abdicate our world trade leadership. On the currency issue, we have a Federal Reserve that has so inflated its balance sheet with fiat money and so exceeded its primary mission of dollar price stability in micromanaging interest rates that it no longer has the leverage to engage in meaningful monetary policy. Rove’s book is a good place to catch up on the history of these critical issues that still resonate.