Sometimes, conventions were unexpectedly settled before they were gaveled in. That was the case when Republicans met in St. Louis in July 1896.
The bosses of the big state machines – “The Combine” as they were called – then dominated the GOP. Their leader was the “Easy Boss,” former New York Sen. Thomas Platt. His chief lieutenant was Pennsylvania U.S. senator, Matthew S. Quay. Their chief operative was James S. “Ret” Clarkson, the Des Moines Register publisher.
It was the Machine Men’s practice to put plenty of favorite sons into the field, keep the campaign low-key during the spring, and show up at the convention with no candidate having a majority. The bosses would then retire to backrooms, smoke cigars, enjoy some brown drinks, and cut deals, exchanging delegate votes for pledges of patronage and cabinet appointments.
As Republicans converged on St. Louis, “The Combine” expected to come to agreement with the frontrunner, Speaker Thomas B. Reed of Maine, despite the best efforts of Ohio Gov. William McKinley to enter the convention with a majority in hand.
Control of the convention would be determined by the Republican National Committee’s resolution of credentials challenges. A record 141 slots were being challenged, including all 30 from Texas: The Lone Star State convention had ended in a 20-minute riot with 800 men beating the hell out of each other. Pistols were pulled (but thankfully not fired) and fists, bludgeons, bottles, knives, razors, chairman and pieces of a large table on the stage were used. The RNC would review all challenges and set the temporary roll.
“The Combine” bosses were confident they controlled the National Committee and would settle credentials to their satisfaction, swiping delegates from McKinley and padding the Machine Men’s total. Reed’s manager, Maine National Committeeman Joseph Manley, would quarterback their efforts. He had long served on the RNC.
On Wednesday, June 10, GOP national chairman Thomas Carter of Montana presided as the RNC began credentials hearings in the Southern Hotel’s Ladies Parlor. A Catholic bookseller-turned-lawyer, Sen. Carter had an impressive long, gray patriarchal beard.
The first vote, a Combine challenge to the at-large Alabama delegates, was a test vote. After lengthy arguments, Arkansas’s Powell Clayton moved to seat McKinley’s four delegates and Iowa Sen. John H. Gear, Clarkson’s proxy, offered a substitute to seat the Combine delegation. Idaho Sen. George Shoup then moved that all eight contestants be given half a vote each. When the vote was tallied, Shoup’s motion lost 38 to 7, a crushing blow to the Combine. The Machine Men were dumbfounded: McKinley’s men had complete control. By the time the meeting adjourned at 10:30 pm, McKinley’s men had won 14 contests in Alabama and Georgia and Reed, 2.
The hearing left Manley and Connecticut committeemen and state House Speaker Samuel C. Fessenden, both Combine men, bewildered. They had not expected the Ohio governor’s supporters to be so numerous and well prepared. The McKinley men’s control was so complete that they even gave the Combine men the occasional seat, if the merits justified it. After the RNC meeting, a reporter overheard Manley say to Fessenden, “Well, I’ll be jammed if I ever saw anything like this,” to which the Connecticut Speaker replied, “There never was anything like it.”
Cornered by the press, Manley blurted out, “The convention will nominate Gov. McKinley on the first ballot for the Presidency. It is useless to attempt to deny this will be the result.” McKinley controlled the RNC and hence credentials and the convention. That was “settled conclusively” by “the overwhelming vote” on Alabama. Reed would decline to run for vice president, Manley said.
Word that Reed’s manager had ended his bid without even talking to the candidate spread quickly. When Manley later walked past Fessenden at dinner, the Speaker spat at him, “Joe, the Almighty God hates a quitter. I have been a soldier in actual war, and am the faithful soldier of Reed now, but my general has deserted.” After receiving news of betrayal, Reed wired Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, his floor spokesman that “Manley’s conduct is too disgusting to characterize.” Others labeled Manley a traitor. He apologized to Reed, saying “It was a great mistake and I shall regret it the rest of my life,” but the damage was done. To the surprise of the Machine Men, McKinley was in command of the 1896 convention.
Karl Rove joined Fox News Channel as a political contributor in February 2008. He also currently serves as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads. His latest book is "The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters" (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @KarlRove.