Conceived in Liberty: The Life and Death of the American Republic, 1776 to 1919 by Richard White (Excerpt)
(© 1995, Melbourne University Press)
Privately, McKinley thanked God that his second term was finished. He only hoped his health had not been so wrecked that he mightn’t live a few extra years in peace once he left the Executive Mansion.
What was far from clear was who the Republican Party would run in his stead.
1904 was to be an election like no other. Unemployment now hovered at 28%, far worse than it had ever been during the darkest days of the ’93 crisis. It seemed every day carried news of some new assassination, or bombing, or gunfight.
Darrow and Frick had swept congress in ’02. It seemed now to be truly possible, even likely
, one of them would similarly march into Washington come November. The panic was palpable.
“We are done! It is finished!” cried Rep. Henry Teller (R-CO) in congress, at the news that martial law had been declared again in Florida. “The Republic has only to die.” He apologized for his outburst, but retracted nothing he’d said. That was 10 October 1903.
Debates in congress were increasingly stormy and seemed to consist ever more of the Socialists and Nationalists shouting at each other across the chamber.
In the House, Socialist representative Ed Wetzel (S-FL) stood up and announced that the PRA was “an impotent sham,” and that it “mocked the people’s suffering.” He prophesied, “the worker will only have rest when the red flag is flying everywhere.”
Congressman George Malby (N-NY) sprang up and shouted, “we’ll have that filthy rag ripped down!”
“It will float over your grave!” Wetzel retorted.
The argument deteriorated, and the two men sprang at each other. The Sergeant-At-Arms pulled them apart, but not before they had managed to bloody one another’s faces.
At the next session, Wetzel arrived with a revolver on his hip. He made a point of ostentatiously lifting his jacket to flash the weapon to his fellows. Malby and the other Nationalists (and not a few others) were enraged. Soon enough, a number of Nationalist representatives were also wearing holstered revolvers to congress.
On 8 September 1903, a motion was passed 267-124 prohibiting the carriage of firearms into the Capitol. Soon, the Sergeant-at-Arms was demanding congressmen unholster and hand over their weapons before entering the chamber. They could be collected on the way out.
Thus, the situation in the vaunted halls of American government mirrored that in the streets.
Amid the chaos, one man had decided on his course of action. That was Theodore Roosevelt. He would seek the GOP’s nomination for himself, and he intended on getting it. His popularity with the general public was high. Among those who resented the power of the trusts, Roosevelt had garnered a reputation as McKinley’s ‘good advisor’, always trying to pull him away from business and towards the people. Of course, that was an exaggeration, but it stuck.
But Roosevelt had many enemies within the Republican Party. Perhaps more enemies than friends.
Mark Hanna, the party’s invincible boss, was ever hostile. He had no intention of handing the GOP over to “that cowboy.” On Hanna’s side were Attorney General Philander Knox and House Speaker Joseph Cannon, among others. They were determined a ‘sound, sensible,’ man be nominated. Another McKinley.
But Roosevelt was gathering his own allies. He counted among them Secretary of State John Hay, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and Secretary of War Elihu Root. These men had been sufficiently shaken by the tumult to realize the country needed a change. Another four years of McKinley would do nothing at all to alleviate the situation.
In agreement with this judgment was McKinley himself. Those who knew him said they thought the old politician to have aged twenty years since 1900. He counted his presidency as an abysmal failure and was heard privately to curse the day he ever stood for office. He himself hoped for Roosevelt’s nomination, despite the man’s decidedly un-conservative ideas in many spheres and went so far as to say he saw in Roosevelt ‘what little hope is left to this country.’
As 1903 melted into 1904, the titanic struggle was on.
Roosevelt had one major advantage, and it was this: a large number of ‘conservative’ Republicans, whose primary concern was the maintenance of the country’s economic system as it was, and the suppression of Socialism, had already deserted to Frick’s Nationalists. It was by no means a majority, but it was a substantial minority. This left the party’s conservative wing weakened in comparison with the ‘progressive’ wing that favored Roosevelt.
Then Roosevelt developed a scheme that many, even his allies, viewed as utterly mad.
He was, like most, sincerely worried about the growing popularity of the SLP and the Nationalists. It seemed entirely likely that either Frick or Darrow would take a plurality of the vote in 1904. Roosevelt did not want to chance it. So, he reached out to another man who had risen to national prominence on the back of the ‘common man,’ who had won fame for himself challenging the stolid old entrenched masters of his party: William Jennings Bryan.
In early May of 1904, Roosevelt wrote Bryan a letter, asking to meet with him at his earliest possible convenience. Bryan was curious but suspected some manner of political trap. Nevertheless, after some thought, he met with Roosevelt at the man’s private residence in the Catskills.
