Polarization, 1900

“How can I maintain a balanced, centrist, well-informed point of view in such a polarized society?” This was the major problem as the United States headed into the election of 1900. William McKinley was nominated by acclaim at the Republican convention. After a brass-knuckle back-room fight, McKinley had to accept Teddy Roosevelt as his running mate, largely as a concession to keep TR away from New York state electoral office. As in 1896, McKinley faced William Jennings Bryan, this time with Adlai Stevenson as Bryan’s vice-presidential hopeful. The front page of the Akron Daily Democrat of Friday July 6, 1900 covered the three polarizing issues. The democrats had pinned their hopes on the free-silver plank, and the “overthrow of imperialism and trusts.”

 

The free-silver issue rapidly lost steam as improvements in mining technology expanded production and filled the stores of the US Mint. In his first term, McKinley had put the United States firmly on the gold standard, and there it would stay. The trust issue also slipped to the back burner for the time being. McKinley, the prototype incrementalist, viewed trusts largely as a problem for the states.

 

Meanwhile, imperialism came to the fore. The United States, under McKinley, had acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as the spoils of the Spanish American War and had added Hawaii as a territory by annexation. Not all Americans celebrated these island acquisitions. The “robust opposition movement included former presidents Harrison and Cleveland, …college presidents and academics, labor leaders, prominent clergymen, and famous writers….” There was no shortage of opposition to, and polarization about, American “imperialism.”

 

With the parties firmly at odds, the New York Times described Bryan’s democrats as “the army of the discontented.” Bryan proposed changes in “currency, banks bonds taxes, trusts, wages, and labor law.” He faced McKinley, “who spoke to the sober-minded, conservative, property-owning Americans.”   (Merry, p.445)

 

Into this fray rode Teddy Roosevelt, the former “Rough Rider” hero of the Spanish American War. “In eight weeks of campaigning, he traveled 21,209 miles in delivering 673 speeches to an estimated three million people in 24 states.” (Merry, p447) How important was TR to McKinley’s election victory? How much did his image as an outdoorsman and his popularity with the troops he had commanded help to swing a large segment of the populist vote to the Republicans? These are still issues for historians to debate.

 

The lessons 1900, however, are more straightforward. The 1900 electorate was highly polarized, between populist Democrats and middle-of-the-road incrementalist Republicans. Today, the labels are reversed but the divisions are not all that different. Who brought the country back together? A somewhat manic Harvard graduate that no one wanted on the ticket – no one, that is, except the voters.

 

High marks for Robert W. Merry’s book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.  Simon & Schuster, New York. 2017