Realigning America, by R. Hal Williams, a Review

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From the author of Years of Decision: American Politics in the 1890s, comes the first study in fifty years of the 1896 presidential election. Part of the University Press of Kansas’s American Presidential Elections series, Realigning America continues what historians have posited for years – the 1896 election was a watershed event in American politics. But Williams also provides new interpretations of William Jennings Bryan, Mark Hanna, and Grover Cleveland.

Front Porch and Whistle Stop Campaigns

It was a watershed election, Williams emphasizes, because of the change in campaign styles. Political campaigns since the 1850s were using “military style” campaigns. Torchlight parades were held with massive numbers marching in unison hoping to rally voters to their party or candidate. By 1896, the “educational” or “merchandising” style was under way, using a bombardment of pamphlets, buttons, and advertising to get the vote out.

Technology was used more effectively in 1896. Republicans used the telegraph, telephone, and the railroads to organize and transport people to William McKinley’s Canton, Ohio home to see and hear him. In contrast to McKinley’s “front porch” campaign, Bryan used the rails to come to the people in a whistlestop tour and delivered many speeches. The telegraph and telephone was employed to get those speeches in the newspapers.

The result of these campaigns was a comfortable Republican victory, a pattern that would more or less stand until the 1930s. Many national elections between President Grant’s administration and 1896 were basically stalemates. In the book’s first chapter, Party Background, the reader gets an effective overview of Gilded Age politics and how the limited government Democrats captured power against the overreaching, moralizing Republicans in 1892. It took the Depression of 1893 to reverse political fortunes in favor of the Republicans.

Mark Hanna

Most historians acknowledge the aforementioned developments. But Williams forges some new views. For instance, Williams insists Bryan was not just a rabble-rousing speaker who captured the Democratic nomination by storm. The author stresses Bryan’s calculating work in the years prior to the convention in which he traveled the country speaking to other free silver advocates, therefore making connections with future convention delegates.

Another view Williams advances is that McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, was not just a one dimensional fund-raising caricature as Williams’ editor puts it. “Dollar Mark” was “genial, well meaning, and affectionate” who sympathized with labor. Hanna also didn’t control McKinley like a puppet. McKinley was in command, deciding on general strategy and the selection of issues.

Finally, Williams portrays outgoing president Grover Cleveland as out-of-touch, lacking courage, and isolated. Favoring the gold standard, Cleveland fought against Bryan and the free silver wing of the Democratic Party. This fight certainly weakened the Cleveland administration and the Democrats. Known for his honest hard work in good government in his first administration (1885-1889), it may be too harsh to paint Cleveland as not courageous. After all, he only stood up for what he believed.

With these new insights, plus the standard information – including appendices on ballot voting at the Democratic and Republican conventions, and the state-by-state voting in the general election – this is an excellent work on the 1896 presidential election. In a short 250 page book, Williams manages to give the reader the political background and the details of all the players – Democrats, National (Gold) Democrats, Republicans, and Populists.

Source:

Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896, by R. Hall Williams. Published by University Press of Kansas, 2010, 250 pages hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-7006-1721-0