So long, 1800s! The century of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln was coming to an end. William McKinley’s decisive victory in the last election affirmed the Gold Standard as voters’ preferred solution to the latest economic depression. Would they want McKinley to stay and lead them into the Twentieth Century?
The Last Four Years
William McKinley kept true to his campaign promises. Republicans raised the tariff yet again, this time to an average rate of 46%. In a huge blow to silver supporters, they also passed the Gold Standard Act of 1900, which officially set gold as the only redeemable metal for paper money. Whether McKinley’s economic policy was the cause or not, the depression was over and Americans were prosperous again!
With their economic concerns alleviated, the nation’s eyes turned to foreign policy. Cuba had been fighting for independence from Spain for decades. As the violence worsened, the American public sympathized with the rebels. Many felt that it was America’s duty was to intervene under the Monroe Doctrine. McKinley favored peaceful diplomatic negotiation, but Spain would only offer limited autonomy for the island. Newspapers published a leaked letter from a Spanish ambassador mocking McKinley for being a weak president. It was seen as the greatest insult ever made against the US. After an outbreak of riots in Havana, Spain allowed the USS Maine to dock in the harbor to protect Americans in the city. On February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded in Havana, killing 266 crewmen. At the time, the leading consensus was that an underwater mine placed by the Spanish caused the disaster, although it is also possible that an onboard fire lit the ship’s ammunitions supply. Public outcry against Spain escalated quickly. McKinley continued to push for peaceful negotiations, but Spain still refused to give up imperial control. Finally, McKinley left the issue to Congress. On April 20, the US declared war.
The Spanish-American War was underway! The US had an important early naval victory in the Pacific with the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines. Americans also captured Guam, which was easier than expected because the Spanish military there didn’t even know about the war. The most important battles in Cuba were the Battle of San Juan Hill and the naval Battle of Santiago, both American victories. Soon, the island was effectively under American control. Americans next took Puerto Rico.
After only a few months, the fighting ceased in August, 1898. The war officially ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on December 18th. The US took control of Puerto Rico, The Philippines, and Guam. Spain granted Cuba its independence. In return, the US paid Spain $20 million. Unfortunately, fighting continued in an undeclared war between the US and Filipino nationalists.
McKinley’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy didn’t stop with the war. Also in 1898, the US annexed Hawaii. Possession of the island was first pursued by President Harrison, when American business interests overthrew the Hawaiian queen in 1893. The idea was subsequently scrapped by Cleveland in his second term. The Spanish-American War prompted many to call for increased military presence in the Pacific. McKinley supported Congress’ annexation bill as an extension of Manifest Destiny. McKinley also took a strong stand on China. He established an “open door” policy, advocating for free trade and Chinese independence from European and Japanese influence. The Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialists and missionaries threatened Americans living overseas. McKinley sent troops without Congressional approval. Lastly, McKinley pushed for a Central American Canal. Because of the war and expanding global markets, Americans saw a need for a quicker route between the Atlantic and Pacific. McKinley opened negotiations with with Britain to end a fifty-year-old treaty prohibiting both from building a canal.
Now that the economy was doing well again, silver was essentially a dead issue. Increased supplies of gold had even led to the inflation that farmers wanted. Only the most dedicated Silverites continued to press the issue.
Concern for the economy was now replaced with concern over American imperialism. In just a few years, McKinley had greatly expanded America’s sphere of influence. Not everyone saw this as a good thing. Many Democrats, like William Jennings Bryan, supported the Spanish-American War, but were heavily critical of the US occupation of the Philippines. The continued fighting with nationalists, following a war for Cuban independence, highlighted America’s hypocrisy.
Party Watch & The Candidates
Republicans wanted to keep the good times rolling, making McKinley’s re-nomination an easy choice. At the convention, he won unanimously on the first ballot. The real drama, however, was for his VP spot. His 1896 running mate, Garret Hobart, died of heart disease in 1899. The leading candidate, thanks to his popularity with Westerners, was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
A product of an already well-known political family in New York, Teddy Roosevelt quickly gained fame as a reformer in the New York State Assembly. This, of course, made him enemies with the local political machines, but it earned him a spot on Benjamin Harrison’s Civil Service Commission. Under McKinley, Teddy’s close ally, Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge, helped secure him a position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Teddy resigned his position, however, when the Spanish-American War broke out. He had always been ashamed that his father did not serve in the Civil War (it was an act of solidarity with Teddy’s Southern mother). Now, he had a chance to renew his family’s honor. He joined the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the Rough Riders, a term borrowed from Buffalo Bill. The Cavalry was an eclectic mix of Western cowboys and Eastern college men. During the war, they became famous for their successful charge up Kettle Hill during the Battle of San Juan Hill. Immediately after the war, Teddy was elected as New York’s governor, where he resumed his fight against corruption. In response, New York boss Thomas Platt became a leading supporter for Teddy as vice president, hoping to transfer Teddy to Washington, DC, and out of local politics. Remember, the vice presidency was still considered a boring, dead-end job at the time. Teddy himself had mixed feelings on the position, but in the end, he enjoyed the idea of being the second most important person in the country. McKinley and his campaign manager, Mark Hanna, felt that Teddy was too wild and unpredictable. Hanna spoke openly about his dislike of him, but McKinley chose not to intervene. At the convention, Teddy won every single vote except his own (he abstained).
