Karl Rove is a bad historian: Race, the South and the real story he doesn’t tell about William McKinley and 1896

tags: Karl Rove

Daniel Schlozman received his PhD in government and social policy from Harvard University and is currently an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University

Karl Rove, in his new propaganda tract disguised as a stocking stuffer (“The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters”), gives Republicans a model for winning a durable national majority: William McKinley, the stolid Ohioan who in 1896 repulsed the threat of Populism and secured for the Republican Party a control over national politics broken only by the New Deal.

McKinley reached into the nation’s deepest pockets and, with the proceeds, won the immigrant vote and prevailed. McKinley also compiled the worst racial record of any Republican president who had yet held office. This story Karl Rove blithely ignores. He peddles truthiness, the 1896 edition.

Rove paints McKinley as a racial moderate, with his principal evidence, beyond vague claims of personal rectitude, a meeting McKinley held with African-Americans at a church in Savannah, Georgia, in March 1896. The gathering was a first not because McKinley was notably enlightened, but because he campaigned aggressively enough for the nomination that he took such meetings at all. And African-Americans allowed the vote still proved loyal Republicans all the way until the New Deal, however little the party did for them.

Rayford Logan, a pioneering historian at Howard University, wrote in 1954 that “McKinley’s callous disregard for the protection of the constitutional rights of Negroes has been almost entirely overlooked.” In Karl Rove’s book, it still is. Like its 1892 predecessor, the Republican platform in 1896 expressed hope for a “free and unrestricted ballot” – but departed in making no plans for how to secure it. Rove never mentions the contrast.

The Democratic Congress in 1894 overturned the sections of the Enforcement Act of 1870 proscribing poll taxes and literacy tests for voters in federal elections. Only a few aging New Englanders, none of whom wanted McKinley as nominee, fought seriously against the bill. In office, McKinley never lifted a finger to replace it. When Louisiana introduced into its state constitution a “grandfather clause” that exempted whites, so gross a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment that the Supreme Court even in 1915 struck down a companion law in Oklahoma, the McKinley administration did nothing. ...

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