United States presidential election, 1896

United States presidential election, 1896

← 1892November 3, 18961900 →

All 447 electoral votes of the Electoral College
224 electoral votes needed to win
Turnout79.3%[1] Increase 4.6 pp

 William McKinley by Courtney Art Studio, 1896.jpgWilliam Jennings Bryan 2.jpg
NomineeWilliam McKinleyWilliam Jennings Bryan
PartyRepublicanDemocratic / People's
Home stateOhioNebraska
Running mateGarret HobartArthur Sewall (Democratic)
Thomas E. Watson (Populist)
Electoral vote271176
States carried2322
Popular vote7,111,6076,509,052
Percentage51.0%46.7%

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Presidential election results map. Red denotes those won by McKinley/Hobart, blue denotes states won by Bryan/Sewall and the Populist ticket of Bryan/Watson. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state.

President before election

Grover Cleveland
Democratic

Elected President

William McKinley
Republican

The United States presidential election of 1896 was the 28th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 3, 1896. Former Governor William McKinley, the Republican candidate, defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The 1896 campaign, which took place during an economic depression known as the Panic of 1893, was a realigning election that ended the old Third Party System and began the Fourth Party System.[2]

Incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland did not seek reelection for a second consecutive term (which would have been his third term overall), leaving the Democratic nomination open. Bryan, an attorney and former Congressman, galvanized support with his Cross of Gold speech, which called for a reform of the monetary system and attacked business leaders as the cause of ongoing economic depression. The 1896 Democratic National Convention repudiated the Cleveland administration and nominated Bryan on the fifth presidential ballot. Bryan then won the nomination of the Populist Party, which had won several states in 1892 and shared many of Bryan's policies. In opposition to Bryan, some conservative Bourbon Democrats formed the National Democratic Party and nominated Senator John M. Palmer. McKinley prevailed by a wide margin on the first ballot of the 1896 Republican National Convention.

Since the onset of the Panic of 1893, the nation had been mired in a deep economic depression, marked by low prices, low profits, high unemployment, and violent strikes. Economic issues, especially tariff policy and the question of whether the gold standard should be preserved for the money supply, were central issues. McKinley forged a conservative coalition in which businessmen, professionals, and prosperous farmers, and skilled factory workers turned off by Bryan's agrarian policies were heavily represented. McKinley was strongest in cities and in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Pacific Coast. Republican campaign manager Mark Hanna pioneered many modern campaign techniques, facilitated by a $3.5 million budget. Bryan presented his campaign as a crusade of the working man against the rich, who impoverished America by limiting the money supply. Silver, he said, was in ample supply and if coined into money would restore prosperity while undermining the illicit power of the money trust. Bryan was strongest in the South, rural Midwest, and Rocky Mountain states. Bryan's moralistic rhetoric and crusade for inflation (to be generated by the institution of bimetallism) alienated conservatives.

Bryan campaigned vigorously throughout the swing states of the Midwest, while McKinley conducted a "front porch" campaign. At the end of an intensely heated contest, McKinley won a majority of the popular and electoral vote. Bryan won 46.7% of the popular vote, while Palmer won just under 1% of the vote. Turnout was very high, passing 90% of the eligible voters in many places. The Democratic Party's repudiation of its Bourbon faction largely gave Bryan and his supporters control of the Democratic Party until the 1920s, and set the stage for Republican domination of the Fourth Party System.

Nominations

Republican Party nomination

McKinley/Hobart campaign poster
Republican Party (United States)
Republican Party Ticket, 1896
William McKinley Garret Hobart
for President for Vice President
WmMcKinley.jpg
GHobart.jpg
39th
Governor of Ohio
(1892–1896)
President of the
New Jersey Senate

(1881–1882)
Campaign

Republican Candidates gallery

At their convention in St. Louis, Missouri, held between June 16 and 18, 1896, the Republicans nominated William McKinley for president and New Jersey's Garret Hobart for vice-president. McKinley had just vacated the office of Governor of Ohio. Both candidates were easily nominated on first ballots.

McKinley's campaign manager, a wealthy and talented Ohio businessman named Mark Hanna, visited the leaders of large corporations and major, influential banks after the Republican Convention to raise funds for the campaign. Given that many businessmen and bankers were terrified of Bryan's populist rhetoric and demand for the end of the gold standard, Hanna had few problems in raising record amounts of money. As a result, Hanna raised a staggering $3.5 million for the campaign and outspent the Democrats by an estimated 5-to-1 margin. This sum would be equivalent to approximately $85 million, according to the inflation calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Major McKinley was the last veteran of the American Civil War to be nominated for president by either major party.