Roosevelt’s proposal was bold but simple. He wanted to merge the Republican and Populist tickets and run with Bryan as his VP.
Bryan was stunned. It would have been unimaginable only four years ago. In 1896 it would have seemed a fever dream.
But times were changing fast.
Roosevelt was prepared to make concessions, such as lowering certain tariffs and coining silver again (though he stopped short of acceding to Bryan’s full “16:1” program). But such petty policies faded into irrelevance, now, he said. The Republic itself was in danger. It could not be allowed to tumble into the abyss that awaited on both the left and the right.
“You would lose half your party with me,” Bryan warned him.
“But I would make it up with yours,” Roosevelt countered. “And I fear that half might very well cast their ballots for Frick, regardless.”
Bryan did not reject the proposal outright. The two men shook hands and parted.
When news of the meeting broke, the GOP descended into chaos. It was charged that Roosevelt had lost his mind. RNC chair George Cortelyou, also secretary of commerce and labor, even said that “Roosevelt…must be removed, at all costs.”
A not insubstantial number of Republicans in fact left the party and went over to the Nationalists when they got wind of Roosevelt’s madcap plan.
Hanna wired him in furious desperation, begging, “SIR COME TO YOUR SENSES.”
But there were those, including the old Senator Henry Teller, and Roosevelt’s long-time ally Henry Lodge, who tentatively supported the fusion idea. Lodge was, though friendly to Roosevelt, a conservative. Only a year before, by his own admission, he would have fled in terror from the prospect of a united front with William Bryan of all men. But “the country is menaced by twin specters,” he despaired. “This is an age of monsters. Against monsters, one cannot choose his allies.”
The conservative Republicans were in a tizzy, desperate to win, desperate to stave off the assault from all sides. At last, unable to find a suitable champion, Mark Hanna elected to step into the ring and challenge ‘the cowboy’ himself. Hanna ultimately chose the aging Joseph Cannon—despised by radicals for his introduction of the Red Act years ago—as his running mate. Neither man was in very good health.
The Republican Party’s National Convention gathered at the Chicago Coliseum on 21 June 1904.
Hanna spoke first. He appealed to the party’s history, to the first half of McKinley’s administration and the ‘progress’ it had seen. He begged, again and again, for ‘sensibility.’ “Now,” Hanna said. “Is the time to plant ourselves where we stand and cry ‘reason! Let reason rule!’”
In view of the fact that the Coliseum was surrounded by state militiamen, and that many of the delegates’ cabs and motorcars had been pelted with stones by Socialist youths on the way to the convention, Hanna’s pleas rang hollow.
Then Roosevelt spoke.
He began by making clear his heartfelt regret that the country had ever come to the place at which it was. But it had, and Roosevelt said that they—the Republican Party—bore a not insubstantial share of the blame.
“We have been creatures of the trusts and the cartels for too long. We have starved the workingmen and women of this country—what right do we have to cry ‘betrayal!’ when so starved, they swallow poison?”
There were shouts of “shame, shame!”
There was also much applause.
“Where’s Bryan?” someone jeered, to laughter.
“Bryan is not here,” Roosevelt waved down his accusers, before speaking the immortal words of that convention: “But I believe this country is worth free silver. And Mr. Bryan believes it is worth a Republican president. Do you disagree?”
On the first ballot, Roosevelt picked up 521 delegates. It was a majority, but only just.
The floor dissolved into shouting and hollering as Hanna’s delegates demanded a rather pointless recount. When it became clear there would be no such thing, they did what Frick’s delegates had done four years previously and stormed out.
What was left of the GOP acclaimed their presidential and vice-presidential nominees for the year 1904: Theodore Roosevelt and his running mate, William Bryan.
Their platform was bare and simple enough. The trusts would be broken up, and the LDP outlawed as a criminal association in contravention of the dead-letter Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Likewise, the full force of the law would come down on ‘anarchist deviants.’ Immigration would be curtailed, both to protect the bargaining power of the American working class, and to prevent the infiltration of European radicals into that working class. The PRA would be expanded, though not drastically so. Roosevelt’s promises to Bryan regarding free silver and tariffs remained, for now, off the record.
It was a centrist programme par excellence
The Conservative Republicans that repudiated Roosevelt soon dissolved. A great many of them, including Hanna’s VP-hopeful, the old veteran Cannon, went over to Frick. He was, as Cannon put it, “tragically, the only force that might prevent our country’s utter dissolution.”
The rump that remained insisted on nominating Hanna, anyhow. Then, on 20 August, Hanna inconveniently died of typhoid fever. The conservative GOP remnant quickly melted away before the coming storm.
