As the presidential election year of 1896 began, things were looking rosy for the Republicans. But the emergence of a brash, young politician, William Jennings Bryan, soon turned the tide. Bryan’s campaign laid bare the diverging interests of those whose livelihoods were linked to urban institutions and those who lived by the land in rural America.
With the nation mired in the aftermath of a serious economic depression and a deeply unpopular Democrat incumbent—Grover Cleveland—in the White House, the GOP had surged back in the most recent midterms to win control of both the House and Senate. Governor William McKinley of Ohio easily won the Republican presidential nomination, and seemed poised for a smooth ride to the White House on his platform of economic protectionism and support for the gold standard, which defined the value of the nation’s currency in terms of how much gold it had in reserve.
But in an unexpected turn of events, the young Democratic Nebraska lawyer and former congressman Bryan challenged McKinley in 1896. Bryan’s appeal to America’s farmers and the working class, his passionate support of the free silver movement and his powerful speaking style galvanized both disaffected Democrats and members of the People’s (or Populist) Party, turning the election into one of the most hard-fought and consequential in the nation’s history.
READ MORE: Populism in the United States: A Timeline
Backdrop: Panic of 1893
The battle between McKinley and Bryan took place during an economic downturn that had begun in 1893, when two of the nation’s biggest employers, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, collapsed, setting off a stock market panic. Thousands of businesses closed, and the nation suffered more than 10 percent unemployment for more than five straight years.
While President Cleveland favored the gold standard, many in the Populist Party and the rural, agrarian wing of the Democratic Party—including many farmers in the South and West—supported the Free Silver Movement. Rather than rely on gold to back the nation’s money supply, they believed the country should use silver, which was much more abundant at the time. This would inflate the currency, increasing the prices farmers would receive for their crops and helping them pay back their debts more easily.
William Jennings Bryan and the ‘Cross of Gold’
When the Democrats convened in Chicago to choose their presidential candidate in July 1896, they repudiated Cleveland and changed courses dramatically, making free silver a central plank of their platform. At 36 years old, with two terms in Congress and a failed 1894 run for Senate under his belt, Bryan was the party’s most outspoken and effective champion of silver. During the convention, he delivered what would become one of the most famous political orations in U.S. history, known as the “Cross of Gold” speech.
Bryan’s eloquent call for an end to government favoritism toward business interests and the wealthy at the expense of farmers and the working class, and his defense of agrarian democracy against a backdrop of the nation’s growing urbanization, would resonate for generations to come. The most electric moment of his speech came at the end, when he drew on his evangelical Christian faith.
“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,” he cried, placing an imaginary crown on his head. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The crowd of more than 20,000 at the Chicago Coliseum went wild, and Bryan went on to clinch the nomination, becoming the youngest presidential nominee in history. The Populists, who had won several states in the 1892 election, also nominated Bryan, who shared their free silver views.
Bryan’s Barnstorming vs. McKinley’s Front Porch
Bryan traveled nearly 20,000 miles by rail around the country during his campaign and gave hundreds of speeches, often out of the back of his railroad car. Huge crowds greeted him, drawn by his oratorical skills and the passion he inspired in his supporters.
For his part, McKinley stayed home in Canton, Ohio, addressing large delegations of Republican supporters from his front porch. His campaign mastermind, Cleveland businessman Mark Hanna, attracted 750,000 people to Canton during the campaign and enlisted thousands of speakers to stump elsewhere on McKinley’s behalf. Foreshadowing a new style of campaign financing, Hanna solicited major contributions from fellow industrialists, raising some $4 million in total.
In the end, despite Bryan’s best efforts, his campaign failed to broaden its support beyond its Populist, agrarian Democratic base. More conservative Democrats, who favored the gold standard, split from the party to nominate their own National (Gold) Democratic candidate, or even threw their support to McKinley. Republicans managed to attract some urban progressive voters by attacking Bryan as a religious fanatic, in addition to painting a dire picture of what abandoning the gold standard would mean for the economy.
McKinley’s Decisive Victory
On Election Day, voter turnout topped 79 percent, reflecting the high stakes of the contest. McKinley won some 600,000 more popular votes than Bryan, the widest margin since 1872, while his win in the electoral college (271 to 176) was even more decisive. In addition to his core support in the urban Northeast, McKinley gained strength from prosperous Midwestern farmers, industrial workers, and many ethnic voters. For his part, Bryan swept most of the South, the only region of the country where the economy remained predominantly agricultural; he also did well among farmers in the West and Midwest.
Like the elections of 1800, 1860 and 1932, the presidential election of 1896 marked a fundamental shift in American politics, and the emergence of a new political reality to reflect the nation’s changed circumstances. McKinley’s win began an era of Republican dominance, and economic prosperity, that would last for nearly four decades. It also spelled the beginning of the end for the Populist Party, which didn’t dissolve entirely but would never regain its former level of success.
Perhaps most importantly, the 1896 election marked the decisive triumph of the nation’s urban interests—banking, manufacturing and industry—over its agrarian past. With Americans migrating to cities at a rapidly increasing rate in the last decade of the 19th century, Bryan would be the last candidate to run by appealing exclusively to the country’s rural population.
Bryan ran for president and lose twice more, in 1900 and 1908, before serving as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, the era’s only Democratic president. Just before his death, the man many called “the Great Commoner” employed his oratorical skills one last time, arguing against the teaching of evolution in the Scopes Trial.