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US Presidential Election of 1896

It was considered one of the most exciting presidential elections in the history of the United States of America. It is indeed a very exciting contest between presidential candidates William Jennings Bryan (Democrat) and William McKinley (Republican) because the presidential election of 1896 was fought against the backdrop of economic recession and the chaos brought upon by the unstable monetary systems instituted after the Civil War. The main bone of contention is the free coinage of silver. The democrats believe that in adopting the silver standard the poor and rural folks in the South and in many other areas in the U.S. will have a better chance of alleviating poverty but the republicans on the other hand believe that the gold standard is the only way forward. During this period Americans were at a crossroads and they had to make the right choice or the country will suffer tremendously.

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Before the Elections

During the early part of the 19th century, America experienced the economic boom brought about by the Industrial Revolution. This is in turn made possible by the railway system that brought together far-flung territories and made it easier to communicate and travel, shrinking the United States so to speak because more and more people can be connected by railroads. It is also possible for businessmen to establish factories in major cities and expect a steady supply of workers coming in from the rural areas. It is also possible to move raw materials from different parts of America and dump them into industrial centers to quickly manufacture products at half the time and half the cost.

Efficiency brings prosperity but there is only one problem, as always equality is difficult to achieve. Thus, the rural south is at a disadvantage to its northern counterparts where most of the industries are located. It is safe to say that as the northern businessmen grew richer while the southern farmers and rural folks became poorer. The problems of the rural areas were exacerbated by economic recessions where there is now a low demand for raw materials and therefore increasing the misery of the farmers. Aside from the negative impact brought about by the recession of the 19th century, farmers and less fortunate Americans blame the financiers and capitalists in the north for manipulating the economy to favor them. Those who are bearing the cross of poverty-focused on the gold standard and label it as the main reason why they are suffering while others are making more money than ever.

In theory, the free coinage of silver will increase the wealth of the farmers. They will have more money. This can be partially understood from looking at the disparity in the prices of gold and silver. It means that since silver is cheaper than gold then it is easier to accumulate gold and therefore it is also easier to print paper money backed by gold. This is good for poor people because now they can afford commodities that they were unable to purchase beforehand and at the same time they now can pay off their loans.

The republicans had a different opinion. The increase in paper money will lead to inflation. It is true that the prices of farm commodities will rise but this will only benefit the farmers. While gold production continues to lag behind in the 1890s, the expanding international competition in grain and textiles created a double whammy that forced farm prices to stay at very low levels (Sanders, 1999). Furthermore farmers located in the northern portion of the U.S. can afford to take it easy while farmers in other parts continue to fear the future, “Whereas, northern farmers had secure and rapidly expanding urban markets to supply with a diverse produce, over easily accessible and competitive transportation lines, periphery farmer faced severe credit stringencies, transportation monopolies and the vulnerabilities of one-crop dependency” (Sanders, 1999). The only way for southern farmers to strike back is to elect a president sympathetic to their plight.

During Elections

The elections began to heat up even at the initial phase of the campaign. On July 9, 1896, presidential nominee for the democrats, William Jennings Bryan made an electrifying speech entitled the “Cross of Gold” – in this speech Bryan made a powerful argument against the gold standard. He was able to persuade his listeners that the silver standard is the only way to break the bondage of poverty and give the poor people a chance to prosper if they are given the chance to acquire the capability to make wealth. His speech gave every person in the audience hope in desperate times and one observer recorded the events that transpired after Bryan ended his speech:

…everybody stood up, even the eastern men, who at first were disposed to remain in their seats. Westerners shouted, waved handkerchiefs, hats, flags, canes, umbrellas, and anything else conspicuous and portable. Deafening cheers rent the air and articles of every description were thrown high above the surging sea of humanity … This furor continued for a quarter of an hour and no effort was made by the chairman or sergeant-at-arms to check its tempestuous progress (Bensel, 2008).

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The reaction of the crowd is a testament to Bryan’s oratorical skills as well as the fact that these people are so desperate and hungry for good news that at the first chance that they encountered hope-giving-rhetoric, they embraced it wholeheartedly. If one will base the outcome of the election on that speech alone it can be said that the Democrats were very confident that they have a sure winner in the person of William Jennings Bryan, the congressman from Nebraska.

