A Hundred Years Ago: Crusaders vs. Conservatives in a Furious Campaign

A Social Education Special Feature
The Presidential election of 1896 was widely believed at the time to be the most important since 1860.
The election took place during a long economic depression. Unemployment was at a critical level. The situation of many farmers was desperate as a result of years of falling prices for farm products; many had run up huge debts, and foreclosures of their land were common. A panic run on gold in 1893 had forced the Treasury to borrow heavily from banks to maintain its reserves. In the midterm elections of 1894, the discontented electorate handed the Republican Party a dazzling victory in which it wrested control of both the House and the Senate from the Democratic Party of President Grover Cleveland.

A victory in the Presidential election would, Republicans hoped, usher in a new period of Republican rule. But the Democratic Party itself was turning away from Cleveland's policies. Many of its members were influenced by a rising force in American politics, the Populist Party, which had been formed from a coalition of Farmers' Alliances active in different communities throughout the country. In 1892, the movement had unsuccessfully run its own Presidential candidate, General James B. Weaver, who had received 8.5 percent of the total vote. But in 1896, the Populists combined with the Democratic Party in support of William Jennings Bryan, and made the election campaign one of the most intense in American history.

The Populist Party
The Populist Party owed its rise to support from rural areas, where most Americans lived. At that time, more Americans were employed in agriculture than any other sector, even though there had been a rapid increase in the number of people working in manufacturing, transportation and professional services. And many years of falling prices paid for farm products had meant lower income for farmers and lower wages for farm workers.
The wealth of the elite stood in marked contrast to the distress in rural areas. At a time when many farmers risked foreclosure of their mortgaged land by banks, and were bitter about the high prices they had to pay for transportation of their products, prominent bankers and transportation magnates enjoyed spectacular fortunes.

The prevalent belief of the time was that the government could influence the economy through its monetary policy. The issue of whether or not the dollar should be tied to the gold standard was debated with as much passion as any economic issue today.

The Republican Party-and Democratic President Cleveland-supported adherence to the gold standard, in the belief that this made for a sound currency which would give investors confidence and encourage the capital investment necessary for economic development. Republican politicians were also strong backers of protectionist tariffs on imported goods, arguing that this would allow American manufacturing to flourish.

In contrast, the Populists espoused a "free silver" monetary policy. Gold was scarce, they argued, and linking the dollar to gold meant that too few dollars flowed into the economy. They urged the coinage of silver, which was widely available in the West, as a means of increasing the amount of currency in circulation, and thus, they believed, the purchasing power of the people. In addition, Populists urged a graduated income tax and public ownership of railroads, as well as direct election of U.S. senators.

The Candidates and their Platforms
The candidate who brought together the Populist and Democratic Parties under one banner was the 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan, a lawyer and spell-binding orator who had been elected to the U.S. Congress for Nebraska in 1890. Defeated in a campaign for a Senate seat in the Democratic setback of 1894, he had taken a position as editor of the Omaha World-Herald. At the Democratic Convention held in Chicago in 1896, in a close-fought battle to become Democratic candidate, Bryan gained the lead on his opponent, Richard P. Bland of Missouri, in the fourth round, and won the nomination on the next ballot. Arthur Sewall, a Maine shipbuilder, was elected as the vice-presidential nominee on the fifth ballot.
Bryan swayed the 1896 Democratic Convention with a speech that became famous for its attack on moneyed interests: "you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

The platform adopted by the Party likewise criticized "the enrichment of the money-lending class at home and abroad." While it omitted or toned down many Populist demands, the platform adopted the Populist position that "the money question is paramount to all others at this time." It declared the gold standard to be "not only un-American, but anti-American." The platform criticized the Republican policy of protectionism, on the ground that, "under the false plea of protection to home industry, [it] proved a prolific breeder of trusts and monopolies," and "enriched the few at the expense of the many." It also called for "such restriction and guarantees in the control of railroads as will protect the people from robbery and oppression."

