The Republican Campaign
In 1896, presidential nominee
William McKinley conducted a traditionally Republican “front
porch” campaign. Approximately 750,000 supporters, often
getting free or discounted tickets from railroad companies,
traveled to his home in Canton, Ohio, where the candidate
answered questions and delivered short speeches. The
Democratic focus compelled McKinley to discuss the money
question, which he had adroitly avoided before his nomination.
He pointed out that inflation caused by free silver would result
in higher consumer prices for workers and weaken the national
credit necessary for business expansion and job creation.
As the campaign progressed, he focused increasingly on
protective tariffs as the economic basis for the nation’s past
prosperity and future recovery. While praising trade
protectionism, the GOP labeled Democrats erroneously as free
traders. Inverting Bryan’s assumption, McKinley argued
that productive business and industry supported a profitable
Republicans not only denounced free
silver as economically foolish, but warned voters that the
Democratic Party endorsed the Populist and Socialist agendas,
such as government ownership of communication and transportation
businesses. The GOP criticized what they called the
“anarchy plank” of the Democratic platform, which indirectly
condemned federal intervention in the Pullman strike of 1894.
Considering John Peter Altgeld the power behind Bryan, they
vilified the Illinois governor for objecting to the use of
federal troops to quell the strike and for pardoning three men
convicted in the Haymarket bombing. “Altgeldism” became
shorthand for social chaos and political radicalism.
McKinley stressed the theme of national unity and rebuked Bryan
for encouraging sectionalism and class conflict—rich versus
poor, farmers versus businessmen, and labor versus capital.
Democrats, Republicans ran a well organized and financed
campaign thanks in large part to the talent of Ohio businessman
Mark Hanna. He had worked on the presidential campaigns of
Ohioans Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, James A. Garfield in 1880,
and John Sherman in 1884 and 1888 (the latter was not nominated
either time). Hanna steered McKinley’s successful
gubernatorial campaigns in 1891 and 1893 before retiring from
business in 1895 to devote his time to McKinley’s presidential
bid. Hanna was assisted in 1896 by Charles Dawes (later
vice president under Calvin Coolidge), who administered the flow
of money. For the presidential contest, Republicans raised
$3.5 million ($75 million in 2002 dollars), a large sum
criticized by Democratic partisans and press.
cartoonists caricatured Hanna as a rich, cigar-chomping
political boss of questionable ethics. In fact, he did not
use illegal methods, but instead borrowed tactics from the
advertising industry to “sell” McKinley with marketing slogans
such as “The Advance Agent of Prosperity.” Hanna
dispatched nearly 1500 speakers across the country, spent most
of the Republican war chest in the electorally crucial Midwest,
and flooded the country with an estimated 250 million pieces of
campaign literature (published in various languages) so that at
times each American home was receiving pro-McKinley material on
a weekly basis.
alarmed by the enthusiastic crowds greeting Bryan on his
speaking tour, Hanna urged McKinley to hit the hustings as well.
The GOP nominee rejected the tactic as undignified and
ineffective, and by late summer Republicans were increasingly
confident of the contest’s final outcome. McKinley
received the endorsement of a large majority of the nation’s
newspapers, along with the backing of some gold-standard
Democrats. Even his National Democratic rival, John
Palmer, conceded to supporters in Missouri shortly before the
election, “I will not consider it any very great fault if you
decide next Tuesday to cast your ballot for William McKinley.”
The Election Results
On November 3, 1896,
14 million Americans went to the polls, giving Republican
William McKinley a winning total of over 7,100,000 votes (51%)
and 276 in the Electoral College against about 6,500,000 popular
ballots (46%) and 176 electoral votes for Democrat William
Jennings Bryan. It was the largest margin of victory since
President Ulysses S. Grant’s reelection in 1872. Three
minor party candidates—National Democrat John Palmer,
Prohibitionist Joshua Levering, and Socialist Laborite Charles
Matchett—divided the remaining three percent of the national
vote (133,000; 132,000, and 36,000, respectively).
edged Bryan in the total number of states won, 23-22, but GOP
states were the more populous, industrialized, and
agriculturally established. The Republican nominee
captured New England, the battleground Midwest, and the Border
States of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia.
Bryan took the traditionally Democratic South and the most of
the Trans-Mississippi West, but lost California, Iowa,
Minnesota, North Dakota, and Oregon. The Republican ticket
attracted a majority vote in most major cities and a
considerable portion in farm regions outside the South.
The GOP kept control of both houses of Congress, which they had
gained in 1894, and thereby emerged as the majority party, a
position Republicans would retain until the onset of the Great
Depression in 1929.
results of the 1896 presidential contest and the return of
prosperity the next year ended free silver as a political issue.
In 1900, the United States became officially monometallist with
passage of the Gold Standard Act. The election effectively
spelled the demise of the Populist Party, as the nation focused
on issues relevant to an increasingly industrialized society.
consulted: William A. DeGregario, The Complete Book of
U.S. Presidents (New York: Random House, 1993);
Rebecca Edwards and Sarah DeFeo, “The Populist Party,” 1896:
The Presidential Campaign: Cartoons & Commentary, a
Vassar College Website, iberia.vassar.edu/1896/populists.html;
Gilbert Fite, “Election of 1896,” in History of American
Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., New
York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985; Lewis L. Gould,
The Presidency of William McKinley (Lawrence, KS:
University Press of Kansas, 1980); Hicks, John D., The
Populist Revolt (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1931);
and Lee I. Niedringhaus, “The Panic of 1893,” Museum of
American Financial History,