THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
“A Bloomin’ British Dude” was the front-page headline of the daily newspaper in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on September 15, 1896. “The editor of The Railway Age, Harry P. Robinson of Chicago, who is organizing gold standard clubs among the railroad men of this country, is one of those blooming British dudes, who find their opportunity in the United States, where there are no vexatious class distinctions to offend their pride,” the article stated. “Mr. Robinson is a naturalized citizen with a cockney accent.”
Harry Perry Robinson was not just a well-versed dandy from England who caught a reporter’s eye as he passed through the dusty southwest. He was an unlikely Republican power broker in the 1896 Presidential election, which pitted Ohio Governor William McKinley against William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic congressman from Nebraska. Best remembered as a referendum on bimetallism (Bryan’s immortal “Cross of Gold” speech), the 1896 contest is considered by many to be the first modern presidential election, introducing publicity tactics that are in common use today.
But just who was this Robinson Dude? Harry Perry Robinson was born in India in 1859, the youngest of six children of a clergyman turned newspaper editor. When he was two years old his mother took him home to England, where he received a traditional education, Westminster School and then Oxford. In the meantime, his two older brothers, Philip and Edward, returned to India to work with their father. Edward, known as “Kay,” succeeded his father and hired a promising young writer named Rudyard Kipling.
In the meantime, Harry (as we will call him) was far more interested in cricket and parties than his studies at Oxford. It was 1883 and, restless and eager to strike out on his own, he decided to head west for his future, rather than east to India. He was in good company. By the 1880s British emigration to the New World was at an historic high, with the promise of good-paying jobs and easy assimilation thanks to a common language. Harry’s experience in America was the stuff of Horatio Alger.
Harry joined the New York Tribune as a junior reporter. His big break came while covering the opening of the third transcontinental railroad line, run by the Northern Pacific Railroad from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. Harry met the railroad scion, Henry Villard, who became his patron. Within a few years Harry had moved to Minneapolis, become an American citizen, and married the daughter of the wealthiest man in town, whose wedding gift was $2 million in cash. With this windfall Harry moved to Chicago, purchased an industry journal, The Railway Age, and became the national voice for the railroads.
In 1896 the Republican Party was making a major push to retake the White House after the second term of the Democratic President Grover Cleveland. The campaign was shaping up to be a battleground over a single issue, the economy (given the financial panic of 1893), and whether to maintain the gold standard for the money supply, or to expand the supply through the coinage of silver. The gold standard was an issue of paramount importance to the railroad industry; bimetallism would lead to inflation which might help farmers and miners, but the urban cost of living would rise, meaning higher prices and lower wages for city dwellers, including railroad workers.
Harry was well-positioned to be an asset to the McKinley campaign. He was rabidly anti-union (the notorious Pullman Strike had taken place two years earlier), and had cleverly persuaded railway workers to organize themselves into clubs which negotiated directly with employers, without the interference of outsiders. These clubs claimed to be non-political, but by 1896 Harry saw their potential for voter registration and a bulwark against free silver. So did McKinley and Mark Hanna, his maverick campaign manager. “No railway man can vote for free silver without voting against his own bread and butter,” Harry wrote in The Railway Age. “If for one moment it seems to you otherwise it is because you have been misled as to the facts and do not understand the truth.”
With an established power base in The Railway Age and connections across the country, Harry was invited by Hanna to join the Chicago headquarters of the Republican National Committee, which was managed by a young lawyer named Charles Dawes (the future U.S. vice president and ambassador to the UK.). Dawes’ primary role was educational and fitted in with the “blanket” media campaign devised by Hanna to inundate the country with the Republican Party’s platform, reaching in particular a new wave of immigrants who would be voting for the first time. With a $2 million budget (four times as much as Bryan’s entire campaign, with $500,000 spent on printing alone), the Chicago office initiated a massive voter education drive, building up the base by supporting 250 speakers in 27 states and dispersing up to 250 million pieces of literature (pamphlets, brochures, posters, buttons, and favorable newspaper articles, in a dozen languages) into a country of 15 million voters – or 18 pieces for every voter.
