- Ohio’s Kingmaker: Mark Hanna, Man and Myth
In Ohio’s Kingmaker, William T. Horner demolishes the notion that Mark Hanna was a venal politician out to serve his own personal interests. By contrast, through extensive research, the author persuasively challenges this negative portrayal, and demonstrates that Hanna was no worse than many of his contemporaries. Hanna’s negative image was shaped by partisans in the opposition press. Hanna’s detractors often used the man as a way to criticize the Republican Party while demonizing the man and all of his associates.
Professor Horner’s story line proposes that Mark Hanna was far from a miscreant bent on using the political system for personal gain at the expense of the American public. On the contrary, Hanna was like many of his contemporaries, believing there was a symbiotic relationship between business and politics, and businessmen were duty-bound to wield political influence. It was Hanna’s position that businessmen entered politics not for personal gain, but rather because their policy positions would strengthen the country’s economy and raise the standard of living for most Americans. By focusing on Hanna the man, the author provides the reader with a tour of the nineteenth-century’s cultural and political landscape.
Hanna’s interest in the GOP drew him into state and national political activities. He backed Republican candidates who shared his vision of government, throwing his considerable financial and organizational resources into Ohio state politics. It was later in the 1880s that Hanna formed a close political relationship with William McKinley. He used his considerable skill as a political strategist and fund-raiser to secure McKinley’s nomination and election to the office of the presidency in 1896. As a result of Hanna’s political skills, he was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee the following year.
During the McKinley the negative image of Hanna gained traction, first through the aegis of hostile Republican journalists and later through the efforts of Democratic media owners, such as William Randolph Hearst, [End Page 87] who made Hanna into a national caricature of the evil puppet master. Because Hanna was unable to cultivate an alternative political narrative, his negative image became grist for the political mill, and few historians have sought to examine the sources more closely. Here it is the press and historians that merit some criticism and scorn for their willingness to simply embrace the established story line, and to trot out the malevolent ghost of Hanna to haunt the contemporary political scene with faulty comparisons. Most notably, the specter of Hanna was identified with George W. Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove in the midst of the controversial 2000 presidential election campaign. The two men were very different, but this did not stop journalists from making connections that were based on mythology.
Horner’s biography of Hanna is unquestionably the most thorough analysis to date. It is fresh, balanced, and the author’s reliance on personal papers, memoirs, newspapers, and mounds of secondary literature makes for a compelling argument and a fine study of Gilded Age politics. While the reader may not agree with all of his conclusions, he does provide a compelling portrait of nineteenth-century America, using politics and business as the lenses to view Hanna and the world he helped shape. Horner, nevertheless, makes a strong case for a reexamination of politics in the Gilded Age and specifically Hanna’s role in national politics. This revisionist account is certain to engender and reshape the historical debate over the importance of the media in politics, and the importance of reexamining some long-held historical truths rather than regurgitating the same story line.