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The Presidential Election of 1896 Video

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  • 0:04 The Money Question &…
  • 1:12 Political Parties & Candidates
  • 2:37 The Election
  • 3:49 Outcome & Significance
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
With an extremely high voter turnout, colorful candidates, a competitive third party, the presidential election of 1896 is one of the most interesting political contests in American history.

The Money Question & Free Silver

Believe it or not, most Americans of the late nineteenth century talked about the merits and drawbacks of hard currency (gold and silver) all the time. It was a contentious issue, and millions of people read books on the topic and debated around their dinner tables. This so-called money question formed the core issue of the presidential election of 1896.

The economic depression that slammed the U.S. beginning in 1893 set the stage for this debate and ultimately for the presidential election three years later. Farmers believed the gold standard caused the depression. U.S. currency was based on gold, and farmers argued this kept the money supply from expanding with the economy. So, they championed free silver, which became the central issue of the presidential election of 1896. Free silver referred to the coinage of silver; that is, using silver for money in addition to gold. Farmers championed free silver because they believed it would lead to inflation, which would increase the value of their products while simultaneously reducing the interest on their debts. These farmers would form a powerful third party during the 1896 election.

Political Parties & Candidates

Let's now take a look at the political parties and their candidates involved in the 1896 election. The Republican Party nominated Ohio Governor William McKinley for president. McKinley's campaign platform rested on the gold standard. He argued gold was the only metal on which money should be based, and he promised to maintain America's gold-supported currency system.

The Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan from Nebraska. Bryan was an eloquent and inspiring speaker, which earned him the moniker 'boy orator from the Platte.' At the Democratic National Convention, he gave one of the most vivid speeches in the history of American politics. In the Cross of Gold Speech he advocated free silver, and proclaimed, 'You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!'

Then there was the third party, the Populist Party, which was a farmers' party that supported free silver. But they also had a robust platform of additional reforms aimed at helping agricultural America. Bryan's advocacy of free silver put the Populists in a tight spot.

The Populists knew Bryan, as a major-party candidate, had a better shot at winning than did a Populist Party candidate. And if they ran a separate Populist candidate, it would split the vote for Bryan, essentially handing the election to the Republicans and McKinley. In the end the Populists nominated Bryan as their presidential candidate, and chose farm advocate Tom Watson as their vice presidential pick.

The Election

Republican candidate William McKinley and his campaign manager Mark Hanna focused on raising large sums of money. And raise money they did, making this the most expensive campaign to date. Hanna stoked businessmen's fears of Populism, and called Bryan a 'Popocrat' radical and a communist who would destroy capitalism and promote class warfare.

McKinley knew he couldn't match Bryan as a speaker on the stump. Instead, he and Hanna sent 1,400 speakers to promote McKinley across the country. The candidate ran a 'front-porch campaign' from his home in Canton, Ohio, whereby he entertained supporters and donors and proclaimed himself the 'advance agent of prosperity.'

On the other side, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan gave spellbinding speeches to five million Americans in twenty-seven states. He aimed his rhetoric at the 'producing classes' of workers, farmers, miners, and small businessmen.

In all this, the Populists had become a sideshow, despite their strong showing in the previous elections of 1892 and 1894. The main contest was between Bryan and McKinley, and Bryan refused to recognize that the Populists had nominated him as their presidential candidate.

Outcome & Significance

Voter turnout was unprecedented, at around eighty percent of the electorate. Bryan carried most states of the predominately rural South and the mountain West, especially the silver states of the Rocky Mountains. McKinley had a strong showing in the vote-heavy Northeast.

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