By Jack | 4/13/20
The historical problem of money’s influence on politics and the democratic process has been an immense issue throughout America's history, affecting every branch of government and silencing millions of voices.
One of the earliest instances of the abuse of personal political spending was back in 1757. Before George Washington became the 1st president of the United States of America, he ran for the Virginia House of Burgess in 1755, the legislative body at the time. He received less than 7% of the vote, falling far short of being elected. Two years later, he decided to run again, this time using his personal finances to buy alcohol for all of his friends and supporters. Unsurprisingly, he got over 700% more votes, and was elected to the House of Burgess (Fuller)(Barton).
Over time, this problem became even more severe, as the issue changed from a few hundred beers to millions of dollars. In the presidential election of 1896, Republican candidate William McKinley ran against the Populist/Democrat candidate William Jennings Bryan. One of the major issues the two candidates clashed on was a gold vs. silver standard. McKinley advocated for a gold standard, where the value of paper money was locked at the value of a certain amount of gold, favoring large businesses (Turner). Bryan on the other hand, supported the “Free Silver Movement,” which he believed would benefit the “working man” and lessen the debts of farmers and middle class citizens (Murphy)(Bryan). In addition to supporting the gold standard, McKinley’s platform was very pro-business, supporting tariffs and court decisions that benefited large corporations.
Seeing this, large businesses poured funds into McKinley’s campaign through his campaign manager Mark Hanna. Hanna was a very wealthy businessman who gained his fortune from the coal and iron industry. Using his corporate connections, and promising a pro-business platform and “rewards of patronage,” Hanna was able to raise almost $4 million (the equivalent of $124 million today), including hundreds of thousands of his own dollars (“Mark Hanna and the 1896 Election.”)(“Mark Hanna”)(Chandler). This money was quickly put to use, as McKinley's campaign outspent his opponent 20:1 and secured him the presidency (“Mark Hanna”). Bryan, who ran a much more traditional campaign that appealed more to the working class than to the affluent, felt that “Hanna's bottomless well of financing bought the election for McKinley” (Chandler)(Bryan).
Bryan wasn’t the only person frustrated by this blatant political corruption; just one year after the election, an article titled “Source of Political Corruption” was published in the Chicago Tribune. It aggressively critiqued the American democratic process and politicians, calling them “vicious but cunning...thieves and criminals.” The writer went on to compare the political system to “evil imps” (“Sources of Political Corruption”). This highly critical article was an example of “muckraking” journalism, created by journalists in the Gilded and Progressive era who tried to take on “corporate power, the big trusts, and government corruption” (Schiffrin). These journalists were responsible for bringing attention to corruption to create change, and their efforts pressured the government to enact legislation that would attempt to end corruption.
In the past, many people and organizations have attempted to solve the problem of money's influence on politics, but none so far have been successful. In 1907, the Tillman Act was put into law under Theodore Roosevelt. At the time, he was being accused of taking large corporate contributions and promising certain political policies. To assuage the public’s fears, Roosevelt pushed the act through Congress (Bitzer). It aimed to stop corporations and businesses from spending money on political campaigns. However, the wording of the act itself was too vague, and corporations quickly found ways around it. For example, corporations paid people to work on political campaigns, technically not directly giving a contribution to the campaign (Bitzer).
The ineffectiveness of the Tillman Act was not caused by an oversight from Congress. In fact, “the porousness of the Tillman Act's prescriptions was widely known at the time of its enactment,” meaning that Congress and Roosevelt knew that the Tillman Act would be ineffective, and passed it anyway. The act was a way to appease the public (Sitkoff). In 1910, Congress passed another act aimed at making the democratic process more democratic: the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. It forced House of Representative candidates’ campaigns to disclose every campaign contribution over $100. However, this act was also very easy to circumvent (Fuller). Despite Congress’ many attempts to stop political corruption, the problem is even more widespread today.
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Bitzer, J. Michael. “Tillman Act of 1907.” Tillman Act of 1907, www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1051/tillman-act-of-1907.
Bryan, William Jennings. “Has the Election Settled the Money Question?” The North American Review, vol. 163, no. 481, 1896, pp. 703–710. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25118754. Accessed 13 Mar. 2020.
Chandler, D. Aaron. “A Short Note on the Expenditures of the McKinley Campaign of 1896.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 1, 1998, pp. 88–91. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27551832. Accessed 13 Mar. 2020.
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“Mark Hanna and the 1896 Election.” U.S. Senate: Mark Hanna and the 1896 Election, 12 Dec. 2019, www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Hanna_1896Election.htm.
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Murphy, Troy A., "WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: BOY ORATOR, BROKEN MAN, AND THE "EVOLUTION" OF AMERICA'S PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY" (2002). Great Plains Quarterly. 40. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/greatplainsquarterly/40
Schiffrin, Anya. “Muckraking.” Muckraking - Communication - Oxford Bibliographies, 20 Feb. 2020, www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756841/obo-9780199756841-0211.xml.
Sitkoff, Robert H. “Corporate Political Speech, Political Extortion, and the Competition for Corporate Charters.” The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 69, no. 3, 2002, pp. 1103–1166. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1600642. Accessed 13 Mar. 2020.
"SOURCE OF POLITICAL CORRUPTION." Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jun 06, 1897, pp. 28. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/175416406?accountid=39972.
Turner, Janine, and Cathy Gillespie. “1896, William McKinley Defeats William Jennings Bryan: The Gold Standard vs. Bimetallism – Guest Essayist: Karl Rove.” Constituting America, Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie Https://Constitutingamerica.org/Wp-Content/Uploads/2017/07/logo_web_360x80.Png, 26 Apr. 2016, constitutingamerica.org/1896-william-mckinley-defeats-william-jennings-bryan-the-gold-standard-vs-bimetallism-guest-essayist-karl-rove/.