As head of the Railroad Publicity Department, Harry was a big part of this effort, publishing in The Railway Age a weekly “Sound Money Supplement,” chock-full of information about the free silver question. He also organized a “Railway Men’s Sound Money Club” on every line in the country. “Let railway men of every class act together,” he explained. “It is as noble a cause as ever man put his hand to. Organize now and work, and when November comes and free silver is defeated, the people will know that the railway men did their part nobly for the country’s salvation.”
The turning point in Harry’s campaign occurred in September. To mark Labor Day (a national holiday created in 1894 by President Cleveland following the Pullman Strike), Harry sent a telegram to McKinley: “I take pleasure in informing you that the number of railway men’s sound-money clubs now organized has reached 300, with an aggregate membership of 120,000, and the ball has only started rolling.” The news spread like wildfire across the country. The Los Angeles Times called the effort “An Army for Maj. McKinley” that was growing at a breakneck pace, and labelled Harry “the father of his remarkable movement” where “on every hand there is abundant evidence of intense earnestness and infectious enthusiasm.” Indeed, on September 19, Harry joined 6,000 railway workers on a pilgrimage to meet McKinley at his Ohio home, where the candidate gave a stirring address. “The railway is the mightiest factor of modern civilization,” he said. “I welcome the railroad employees of this country as allies in this great contest for the country’s honor and the country’s flag.”
Behind the scenes, the intensity of the campaign took its toll. The Railway Age office was flooded with hate mail from the free silver side. “They came by every post and in every form, ranging from mere incoherent personal abuse to threats of assassination,” Harry recalled. “Hundreds of them were entirely insane: many hundred more the work, on the face of them, of anarchists pure and simple.” The letters were put in a receptacle dubbed the “Chamber of Horrors” or the “Hell Box.” “In the organs of free silver we have been called almost everything from a ‘flea in the hair of a railroad dog’ to a ‘bronze toad,’” Harry said.
McKinley was elected the twenty-fifth president of the United States on November 3, 1896. While the popular vote was closer than expected, 7.1 million to 6.5 million (51 per cent to 47 per cent), McKinley won a landslide in the Electoral College, 271 to 176 (224 were needed to win). Analyzing the data, Harry revealed that “it is certain that not less than 80 per cent., and probably over 90 per cent., of the railway employees” voted for McKinley. Of these 800,000 voters, 50 per cent had previously voted for the Democratic candidate – and, in fact, still considered themselves Democrats. “These men voted as they did avowedly as railway men,” Harry noted, predicting, “We now have to reckon with an entirely new factor in American politics: The votes of certain races – the German vote, the Irish vote, the Negro vote, the Scandinavian vote, etc. – have long been recognized as distinct entities in the political world. There has also been the agricultural vote, and the mining vote has had great power in certain States. Outside of these few grand divisions, politicians have heretofore lumped all the wage-earning classes together in one conglomerate ‘labor vote’. That can never be done again. In this election the so-called ‘labor vote’ has split within itself, and the immediate and most important result of that cleavage is the emergence of the Railway Vote.”
And it was all Harry’s doing.
What became of our hero? His future did not lie in politics. There was talk of McKinley offering Harry an ambassadorship, but this never materialized. By the end of the century Harry left America for good, returning to England and making a fresh start as a book publisher. He had one big success – discovering an unknown American writer named Jack London – before going bankrupt. He returned to journalism and would have a storied career on the London Times, writing often in support of the emerging “Special Relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. as the best chance for world peace. Before his death in 1930, Harry chocked up two more extraordinary journalistic achievements. He earned a knighthood as the oldest correspondent at the Western Front during the First World War (age 55 in 1914), and had the scoop of the century in 1923, revealing to the world the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
Escape Artist: The Nine Lives of Harry Perry Robinson by Joseph McAleer was published by Oxford University Press on August 27, 2020.