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
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
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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