Marcus Alonzo Hanna is one of the engineers of modern political campaigning. His connection with industrialization, big business, and the Republican Party made him one of the most influential political kingmakers of the late nineteenth century. He was essential to the presidential campaign of William McKinley in 1896. That election embodied the tactics and philosophy future political strategists would use throughout the twentieth century to attract the American populace to vote based on campaigns more akin to advertising than to political substance.
On September 24, 1837, Hanna was born into a family that was part of the rising American business class. His father, a long-time Whig (later a Republican), instilled in him hardworking ethics and Republican values. As a young adult, Hanna worked in his father's grocery store and eventually became partner and owner after his father's death in 1862. Hanna continued to gain business experience and clout when he also became a partner in his father-in-law's business in 1867. Hanna used both businesses to propel him even deeper into the world of big business.
Hanna believed that the government should do everything in its power to help businesses succeed. Even before he began working with Republican politicians, one of Hanna's most fundamental beliefs was that the future success of the United States was tied up in big business. Hanna's first experience in national politics came when he helped to organize and fund his friend John Sherman's campaign for the Republican nomination for president in 1884 and later in 1888. While Hanna's candidate lost both bids, Hanna gained the much-needed experience of running and managing a national campaign. It was during the late 1880s that William McKinley, an Ohio senator, first caught his attention, beginning a relationship that would carry them both to the White House.
By 1896, Hanna was a long-time friend and associate of William McKinley and was one of his right-hand men for the presidential election in 1896. First, Hanna worked to ensure that McKinley would receive the Republican nomination. Then Hanna increased McKinley's appeal to both northern and southern Republicans. He rented a home in Georgia to establish a southern headquarters for McKinley. His work paid off. After McKinley was named as the Republican nominee, Hanna himself was selected to chair the Republican National Committee.
Hanna also used mass amounts of political propaganda to outshine Bryan's campaign. Hanna established two major headquarters—one in Chicago and one in New York. He sent out speakers, created posters, handed out campaign buttons, and printed political pamphlets in multiple languages to reach out to immigrants. Hanna portrayed Bryan as a wild man from the countryside. His propaganda claimed that Bryan would destroy the United States with his unsafe economic policies. In the end Hanna's campaign strategies and fundraising were successful. McKinley beat Bryan in a landslide. He carried the South and the West by more than 6 million voters. He swept the Northeast and Midwest regions by more than 7 million votes. Moreover, McKinley beat Bryan by 95 electoral votes. The 1896 election saw one of the biggest spikes in voter participation in U.S. history. Hanna's message convinced Americans that the fate of the nation depended on their individual votes and on the election of William McKinley. Hanna is credited for orchestrating one of the most efficient and organized campaigns of the nineteenth century.
After the election, President McKinley offered Hanna a position on his cabinet but Hanna refused, believing it would appear to be patronage for his work on the campaign. Instead, McKinley appointed Hanna's long-time friend, John Sherman, as secretary of state. Hanna was then able to run for and fill Sherman's vacancy in the U.S. Senate. Hanna continued his friendship with McKinley while serving as a senator and helping to run McKinley's reelection campaign in 1900. Hanna served as an Ohio senator from 1897 until his death on February 15, 1904.
While it is true that Hanna was influential during McKinley's campaign, Hanna was not the sole decision maker. William McKinley, along with a fellow strategist, Charles Dawes, helped to devise McKinley's political strategies. Nevertheless, Hanna's ability to raise a significant amount of money and run an efficient campaign set an example that the national Republican Party followed throughout the twentieth century.
Autumn C. Lass
See also: Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Gilded Age ; McKinley, William, Jr. (1843–1901)
Horner, William. Ohio's Kingmaker: Mark Hanna, Man and Myth. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 2010.
Josephson, Matthew. The Presidential Makers: The Culture of Politics and Leadership in an Age of Enlightenment, 1896–1919. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966.
Williams, R. Hal. Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.