The Republican nomination was much less contested than the Democratic one. At the Republican convention in St. Louis, William McKinley, the 53-year-old governor of Ohio, was an easy winner. His vice-presidential running mate was Thomas B. Reed of Maine.

McKinley had enjoyed a stable and increasingly successful political career in Ohio, as Congressman from 1877 until 1891 and Governor since 1892. His campaign manager was one of his closest associates, Mark Hanna, a wealthy Ohio industrialist who had a strong sense of how the use of money and communications could support a political campaign. With the help of funds from businessmen and effective communications with Republicans across the country, Hanna locked the Republican nomination up for McKinley before the Convention began.

The Republican platform blamed the ongoing depression on Democratic rule, "which has precipitated panic, blighted industry and trade with prolonged depression, closed factories, reduced work and wages, halted enterprise and crippled American production, while stimulating foreign production for the American market." The platform urged a sound gold-based monetary policy and protectionist policies to assist American industry.

Although the economy was the major focus of politics, other issues had also come to the fore, such as the massive increase in immigration during the past twenty years, and the Cuban struggle against Spanish rule. Both platforms addressed these issues, with the Republicans recommending a more interventionist foreign policy and stricter immigration restrictions than the Democrats.

The Campaign of 1896
The campaign marked a new stage in the development of mass campaigning in the United States. Bryan launched the practice of the whistle-stop campaign, traveling across the country by rail and addressing millions of people who came to hear him at stations where the train stopped. In contrast to Bryan's 18,000 miles of populist campaigning through 27 states, McKinley attempted to project a more statesmanlike image by receiving delegations of citizens on the front porch of his house in Canton, Ohio. About 750,000 persons are estimated to have made the trip to Canton, with the help of special cheap fares offered by the railroads.
Campaign posters for both candidates were conspicuous, and celluloid pin-on political buttons became part of the American electoral scene during this campaign.

The Republican cause could draw on far greater resources than the Democratic. At Hanna's urging, the McKinley campaign used donations from businessmen for the printing and mailing of campaign speeches and other materials. Most newspapers supported the Republicans, and were willing to print material sent them by the McKinley campaign. About 5 million families are estimated to have either read this campaign material in newspapers or to have received it directly each week. In contrast, Bryan's campaign was not able to mobilize the same resources. Although important donations were made by silver interests, these amounts did not come close to the business funds that poured into McKinley's campaign, and many of Bryan's supporters were poor farmers unable to contribute anything.

Bryan's campaign portrayed him as the protector of the ordinary person and underprivileged farmer or worker, and McKinley as a puppet of rich industrialists and bankers. Republican literature portrayed McKinley as a responsible leader who would help the economy, presenting Bryan as a demagogue whose economic policies would result in inflation. While the prospect of inflation did not trouble those of Bryan's supporters who sought higher prices for farm products, it caused problems for his campaign among urban residents, including workers, who benefited from cheap prices.

The election resulted in a McKinley victory by 271 electoral votes to 176. McKinley carried 23 states and Bryan 22. The Republicans maintained their majorities in the House and Senate, though with reduced margins. Almost 14 million voters went to the polls-close to 80 percent of the electorate. Bryan was strong in the West and South, especially in areas that produced silver or crops such as cotton or wheat, whose price had declined greatly. McKinley's strength was in the populous East and in Midwest regions whose crops were less affected by recent agricultural price declines.

The New Century
McKinley's victory inaugurated a period of prolonged Republican success in the Presidential race. In his first term, the economy improved and the United States won the Spanish-American War of 1898. The rematch between McKinley and Bryan in 1900 resulted in a bigger Republican victory by 292 electoral votes to 151. Between 1896 and the victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the only Democrat to be elected President was Woodrow Wilson.
Populist ideas were more successful than Populist candidates. They continued to influence the political scene, and were reflected in the policies of Republicans like "trustbuster" Theodore Roosevelt as well as Democrats like Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Populist proposals such as a graduated income tax, the prevention of monopolies and the imposition of workplace improvements on industrialists eventually became part of the law.