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.
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).
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.