The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters

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Release Date: 
November 23, 2015
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

Karl Rove is famous for his role in modern political campaigns. Some people would find his writing a book about the campaign that elected Republican William McKinley over Democrat and Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896 disturbing.

It is difficult to separate this historical treatise from the life of its author. Curiously, despite the subtitle to this book, Karl Rove leaves to others to draw comparisons between this campaign and modern American elections.

The resulting book does raise points relevant to our own time. Gerrymandering, big money, obfuscating opponents’ records, primary politics, charges of government used for the wealthy, etc. were issues in 1895.

Rove points out that the winner of the 1872 election—and the ones in the following five elections—failed to receive a majority of the popular vote. In two elections, the winners even received fewer popular votes than the defeated candidates did. Grant's two elections were also problematic (1868, 1872) and the elections of 1876 and 1890 compare unfavorably to the circumstances in 2000.

William McKinley ran for president in 1895 having opposed silver and paper currency while supporting high tariffs on foreign imports, measures that worked against the common man. Traditional division of the opposition was impossible as both parties in opposition to the Republicans chose fiery, evangelical populist midwesterner William Jennings Bryan as their respective candidate.

Rove describes McKinley as a reserved intellectual and a genuine war hero. He was the last and among the youngest of the Civil War generation; that war's last great political veteran. He gave hundreds of speeches to earn the 1896 nomination as opposed to the favorite son candidacy that later worked for Woodrow Wilson and the least objectionable nominee strategy that succeeded for Warren G. Harding.

The Republican Party of his day had plenty of rebels and dissent but they came from career politicians. To become the GOP nominee, McKinley had to defeat the party bosses called the Combine. He traveled the country for support, and took the almost unheard of step of reaching out to the black vote beginning in 1892.

“McKinley’s campaign was organized and meticulous,” Rove writes and “both candidates knew the labor vote would deeply influence the election’s outcome, even decide key states.” McKinley had a decided advantage there over the agrarian Bryan and expanded upon his longstanding support for job protectionism. His campaign found huge success in campaigning to groups and in carefully articulated attacks on his opponent’s strength on the silver issue.

McKinley was also the last president before the legendary (or mythical) progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and the real achievements of Woodrow Wilson. Rove argues, however, that McKinley's efforts to create a more inclusive, broader base would keep the Republicans largely in power for decades.

The Triumph of William McKinley provides a carefully worded outline of American national politics from 1876 to 1896 with a parallel history of McKinley’s tragic personal life and not always successful political career. He, for example, depended upon rich friends to bail him out of his personal financial troubles.

In the final chapter, the author lists the eight reasons that McKinley came from behind to defeat William Jennings Bryan, none of which include big money. Rove here educates any future political strategist on the power of planning, organization, and strategy, “the size and scope of past efforts to win the White House paled in comparison to that of the McKinley men.”

The political transitions from the Civil War to McKinley's time in this book sometimes lack clarity. Overall, however, The Triumph of William McKinley is not only readable but also engrossing, a rare relevant history of the mechanics of politics. It educates today's America about politics of another time that are important to understanding our own America and a past now almost completely lost to the public memory.