The Wizard of Oz and the 1896 McKinley-Bryan Campaign

Posted by Steven Seidman on Thursday, May 20, 2010

In 1964, Henry Littlefield (a high school teacher in Mount Vernon, New York) published an article in the American Quarterly, which called L. Frank Baum's children's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (published in 1900), a political parable of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, which focused on the election of 1896.

It was suggested by Littlefield that these Baum characters represented the following people and groups:

  • The Wicked Witch of the East = Eastern industrialists and bankers, who "dehumanized a simple laborer so that the faster and better he worked the more quickly he became a kind of machine," according to Littlefield.
  • The Munchkins = the citizens--most of whom were oppressed
  • The Scarecrow = the western farmers
  • The Tin Woodman = the downtrodden eastern workers
  • The Cowardly Lion = William Jennings Bryan
  • The Wizard = "any President from Grant to McKinley.... [H]e symbolizes the American criterion for leadership--he is able to be everything to everybody," wrote Littlefield.
  • The Yellow Brick Road = the gold standard
  • Dorothy's silver shoes = the Democratic/Populist demand for silver coinage
  • The Emerald City = Washington, D.C.
  • Dorothy = Everyman

Other writers have added to, or challenged, Littlefield's interpretations (see David Parker's article). One, for example, noted that Dorothy's dog, Toto, represented the Prohibitionist teetotalers and that Oz was an abbreviation for "ounce." The silver advocates in 1896 had called for a 16-to-1-ounce ratio of silver to gold. Another thought Dorothy symbolized Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Populist speaker, who was thought to have told Kansas farmers to "raise less corn and more hell." Yet another thought that the book had much to do with imperialism in Asia, with The Wicked Witch of the East being President Grover Cleveland, The Wicked Witch of the West, William McKinley, and The Wizard, the latter's campaign manager, Mark Hanna. And another scholar wrote that The Wicked Witch of the West was Populism itself.

Many still think, however, that the work was mainly about the political battle between silver and gold advocates, after the Great Depression of 1893 in the United States: "Baum, a reform-minded Democrat who supported William Jennings Bryan's pro-silver candidacy, wrote the book as a parable of the Populists, an allegory of their failed efforts to reform the nation in 1896." wrote Parker about this theory.

The 1896 election campaign was one of the most exciting in U.S. history. In 1896, with farm foreclosures, and labor unemployment and discord growing alarmingly, the silver advocates took over the Democratic Party, gaining its nomination for Bryan, a dynamic congressman from Nebraska. His “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in July of that year compared the cause of free silver to that of the Crusades and the American Revolution, with the political fight “in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity.” During the campaign, zealous meetings were convened to discuss the silver issue. Broadsides announced these and called for “those who believe that in silver lies the remedy for the present financial stagnation” to support the cause. Democratic posters featured silver coins near portraits of Bryan. Bryan barnstormed the country campaigning for himself, and he gave about six hundred speeches to approximately five million people, while his Republican opponent, McKinley, stayed on the front porch of his home and spoke to people in groups selected by Hanna.