#25: William McKinley: The Front Porch Campaign

The presidential campaign of William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan in 1896 is legendary and was close, even by Bush V. Gore standards. McKinley won most of the delegates, but only captured 51% of the vote.

McKinley was seen as a sort of honest, good government type candidate. His positions were fairly moderate on many of the great issues of the day such as the gold standard and foreign intervention and were fairly progressive on other issues such as race or ethnic relations. He wasn't known as a great speech maker or a person that could electrify crowds, putting him at a disadvantage to William Jennings Bryan who was known as one of the best orators of his day, in the same league as JFK or FDR would have been during their time.

The fact that McKinley was sort of a Nixon and Bryan was a JFK in terms of oratory flourish put him at a disadvantage and led him to remark "I might just as well set up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan. I have to think when I speak."

The crazy thing is that he actually did wage a campaign from his front porch. Bryan had the South and the West locked up going into the race because of the influence of the Democratic party there and spent most of the campaign traveling around the midwest and northeast. McKinley however, brought the voters to him.

Working with the railroads who supported his campaign, he organized delegations from throughout the country to arrive at his home in Canton, Ohio. After getting off the train, the delegations would be accompanied by marching bands for the walk to McKinley's home and would pass under banners with his portrait. Once at the home, McKinley would greet them from his porch and would answer prepared questions that a spokesman for the delegation would ask. Since the delegations were pre-screened and their travel was subsidized by the campaign, the front porch speeches had a "town hall" feel to them. This was a brilliant strategy since McKinley could increase the number of supporters he spoke to as there was no travel time required and the pre-planned nature of the event allowed him to control his image and present himself in the most favorable light.

Much of Bryan's time was taken up from the travel required and he would occasionally venture into unfriendly venues where he would be forced to defend rather than promote his positions.

McKinley's campaign staff laid down the ground work for the modern presidential campaign, while their approach wasn't great for citizens seeking honest answers to candidate's stances on the issues, their influence on shaping the approach to American elections cannot be denied.


Politicians, Catholics and "Religious Freedom"

The recent debate over religious freedom regarding Catholic institutions and providing birth control is interesting. Normally, religious freedom means that the government cannot dictate a state religion or make religious beliefs illegal. It can deem the carrying out of those beliefs illegal such as human sacrifice or polygamy, but it cannot tell people what they can and cannot believe.

As such, it seems like a leap of faith (no pun intended) to declare that the idea that the government can pass a mandate that requires insurance companies to cover birth control for women an assault on the church. Just think, the Catholic Church went from having it's member's discriminated against and being barred from politics for their obedience to the foreign pope in the 1800's to playing the martyr in the 21st century because their for-profit self insured hospital networks and universities are forced to provide insurance coverage that includes birth control.

Putting aside the fact that:
1) Catholic Hospitals and Universities are not churches and live in the secular world
2) Many of the employees at these institutions are not Catholic and thus not bound by management's moral convictions
3) No devout Catholic will be forced to wear condoms or take the pill as a result of this legislation
4) Most Catholics are on birth control until they decide to have children.

It seems a far cry that suggesting that the Catholic affiliated hospitals and universities having to abide by the same laws as everyone else is the same as religious persecution. It also leads to a great debate on who is the Catholic Church anyway?

Judging on the lack of families with 10 kids in Mass every week (I'm Catholic) I'd say that maybe two percent of the attending members actually believe in the fiction that God and not the parents should decide when they have kids. In addition, the Church TEACHES the rythm method, which was the highly imperfect birth control method of the medieval ages. Aren't the pill and condoms just more technologically advanced alternatives?

Based on all these points, I'm very upset at the church's continued search for irrelevance in modern times and at the politicians providing coverage for the out dated beliefs for the child less old men that run the Church.

There are real issues of religious persecution and intolerance in the United States, but this is not one of them and is not healthy for anyone other than the politicians who will continue fighting the culture wars of the 1960's at any cost.

Benjamin Harrison: The Start of the Welfare State

Referring to politicians trying to create a "welfare state" are charged words these days and were in the late 1880's as well. The reason that these are controversial words today though have much less to do with why they were in Benjamin Harrison's time during the late 1800's.

Today, most Democrats and Republicans accept that free trade or something close to it should be an aspiration of public policy. That is why "welfare state" is code for one politician accusing another of not following the universal truth that free trade is gospel.

In reality, we don't have anything close to free trade due to millions and millions in lobbying money that flow to politicians pockets, misguided government incentives and the revolving door between corporate board rooms and government political positions, that's a post for another time.

In the late 1800's, the great debate on whether competition and international free trade were good or not was still being decided. Some politicians were in favor of tariffs to limit competition to America's young manufacturing industries, while others were against protectionist measures because they wanted to keep the prices of imported goods as low as possible.

