Mark Hanna’s 1898 Senate Bribery Scandal – page 14

But maybe there is another way to look at it. Of the sixteen senators accused of bribery, twelve, including Hanna, had never won a Senate election before.[177] Sophisticated men running for the Senate were well aware that money could help them win; but they also recognized that judgment was required in using it. Promising state legislative candidates could be identified and helped. Aspiring U.S. senators could solicit campaign contributions for them or make contributions themselves to those candidates. When elected, those candidates would remember the men who had helped them and vote them into the Senate.[178] Envelopes stuffed with cash in hotel rooms were conspicuous and illegal.

Hanna knew his methods were crude, but he was desperate. His opponents were engaged in “Every species of boodle and corrupt politics known in any campaign….”[179] Despite his political acumen, he stumbled into an old fashioned sting operation.[180]

Hanna’s responses to the scandal were similar to the responses of the other senators accused of bribery. At first he stonewalled, following the example of Henry B. Payne, another U.S. senator from Cleveland accused of bribery, who maintained, according to a friendly newspaper, a “manly and dignified silence.”[181]

But silence failed to quell the Otis story. So Hanna denied wrongdoing. On the Senate floor in 1900, he went beyond denial to attack. This was effective in the short run. But ultimately it is not convincing.

He could have said:

I swear to you, on my honor, I never knew or suspected that a bribe would be offered in my behalf or that a bribe was even being considered. If I had known, I would have promptly fired everyone involved. I will answer truthfully, under oath, every question anyone wants to ask about any alleged bribe and I implore all my friends to do the same.

He never said anything close to this. Yet many historians have given Hanna the benefit of the doubt.

Hanna was a vital, engaging man. People who knew him socially tended to like him. Even after his death, Croly and Beer wrote about him with affection. However, contemporary reporters and cartoonists who did not know him often judged him harshly.

Today, scholars who have studied Hanna’s life – read his letters and the statements of his friends collected by Croly – are likely to be lenient. But, now as before, people who have not been influenced by Hanna’s rough charm have judged him more critically. In the case of his 1898 Senate election, they have been right to do so.


[177] The twelve senators were: Caldwell, Clayton, Bogy, Grover, Lapham, Miller, Payne, Hanna, Clark, Lorimer, Watson, and Chilton. For bribery allegations, see Butler and Wolff, United States Senate, 174-289 and S. Doc. No. 62-1036, at 444, 697, 1217 (1913). For elections,

[178] Senator Calvin S. Brice, an Ohio Democrat, served in the Senate from 1891 – 1897, just before Hanna’s first term. Brice was “accused of buying his seat indirectly by contributing money to the campaign funds of men who were running for the legislature, but no formal charges were brought….” “A Whitewash Brush,” Los Angeles Herald, June 14, 1897; Allen O. Myers, Bosses and Boodle in Ohio Politics: Some Plain Truths for Honest People (Cincinnati: Lyceum Publishing Co., 1895), 280. Myers believed Brice also spent money after the election. Ibid., 284-285.

Republican Senator James McMillan of Michigan, served from 1889 – 1902. When McMillan was the state party chairman, he raised money from donors and then carefully distributed it to legislative candidates, who rewarded him with their support. David J. Rothman, Politics and Power: The United States Senate 1869-1901 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 164-66.

[179] Edited Dick statement, p. 21, Hanna-McCormick Family Papers.

[180] Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas was similarly ensnared in 1873. State legislator A.M. York testified he accepted a bribe from Senator Pomeroy for the sole purpose of exposing the crime. S. Rep. No. 42-523, at 2 (1873); “Pomeroy Defeated,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 30, 1873.

[181] “Senator Payne,” The Hocking (Logan, OH) Sentinel, Jan. 21, 1886. See Albert H. Walker, The Payne Bribery Case and the United States Senate (Hartford, CT: Clark & Smith, Printers, 1886).

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Kristie Miller is the author of three political biographies, Ruth Hanna McCormick (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize); Isabella Greenway; Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies. She holds degrees from Brown University and Georgetown University. Learn more at


Robert H. McGinnis is a member of the Washington DC bar. He is a graduate of the University of Florida Law School and Harvard Divinity School. His work has appeared in the Florida Law Review, Lawyer of the Americas (now Inter-American Law Review) and Rolling Stone. He and Kristie co-edited A Volume of Friendship: The Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway. Learn more at