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The Democratic Nomination
Due largely to the economic depression and the unpopularity of President Cleveland’s policies, the Republicans did well in state and local elections in 1893 and then recaptured both houses of Congress in 1894.  With further Democratic losses in 1895 state and local elections, many party members concluded that free silver was the party’s only hope in 1896.  In the spring of 1896, silverites won control of numerous state delegations to the National Democratic Convention, although no candidate appeared as a clear choice for the presidential nomination.  Congressman Bland was a leading candidate, but he was hindered by opposition from Populists (who the Democrats hoped would support a free-silver nominee) and prejudice against his wife’s Catholicism.  A chief competitor was Horace Boies, a former governor of Iowa (1890-1894), who had placed a distant third for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1892.  Other possibilities included Senator C. S. Blackburn of Kentucky and Governor Claude Matthews of Indiana.

Although a leader of the free-silver movement, William Jennings Bryan’s youth (36) and relative political inexperience made it appear doubtful that he could win the nomination.  However, most delegates arrived at the national convention uncommitted to any candidate, and Bryan’s own attendance meant that he could present himself as the right choice for the needs of the party and nation.  Since leaving Congress in March 1895, he had written letters and articles and delivered speeches across the country for the free-silver cause.  In that effort he worked with various free-silver groups while maintaining his independence and alienating none.  In the spring of 1896, Bryan first wrote letters and sent his speeches to delegates, and then asked them directly for support.  When the convention began in early July, he had the backing of some delegates from the South and West, along with a few newspaper endorsements.  There was still much work to be done for the nomination, though.  A pre-convention poll of delegates on July 5 ranked him last among seven candidates.

On the opening day of the Democratic National Convention, July 7, silver delegates signaled their dominance by rejecting the National Committee’s candidate for chairman, Senator David B. Hill of New York, for Senator John W. Daniel of Virginia.  The Resolutions Committee adopted a free-silver plank written by Bryan:  “We demand the free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold at the present legal ratio of sixteen to one…”  The platform denounced selling government bonds to private bankers for gold (a clear indictment of the Cleveland administration); endorsed tariffs for revenue only, but said the issue should wait until the money question was resolved; called for equalizing the tax burden and more federal oversight of big business; and vowed to protect American workers from “the importation of foreign pauper labor.”  The plank condemning arbitrary federal interference in local affairs as unconstitutional later became controversial.

Bryan maneuvered so that he addressed the delegates last during the platform debate on July 9.  Receiving a lively welcome, he claimed to speak “in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity.”  He identified the gold standard with impoverishing Americans and agriculture as the foundation of American wealth.  Bryan ended his rousing oration with religious imagery:  “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world … we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them:  ‘You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’”  After a momentary stunned silence, the convention broke into celebratory pandemonium.

The next morning, July 10, voting for the presidential nomination began with Bland leading on the first three ballots.  However, Bryan quickly gathered strength so that he edged ahead on the fourth ballot, 280-241, and surpassed the requisite two-thirds majority on the fifth ballot to win the nomination.  The following day, delegates selected Arthur Sewall, a free-silver businessman from Maine, as the vice-presidential nominee.  It was hoped that the pro-protectionist shipbuilder and banker would calm fears in the business community over the nomination of Jennings, and that the wealthy running mate would contribute liberally to the campaign. 

Although there was no walkout of gold-standard delegates from the Democratic convention, several partisans were disgruntled by the free-silver platform and Jennings nomination.  Some Democrats in the Northeast privately or publicly supported the Republican ticket, while some in the Midwest formed the National Democratic Party.  In early September, the breakaway faction convened in Indianapolis, where they nominated Senator John Palmer of Illinois for president and Simon Bolivar Buckner, a former Confederate general and governor of Kentucky (1887-1891), for vice president. 

The Republican Nomination
The continuing poor economy, divisions within the Democratic Party, and GOP electoral success over the previous three years boded well for a Republican presidential victory in 1896.  Former President Benjamin Harrison and Senator John Sherman of Ohio declined to run, but Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed of Maine and Senator William Allison of Iowa actively sought the nomination.  However, the overwhelming favorite entering the convention was Governor William McKinley of Ohio.

McKinley was the party’s most prominent spokesman for high protective tariffs, and as the former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee had ensured passage of the steep McKinley Tariff of 1890.  He lost his Congressional seat that November, but was elected governor of Ohio in 1891 and reelected two years later.  At the 1892 Republican National Convention, McKinley, who was not an active candidate for president, received a respectable number of votes from delegates dissatisfied with President Harrison.  During the 1894 campaign, McKinley collected political IOUs by delivering stump speeches for Republican candidates across the country.  He had several assets in the 1896 presidential race:  executive experience in a key electoral state, nationwide support, identification with the GOP’s core issue of tariff protection, a reputation of good moral character, and skillful avoidance of the controversial money question.

To run his presidential campaign, McKinley turned to Mark Hanna, a wealthy Ohio industrialist who retired in 1895 to dedicate himself fulltime to the cause.  McKinley rejected Hanna’s initial strategy of gaining the nomination by promising patronage to powerful state party bosses like Thomas Platt of New York and Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania.  Instead, the Ohio governor ran on the slogan of “The People Against the Bosses.”  Hanna applied his business skills to the campaigns for the nomination and the presidency, organizing Republicans into effective bureaus, distributing millions of pamphlets, dispatching hundreds of speakers, and raising an enormous sum of money, all in the effort of “selling” his candidate.  Many of his opponents considered McKinley to be a puppet in the hands of a new type of political boss, Mark Hanna, but the politician was always in charge.

By the time the Republican National Convention opened in St. Louis on June 16, 1896, McKinley was virtually guaranteed the nomination.  He overwhelmed the competition, winning a first-ballot victory with 661 votes to 84 for Reed, 61 for Quay, 58 for Governor Levi P. Morton of New York, and 35 for Allison.  Garret Hobart, a businessman and state politician from New Jersey, was nominated for vice president.  As hoped, he helped Republicans carry his home state in November for the first time since 1872.

The Republican platform began by judging the first Democratic control of the White House and Congress since before the Civil War to have been “calamitous” for the nation, resulting in economic “panic, …closed factories, reduced work and wages…”  The Republicans promised to “rescue” the country from “disaster at home and dishonor abroad.”  Foremost, the document emphasized trade policy.  It stood by protective tariffs as “the foundation of American development and prosperity” and called for the expansion of reciprocal trade agreements with other nations.  The platform also supported Union veterans’ pensions, annexation of Hawaii, and American control of an interoceanic canal in Nicaragua.  It expressed sympathy with Armenians suffering under Turkish rule and Cubans fighting for freedom from Spanish rule.  The platform condemned lynching and demanded a free and unrestricted ballot (both planks aimed at anti-black activities in the South).  The document supported economic opportunities for women and welcomed their participation in the upcoming campaign, but remained silent concerning voting rights.

The only notable dissention at the convention was over the money question.  The platform committee had drafted a plank backing the gold standard and parity of silver and paper currency with gold, explicitly rejecting free silver except under international agreement (which was highly improbable).  Senator Henry Teller of Colorado spoke passionately in opposition.  After the plank’s adoption by the full convention, Teller and Senator Frank Cannon of Utah led an exodus of 21 other free-silver delegates from the assembly.  The next day, they issued a statement endorsing free silver and suggesting Teller as the best nominee for the Democratic and Populist Parties.  The advice went unheeded.

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