Glenn Uminowicz - October 2008
When the Cowardly Lion Arrived on the Eastern Shore
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
As a candidate for the presidency what comparison can there be between the experienced statesman and the inexperienced, superficial theorist who never held an executive office in his life and whose short career in congress gained him renown solely as an orator.
A comparison between Republican presidential candidate William McKinley and the youthful Democratic orator William Jennings Bryan from the Easton Gazette in November 1900.
Historians recognize the presidential campaigns of 1896 and 1900 as change elections. In terms of domestic politics, the American electorate was realigned. By 1900, Maryland had become a battleground state and one presidential candidate made a campaign swing through the Eastern Shore. The issues that faced voters included a troubled economy, immigration policy, and the actions of American soldiers in suppressing an insurgency overseas.
The leading presidential candidates in both 1896 and 1900 were Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan. In 1971, historian Richard Jenson was among a group of scholars who identified a political realignment in these elections based on economics and cultural values. He also observed that the 1896 presidential contest may have served as the inspiration for The Wizard of Oz (1900). L. Frank Baum, the book’s author, insisted that he wanted to write stories that bore the “stamp of our times” and furthered efforts at reform.
In 1896, the presidential race centered on whether the dollar should be backed by the value of gold, or by gold and silver. The Democrats argued that workers and farmers benefited from a bimetallic system. The adoption of the gold standard in 1873 resulted in a period of deflation, leading to higher interest rates and falling prices for agricultural products. An inflated currency partially based on silver would make it easier for borrowers to pay off loans and raise the cost of goods and services. Supporters of an “honest currency” backed by gold included East Coast industrialists and bankers, the majority of whom supported the Republicans.
In the 1960s, high school history teacher Henry M. Littlefield discovered that late 19th-century monetary theory failed to excite contemporary teenagers. To make the discussion more engaging, he presented The Wizard of Oz as a metaphor for the 1896 presidential race.
In the book, Dorothy strode down the Yellow Brick Road in silver shoes not ruby slippers. In short, as Littlefield noted, Dorothy’s silver footwear walked upon a path paved with bricks the color of gold to the Emerald City – a city the color of money.
Along the way, Dorothy encounters the Scarecrow, who symbolizes the Midwestern farmer. In 1896, journalist William Allen White drew national attention when he published an editorial entitled “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” White argued that the response of farmers to the deepening economic depression displayed ignorance, irrationality and general muddleheadedness. In short, they would not have regarded silver coinage as a panacea if they only had some brains.
Littlefield regarded the Tin Man as a metaphor for the industrial worker. This character had once been human, but the Wicked Witch of the East placed a curse on him. With each swing of his ax, he chopped off another piece of his body that a tinsmith then replaced. Eventually, the Tin Man became completely dehumanized, just like industrial workers in Eastern factories.
In 1896, William Jennings Bryan secured the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s Chicago convention by delivering one of the most famous political speeches in American history. Bryan concluded his oration by responding to advocates of the gold standard. In his booming voice, he inveighed, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns.” He then stretched his arms straight out from his sides and intoned, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The delegates sat in stunned silence for a moment and then the hall erupted in a demonstration lasting half an hour. Up until that moment, Bryan had not drawn much national attention, but Midwesterners regarded the thirty-six-year-old Congressman from Nebraska as the “Lion of the West.” Littlefield insisted that Baum portrayed Bryan as a Cowardly Lion, who would step back from his courageous support for bimetallism during his second race for the White House.
In 1896, McKinley defeated Bryan, including in Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. During the race, the Republican candidate enjoyed the financial backing of banking and industrial interests. Wealthy U.S. Senator Marcus A. Hanna of Ohio used his business connections to help finance McKinley’s famous “front porch campaign.” Republican supporters arrived via trains at the candidate’s Ohio home where he delivered the same political speech over and over again. Political cartoons pictured Hanna as a wizard operating behind the scenes with McKinley as his mere cipher. Historian Jack Weatherford insisted that Hanna served as the model for the Wizard of Oz, the man pulling the strings behind the curtain.
