A Time of Political Change in America: 1896 – 1912

Americans in the year 1896 were as divided on political issues as they are today. Issues such as bimetallism, antitrust laws, and workers’ rights were topics of debate and discussion during this time, and the decisions made on these issues affected the future of the United States in many ways. From the expansion of federal power to the creation of wildlife reservations, this period of 12 years was one of great change in America.

In the year 1886, America was divided and polarized. After Grover Cleveland’s unpopular second term and the Panic of 1893 still not over, a debate over what metal that should be used to back the dollar ensued. Farmers in the west and south favored something called bimetallism, or the use of gold and silver to back the currency. If that were to be passed, there would be an inflation in the currency, which is what farmers wanted, so they could pay off any debt they had. Their hope was in a young Nebraskan named William Jennings Bryan, who insisted that the federal government should be able to buy any amount of metal (particularly silver) it wished, and that it could use it to make silver legal tender, at the rate of sixteen ounces of silver to one ounce of gold. There was a problem with Bryan’s argument however; sixteen ounces of silver in 1896 was worth $11, while a single ounce of gold was around $20, almost twice as much as the former. The “silverties”, as they were called, also said that there was simply not enough gold to have a standard based from it, and that the gold that was available was hoarded by the banks.

In the Northeast and Great Lakes area, the Republican political giant Marcus A. Hanna, commonly known as Mark Hanna, was grooming a new candidate named William McKinley. McKinley was a Civil War veteran (on the side of the Union) and, also favored bimetallism. So what was the debate if both sides favored bimetallism? Well, for one, many Republicans supported a gold standard, saying that if America didn’t have one that in the eyes of Europe there would be a loss of credit. Also, the Republicans who did favor bimetallism wanted it implemented only if the other European nations installed bimetallism, hence a form of “international bimetallism”. However, the European nations on a gold standard held onto it tightly and weren’t willing to switch. As a result, McKinley went on the side of the gold standard.

The match was set up, and both sides had tremendous effort played on their part; Bryan was travelling across the country, particularly the Midwest and making speeches that reached over 5 million Americans as far as Tennessee and Maine, while McKinley conducted a front porch campaign, having people visit his home while he made his speeches. Out of the two Bryan was certainly the better orator, with his deep, imposing voice, while McKinley often times muttered in speeches. Hanna then hired republicans who were better orators to denounce Bryan as a radical anarchist. Bryan’s advisors told him to focus his speeches on the Border States and the Pacific Coast, but Bryan instead focused on the Midwest, which he thought would be the area of the most competition. This was a key factor in the election. In the end this cost Bryan the election, and he only won 176 of the electoral votes, whereas McKinley won 271. The election however had the highest turnout in U.S. history of just under 80%. This showed just how much people wanted their side of the issue implemented.

William McKinley’s first term started off with a controversial appointment for Secretary of State. He sought out Republican Senator John Sherman, who was rumored to be mentally decaying (he was 73 at the time). McKinley didn’t believe the rumors, but sent his cousin anyways just to be sure. His cousin reported back with no signs of mental decay. Sherman was offered the position, and, due to the unlikelihood that he would win reelection for the senate, he accepted. However when he took on his duties, it became more apparent that he actually may have been mentally decaying. He didn’t attend meetings, and eventually his first assistant, William Day, was practically doing his job. Sherman then resigned from office on April 25, 1898.

McKinley’s presidency however was most remembered for the Spanish-American War. Cuba had been fighting a revolution against Spanish rule since 1895, and, realizing this, a battleship, the U.S.S. Maine, was sent, in the supposed reason to protect Americans in Cuba. The ship then sunk from a mysterious explosion on February 15, 1898 and the Americans immediately pointed fingers at Spain. Whether something hit the ship and caused it to explode or if the explosion originated inside the ship, as a Spanish investigation concluded, is still a mystery. The United States soon blockaded Cuba, and Spain declared war on April 23. The U.S. followed suit two days later. Within a few months, the Americans, which were much more powerful than the Spanish, had won the war and had taken possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Cuba gained independence four years later.

In 1900 McKinley ran for a second term under the persuasive banner of prosperity (the Panic of 1893 went away during McKinley’s administration) with Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate. McKinley easily won reelection, thanks in part to Roosevelt, who was very popular. However, just three months into his second term, McKinley was assassinated by a Polish anarchist named Czolgosz. Within a week, McKinley was dead.

On September 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn into office. He was the youngest president to take the oath of office, at 42 years old, and many Republicans were polarized on the subject of him being president. Mark Hanna, who didn’t like Roosevelt to begin with and strongly objected to him being vice president, stated, “That…cowboy is president now.” Roosevelt, however, became quite popular with the people. His first goal while in office was trust-busting, the first target being the Northern Securities Company. Northern Securities was a merger of two railroads in the north and west of the United States (Minnesota, N. Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington), the Northern Pacific and Great Northern, owned by J.P. Morgan and James J. Hill, respectively. The two railroads merged to protect their stocks and bonds, or securities, hence the name Northern Securities. The company was taken off the stock market, and Roosevelt, after asking the Attorney General, declared the company to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Northern Securities was broken up in 1904 after the case Northern Securities Co. vs. United States.