The reason that the "welfare state" was something to be avoided had more to do with many of the founding fathers and the philosophers that inspired them preaching that a good citizen should be self sufficient and that dependency on government was just another form of tyranny. Socialism was not considered a pariah because of what it would do to people's wallets, but because dependency on government largesses would lead to a natural erosion of rights.

That is why it took over 100 years after the founding of the United States to start introducing many of the types of social programs we now consider commonplace. Grover Cleveland's opposition to Benjamin Harrison's support of pensions for Civil War Veterans might seem over the top now, but then played on people's deeply held fear of government dependency.

While free trade is almost a religious imperative in today's America, independence from the government dole was the religion of Harrison's day.


#23: Benjamin Harrison: Sherman Silver Purchase Act

Benjamin Harrison was a big supporter of the Sherman Silver Purchase act. This and his support for the McKinley Tarriff Act were the two major reasons that Grover Cleveland was able to defeat him and win a second non consecutive term.

In the later 1800's, farmers were faced with what was the sort of foreclosure crisis of our day. They owed much more on their farms than they could pay to the banks that lent them the money to buy the farms. This was due to a variety of factors, land speculation, the price of wheat and other crops, and drought all combined to make the perfect storm to hurt the farmers. It's important to realize that at this point in the country, farmers held more than the symbolic political value than they do now since the majority of people that lived outside cities farmed.

The farmers wanted some kind of relief of their debts, similar to how homeowners are now asking banks to take a write down on the mortgages they hold when the homes that secure the mortgages go down in value.

At they same time as the economic crisis was unfolding, mining interests were discovering huge caches of silver in America. So much silver in fact, that the metal had plunged in value due to all the supply that flooded the market. The farming and the mining interests jointly decided that if the U.S. Government were to be required to purchase silver and use it to back its currency, the price of silver would be artificially inflated and the value of the U.S. dollar would go down, since silver is a less valuable material than gold, which the dollar was based on at the time. The inflated value of silver would make the vast silver reserves of the mining companies more valuable and the lowering in value of the dollar would mean that it was easier for the farmers to pay the large debts they've built up.

John Sherman pushed through this legislation requiring the government to purchase massive quantities of silver with Benjamin Harrison's support. The problem came when investors overwhelmingly would exchange their silver notes for gold which they were allowed to do under the law. Many of these investors were overseas and this ultimately depleted the gold reserves of the United States.

It got so bad, that the iconic banker, J.P. Morgan stepped in and made a massive loan of gold to the U.S. Treasury to save the country from bankruptcy. Imagine that, a bank bailing out the U.S. Government instead of receiving a bail out!

These were certainly chaotic times, the nation went from debating how to use the huge surplus it built up over the years from tariffs on imported foreign goods to barely being able to pay its bills.


#23: Benjamin Harrison: The Great Tariff Debate

Today free trade is an almost universal value among our politicians, however; in the late 1800's it was not. Free trade has become such and aspiration and accepted goal that in this modern age, stuff seems to be made and imported to America while jobs seem to be exported.

I'm not writing this blog to take a view on free trade as a goal, but it's just interesting to look back at our own country's history when views that are now commonplace and largely bipartisan were still competing with alternate ideas.

Benjamin Harrison came down firmly on the side of protectionism. While "protectionist" might now be considered a slur to a political view, whether it be on the importing of goods or foreign policy, it was not considered an insult then.

Harrison's support of the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 was one of the defining elements of his presidency. This act seems extreme by today's or even recent history's standards. Duties on imported goods, including raw materials were increased by up to 50%. The goal of this of course was to raise revenue for the government and decrease the amount of competition to America's developing manufacturing sector.

Historically, the northern part of the United States supported tariffs and the southern part deplored them since it was an economy based on agriculture that imported most of it's manufactured goods. The "Tariff of Abominations" in 1828 is considered one of the major events that led to the South looking to break away from the North (in addition to slavery obviously).

As anyone would expect, this tariff was loved by northern manufacturing interests but hated almost universally in the South as well by regular consumers in the North that relied on imported goods or raw materials. Most economists agree that it was a cause leading to the depression of the 1890's since it was essentially a 40-50% tax on any imported goods.

The unpopularity of this issue and Harrison's support of the Sherman Silver Act were what ultimately led to Grover Cleveland defeating him to serve his second, non consecutive term.

While it's interesting to think about the tariff and how views on free trade have changed over time, it's even more interesting to ponder the second debate the tariff led to. What to do with all that money in the surplus of the U.S. Treasury from the protective tariffs? Can you even imagine the country with huge cash reserves rather than a crushing debt in this day and age?

Maybe Harrison's policy of protectionism went way too far in trying to drastically reduce imports, but maybe our own policy of giving Americans incentives to buy imported goods and American corporations to export jobs goes too far in the other direction. If we weren't beholden to the World Trade Organization and slightly increased our tariffs, maybe we'd be having a debate not on which government programs to cut, but which ones to add with all that money in the U.S. government's coffers like they did in Ben Harrison's day.