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Mark Hanna and the 1896 Election

November 3, 1896

Mark A. Hanna, Senator from Ohio.

Marcus Alonzo Hanna was born in New Lisbon, Ohio, in 1837. At age 15 he moved to Cleveland, where his father established a grocery business. By age 25 Mark Hanna ran that business. He married the daughter of a wealthy coal magnate, and before long he controlled that enterprise, too. By the 1880s Mark Hanna’s company included coal, iron, and steel. He owned the Cleveland Herald and the Cleveland Opera House and ran the city’s streetcar system. Clearly, Mark Hanna was a genius at business. As it turned out, he was also a genius at politics.

Hanna joined the Republican party in the 1860s and within a decade was active in national politics, using his growing wealth to bolster the presidential campaigns of several Ohio Republicans, including Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and James Garfield in 1880. With each election, Hanna’s influence grew, but his true political genius emerged in 1896 when he managed the presidential campaign of Ohio governor William McKinley.

To get McKinley nominated, Hanna used every means possible to sway delegates. He gained the support of southerners, for example, by promising them the rewards of patronage. He pledged to eastern delegates strong support for a gold-standard currency. This tactic put Hanna’s candidate at odds with Silver Republicans in western states, but it shored up the winning coalition that got McKinley nominated on the very first ballot.

The savvy, well-funded campaign that followed set a new standard in presidential politics. While Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan roamed the country delivering “cross of gold” speeches, William McKinley sat on his front porch, welcoming trainloads of voters who traveled to Ohio at Hanna’s expense to meet the Republican candidate. This “front porch campaign” proved victorious on November 3, 1896, putting William McKinley in the White House and turning Hanna into a national symbol of political power ridiculed by cartoonists as “Dollar Mark.”

President McKinley offered Mark Hanna a cabinet post, but Hanna declined. “Me in the Cabinet?” he responded. The “newspapers would have cartoons of me selling the White House stove!” Instead, Hanna took a seat in the Senate. At first, other senators were suspicious of this unusually high-profile freshman who served as the president’s closest advisor, but unlike the ruthless operator depicted in the press, they found Hanna to be smart, generous, and congenial. As senator, he focused on issues of commerce, played a key role in business-labor arbitration, and became such a strong supporter of the proposed Central American canal that senators nicknamed it the “Hannama Canal.”

In 1900 Hanna chaired McKinley’s successful reelection campaign, but he was no fan of the vice presidential nominee, Theodore Roosevelt. “[T]here’s only one life,” Hanna warned, “between that madman and the Presidency.” Within a year, McKinley was dead—assassinated—and “the madman” was in charge. Hanna publicly supported Roosevelt, while he quietly sought another candidate for 1904, but he never got the chance to run another campaign. Mark Hanna died of typhoid fever on February 15, 1904, just 67 years old.