Another major event during Roosevelt’s administration was the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. The strike was started in May of 1902, with 150,000 workers going on strike. Anthracite Coal, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is a special type of coal with very few impurities and is the best coal for the preparation of food or heating homes. The president of the United Mine Workers, John Mitchell, tried to get the operators to listen to the workers, or at least have their complaints submitted to arbitration, but the effort failed. The strike continued on into summer, and coal prices skyrocketed from $5 per ton to $30 per ton. Mitchell then had a meeting with Theodore Roosevelt in the White House, in which Roosevelt asked Mitchell to have work resumed at the mines and that the labor dispute could be solved by arbitration. Mitchell eagerly accepted this new proposal. However the operators weren’t so cooperative. They stated that they had nothing to arbitrate. Roosevelt then sent in troops to direct the work at the mines, while his Secretary of War, Elihu Root, asked J.P. Morgan whose financial backing the operators depended on. Nobody knows what went on in the meeting, but the end result was the operators submitting to arbitration. The workers went back to work in the mines on October 23, with shorter 9-hour days and higher wages, however, the United Mine Workers was still not recognized.

Roosevelt also instituted much domestic reform. A book titled, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, described unsanitary conditions for processing meat, including the use of chemicals to disguise rotten meat. This shocked the public, and Roosevelt saw that something had to be done. He signed both the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both passed in 1906. The Meat Inspection Act demanded that livestock be inspected before and after slaughter, that the meat was processed under sanitary conditions, and that the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) could monitor and inspect the process. The Pure Food and Drug Act made sure ingredients deemed “addictive and/or dangerous” were on food labels and that if any of those ingredients weren’t present, they couldn’t be labeled or advertised on the packaging. He also set up National Forests and irrigation projects in the American West. Roosevelt, despite these reforms, tried to extend his power to interfere with the American lifestyle; he tried to change the rules of American football and even to change the English language so that words were spelled how they were pronounced in government work. Both of these attempts failed.

Most of Roosevelt’s foreign policy could be summarized by one sentence; “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” This was all that was needed to describe “Big Stick Diplomacy”, Roosevelt’s preferred style of diplomacy carried out by the big European powers. In Europe this is called “Gunboat Diplomacy”. Regardless of which term is used, “Big Stick Diplomacy” is a method of diplomacy, that, asks other nations to cooperate with the added threat of, “or else you face my powerful navy”. Roosevelt used “Big Stick Diplomacy” on many occasions. One such occasion was the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, which was fought between Russia and Japan. The French and Germans were tempted to aid Russia in its fight against Japan. Roosevelt warned them that if anyone aided Russia that the United States would aid Japan. This usage of Big Stick Diplomacy probably prevented a massive global war that would’ve been larger than the World War I that actually happened. In 1905 the two nations were ready for peace, and Roosevelt hosted the peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was then awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.

If Roosevelt had to be remembered for one thing, it would probably be the Panama Canal. Roosevelt thought a canal running through Central America would be a good idea for defense purposes; if one coast of America was attacked, reinforcements could arrive in much quicker time than if they had to go around South America. Roosevelt had two options for a canal. One was a canal through the country of Nicaragua, and the other was through the Isthmus of Panama, which was owned by Colombia. Then Roosevelt had a plan. He would ask Colombia to lease a strip of land in Panama for the Americans to build a canal. If they refused, he would simply take the Nicaragua route. The Americans offered $10 million in gold and $250,000 every year nine years after the treaty for Colombia to lease a six mile wide strip across Panama. The Panamanians were also eager to have a canal built, but, when the treaty was rejected, they rebelled. Roosevelt then sent orders to the gunboat Nashville to block any Colombian troops from crossing the isthmus. The United States recognized Panamanian independence on October 3, 1903, a day after the revolt in Panama City. Later in October the U.S. signed a treaty with Panama, which granted a strip of land to the U.S. that was four miles wider than in the proposed arrangement with Colombia. This was practically an excuse to build a canal the preferred way. The U.S. relinquished control of the Canal Zone in 1979.

At the end of Roosevelt’s second term, he had to choose a successor, one that would embrace his political philosophy. He ended up choosing a man with a rich political background named William Howard Taft. Taft had really wanted to become Chief Justice on the Supreme Court, but when he was asked to be Roosevelt’s successor, he ended up saying yes. Taft won the election of 1908 and became the 27th U.S. President. Taft, once in office, ended up being more of a moderate than a progressive activist. Due to this, he didn’t implement as much reform as Roosevelt did, however he still implemented trust-busting. The conservative and moderate nature of Taft attracted the Conservative Republicans who were alienated by Roosevelt’s policies. As a result, the Republican Party became the more conservative one we know today. Despite this, Taft’s presidency couldn’t be finished without mentioning the Payne-Aldrich Bill. This bill was created by the Republicans in hopes of lowering tariffs, however the Democrats in congress made hundreds of changes, almost all of which were meant to raise tariffs. Taft signed the bill into law and announced it, calling it “The best tariff ever passed by the Republican Party.” The public didn’t agree, and the tariff was, and still is, remembered as the blunder of Taft’s presidency. By the time the 1912 election came around, Roosevelt was so upset with Taft that he formed his own Progressive “Bull Moose” party to ruin Taft’s chances of winning the election. Even if this hadn’t happened, the vote would most likely go to Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, who won a landslide victory. What nobody knew, was that Wilson would implement more progressive reform than any president before him.

In the end, these 16 years changed American politics, American life, and America’s place on the world stage. This paper covered the Spanish-American War propelling America to becoming a world power, the issue of bimetallism and how it was resolved, Roosevelt’s trust busting, his progressive reform in the meat-packing industry, his “Big Stick Diplomacy” in the Russo-Japanese War, and how the Panama Canal was built, along with Taft’s more moderate approach to progressivism. Who knew that a mere twelve years could propel a nation so far?