Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Realigning America

The other day I finished R. Hal Williams's Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896, the newest addition to the University Press of Kansas's American Presidential Elections Series. I'm too lazy to put together a formal review, but I thought I would provide a few observations.

First, the strength of Prof. Williams's short volume (171 pages of text, excluding appendices, endnotes, index, etc.) is his ability to paint vivid portraits of the characters and convey the drama of the inherently dramatic events. Through the use of details and quotes by eye witnesses, he can in a few words give you a stunning “you-are-there” picture that etches a scene in your mind's eye. Here, for example, is William Jennings Bryan bounding to the podium to deliver his Cross of Gold speech:
“Suddenly I saw [Edgar Lee Masters said] a man spring up from his seat among the delegates, and with the agility and swiftness of an eager boxer hurry to the speaker's rostrum. He was slim, tall, pale, raven-haired, beaked of nose.” Delegates caught at his coat as he made his way to the platform, “as if to bid him God-speed."

He climbed the platform “two steps at a time,” a reporter for the New York World said, with the look of a “strong-limbed, strong-lunged” athlete; “Ear-splitting noises were heard; waves of scarlet fans danced in the galleries.” Another reporter, positioned about fifty yards away, saw “a man in the full energy of ambitious life – flashing, gleaming eye, broad-shouldered, straight as an arrow, the physique of a gladiator, the spirit of a crusader; voice clear and vibrant; 15,000 spectators emotionally following every word, every gesture.”
Second, Prof. Williams – whose book is clearly aimed at those who, like me, do not have a lot of knowledge about the period – does a good job setting up the economic backdrop to the election. Just as the Panic of 1837 brought down Martin Van Buren, so too the Panic of 1893 laid waste to the presidency of the newly-elected Grover Cleveland. Using his descriptive powers, Prof. Williams conveys the devastation and the president's growing isolation and passivity as he proved unable to deal with it. As depression continued to stalk the land, the Democrats suffered massive defeats in off-year elections. Barring unforeseen developments, 1896 was clearly going to be a Republican year.

And unforeseen developments there were, which Prof. Williams, clearly a political junkie, leads us through skillfully. There are perceptive analyses of both major candidates and a sympathetic discussion of the plight of the Populists after Bryan's nomination.

The book has one major failing, however. The treatment of the silver issue is virtually incomprehensible. Prof. Williams takes all of a page and a half to summarize bimetallism, and I believe that someone coming new to the subject will remain befuddled as to what, exactly, it was and why devotees of Free Silver so fervently took up the cause. The result is a huge hole that leaves the reader without backround mystified as to why anyone cared about the election - and why anyone should bother reading about it now. Stanley L. Jones's The Presidential Election of 1896 opened with a separate chapter that explained the history of bimetallism and effectively conveyed its allure (even while criticizing it as simplistic and naive). Prof. Williams's volume desperately needs a similar preamble.

For this reason, if you are new to the period and the Free Silver issue you really need a prequel, such as Milton Friedman's essay "The Crime of 1873" in Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History, discussed previously here.

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