They voted for Frick or they voted for Roosevelt. There was no other choice.
The Populist Party had much less trouble accepting the controversial alliance. Its members were largely loyal to Bryan, personally—it was said they would have shouted “hurrah for the Great Commoner” if he ran on a ticket with Satan himself. Furthermore, Bryan’s constituency felt they had precious few options besides.
Once, the plight of the farmer had captivated the nation. Now, it seemed, the humble smallholder was receding into irrelevance before the hordes of unemployed industrial workers and impoverished sharecroppers massed together under the red flag. Those who had lost their land increasingly went over to the Socialists. Those who feared the reds above all else would cast their ballots for Frick.
Left for Bryan was a shrinking core of small farmers who still clung tenaciously to their patches of earth and maintained a fervent, quasi-religious faith that free silver would solve all of their problems. But there was still a million or so of these men, at least. And perhaps they would be enough.
Darrow and Frick were renominated without any fuss.
But this time, Frick’s campaign would be different. With ‘Trust-Buster Roosevelt,’ as he was coming to be called, on the stage, business despaired at the degeneration of its once ever-reliable GOP. They had been glad to stick with McKinley in 1900. But they did not want to stick with Roosevelt, so long as there were options.
And the option, in this case, was Henry Frick.
Frick, still burned that so many of the men he considered natural allies had not supported his first campaign, relished their reversal. Men as grand as Rockefeller and Morgan came to him, offering sundry millions to raise him to the presidency.
The LDP officially endorsed the National Party. Flexing its economic muscle, it was soon estimated that, despite its voters comprising only some 30% of the electorate, nearly 60% of published campaign material in 1904 was that of the Nationalists.
For the first time, America felt the true might of the Cartel whose shadow had long extended over the land. Socialist and Republican-Populist speakers found their venues denied them. Their papers were shut down without warning by orders of municipal governments (usually, the municipal government had received a curt warning a day before from some local office of Standard Oil or New York Central, explaining very politely that the slander put out in The Daily People
was not appreciated, and ought to be curtailed at the earliest possible convenience). Socialist rallies were disrupted by young men of the middle class in shirtsleeves, armed with knives or even revolvers. Sometimes they were paid, sometimes they came of their own initiative to crack a ‘red dago’ skull or two. The chairman of an STLA Ironworkers’ local in Richmond was shot point blank in the head a few weeks before the election as he stopped to purchase a newspaper.
On 20 July, Frick held a banquet at his old friend ‘Andy’ Mellon’s home in Pittsburgh. Attending were some of those great names of the day: Rockefeller himself was there. So was Vanderbilt. H.H Rogers, William Clark. They were well aware it was Frick’s little triumph and held their tongues.
Of course, there exist no minutes of the evening. But it seems clear Frick clearly and coldly presented to his fellow capitalists the facts of the matter.
Sarah McKentire, one of Mellon’s maidservants, would decades later recall what she could of the meeting.
Dinner was finished, and everyone was patting his stomach. They were all very fat and happy. But they were actually not so happy, because they all kept looking at Mr. Frick. He did not sit at the head of the table—that was Mr. Mellon—he sat to Mr. Mellon’s left, so he did not really stick out. But he had been very quiet all evening, and left the talking to Mr. Mellon, and also to Mrs. Frick, who was there and who was a great deal friendlier than her husband.
I came to clear away the plates, and finally that was when Mr. Frick got up to speak. All the men—all these men who were so much richer than he was, and who were supposed to be so much more powerful—turned to watch him.
He gave a short speech; I don’t really remember. It was very vague. But then he said, “gentlemen, when I am president, you may rest easy. All of your hard-earned holdings will be safe with me.” The fellows clinked their glasses in merriment and laughed. I recall Mr. Vanderbilt burped. Then Mr. Frick said, “but in that day, you will remember
who the president is.” They stopped the clinking. They were all quiet for a little while. I remember it felt like someone had stolen their voices away. They looked at each other. Some of them even looked embarrassed. Then someone said, “hurrah!” and the clinking started up again.
I guess Mr. Frick was clear enough. He would be their friend, but he wasn’t going to be their front man.
Nevertheless, the Cartel had little choice beside Mr. Frick, now that his two rivals were Roosevelt and Darrow.
Frick did not really need the backing of the LDP—he could certainly fund his own campaign—but he had it anyway and relished having it. If nothing else, he enjoyed watching the great robber barons crawl to him on their hands and knees.
The country’s big cities were awash in Nationalist electoral propaganda. In San Antonio, the wall of a meat packing plant was entirely given over to fifty-foot-high letters spelling “VOTE FRICK!” in stark black and gold paint. In Charleston, men hurled pamphlets from the windows of private vehicles as they careered through the streets.
