OPINION

As it Were: Mark Hanna was influential in Ohio, national politics

Ed Lentz
Guest Columnist

Mark Hanna was without question one of the more controversial men of his time.  

Hanna was reviled by some and praised by others. But like him or dislike him, he was a difficult man to avoid. And 125 years ago this year, he and his friend, William McKinley, changed the politics of their party and in doing so changed America, as well. 

Ed Lentz

Mark Hanna was not a native of Columbus. But he spent a lot of time here in the Statehouse and in smoke-filled rooms of nearby hotels. He was a masterful persuader of people, and he genuinely liked coming to Columbus, where politics constantly was in play. The town was a reflection of his predilections. 

Marcus Alonzo Hanna was born in what is now Lisbon, Ohio, in 1837. As a teenager, he moved with his family to Cleveland. He attended public schools and was a classmate of John D. Rockefeller. Leaving schools behind, he entered the family mercantile business. During the American Civil War, he believed he could not leave the business behind and hired a substitute to take his place in the Union Army. Joining a local militia, he still served briefly as the unit was called into action as the 150th Ohio Volunteer infantry. 

During the war, he was determined to make money. He married into it via Charlotte Rhodes. Her father, Daniel Rhodes, was a prosperous local merchant with interests in a variety of enterprises. Hanna entered into the family business with a variety of successes and failures. He ventured into the oil business, building one of the 50 small refineries along the Cuyahoga River. Eventually, his refinery and all the others became the property of Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust. 

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He later tried coal and iron as business ventures and had varied success in those endeavors. But by the time he was 40, he was a millionaire and could turn his attention to other matters. The other matter in this case was a growing obsession and fascination with Ohio politics. 

Hanna was a Republican. And in the 1870s, the Republicans were the new folks in town. The Democratic Party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had been a conservative force in Ohio politics for many years. The Republicans had emerged in the 1850s as a composite of a collapsing Whig Party and a collection of third-party loyalists.  

The Republicans emerged from the Civil War as the party of the martyred President Abraham Lincoln and the party of Civil War victory. For the next 30 years, the Republicans would “wave the bloody shirt” of that victory and elect one Civil War general from Ohio after another to be president. It was a past that Republicans were proud of and one many Republicans saw no reason to leave behind. 

Hanna was not one of them. Hanna and several of his close political associates saw a changing America by the 1890s. With the rise of cities and American industry, America was becoming a nation of immigrants and a new working class. It was time to look ahead rather than continuing to look behind.  

The transformative election that realized this shift was the election of 1896. America was in the third year of the worst economic depression in its history. The Republican Party’s candidate was McKinley. The former governor of Ohio from Canton was amenable to organized labor, as well as the owners and managers of large industries. McKinley’s friend and close political adviser was Hanna. 

Their opponent in 1896 was “the barefoot boy from the Platte” – William Jennings Bryan. Young, energetic and eloquent, Bryan had captured the nomination of not only the Democratic Party but also the loyalty of the Populists. The “People’s Party” had come out of the West in the 1890s opposed to the power of the railroads, big business and the industrial cities of the East. They looked back to an earlier America and saw Bryan as the man to lead them there. 

Hanna raised massive sums of money from wealthy people and businesses opposed to Bryan and spent it on a blizzard of paper, posters and billboards touting his candidate. In the end, the Republicans won and their new coalition of urban and rural, rich and poor, black and white would dominate American politics for the next 30 years. 

Hanna went on to become a U.S. senator.  

Initially disliking Theodore Roosevelt, he worked with the new president after the death of McKinley and helped develop the Panama Canal. By1904, Hanna was looking at a possible personal run for the presidency. But a dinner at a hotel in Columbus led to a glass of tainted water, and Hanna died shortly thereafter of typhoid fever at his home in Washington, D.C.  

In his time, he was a formidable talent and a difficult man to understand. Perhaps he still is. 

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.