Republican William McKinley's victory over Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the presidential election of 1896 is considered a "realigning" election by political scientists for its influence on future elections and governance. Republicans won control of the White House and both houses of Congress as voters repudiated the administration of Democrat Grover Cleveland and blamed it for the economic depression blanketing the country. The philosophies and approaches to government each party developed during this election affected political debate for two generations.
McKinley was a two-term governor of Ohio and former congressman. In 1890, he authored what came to be known as the McKinley Tariff#; a surcharge on imported goods designed to protect domestic industries by raising costs and restricting access to cheaper foreign goods. The Tariff became part of the campaign platform McKinley ran on and was a foundation of his economic philosophy. He was nominated on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention in St. Louis. McKinley chose New Jersey businessman and legislator Garrett Hobart as his vice-presidential running mate.
Bryan was only 36 years old, just old enough to run for the presidency. He was a former Nebraska congressman and an accomplished public speaker. Meeting in Chicago for their national convention, the dispirited Democrats were saddled with a depression brought about by the Panic of 1893. Bryan electrified those assembled as he thundered in opposition to the Cleveland Administration's reliance on the gold standard to measure the supply of money: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold. Bryan was nominated on the fifth ballot. The convention chose Maine industrialist Arthur Sewall as his running mate.
Besides the depression, one issue dominated the 1896 campaign; money. The U.S. has eased away from bimetallism, in which currency supply and value are expressed in either gold or silver, to a gold standard in the 1870's. This "sound money" policy was successful in reducing the volatility of inflation rates as the money supply could not increase without a commensurate increase in gold reserves. Big Business endorsed the policy as it provided for planning investments and expenses more easily. But by the 1890's, opposition to the gold standard emerged from farmers in the West and Great Plains. They wanted the money supply based on the more plentiful reserves of silver. Since the Comstock Lode discovery in Nevada at the end of the Civil War, the production of silver had far outpaced that of gold. An increase in the supply of money based on silver would provide additional sources of credit for cash-strapped farmers. In addition, they could pay back their debts in inflation-adjusted currency as most economists agree that a relatively unregulated increase in the money supply increases the risk of inflationary pressures in the economy.
The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 was a compromise between those who favored gold and those who favored silver as valuation for currency. The Act provided for the issuance of silver notes monthly in sufficient amounts to pay for 4.5 million ounces of silver bouillon; twice as much as previously allowed. Enough silver dollars were to be coined from the bouillon to redeem all silver notes. The notes were then redeemable for either silver or gold. The new law backfired. While it did expand the money supply as expected, more note holders preferred holding gold than silver. As they redeemed their notes for gold, the nation's gold reserves decreased quickly. Investors and bank account holders feared abandonment of the gold standard. The ensuing Panic of 1893 resulted in bank failures, widespread unemployment, and economic depression. The Sherman Act was repealed in 1893.
As the campaign began, McKinley's best asset was his campaign manager, Mark Hanna, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Hanna, an industrialist and shipper from Cleveland, transferred his business acumen for administrative, organizational, deal-making, fundraising, and public relations to the political arena. He once saved his friend McKinley from an embarrassing bankruptcy by raising money to pay off a loan for which the governor co-signed.
His fundraising was more prodigious this time. Contributions from childhood friend John D. Rockefeller, as well as from railroad, insurance and other business interests raised an unheard-of amount of $3.5 million for the McKinley campaign. The Republicans went on to outspend the Democrats 10-1.
The governor adopted a "Front Porch" strategy for the fall campaign. Believing, as other recent candidates had, that groveling for votes was beneath the dignity of the man and the office, McKinley stayed at his home in Canton and campaigned, literally, from his front porch. Hanna paid to transport tens of thousands of supporters by train to hear the candidate speak from his home. The speeches were then sent to the nation's newspapers for publication.
McKinley defended his campaign strategy: "I might as well put up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan. I have to think when I speak."
