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The Populist Party
Populists had previously achieved notable electoral success for a third party by attracting aggrieved voters alienated by the policies of the two major parties.  The party’s momentum had stalled, however, due partly to concerted Democratic opposition in the South and partly to an internal rift over strategy.  Some Populists—called “fusionists”—wanted to focus on free silver and were inclined to cooperate with the Democratic Party in 1896, while others—called “mid-roaders”—urged pursuing a larger agenda of reforms and remaining an independent organization.  (“Mid-roader” alludes to separation from Republicans and Democrats, not to moderation; in fact, they were the more radical Populist group.)

The fusionists won the opening rounds when the party’s national convention was scheduled for July 24-26, over three weeks after the Democratic Convention, and when Democrats complied with fusionist hopes by approving a strong free-silver platform and presidential nominee.  Meeting in St. Louis, Populist delegates passed a wide-ranging reform platform and then nominated Bryan for president.  An anti-Bryan protest by the mid-roaders was halted when the lights were turned off.  The only mid-roader success was to replace the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Arthur Sewall, who was too anti-labor for most Populists, with Thomas E. Watson, a former Populist congressman (1891-1893) from Georgia and a leader of the mid-road faction.  Watson accepted with the understanding from Democrats that Sewall would step aside.  When that did not occur, Watson remained on the Populist ticket but refused to campaign for Bryan. 

The Democratic Campaign
On August 12, 1896, William Jennings Bryan officially accepted the Democratic presidential nomination by venturing into what he termed “the enemy’s country”—New York City, where he addressed supporters at Madison Square Garden (following the example set by Grover Cleveland in 1892).  It was still the standard in American politics for presidential nominees not to campaign openly.  A few Democratic challengers in the past had gone on brief speaking tours—Stephen Douglas in 1860, Horatio Seymour in 1868, and Horace Greeley in 1872.  Since 1880, Republicans had made use of “front porch” campaigns during which party loyalists traveled to the nominee’s home to hear him speak from his front porch.  However, in 1884, Republican James Blaine spent six weeks on the campaign trail.  In 1896, Bryan became the first major-party nominee to spend virtually the entire campaign season on a national speaking tour.  He first spoke at cities as he traveled to and from New York, delivering a Labor Day address at a huge rally in Chicago.  In the ten weeks before the November 3 election, he traveled 18,000 miles throughout 27 states, giving hundreds of speeches to crowds as large as 30,000 and totaling an estimated 5 million. 

Although touching on other planks from the Democratic platform, Bryan emphasized its advocacy of the free coinage of silver.  Bryan argued that a prosperous agricultural sector was necessary for the flourishing of American industry.  He asserted that free silver would raise crop prices, giving farmers the money to pay off debts (which would also be less in real value because of inflation).  The Democratic nominee tried to link the gold standard to the economic depression and high unemployment, countering that free silver would provide more money for industrial expansion and job creation.  Bryan considered free silver as the key issue of a broader agenda that would redistribute wealth and power from the few to the many.  He also sought the votes of workingmen by condemning court-ordered injunctions against strikers and by endorsing a federal income tax (with progressively higher rates for higher incomes).  Presidents of the nation’s two largest unions, J. R. Sovereign of the Knights of Labor and Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, campaigned for Bryan (although the AFL did not officially back any political party).   

Bryan’s extensive campaign tour not only exemplified his energy and personal inclination, but also was necessary for spreading his message effectively.  The Democrat National Committee, under Senator James K. Jones of Arkansas, was poorly funded and staffed.  It did distribute campaign literature, particularly on free silver, and run a speakers’ bureau, but the efforts were inadequate.  The national Democratic campaign suffered from the absence of prominent gold-standard partisans, who constituted the party’s most talented managers and fundraisers.  Bryan himself had little concern for the details of campaign organization, so was forced to rely upon his own considerable speaking ability. 

 
 
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