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Summary and Significance of the United States Presidential Election of 1896

Vijith Menon Feb 29, 2020
The panic of 1893 dried the gold reserves of the United States, which led to widespread fear among the people. By pinning their hopes on the presidential candidates, William Bryan Jennings and William McKinley, they hoped for a champion to help them rise out of the debt.

Did You Know?

William McKinley never left his house to campaign for the election. Railroad companies brought people to visit him, and these trips were free. He went on to win and become president.
Elections always hold promises of great things to come. With the same feelings of hope, peace, and prosperity, the people wish to continue their lives without additional drama. The events of 1893 had led to an economic depression due to falling prices of gold.
The nation was facing a severe crunch, as the railroad companies had borrowed from the banks, but were unable to complete railroad lines in time. Plus, the falling standards of gold had reduced the value of the dollar, and the rich-poor divide was once again brought to the surface.
Farmers had traded their harvests for gold at huge losses. This led to sentiments of favoritism towards the industrialists, and the agrarian population floated a separate party that would advocate their policies of free silver. They believed that silver would help reduce the deficit and let them pay off their outstanding debts.
The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was passed in order to increase inflation and reduce the burgeoning debt. The Act allowed the US government to buy more silver than usual, which the people could redeem for cash. This plan however backfired, as people used the silver to buy gold.
President Grover Cleveland had to borrow money from Philip Rothschild and banker JP Morgan just to keep the US Treasury from sinking.
The growing depression and discontent finally led to people needing a change of government. The 1896 elections had received the fervor and attention of all the states, as the elected candidate would be the champion that promised to end the drought, and bring in prosperity and wealth.

Major Candidates in the 1896 Election

The Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, an orator who gained the confidence of the people with his Cross of Gold speech that vowed the usage of silver, and not crucify mankind on the standards of gold. His running mate was the candidate for Vice President, Arthur Sewall, a wealthy shipping magnate from Maine.
The Republican Party nominated William McKinley of Ohio, who had helped pass the Sherman Act, along with the unpopular McKinley Act that had increased the tariffs. But his appointment as governor as well as being a veteran of the Civil War, worked in his favor. His running mate was Garret Hobart a lawyer & a former Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.
The Populist Party also nominated William Jennings Bryan, due to his leanings towards the common man and sympathy for the farmers of the rural states. But to maintain their independence from the Democrats, they nominated Thomas E. Watson, a Georgian senator and attorney.
The Socialist Party nominated Charles Matchett of New York and Matthew Maguire of New Jersey for the election. Their platform mainly favored reduction of labor hours.
The Prohibition Party split into two, namely the Narrow Gauge and Broad Gauge, had an anti-liquor stance. They fielded Joshua Levering with his running mate Hale Johnson for the Broad Gauge, and Charles E. Bentley with his running mate James H. Southgate for the Narrow Gauge.
Some members of the Republican Party who preferred silver over gold formed the Silver Party, and fielded William Jennings Bryan as its primary candidate.

Despite all these nominations, the main race was basically between William McKinley and William Bryan Jennings.

Major Issues

Gold reserves had dipped to an all-time-low, with former President Cleveland favoring silver coins to reduce the burgeoning debt. Railroad companies had already borrowed from banks to build connecting railroad lines.
Silver was cheaper than gold, and preferred by the working class and farmers to buy necessary commodities.

The panic of 1893 had resulted in high taxes on imported goods from Latin American countries, as well as tax against industrialists.

Summary of the 1896 Elections

▣ Since the policies of President Cleveland were not well-received, the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan as their candidate.

▣ William McKinley was nominated from the Republican side even after the debacle of the Sherman Act which he had help pass in Congress.
▣ William Jennings Bryan traveled by train to give a speech in every city. His record was 36 speeches in a day.
▣ McKinley adopted a front porch policy and received people at his house. His manager Mark Hanna, a businessman and a Republican Senator, used his business skills to gather donations from various businesses.
▣ A besmirching campaign was run by the Republican factions, by portraying Jennings as a crusader of dangerous policies, like favoring silver and showing McKinley in a good light as the champion of safe and sound jobs.
▣ The Republicans printed fake dollar bills with Jennings' face on it, which read 'IN GOD WE TRUST....FOR THE OTHER 53 CENTS', implying that a dollar bill would be worth only 47 cents.

▣ The South and Mountain states were expected to vote for Jennings, while the cities in the Midwest decided to test their faith with McKinley.
▣ The results were pretty close, since a major portion of the East and Northeast cities voted for McKinley, and Jennings did well in the agrarian states of the South, West, and rural Midwest. The national vote put McKinley in the lead with 51%, and then Jennings followed with 47%. In the electoral college, McKinley won with 271 electoral votes, to Jennings' 176.
In the end, America had decided in the favor of McKinley, who signed the Gold Standard Act by stabilizing the value of a dollar to an ounce of gold. He further signed the Dingley Tariff Act to set the tariff rates at 45 percent.
After McKinley's win, gold reserves found in Alaska, Colorado, and South Africa led to the gold rush, which would ensure prosperity for the next ten years. Populist policies died down and didn't influence American interest. This election was significant because it marked a shift towards urban interests, instead of being pro-farming.