Presidential Ballot
William McKinley 661.5
Thomas Brackett Reed 84.5
Matthew S. Quay 61.5
Levi P. Morton 58
William B. Allison 35.5
James D. Cameron 1
Vice Presidential Ballot
Garret A. Hobart 523.5
H. Clay Evans 287.5
Morgan Bulkeley 39
James A. Walker 24
Charles W. Lippitt 8
Thomas Brackett Reed 3
Chauncey Depew 3
John Mellen Thurston 2
Frederick Dent Grant 2
Levi P. Morton 1

Democratic Party nomination

Bryan's famous "cross of gold" speech gave him the presidential nomination and swung the party to the silver cause
Democratic Party (United States)
Democratic Party Ticket, 1896
William Jennings Bryan Arthur Sewall
for President for Vice President
WilliamJBryan1902.png
ArthurSewall.png
Former U.S. Representative
for Nebraska's 1st
(1891–1895)
Director of the
Maine Central Railroad
Campaign
Bryan-Sewall.jpg

Democratic Candidates gallery

One month after McKinley's nomination, supporters of silver-backed currency took control of the Democratic convention held in Chicago on July 7–11. Most of the Southern and Western delegates were committed to implementing the "free silver" ideas of the Populist Party. The convention repudiated President Cleveland's gold standard policies and then repudiated Cleveland himself. This, however, left the convention wide open: there was no obvious successor to Cleveland. A two-thirds vote was required for the nomination and the silverites had it in spite of the extreme regional polarization of the delegates. In a test vote on an anti-silver measure, the Eastern states (from Maryland to Maine), with 28% of the delegates, voted 96% in favor. The other delegates voted 91% against, so the silverites could count on a majority of 67% of the delegates.[3]

An attorney, former congressman, and unsuccessful Senate candidate named William Jennings Bryan filled the void. A superb orator, Bryan hailed from Nebraska and spoke for the farmers who were suffering from the economic depression following the Panic of 1893. At the convention, Bryan delivered one of the greatest political speeches in American history, the "Cross of Gold" Speech. Bryan presented a passionate defense of farmers and factory workers struggling to survive the economic depression, and he attacked big-city business owners and leaders as the cause of much of their suffering. He called for reform of the monetary system, an end to the gold standard, and government relief efforts for farmers and others hurt by the economic depression. Bryan's speech was so dramatic that after he had finished many delegates carried him on their shoulders around the convention hall.

The following day, eight names were placed in nomination: Richard "Silver Dick" Bland, William J. Bryan, Claude Matthews, Horace Boies, Joseph Blackburn, John R. McLean, Robert E. Pattison, and Sylvester Pennoyer. Bryan's electrifying speech proved decisive as the party's presidential nomination was bestowed on him by the convention delegates. Bryan defeated his closest competitor, former Congressman Bland, by a 3-to-1 margin. Arthur Sewall, a wealthy shipbuilder from Maine, was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee. It was felt that Sewall's wealth might encourage him to help pay some campaign expenses. At just 36 years of age, Bryan was only a year older than the minimum age required by the Constitution to be president. Bryan remains the youngest person ever nominated by a major party for president.

National Democratic Party nomination

National Democratic candidates

Gold Democrat Candidates gallery

The National "Gold" Democratic Convention

The pro-gold Democrats reacted to Bryan's nomination with a mixture of anger, desperation, and confusion. A number of pro-gold Bourbon Democrats urged a "bolt" and the formation of a third party. In response, a hastily arranged assembly on July 24 organized the National Democratic Party. A follow-up meeting in August scheduled a nominating convention for September in Indianapolis and issued an appeal to fellow Democrats. In this document, the National Democratic Party portrayed itself as the legitimate heir to Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland.

Delegates from forty-one states gathered at the National Democratic Party's national nominating convention in Indianapolis on September 2. Some delegates planned to nominate Cleveland, but they relented after a telegram arrived stating that he would not accept. Senator William Freeman Vilas from Wisconsin, the main drafter of the National Democratic Party's platform, was a favorite of the delegates. However, Vilas refused to run as the party's sacrificial lamb. The choice instead was John M. Palmer, a 79-year-old former Senator from Illinois.[4] Simon Bolivar Buckner, a 73-year-old former governor of Kentucky, was nominated by acclamation for vice-president. The ticket, symbolic of post-Civil War reconciliation, featured the oldest combined age of the candidates in American history.

Palmer/Buckner campaign button

Despite their advanced ages, Palmer and Buckner embarked on a busy speaking tour, including visits to most major cities in the East. This won them considerable respect from the party faithful, although some found it hard to take the geriatric campaigning seriously. "You would laugh yourself sick could you see old Palmer," wrote lawyer Kenesaw Mountain Landis. "He has actually gotten it into his head he is running for office."[5] The Palmer ticket was considered to be a vehicle to elect McKinley for some Gold Democrats, such as William Collins Whitney and Abram Hewitt, the treasurer of the National Democratic Party, and they received quiet financial support from Mark Hanna. Palmer himself said at a campaign stop that if "this vast crowd casts its vote for William McKinley next Tuesday, I shall charge them with no sin."[6] There was even some cooperation with the Republican Party, especially in finances. The Republicans hoped that Palmer could draw enough Democratic votes from Bryan to tip marginal Midwestern and border states into McKinley's column. In a private letter, Hewitt underscored the "entire harmony of action" between both parties in standing against Bryan.[7]

