At the start of the 1896 presidential election year, things looked rosy for Republicans. But the emergence of a brash young politician, William Jennings Bryan, quickly turned the tide. Bryan’s campaign exposed the competing interests of those whose livelihoods were tied to urban institutions and those who lived off the land in rural America.
With the nation mired in the wake of a severe economic depression and a deeply unpopular Democratic president – Grover Cleveland – in the White House, the GOP had leaped back in the late midterms to gain control of the House and Senate . Ohio Governor William McKinley easily won the Republican presidential nomination and seemed poised to make a smooth ride to the White House on his platform of economic protectionism and support for the gold standard, which defined value. of the country’s currency in terms of the amount of gold. he had in reserve.
But in an unexpected turn of events, young Nebraska Democratic lawyer and former Congressman Bryan challenged McKinley in 1896. Bryan’s appeal to American farmers and the working class, his passionate support of the free money movement and his powerful style of speaking galvanized disaffected Democrats and members of the People’s (or Populist) Party, making the election one of the most contested and landmark in the country’s history.
READ MORE: Populism in the United States: A Timeline
Backdrop: Panic of 1893
The battle between McKinley and Bryan took place during an economic downturn that began in 1893, when two of the country’s largest employers, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, collapsed, triggering a stock market panic. Thousands of businesses have closed and the country has suffered from over 10% unemployment for more than five consecutive years.
While President Cleveland favored the gold standard, many members of the Populist Party and the rural and agrarian wing of the Democratic Party – including many farmers in the South and West – supported the Free Silver Movement. Rather than relying on gold to support the country’s money supply, they believed the country should use silver, which was much more plentiful at the time. This would inflate the currency, increase the prices farmers would receive for their crops, and help them pay off their debts more easily.
READ MORE: How the gold standard contributed to the Great Depression
William Jennings Bryan and the “ Golden Cross ”
When Democrats gathered in Chicago to choose their presidential candidate in July 1896, they repudiated Cleveland and radically changed course, making free money a central part of their platform. At 36, with two terms in Congress and a failed 1894 Senate race under his belt, Bryan was the party’s most outspoken and effective money champion. During the convention, he gave what would become one of the most famous political speeches in US history, known as the “Golden Cross” speech.
Bryan’s eloquent call for an end to government favoritism to business interests and the wealthy at the expense of farmers and the working class, and his defense of agrarian democracy in the context of the nation’s growing urbanization, would resonate with generations to come. The most electric moment of his speech came at the end, when he drew inspiration from his evangelical Christian faith.
“We will respond to their request for a gold standard by telling them: You shall not press this crown of thorns on the forehead of the work,” he cried, placing an imaginary crown on his head. “You will not crucify mankind on a golden cross.”
The crowd of over 20,000 at the Chicago Coliseum went wild and Bryan won the nomination, becoming the youngest presidential candidate in history. Populists, who had won multiple states in the 1892 election, also named Bryan, who shared their views on free money.
WATCH: America’s Book of Secrets: The Gold Conspiracy
Bryan’s Barnstorming Against McKinley’s Porch
Bryan traveled nearly 20,000 miles by rail across the country during his campaign and delivered hundreds of speeches, often in the back of his wagon. Huge crowds welcomed him, attracted by his oratory skills and the passion he inspired in his supporters.
For his part, McKinley stayed at his home in Canton, Ohio, speaking to large delegations of Republican supporters from his front porch. His campaign mastermind, Cleveland businessman Mark Hanna, drew 750,000 people to Canton during the campaign and enlisted thousands of speakers to be heard elsewhere on McKinley’s behalf. Foreshadowing a new style of campaign fundraising, Hanna solicited significant contributions from her industry colleagues, raising some $ 4 million in total.
In the end, despite Bryan’s best efforts, his campaign failed to broaden support beyond his populist, agrarian Democratic base. The more conservative Democrats, who were in favor of the gold standard, split from the party to nominate their own national (gold) Democratic candidate, or even lent their support to McKinley. Republicans managed to lure some urban progressive voters in by attacking Bryan as a religious fanatic, besides painting a dire picture of what dropping the gold standard would mean for the economy.
McKinley’s decisive victory
On polling day, the turnout topped 79%, reflecting the high stakes of the contest. McKinley won 600,000 more votes than Bryan, the largest margin since 1872, while his Electoral College victory (271 to 176) was even more decisive. In addition to his grassroots support in the urban Northeast, McKinley gained the strength of successful Midwestern farmers, industrial workers, and many ethnic voters. For his part, Bryan swept most of the south, the only part of the country where the economy remained predominantly agricultural; it has also done well among farmers in the West and Midwest.
Like the elections of 1800, 1860, and 1932, the presidential election of 1896 marked a fundamental shift in American politics and the emergence of a new political reality reflecting changing circumstances in the country. McKinley’s victory marked the start of an era of Republican rule and economic prosperity that would last for nearly four decades. It also marked the beginning of the end for the Populist Party, which did not fully disband but would never return to its former level of success.
More importantly, perhaps, the 1896 election marked the decisive triumph of the nation’s urban interests – banking, industry, and industry – over its agrarian past. With Americans migrating to cities at a rapidly increasing rate during the last decade of the 19th century, Bryan would be the last candidate to come forward appealing exclusively to the country’s rural population.
Bryan ran for president and lost twice more, in 1900 and 1908, before becoming secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, the only Democratic president at the time. Just before his death, the man many called “the great commoner” used his oratory skills one last time, arguing against the teaching of evolution in the Scopes trial.