The few remaining Gold Democrats thought they could replace party favorite William Jennings Bryan with Navy Admiral George Dewey, who led the Battle of Manila Bay victory. Unfortunately for them, Dewey had made several gaffes well before the convention. His worst offense was stating that the president has an easy job because all he needs to do is enact Congress’ laws. He came across as incredibly naïve. Rumors of Gold Democrats dropping their support for him snowballed and he withdrew his name from consideration. This opened the floor for Bryan to lead the party again. Like his 1896 nemesis, Bryan won his party’s nomination on the first ballot. This time, he was joined on the ticket by fellow-Silverite Adlai Stevenson, who had already served as vice president during Cleveland’s second term.
In 1896, the Populists put all their eggs in the silver basket and endorsed William Jennings Bryan. This time, they were even more divided on whether to do it again. Populists in the West were used to working with Democrats, but those in the South, were hurt by Jim Crow laws just as much as the Republicans and wanted to maintain autonomy. Despite Bryan’s loss, the party had done relatively well in the 1896 congressional races. But in the improved economy, they were struggling to stay relevant. “Fusion” Populists wanted to continue to work with the Democrats and endorsed Bryan again. The “Middle of the Road” Populists put forth their own candidate, Wharton Baker, a businessman and former Republican.
1900 also saw the first presidential campaign for Socialist activist Eugene Debs, under the Social Democratic Party. His previous claim-to-fame was as a union leader in the Pullman Strike. He’ll be around for a while.
Additional TR Backstory Pause!
Although Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy is as an energetic, unstoppable leader, he was not always so positive. He met his first wife, Alice Lee, while in college. They were engaged on Valentine’s Day, 1880, and were married later that year. While serving in the New York State Assembly in 1884, Teddy received word that his mother was ill with Typhoid. At the same time, Alice gave birth to their only child together, a daughter also named Alice. Then, his wife was struck kidney failure. Teddy and his brother cared for the two in the same house. On February 14, 1884, two days after his daughter’s birth and four years after his engagement, Teddy’s wife and mother both died. Teddy marked an X on the date in his journal and wrote, “The light has gone out of my life.” After the funeral, he added, “For joy or for sorrow, my life has now been lived out.” He never mentioned Alice again and insisted on calling his daughter “Baby Lee.” At the end of the year, he left Baby Lee with his sister and moved to North Dakota. He returned East only after the harsh winter of 1886-1887 wiped out his herd of cattle. Thankfully, he returned to politics, as well.
McKinley was an easy sell for Republicans. Per their slogan, he had provided a “full dinner pail” for every American. The Republican ticket was summarized as a Western man with Eastern ideas, paired with an Eastern man with Western characteristics. As he had four years prior, McKinley ran a front porch campaign. Teddy, on the other hand, brought enough energy to match Bryan. He went on a Bryan-style tour, giving speeches across the nation.
Yet again, the Democrats had a lot less money to work with than the Republicans. Their greatest strength was still Bryan’s energetic campaign style. But instead of adjusting to the new economic reality, Bryan continued to make silver a major topic of his rallies. As one former congressman noted, “Bryan would rather be wrong than president.” Bryan was more effective when he targeted the anti-imperialism and anti-trusts crowds. He saw all three issues as ways the plutocracy stayed in power.
It’s looking even more red than in 1896. McKinley kept his support in the Northeast and Midwest. This time, he also picked up a few of the Western states that had previously voted for Bryan.
The South stayed solid for the Democrats. Although McKinley had been a strong supporter of Civil Rights early in his political career, his administration turned a blind eye to racial violence and voter intimidation in the South. Jim Crow continued to run its course.
William McKinley had an even bigger win than before! The electoral totals were 292-155. He also won the popular vote by about 900,000 votes, up 300,000 from the previous election. McKinley became the first sitting president to win re-election since Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
What Did It Say About America?
It’s the economy, stupid. McKinley’s second victory was more likely a result of America’s economic prosperity than a referendum on his foreign policy. Nevertheless, he proved that voters were willing to overlook some hypocrisy in poor countries if it meant their own dinner pails were full. And with silver, Bryan was running on a dead issue. He failed to see the reality and adapt his platform.
Was It The Right Decision?
I’m torn. Bryan fought for the under-privileged and under-represented. But he really should not have stuck with silver as his main talking point. The improved economy made a strong case for four more years of McKinley. Unfortunately, it’s sad to see big-business and pro-imperialist causes merge under the GOP umbrella. His administration set a precedent for some of America’s worst impulses for the rest of the century. But there was something different about his new administration. After the Republican convention, Mark Hanna had told McKinley it was his duty to live for the next four years to prevent a Teddy Roosevelt presidency.
And with that, we have reached the halfway point in the Election Tuesdays project! We’re thirty posts in and there’s thirty left to go. I offer my sincere thanks to everyone who has been following along! I hope you’ve learned a thing or two!