Party speakers were accompanied by brass bands; audiences were kept safe from Socialist toughs by well-armed CS men, state militia, or local volunteers.
One of Frick’s most popular posters simply bore a reproduction of the man’s face over the words, “GIVE ME A MAJORITY AND I WILL GIVE YOU BACK YOUR COUNTRY.”
The Socialists and the Republican-Populists fought hard with their comparatively meager resources, but they were indeed comparatively meager.
A Delaware printing house putting out posters for Roosevelt found itself inexplicably shuttered and its printers seized. In Pittsburgh, copies of ‘the Way Forward’ were confiscated by the police as ‘obscene’ material.
In early October, Roosevelt arrived in San Francisco to speak to supporters. Traveling down Market Street, he and his entourage were forced to brave a gauntlet of police with their rifles, called out by the city’s recently elected Nationalist mayor. Ostensibly, it was to hunt out the ‘anarchists’ that had recently bombed a newspaper office, but the real motive was clear enough.
Roosevelt in particular was not helpless. He did have his friendly and well-heeled backers. Henry Lodge, for one, and his vast wealth along with his many influential friends. Charles Schwab, who was still somewhat bitter about being undercut by Frick’s US Steel, donated generously to the Republican campaign. The Roosevelt family itself was hardly mired in penury.
But Frick easily outspent him at least 2:1.
The Socialists, of course, trailed far behind in corporate donations. But even they were not entirely destitute. Though popular history has the SLP surviving solely on the humble dues of common workers, the party had its share of wealthy sympathizers. Darrow himself contributed heartily to the SLP’s coffers. Fellow travelers among the intelligentsia and middle classes in New York or Washington pitched in where they could.
And the party had one most unsuspected backer: Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie was, of course, no Socialist. Nor was he really even a progressive in the Roosevelt mold. He certainly did not wish to see private property done away with in the United States.
But he did hate Henry Frick. And as he saw it, with the collapses of both the Republicans and the Democrats, the SLP had the best chance of keeping his old rival out of the Executive Mansion. He did not expect an outright win for Darrow, either. If he had, he would likely not have given a cent to his campaign. It seems his goal was to force a deadlocked election out of which some nebulous compromise might arise. In private, Carnegie claimed he would “fund the devil himself,” before he would consent to a President Frick.
The great philanthropist’s contributions were meant to be a secret, but they became a public one soon enough.
Soon Carnegie had been granted, by Socialists and everyone else, the new sobriquet, ‘the Bankroller of the Workers’ Revolution.’
Frick was naturally furious and promised to “do in that low-down bastard Andrew” once and for all at the first opportunity.
In fact, there was plenty of ‘doing-in’ during the election season of 1904.
At least 93 killings were officially recorded as directly related to the election in the days leading up to 8 November, and countless more were injured.
In Peoria, a band of armed Socialists opened fired on a Nationalist rally, killing two. In Tallahassee County, Florida, a Socialist schoolteacher was decapitated with a machete coming out of her schoolhouse, a particularly hideous excess among hideous excesses. In the Lower East End, Manhattan, two Jewish Socialists were shot dead by vigilantes, one of whom was caught and beaten to death by some comrades of the slain.
Militia was called out, withdrawn, and called out again. Martial law went into effect in dozens of counties across the country.
McKinley suffered another heart attack on 22 October, which left him able to work only from bed.
Rhetoric and action grew more and more unhinged as the crisis deepened. Flying red flags, jobless men in Cleveland burnt down the steel plant at which many of them had worked, and then engaged in a brawl with the police. When it was reported that ten of them had been beaten to death (technically inaccurate - it was four), The Daily People
cried ‘OUR PATIENCE WEARS THIN!’ An SLP election poster showed a mighty, muscled red fist crushing a black serpent sporting Frick’s beard and dollar signs for eyes. A Nationalist orator in New York swore that when Frick won, they would take “every last red sheeny and dago and toss them all back into the sea.” Many took it on themselves to do just that, and the number of attacks based on racial or ethnic hatred shot up. In an especially gruesome incident that outraged even most in sympathy with the Nationalists, a Sicilian mother and her young son were knifed to death in Chicago.
Candidates spoke in the most Manichean of terms.
Should Frick win, Darrow charged to an audience in the Socialist stronghold of Chicago, “you, labor, and all mankind, will be crushed under the iron heel of a despotism as relentless and terrible as any despotism that has blackened the pages of the history of man.”
Frick, of course, said the victory of the Socialists would be “the last plunge into anarchy, murder, godlessness, and all the horrors of hell loose on the world.”
On 8 November, with this feeling in their hearts, the people of the United States went to the polls.