By Tim Roberts
September’s artifacts of the month at the Western Illinois Museum are two photographs marking the visit of a Republican presidential candidate – in September, 1896. William McKinley, a Civil War veteran and former governor of Ohio, visited Macomb thick in the race for the presidency, with the election only two months way. McKinley represented the business interests of the country at the time, and pledged to maintain the gold standard of U.S. currency to ensure its solvency and to prevent inflation. His opponent, the Democrat and Populist candidate of Nebraska (though a native Illinoisan), thirty-six year old William Jennings Bryan, appealed to farmers, memorably warning, “destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country,” and pledging to move the country off the gold standard to ease the money supply: “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The 1896 election became notable for Bryan’s oratory, which he delivered far and wide as he crisscrossed the country via railroad, giving some five hundred speeches in the campaign’s last three months.
In contrast to Bryan, McKinley generally conducted a “front porch” campaign, involving organization by his promoter and chief fundraiser Mark Hannah to bring a half million people to see the Ohioan at his home in Canton. Hannah indeed masterminded a new, controversial aspect of American campaign strategy that has become a permanent feature of both major parties: business fundraising. Republicans raised the modern equivalent of $3 billion in 1896, quintuple the amount raised by Democrats.
Thus the museum’s two photographs are unusual for showing that in fact McKinley did undertake a whistle-stop campaign; he could not afford to allow the “Boy Orator of the Platte” to be the only candidate whom many ordinary Americans, especially in the “swing” states of the Midwest, would actually see in person before the election on November 3.
In one of the photographs McKinley poses to the right of the local Republican leader, Macomb businessman C. V. Chandler. The men were similar. Both were born in 1843, and both were Civil War veterans: Chandler served in the 78th Illinois Infantry and was promoted to Adjutant before war wounds forced his resignation; McKinley enlisted in the 23rd Ohio Infantry, and attained the rank of brevet major. After the war McKinley became a lawyer, while Chandler returned home to develop real estate and coal mines and to found banks and railroads, all of which put Macomb on the map. Thus McKinley’s visit to the town – perhaps reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s campaign visit to Macomb in 1858 at the behest of the early banker and railroader William H. Randolph – appears a sparkling testimony to Chandler’s promotional success (incidentally, McKinley would return to Macomb again in October 1899, this time saluting local citizens’ support for U.S. war against Spain).
And local endorsements made a difference in close elections like 1896: even in the photograph of McKinley and Chandler, visible in background, a short distance from the large photograph of the Republican candidate, may be a photograph of his opponent, the dark-haired Bryan!
A person familiar with Macomb’s agricultural heritage might have predicted a win for Bryan, the champion of the farmer, in McDonough County. McKinley’s visit to Macomb thus may in fact have made a difference in which candidate McDonough County voters penciled in on their ballot (Illinoisans adopted the Australian secret ballot in 1889). But even so, look again at the photographs, paying attention to signs of Macomb’s economic and commercial development at the turn of the century: the sea of fine hats atop men and women alike, and smattering of ladies’ parasols; the well-to-do attire of pedestrians milling in the dusty streets; the systematic arrangement of American flags above the whistle stop platform of McKinley and Chandler; and the network of telephone and electrical lines erected above street level. One of the photographs is stamped on the lower right, perhaps as an advertisement, “Chester Kirkbride,” the name of a photographer who ran a studio located at 303 East Jefferson Street in Macomb. These features suggest the mercantile flourishing of the area at the time, the connections local residents had made with distant parts of the country – hinting at their interest in keeping the area’s prosperity going, as McKinley pledged, not in economic tinkering, as Bryan called for (the U.S. kept the gold standard until 1971).
On Election Day 1896 William McKinley’s local electors totaled 4,036, William Jennings Bryan’s, 3,678 – thus marking the first time that a Republican presidential candidate would win McDonough County.
Six months into his second term, however, the month of September proved tragic for McKinley. He was shot on September 6, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. The president initially appeared to recover, but his wounds were not adequately cleaned, and toxic gangrene set in in his stomach. He died on September 14, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as chief executive the same day.
President McKinley’s campaign photographs are on display throughout the month of September 2016 at the Western Illinois Museum, 201 South Lafayette Street. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 am to 4 pm. Admission to the museum is free, but donations are appreciated.