The governor refused to make the issue out of the gold/silver question as Bryan did. He had been on both sides of the money question in the past. Besides, his 1890 Tariff was the key to economic prosperity in his mind and he took every opportunity before the throngs in his front yard to drive home the point. He supported the sound money plank and gold standard in the party platform because the Republicans approved it. But his issue was the tariff.
Bryan, to the contrary, seemed to be in a constant state of motion throughout the campaign. He traveled the country by train, making twice as many speeches as his opponent. Even though he was the Democratic standard-bearer, he did not endear himself to the supporters of the repudiated President Cleveland. He opposed Cleveland's hard money policies as had those of his predecessor, Benjamin Harrison. While in the House of Representatives, Bryan took the floor August 16, 1893 to deliver a speech that would become the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. He speculated on where support was coming from for the administration's repeal of the Sherman Act: "Not from the workshop and the farm, not from the working men of the country who create its wealth in time of peace and protect its flag in time of war; but from the middle-men from what are termed the "business interests" and largely from that class which can force Congress to let it issue money at a pecuniary profit to itself if silver is abandoned."
His fellow Democrats punished Bryan for his maverick stance by twice denying him election to the Senate. Opposition from within his own party forced him to abandon re-election plans in 1894.
The clear distinctions between the candidates on the issues and the fervor of their supporters gave political cartoonists of the day a great deal of material. Many commented on Bryan's youth. One, appearing in Harper's Weekly, featured McKinley in his Union uniform juxtaposed with a one-year-old Bryan in his crib. The caption asked what each was doing in 1861. Others ridiculed the relationship between McKinley and his benefactor Hanna, often showing the campaign manager as a wealthy puppet-master to the candidate.
Bryan was not without a controversial supporter of his own. John Altgeld was the first Democrat elected Illinois governor since the Civil War. A strong labor supporter, Altgeld had pardoned the surviving rioters, convicted unjustly he thought, in the 1886 Haymarket Riots. That move effectively ended his political
career. He also disagreed with Cleveland's use of the Army to end the Pullman Strike of 1894. Both labor union members and police died in each incident. Cartoonists often portrayed Altgeld as the power behind Bryan's throne. One showed the governor using a silver coin with Bryan's countenance to cover his own face and his anarchic plan for America. The New York Times found it amusing that tenants of a Chicago apartment building owned by Altgeld did not share their landlord's affinity for Bryan. Headlined Altgeld's Tenants for McKinley, the subhead read: they want to be sure of gold with which to pay their rent. The body of the piece reported that of 407 men surveyed, 273 expressed support for the Ohio governor and his support for the gold standard.
Although the electoral vote on November 3rd was closer than Altgeld's apartment residents indicated, the McKinley-Hobart ticket scored a nonetheless convincing victory. Winning the East, industrial Midwest, plus California and Oregon, the Republicans won the popular vote by 600,000 and gathered over 60% of the electoral vote, winning 271-176. The Democrats' contention that many states were close was true, but it was a solid mandate for sound money and high tariffs.
The hard-fought and emotional campaign had gripped the imagination of the electorate. Turnout was nearly 80%. In defeat, the Bryan-Sewall ticket amassed 750,000 more votes than Cleveland did in his victorious campaign in 1892, in which he revenged his 1888 loss to Benjamin Harrison. Not until Woodrow Wilson's second-term victory would a Democratic candidate for president garner that high a vote total. McKinley polled two million more votes than Harrison did four years earlier.
In conclusion, one of the ironies of the election of 1896 is that 80% of the electorate was motivated to choose sides between economic philosophies that no free-market economist would champion today. Both Bryan's call for free silver and McKinley's protectionist tariff would be ridiculed as market-disrupting, inefficient, and inflationary. That so many voters felt compelled to participate is a testament to the fevered pitch of the campaign and the allegiance they felt for each candidate.
Decisions made in 1896 had repercussions for years to come. Republicans, with their sound money, low inflation prosperity, held the White House for two decades. Democrats moved from a pro-business stance under
Cleveland to more of a reliance on government involvement in the economy and the society at large, as well as a clarion call to class struggle among its members. In fact, many of the principles the two parties forged in the tumultuous election of 1896 are still recognizable in the 21st century.