By Lisa Cooper
The Piedmont Chautauqua opened in grand style, and the directors were working hard extending invitations to all sorts of people to speak during the Chautauqua season including an invitation for William McKinley. That particular invitation set tongues to wagging because Georgia was a Democratic state at the time, and Congressman McKinley was not only a Yankee, he was a Republican Yankee.
Insert a mental picture of Scarlett O'Hara's Aunt Pittypat at this point of the story exclaiming, "Yankees!!!! Yankees in Georgia!!!!"
During the weeks leading up to McKinley's appearance at the Chautauqua on August 21, 1888, there were all sorts of rumors flying about that he would be snubbed. Some folks made accusations against the Chautauqua accusing it of bringing politics into what should be a non-political venue centered on education. The naysayers were quieted some when the Piedmont Chautauqua Association published a statement saying the Chautauqua aims to influence no man but to enlighten, not lead – its purpose from first to last is education.
Yes, the rumors turned out to be just a bunch of drama. The day after McKinley's appearance at the Chautauqua The Constitution used one word to describe McKinley's visit - REMARKABLE.
The whole idea of McKinley speaking at Salt Springs/Lithia Springs was remarkable – a great leader of one political party coming to Georgia and addressing an audience where a large proportion of those present were leading members of the opposite political party; and that, too, in the face of the fact that the subject he was there to discuss was the one upon which the party lines [were] to a very great extent drawn.
McKinley's subject was the protective tariff, and if anyone had the right to discuss the tariff it was McKinley. He was considered to be the nation's go-to-guy regarding the issue.
Come on, you remember the tariff, right? It was one of those very important threads woven through your early American History course in high school, but in case you don't remember, a tariff is a tax, and the protective tariff would protect American business. It was a tax on the importation of foreign goods.
Even today some argue that a protective tariff hinders free trade while others pointed out a protective tariff would prevent inexpensive imports from destroying local business.
In his biography of McKinley, the author Oscar King Davis states McKinley's address at the Chautauqua was one of his more notable speeches that year.
McKinley told the crowd, "One third of the cotton crop of the South is consumed at home. Who could not wish that all of it might find a market in the United States? We of the North would be better off; you of the South would be better off. The country at large would be the gainer if the whole cotton crop was fabricated in our own mills by our own people...Men of Georgia, upon this great industrial question there should be no North and South. To us of every section have been given the interests of our country -- Our whole country....My fellow citizens, in the conflict, influenced by patriotism, national interests, and national pride, let us be Americans."
The second reason why The Constitution felt McKinley's speech was remarkable had to do with the crowd's enthusiasm. The article continued...”It was shortly after four o'clock when Major McKinley entered the hall. His appearance was the signal for that hearty welcome which Georgians know how to give so well. There was cheering and applause from all parts of the immense building. Half the audience rose and, waving hats, handkerchiefs, anything they had in their hands.”
Notice how The Constitution refers to McKinley as Major and not President. That's because in 1888 McKinley was a United States Congressman. He would not be President until 1897. The paper referred to him as Major because that had been his rank in the United States Army during the Civil War.
In fact, McKinley's experience during the war was one of the icebreakers that existed during the trip to Atlanta and then on to the Chautauqua Grounds. Even though he had served on the opposite side during the war, the men had common ground and shared their war stories.
But the most remarkable thing about the visit per The Constitution had to do with the quality of those present in the hall. There were prominent Democrats from all over the state as well as Alabama and Tennessee. There were professional men, manufacturers, merchants and -- gasp -- leading Republicans, too.
The Constitution stated, “The audience was thoroughly representative of the best elements of southern life.”
McKinley reached Atlanta the day before his Chautauqua address. At the Atlanta depot he was met by several hundred colored people accompanied by a brass band. Some of the leaders of the group were granted permission to board McKinley's car for introductions and begged the congressman to at least greet the crowd from the platform.
McKinley granted the request and told the crowd, I am here as the guest of the Chautauqua and of the people of Atlanta, the foremost city of the empire state of the south, but I am glad to see you. Good night."
That was all he said, but even that was received with great enthusiasm.
Prior to McKinley's arrival at the station the leaders of the colored delegation had made speeches to pass the time. McKinley's visit was a major event for them since the majority of politically active colored people in Georgia during this time were members of the Republican Party.
Smith Easley, chairman of the group spoke followed by C.C. Wimbish.
Wimbish called for the crowd to give McKinley a hearty welcome and a big send off for the trip to Salt Springs/Lithia Springs. He also encouraged the crowd to go to hear McKinley speak at the Chautauqua.
Another leader of the group, Jackson Henry, called for every man to go to the Chautauqua and take his lady with him saying, "They have seats for you there! There will be room for you there and more!"
This remark was met with great laughter because it was far from the truth. While there may have been a section of the Chautauqua tabernacle which was designated for colored seating, I've not seen any confirmation of it.
I find it very ironic that the group of people who were members of the same party with McKinley might have been restricted from hearing him while the tabernacle was full of folks from the opposing party who had been upset he was coming to Georgia in the weeks leading up to the speech.
However, history tends to be a bit ironic at times and quirky, too.