Why the US Election of 1896 Was a Milestone

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William Jennings Bryan

The U.S. presidential election of 1896 was important in the way a candidate for the office campaigned and set a precedent for such office seekers.

The Presidential campaign of 1896 was a dramatic, exciting and polarized one that reflected the important issues of the day.

The Currency Issue

The country was in a state of economic depression caused by the Panic of 1893. President Grover Cleveland failed to solve the economic crises. His party, the Democratic Party, was split over the currency issue: the gold and silver standards. He supported the gold standard and so did his Eastern U.S. followers. Democratic supporters in the American South and West were for the silver standard. Supporters of gold claimed that it was essential to America’s ability to compete in world trade and was a symbol for stability, fiscal firmness and public morality. Opponents of gold claimed that it placed artificial restrictions on the currency, not providing enough money to circulate the needs of an economy; that if made it difficult for debtors to repay their loans and for investors to find credit for new opportunities. Silver, in their view, became a symbol of liberation; a “people’s money”, where gold was the money of “oppression and exploitation”.

The Candidates and their Platforms

The president’s inability to help the nation out of the depression gave the Republicans, what they thought, was a winning issue – the economy.

Party leaders at the 1896 Republican Convention, led by party boss Marcus Hanna picked Governor William McKinley of Ohio to be their candidate for president. As a Congressman, McKinley wrote the 1890 Tariff Act. The Republican platform was against coining silver. More than 30 delegates, in protest, left the convention and joined the Democratic Party.

At the Democratic Convention that year, Southern and Western delegates wanted control of the party from the Easterners who were conservative and adopt some Populist Party proposals such as free silver coinage, lower tariffs, and income tax, and other things. The Eastern wing of the party was still, like the Republicans, against free silver, supporting the gold standard. William Jennings Bryan, a U.S. congressman from Nebraska and a great orator in his time, spoke to the convention in a famous speech, later known as the “Cross of Gold”. He rallied against the gold standard and for the silver issue, saying, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” He received a standing ovation and, as a result, the convention adopted the pro-silver platform and Bryan was nominated him as their candidate for president.

His admirers called him the Great Commoner. His rivals in the Democratic and Republican parties thought he was dangerous to capitalism and free enterprise. No matter which side they were on, most considered him to be the epitome of rural, Protestant, middle-class America. The Populist Party was happy with the Democratic platform on free silver but unhappy with the rest of the party’s platform. Businesses were strongly opposed to the Democratic candidate.

A New Way of Campaigning for President

McKinley did the traditional way of campaigning, using the “front porch” approach. This meant that, for the most part, candidates did not actively campaign for the office. Others campaigned for them, mostly. The candidates mostly spoke at few large gatherings around the country. It was thought by most people that actively campaigning was undignified for such a high office. Bryan, on the other hand, went out to nearly every part of the country and actively campaigned, making speeches and said directly to the voters that he wanted to be president, something unheard of at that time for major candidates for the office.

Many Catholic Democrats, who were mostly immigrants, were threatened by Bryan’s Protestantism. In the end, McKinley won the election. Bryan only carried the Southern and Western states. McKinley won the Northern, Eastern and industrial states.

By actively campaigning for the presidency, Bryan set a precedent that other candidates followed in later presidential elections.

References:

  1. Brinkley, Alan. Current, Richard N. Freidel, Frank. Williams, T. Harry. American History, A Survey, Seventh Edition, Volume II: Since 1865. 1987. Pages 561-570.
  2. Harper, Andrew. Class notes from Interpretations of American History II. 2005.