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The Election of 1896 Previous Next
Digital History ID 3128


Not since the election of 1860 were political passions so deeply stirred. At stake appeared to be two very different visions of what kind of society America was to become.

Rarely in American history had conditions seemed so unsettled. The financial panic of 1893 was followed by four years of high unemployment and business bankruptcies. The panic led Jacob Coxey, a businessman from Massillon, Ohio, to organize the first mass march on Washington. Coxey's army demanded a federal public works program. As rumors of revolution swept Washington, the government responded by jailing the march's leaders.

The violent steel strike at Homestead mills near Pittsburgh in 1892 and the intervention of federal troops in the Pullman Strike and the imprisonment of labor leader Eugene V. Debs in 1894 stirred the public passions. By 1896, the situation of many southern and western farmers was desperate.

At the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, delegates repudiated the leadership of President Grover Cleveland, seized the Free Silver issue from the Populists, and nominated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. Bryan won his party's nomination with one of the most famous speeches ever delivered at a political convention. "The boy orator of the Platte" was viewed by his supporters as the champion of the plain people, the prairie avenger who promised financial relief to hard-pressed farmers. Bryan's supporters viewed his campaign as a continuation of the old American struggle between producers and exploiters, debtors and creditors. To hard-pressed farmers, Bryan's program of financial relief offered hope that they might survive financially.

Bryan's radical attacks on Wall Street, banks, and railroads frightened many prosperous farmers and businessmen. The gulf between populist farmers and immigrant and urban laborers made it impossible for the Populists to forge successful ties with the urban working class. The Populist movement was deeply imbued with the values of Evangelical Protestantism, alienating many Catholics.

Bryan's opponent, Republican William McKinley, campaigned on a platform of jobs and sound money, promising a "full dinner pail."

Business interests spent nearly $16 million to elect McKinley, allowing the Republicans to adopt a new style of campaigning. Instead of relying on party organization to turn out the vote, Republicans relied increasingly on advertisements.

Unlike some earlier Republican candidates, McKinley rejected moralistic crusades, like prohibition, that alienated ethnic groups. In 1896, McKinley assembled a political coalition that included both the new industrialists and their workers. Most of industrial America voted Republican, including most workers in factories, mines, mills, and railroads. As a result the Republican Party went on to dominate the presidency for most of the next three decades.

During the late 1890s, two solutions appeared to the nation's monetary problems. New discoveries of gold in South Africa and Australia greatly increased the world's gold supply. At the same time, bankers created a new "currency"--bank checks. More and more of the nation's business transactions took place through checks rather than through paper money and gold coins.

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