However, the National Democratic Party was not merely an adjunct to the McKinley campaign. An important goal was to nurture a loyal remnant for future victory. Repeatedly they depicted Bryan's prospective defeat, and a credible showing for Palmer, as paving the way for ultimate recapture of the Democratic Party, and this did indeed happen in 1904.[8]

Presidential Ballot
Ballot 1st Before Shifts 1st After Shifts
John M. Palmer 757.5 769.5
Edward S. Bragg 130.5 118.5

Populist Party nomination

Populist candidates:

Candidates gallery

Several third parties were active in 1896. By far the most prominent was the Populist Party. Formed in 1892, the Populists represented the philosophy of agrarianism (derived from Jeffersonian democracy), which held that farming was a superior way of life that was being exploited by bankers and middlemen. The Populists attracted cotton farmers in the South and wheat farmers in the West, but very few farmers in the Northeast, South, West, and rural Midwest. In the presidential election of 1892, Populist candidate James B. Weaver carried four states, and in 1894, the Populists scored victories in congressional and state legislature races in a number of Southern and Western states. In the Southern states, including Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, the wins were obtained by electoral fusion with the Republicans against the dominant Bourbon Democrats, whereas in the rest of the country, fusion, if practiced, was typically undertaken with the Democrats, as in the state of Washington.[9][10] By 1896, some Populists believed that they could replace the Democrats as the main opposition party to the Republicans. However, the Democrats' nomination of Bryan, who supported many Populist goals and ideas, placed the party in a dilemma. Torn between choosing their own presidential candidate or supporting Bryan, the party leadership decided that nominating their own candidate would simply divide the forces of reform and hand the election to the more conservative Republicans. At their national convention in 1896, the Populists chose Bryan as their presidential nominee. However, to demonstrate that they were still independent from the Democrats, the Populists also chose former Georgia Representative Thomas E. Watson as their vice-presidential candidate instead of Arthur Sewall. Bryan eagerly accepted the Populist nomination, but was vague as to whether, if elected, he would choose Watson as his vice-president instead of Sewall. With this election, the Populists began to be absorbed into the Democratic Party; within a few elections the party would disappear completely. The 1896 election was particularly detrimental to the Populist Party in the South; the party divided itself between members who favored cooperation with the Democrats to achieve reform at the national level and members who favored cooperation with the Republicans to achieve reform at a state level.

As a result of the double nomination, both the Bryan-Sewall Democratic ticket and the Bryan-Watson Populist ticket appeared on the ballot in many states. Although the Populist ticket did not win the popular vote in any state, 27 electors for Bryan cast their vice-presidential vote for Watson instead of Sewall. (The votes came from the following states: Arkansas 3, Louisiana 4, Missouri 4, Montana 1, Nebraska 4, North Carolina 5, South Dakota 2, Utah 1, Washington 2, Wyoming 1.)

Presidential Ballot Vice Presidential Ballot
William Jennings Bryan 1,042 Thomas E. Watson 469.5
Seymour F. Norton 321 Arthur Sewall 257.5
Scattering 12

Silver Party

Silver candidates:

Candidates gallery

With the Republican Party platform calling for strong support for the gold standard, many western Republicans walked out of the Republican Convention and formed the National Silver Party. Many began to push for the nomination of Colorado Senator Henry Moore Teller, the leader of the party, but with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan in Chicago and the adoption of his pro-silver platform, it was decided that they should unite behind the Democratic ticket.[11] The Bryan campaign swept to victory across the Mountain states because the dominant issue in those thinly-populated mining areas was silver.[12]

Socialist Labor nomination

The Socialist Labor Convention was held in New York City on July 9, 1896. The convention nominated Charles Matchett of New York and Matthew Maguire of New Jersey. Its platform favored reduction in hours of labor; possession by the federal government of mines, railroads, canals, telegraphs, and telephones; possession by municipalities of water-works, gas-works, and electric plants; the issue of money by the federal government alone; the employment of the unemployed by the public authorities; abolition of the veto power; abolition of the United States Senate; women's suffrage; and uniform criminal law throughout the Union.[13]

Prohibition Party

The Prohibition Party split into a "narrow gauge," or single-issue anti-liquor party and a "broad gauge" group (later known as the National Prohibition Party) that supported many reforms, including free silver. The split occurred when a motion for the party to endorse free silver, put forward by Charles Bentley, was defeated by an overwhelming margin of 650-160. Although Bryan himself later became a champion of prohibition, his position was unknown in 1896.[14]

"Narrow Gauge" Prohibition nomination

"Narrow Gauge" Prohibition ticket:

"Broad Gauge" Prohibition nomination

"Broad Gauge" Prohibition ticket:

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