The U.S. Presidential Election of 1896

The U.S. Presidential Election of 1896

In 1896, one of the most dramatic and complex campaigns in history was held. Democrat William Jennings Bryan, also supported by the Populists, faced off with Republican William McKinley. This was a critical election as it introduced new campaign tactics and techniques and for the long lasting power the winning party would hold for the next 16 years. The two largest issues of the time were tariffs and bimetallism, or currency standards. [1]

Several parties and candidates competed during 1896, including many third parties. The Gold Democrats, the National Silver, Socialist Labor, and Prohibition parties were less substantial ones. The most prominent and influential was the Populist's Party, originally named the People's Party. This party exhibited the interests of farmers in the south, west, and mid-west, and strived for progressive-like reforms. The Populists chose Bryan, too, as their candidate, but chose a different vice-presidential candidate, Thomas E. Watson, pulling many votes away from the Democrat Arthur Sewall. The Democratic Party, reinforced by the Populist's Party, now challenged the more industrial Republicans.

William McKinley supported high tariffs that protect north-eastern business and industry but hinder agriculture. The Republican candidate also defended the traditional Gold Standard in which paper money was backed up only by a certain amount of Gold. [2] The majority of this wealth was held by large business owners who chose to keep it out of circulation, restricting the argrarian people.

William Jennings Bryan of the Democratic Party led the Free Silver movement, also known as the Silver Crusade. Free Silver is a standard in which paper money is backed by gold and silver. This standard would have allowed more money in circulation and assisted farmers to eliminate fixed debts. Bryan hoped this would relieve the nation of a depression and poverty. The supporters of the Free Silver were known as "Silverites.

Two vastly different campaigning tactics were used. McKinley held the advantage of employing one of the best economists alive, Mark Hanna, as his campaign manager. Hanna met with many large corporations to fund the support for the Republican. Overall, Hanna raised 3.5 million dollars for McKinley's campaign. This equates to over 3 billion dollars in today's economy. The presidential candidate, once again choosing to do things traditionally, ran a "front porch campaign. Hanna paid for masses of people to travel by train to see McKinley at his home. Although he was not the best orator around, he gained respect for being a Union Civil War veteran. [3]

Bryan was being greatly outspent and needed to improvise. He made the best of his limited funds, 300,000 dollars, to travel the country by train. Putting to use his superior speaking skills, he made over 500 influential speeches in 100 days, including his most famous "Cross of Gold speech. Bryan was accused of lacking dignity by breaking the tradition set by previous candidates. He replied with, "I would rather have it said that I lacked dignity than that I lacked backbone to meet the enemies of the government who works against its welfare from Wall Street"[4]. Regardless of criticism, Bryan's tactics gave results.

The critical election came to an end with the Republican McKinley hailing as the victor, holding 271 electoral votes to Bryan's 176. Bryan held nearly as much popular vote as his Republican counterpart, coming out to 51% to 47%. The results showed it had been a battle between economic and sectional interests. The north-eastern, urban and industrial states held great support for the Republican while rural and agricultural states were for Bryan. It was speculated that Bryan's message had been to narrow and suited only one kind of person. His Free Silver seemed too radical and could possible have led the U.S. into economic failure. Thus, the Democratic Party suffered a defeat, the Populist's Party faded away, and the Republican's regained control of the government. [5][6]

Spencer Nath

References and Citations

[1] "Election of 1896. Travel and History. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. <>

[2] Micheloud, Francois. "What is Bimetallism? The Bimetallic Standard. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. <>

[3] "41e. The Election of 1896. U.S. History: Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. 2008-2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. <> <

[5] Peters, Gerhard. "Election of 1896. The American Presidency Project. 1999-2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. <>

[6] "Election of 1896. The Agribusiness Council. 2002-2007. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. <

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