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Revisiting William McKinley's victory through the lens of 2020

Salena Zito on

NILES, Ohio -- Truth be told, neither the home William McKinley was born in nor the front porch 55 miles west of his birthplace from which he conducted his presidential campaign exist anymore.

The small, wood-plank-sided home here on state Route 46 is a replica of where the 25th president of the United States was born. The original home was moved twice before it burned to the ground. The front porch of his home in Canton has been long gone, the lumber used for park benches during the Great Depression.

Down the street from his birthplace is the McKinley Memorial Library. Constructed in 1917, just 16 years after he was assassinated, it takes up an entire city block. The rain and the dark midmorning skies make the white marble monument and its columns seem all the more grand.

A towering McKinley stands in the center. He is surrounded by bronze busts of the people who served with him, and on either side of his likeness are the wings of the library.

It's always been a mystery as to why this man and the race he won in 1896 have received scant attention in modern popular culture; his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was a congressman from Nebraska who was running as a populist at the tail end of America's flirtation with populism.

The movement emerged on a number of fronts: Industrialization and the radical societal changes it forced on Main Street were changing America at a rapid pace, and the depression of 1893 was still a searing memory for the working class.

 

One of the major elements of that depression was the false impression of economic prosperity the rapid expansion of the railroads gave; people wrongly believed the industry was stable when, in fact, it was floating on a bubble.

The railroads began failing, which led to the failure of the businesses that indirectly supported them, such as construction, steel mills and urban factory workers. The cost of freight skyrocketed, which threatened farmers' ability to transport their crops; they all blamed the bankers and railroads for their misery and formed a political alignment.

Three million people were unemployed, and the homeless and hungry lined the streets of major cities as civil unrest exploded across the country.

Suddenly, the little guy was building to become a political force, and their guy was populist Bryan, the fiery Democrat who drew large crowds everywhere he went.

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