Election of 1896
McKinley’s home, with the front porch where McKinley delivered speeches
The Republicans met first, nominating former Ohio governor William McKinley. McKinley appointed Mark Hanna, a political boss from Ohio, as his campaign manager. No one had ever hired a manager for a campaign but Hanna took his new position serious, organizing McKinley’s campaign down to the smallest detail, creating many still-used techniques. Hanna raised $10 million and brought people to Canton, Ohio, on trains to listen to McKinley give speeches. McKinley did not have to leave his front porch. The Republican platform called for pro-business, pro-Northeast measures, including a protective tariff and the gold standard.
When the Democrats convened they introduced dramatic changes to their previous political philosophy. Rejecting Grover Cleveland as a possible candidate, the Democrats wrote a platform favoring the South, West, farmers, and reform. Adopting several of the more moderate Populist platform planks, Democrats supported free silver, an income tax, more aggressive breaking of trusts, and stronger regulation of railroads. The Democratic party chose William Jennings Bryan, a 36 year-old congressman from Nebraska, as their nominee.
McKinley campaign poster. McKinley stands atop a gold coin, representing the gold standard
William Jennings Bryan
Because the Democrats adopted free silver, the Populists faced a dilemma. If they nominated their own free silver candidate, the vote would be split and the Republicans would win easily. To prevent this, the Populists also nominated William Jennings Bryan (with a different vice presidential nominee). William Jennings Bryan was a dynamic speaker who travelled thousands of miles by train giving speeches to reach voters across the nation.
Democratic campaign poster
Did you know?
William Jennings Bryan was actually a delegate to the 1896 Democratic convention. The convention was divided over several issues, including the issue of free silver and whom to choose as the nominee. At a debate over monetary policy, Bryan spoke on the issue of free silver. He delivered an oration known as the “Cross of Gold” speech. Speaking against the gold standard, Bryan ended by stating:
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
His powerful speech electrified the crowd and led to his nomination for president.
Web Field Trip
William Jennings Bryan repeated his speech many times over the years, and segments of it were recorded in 1921. Listen to Bryan deliver portions of his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Earliest Voices website.
The election of 1896 exposed three fundamental divisions in American society::
- business versus farming
- conservative-minded versus reform-minded
- city versus rural
- gold versus silver
The Significance of the Election of 1896
More so than any election since Rutherford B. Hayes’ 1876 victory ended Reconstruction, the election of 1896 had long-term consequences. The Populists’ decision to join the Democrats, and their combined loss, signaled the end of the Populist Party. Eventually prosperity returned to the United States and the depression ended. The Democratic Party made a major shift, changing from Grover Cleveland’s laissez faire, conservative style of leadership to a reform-oriented party. It never returned to a conservative platform. The push for reform started by the Populists did not end in 1896. Widespread calls for reforms returned with the Progressives a decade later, and several tenants of the Populist platform eventually became law. Learn more about the cultural impact of the election of 1896 by playing the Wizard of Oz interactive.