In the 19th century, cultural issues divided Americans. Native born Protestants, for example, more likely supported prohibition, Sunday closing laws, and immigration restriction. They tended to vote Republican. Urban ethnic working-class voters resisted efforts at closing places of amusement on their one full day off each week. They also resented attempts to restrict entry into the United States for people like themselves.
In 1896, the Republicans downplayed cultural issues. In the middle of a depression, they determined that the main issue was the economy, stupid. McKinley portrayed himself as the candidate who would restore prosperity, providing a “full dinner pail” for American workers.
With relatively meager campaign funds, Bryan launched himself on a nationwide campaign tour covering over eighteen thousand miles during which he delivered hundreds of speeches. His powerful voice proved both his most effective tool and an instrument of his undoing. To many ethnic working-class voters, he sounded like the evangelicals who wanted to enact Sunday closing laws and restrict immigration. In 1896, the election returns reflected what one historian described as a “cross of culture.” Usually Democratic working-class voters responded to the Republicans’ full dinner pail appeal and Republican middle-class cultural conservatives saw a kindred spirit in Bryan.
In 1896, the American electorate (exclusively male voters) was energized with four out of five eligible voters trooping to the polls. Bryan earned 6.5 million votes, a total that exceeded that for any previous presidential candidate. McKinley, however, garnered 7.1 million votes.
By 1900, the economy had improved significantly. McKinley supporters proudly pointed to “Republican prosperity.” For the Democrats, the upturn in the economy blunted the effectiveness of appeals for free silver.
Another issue dominated the debate in 1900. With its victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States attained the status of a world power. It also took possession of former Spanish colonies, including the Philippines. Under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo, Filipino insurgents fought for their independence first against the Spanish and then the Americans.
Republicans argued that the acquisition of the Philippines was a natural extension of American “expansionism” beyond North America. Besides, the Filipinos were not ready for independence. The editor of the Republican Easton Gazette insisted, “The Filipinos are not a nation, but a variegated assemblage of different tribes and peoples and their loyalty is still of the tribal type.” The anti-imperialists should “honestly ascertain the truth on the ground, and not in distant America.” Moreover, critics of the administration’s foreign policy provided aid and comfort to Aguinaldo’s “insurgent government.”
The editor of the Democratic Denton Journal countered by warning that the suppression of efforts to secure Filipino independence would ultimately compromise American liberties as well. McKinley was accused of extending presidential power to the point of creating a “constitutional monarchy.” The newspaper published reports of atrocities committed by American troops, such as stripping the corpse of an insurgent officer of its clothing and insignia, then leaving what was left for the crows. Finally, the editor cautioned that American jobs were at risk. The McKinley policy of imperialism would result in the influx of “cheap labor of the far east.”
In 1900, Bryan once again possessed limited resources compared to his opponent. He decided to concentrate on battleground states, including Maryland. The Denton Journal reported that one hundred thousand Marylanders heard him speak over two days. On the Eastern Shore, a crowd of about twenty-five-hundred heard Bryan in Easton. Special trains brought spectators from nearby towns and hundreds of local farmers drove their wagons into Easton. Bryan also whistle-stopped through St. Michaels, Denton, Preston and Salisbury.
Bryan threw himself into the anti-imperialist campaign with the same fervor he exhibited in the fight for free silver. On his swing around the Shore, he insisted expansionism benefited large corporations and banks at the expense of workers and farmers. For all his efforts, however, the election results in 1900 mirrored those of four years before. Bryan lost on the Eastern Shore, in Maryland and in the national vote.
Today, the Oz connection to presidential contests provides an opportunity to enliven our political discourse. The Flutterbudgets, for example, live in a remote part of Oz and are known to leap to the worst possible conclusion regarding any situation. The Rigmaroles seem incapable of answering yes or no to any question and always launch off into a long-winded discourse that strays from the subject. In the fall campaign, be sure you know a Flutterbudget or Rigmarole when you see one.