In essence, Bryan was in favor of anti-federalism, he is in a party that believes in the small government and states’ rights policy of Thomas Jefferson, he is also anti-National Bank, with a pro-frontier philosophy of Andrew Jackson (Paulson, 2000). Bryan strongly believed in the assumption that free coinage of silver will lead to the creation of easier credit for small, independent farmers (Paulson, 2000). This helps explain why Bryan was very popular among the masses but this was not enough to help him win the elections of 1896.

The democrats were very confident that they will win in the coming polls and it is a common belief among party members that there is no need to nominate someone as politically astute as William McKinley they only need someone who will endorse the silver standard in the platform and this would guarantee victory for the candidate. But they underestimated McKinley. The Republican presidential nominee had a better grasp of the issues and therefore he was able to formulate more effective strategies to beat the competition.

The first thing that McKinley did was to hire a brilliant strategist in the person of Mark Hannah. McKinley knew very well that the people want prosperity in the same way that they aspire to demonstrate their love for their country. It is not just about patriotism, the people demanded more than rhetoric but a clear plan to beat the negative impact of the recession and to assure them that America will not go down the drain. McKinley together with Hannah collaborated on strategies that will inform the people that high-risk and low-rewards await those who will adopt the silver standard.

Mark Hannah invented many campaign marketing techniques that are still in use today. Hanna urged McKinley to outspend the opponent and McKinley obliged by outspending Bryan by a factor of ten (Cone, 2009). The Republicans spent a significant amount of funds to print and distribute millions of pamphlets and handbills across the nation and prior to this election nothing of this scope had ever been done (Cone, 2009). But the high investment paid off as industrial workers began to realize the folly of switching to the silver standard.

McKinley was able to convince the majority of the people that they would be better of by sticking to the gold standard. McKinley and his supporters were able to clearly explain the outcome of the adoption of the silver standard. First of all the availability of more funds will increase inflation. There will be more demand than supply and therefore farmers in rural areas will expect soaring prices of their goods. This would be good in the short-term and desirable only for farmers in the south and those living in the periphery of the U.S. economy.

The short-term impact may be good for some people but the long-term consequence would be very disastrous for all Americans. Industrial workers are more united than the farmers who were scattered across the vast lands of the south and in different rural areas. Industrial workers are concentrated in key cities and it is far easier to reach them. On the other hand, it is much difficult for southern farmers to strengthen their ties with industrial workers found in northern cities. McKinley was able to warn these workers that the free coinage of silver will raise the prices of food and clothing, a prospect that they would not want to see after the elections (Olson, 2002). The Republicans were also able to convince workers that if the free coinage of silver will be implemented then businesses will be affected and that there will be more unemployment.

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McKinley worked double-time to explain to bankers that, “…free silver would build long-term inflation into the monetary system and undermine bank profits by devaluing the money bankers would receive as payment” (Olson, 2002). But Bryan and McKinley were speaking to two different groups and both men were able to convince a great number of Americans thus it was a very tight race. When the votes were counted, Bryan garnered 6,468,000 but it was not enough to defeat McKinley who was able to corner 7,036,000 votes (Olson, 2002). It was not a landslide victory but it was enough to win the contest.

Conclusion

The presidential election of 1896 was one of the most exciting in the history of the United States because of so many reasons. First of all, there was so much at stake. The nation was recovering from the Civil War, the effects of the reconstruction of the South, and at the same time recovering from the negative effects of an economic recession. Secondly, the election was a tough contest that will decide the outcome of the financial system of the United States, whether to use the silver or gold standard to facilitate the economy of America. Finally, the presidential election of 1896 was one of the most exciting because it is a contest between a charismatic speaker in the person of William Jennings Bryan and a shrewd tactician in the person of William McKinley.

In the end, it was the strategist who won over the passionate orator from Nebraska. McKinley, together with an equally brilliant campaign manager was able to convince the majority as to the disastrous impact of free silver. The democrats were extremely confident that they will win because they based their predictions on the more than enthusiastic reaction of the crowds whenever Bryan would speak against the gold standard. But in the end, it was the reason that prevailed over oratorical power. McKinley builds a good case against silver and the industrial workers were convinced that it would be more beneficial for them to stick to the gold standard. It turns out that this group represents the majority and they help McKinley win the presidential election of 1896.

References

Bensel, R. (2008). Passion and Preferences. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cone, S. (2009). Powerlines: Words that sell Brands, Grip Fans, and sometimes change History. New York: Bloomberg Press.

Olson, J. (2002). Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Paulson, A. (2000). Realignment and Party Revival: Understanding American Electoral Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Sander, Elizabeth. (1999). Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State. IL:University of Chicago Press.

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