America’s politics leading into the 1896 election looks familiar. The political system was broken: In five presidential elections, no one received 50% and for 20 of 24 years, America had divided government and gridlock in which little got done. The animosity between the parties was beyond normal partisanship: they were still fighting the Civil War.
The country was in a deep depression and Americans were anxious about the country’s rapidly changing economy, roiled by technological disruptions and increasingly globalized, industrial and urban. Many farmers, especially those in the West and South with mortgages with high interest rates or dependent upon usurious loans from local merchants, were in open revolt against the country’s political and economic systems.
The 1896 campaign was fought over whether America would have a gold-based currency like major European powers or a bimetallic standard of gold and silver currency, maintained at the ratio of 16 units of silver for each unit of gold. It is hard for Americans now to understand the passions this “Battle of the Standards,” as it was called, produced as both major parties angrily split over the issue.
Republicans, dominated by Gold men, nominated Ohio Gov. William McKinley, who had supported bimetallic measures in Congress and wanted to avoid the currency issue, preferring to base his campaign on the restoration of protective tariffs.
But after Western Silver Republicans bolted the GOP convention when its platform endorsed the gold standard and Democrats nominated a fire-breathing Free Silver Democrat from Nebraska, the 36-year old William Jennings Bryan, McKinley fell behind and was in danger of losing.
Bryan was not considered a credible candidate the day before being nominated. Silver Democrats had deliberately postponed picking a candidate in favor of a strategy of electing enough Silver delegates to dictate the platform, which required a simple majority of the convention, not the 2/3rds supermajority Democrats then required for their presidential nominee. At the convention, Silver men were astonished when they realized they had such a supermajority, though it required them to steal control of the Michigan delegation in the convention’s credentials committee.
The Democratic frontrunner had been Missouri Rep. Richard Bland, who for two decades had led the Congressional fight for silver. But bowing to the desires of fellow white metal advocates, he had not mounted a robust bid for the nomination.
So he was vulnerable when Bryan – as a result of seven accidents in the convention’s opening days –found himself the final speaker in the floor debate on the platform’s currency plank. Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech electrified the 20,000 people in the Chicago Coliseum and stampeded the convention, which chose the virtual unknown as the party’s nominee the next day.
By endorsing an inflationary currency, rejecting Democratic President Grover Cleveland’s gold policies, and nominating an eloquent Western spokesman for Free Silver, Democrats largely escaped responsibility for the economy and became the party of change, claiming that by backing the Gold standard, Republicans had endorsed the policies that brought on the depression.
Bryan argued the currency question pitted Eastern financiers against Western and Southern farmers, stockmen and miners and Eastern and Midwestern workingmen. The heart of his argument is familiar. “There are two ideas of government,” Bryan told the Democratic convention. Republicans believed “if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous,” then “their prosperity will leak through on those below.” Democrats believed “if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”
McKinley soon realized he must accept currency as the central issue and explain why conservative economic policies were better for farmers and workers. In his “Front Porch Campaign” in which 750,000 visited McKinley’s hometown of Canton, Ohio, to hear him speak from the steps of his modest home, the GOP nominee responded to Bryan’s bitter attacks upon Wall Street and gold.
He argued workers deserved to be paid in gold dollars, which were worth twice as much as silver dollars, given world prices for the two metals. An inflationary silver currency would cut in half the value of savings, pensions, homes, farms, and insurance policies. It would result in gold being hoarded and prices rising as goods were purchased with cheaper silver dollars. The workingman, McKinley said, deserved to be paid with money that would buy his family a full loaf of bread, not half a loaf.
“The Major,” as McKinley was known, ran the first modern presidential campaign. Directed by 31-year old Charles G. Dawes, the GOP effort distributed 250 million pieces of literature (18 pieces for every voter) and organized an enormous grassroots effort that helped generate nearly 90% turnout in many northern states.
McKinley won the votes of industrial workers in factories, smelters, mills and mines throughout the North and Border states, becoming the first president since Grant in 1872 to win more than 50%. McKinley’s election and subsequent administration ended a quarter century of gridlock, ushering in more than three-decades of Republican dominance, and making the 1896 contest one of the five great realigning elections in U.S. history.
Karl Rove is Former Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush and author of The Triumph of William McKinley, Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters