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1892 United States 1900
United States presidential election, 1896
November 3, 1896
Mckinley.jpg WilliamJBryan1902.png
Nominee William McKinley William Jennings Bryan
Party Republican Democratic
Home state Ohio Nebraska
Running mate Garret A. Hobart Arthur Sewall
Electoral vote 271 176
States carried 23 22
Popular vote 7,102,246 6,492,559
Percentage 51.1% 45.8%
Presidential election results map. Red denotes those won by McKinley/Hobart, Blue denotes states won by Bryan/Sewall OR the Populist ticket of Bryan/Watson. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes allotted to each state.

Previous President
Grover Cleveland

William McKinley

The United States presidential election of November 3, 1896, saw Republican William McKinley defeat Democrat William Jennings Bryan in a campaign considered by historians to be one of the most dramatic and complex in American history. In political science the 1896 campaign is often considered to be a realigning election that ended the old Third Party System and began the Fourth Party System.[1] . McKinley forged a coalition in which businessmen, professionals, skilled factory workers and prosperous farmers were heavily represented; he was strongest in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Pacific Coast states. Bryan was the nominee of the Democrats, the Populist Party, and the Silver Republicans. He was strongest in the South, rural Midwest, and Rocky Mountain states. Economic issues including bimetallism, the gold standard, Free Silver, and the tariff, were crucial. Republican campaign manager Mark Hanna invented many modern campaign techniques, facilitated by a $3.5 million budget. He outspent Bryan by a factor of five. The Democratic Party's repudiation of the Bourbon Democrats (their pro-business wing, represented by incumbent President Grover Cleveland), set the stage for sixteen years of Republican control of the White House, ended only by a Republican split in 1912 that resulted in the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Although Bryan lost the election, his coalition of "outsiders" would dominate the Democratic Party well into the twentieth century, and would play a crucial role in the liberal economic programs of Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. McKinley did win, and his policies of promoting pluralism, industrial growth, and the gold standard determined national policies for two decades.




Democratic Party nomination

Democratic candidates:

Candidates gallery

Bryan/Sewall campaign poster
Bryan's famous "cross of gold" speech gave him the presidential nomination and swung the party to the silver cause

When the Democrats met for their convention in Chicago, 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.

An attorney, former congressman and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate named William Jennings Bryan filled the void. A superb orator, Bryan hailed from Nebraska and was widely regarded as a prominent spokesman for millions of rural Americans who were suffering from the economic depression following the Panic of 1893. At the Democratic Convention, Bryan delivered what many historians regard as one of the greatest political speeches in American history, the "Cross of Gold" Speech. In this speech Bryan offered 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 the economic suffering. He called for reform of the monetary system, an end to the gold standard, and promised 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 speech also united the convention delegates and earned Bryan their presidential nomination; he defeated his closest competitor, former Senator Richard "Silver Dick" 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 man ever nominated by a major party for President.

Presidential Ballot
Ballot 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
William Jennings Bryan 137 197 219 280 652
Richard P. Bland 235 281 291 241 11
Robert E. Pattison 97 100 97 97 95
Joseph C. S. Blackburn 82 41 27 27 0
Horace Boies 67 37 36 33 0
John R. McLean 54 53 54 46 0
Claude Matthews 37 34 34 36 0
Scattering 43 27 10 9 10
Vice Presidential Ballot
Ballot 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
Arthur Sewall 100 37 97 261 602
Joseph C. Sibley 163 113 50 0 0
John R. McLean 111 158 210 298 32
George F. Williams 76 16 15 9 9
Richard P. Bland 62 294 255 0 0
Walter M. Clark 50 22 22 46 22
John W. Daniel 11 1 6 54 36
Scattering 97 35 20 12 32

Republican Party nomination

Republican candidates:

Candidates gallery

McKinley/Hobart campaign poster

As they did in 1876 and 1880, the Republicans dipped into the talent pool that was the Governor's office of Ohio to nominate William McKinley for President, and New Jersey's Garret Hobart for Vice President. With the platform calling for strong support for the gold standard, many Western Republicans walked out of the Republican Convention in Saint Louis to form the National Silver Party supporting the Democrats.

McKinley's campaign manager, a wealthy and talented Ohio businessman named Marcus Alonzo Hanna, visited the leaders of large corporations and major 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 support for ending the gold standard, Hanna had few problems in raising record amounts of money. In the end Hanna raised a staggering (for the time) $3.5 million for the campaign, outspending the Democrats by an estimated 5-to-1 margin. As a per cent of GDP, this is equivalent to $3 billion today.[2] McKinley was the last veteran of the American Civil War to be nominated for President by either major party.

Vice Presidential Ballot
Garret Hobart 523.5
Henry Clay Evans 287.5
Morgan Bulkeley 39
James A. Walker 24
Charles Lippitt 8
Thomas B. Reed 3
Chauncey Depew 3
John M. Thurston 2
Frederick Grant 2
Levi P. Morton 1

National Democratic Party (Gold Democrats) nomination

National Democratic candidates

Candidates gallery

The National "Gold" Democratic Convention

Despite Bryan's nomination, some Democrats continued to support President Cleveland and the gold standard. The Cleveland Democrats opposed Bryan's endorsement of free silver and also resisted Bryan's push for the federal government to play a larger role in regulating the national economy. These Gold Democrats formed a third-party, the National Democratic Party, to promote their views.

Disappointed with the direction of the Democratic Party, Gold Democrats invited Cleveland to run as their third-party candidate, but he declined their offer.[3] Senator William F. Vilas, 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. In the end, the Gold Democrats nominated John M. Palmer, a former governor of Illinois, for president. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., a former governor of Kentucky, was nominated unanimously by acclamation for vice-president. Cleveland did, however, support John M. Palmer, rather than Bryan.[4] A letter of encouragement from Cleveland gave the delegates an important psychological boost: “I am delighted with the outcome of the Indianapolis Convention and as a Democrat I feel very grateful to those who have relieved the bad political atmosphere with such a delicious infusion of fresh air”.

Palmer seemed the ideal candidate except for one critical flaw. At seventy-nine, he was far too old to persuade voters to take the campaign seriously. The same liability attached to Buckner, his seventy-three-year-old running mate. In other respects, the pair complemented each other nicely: having fought in the Civil War on opposite sides, they formed a team that emphasized sectional unity. As state governor, each had achieved a solid reputation for independence and strenuous use of the veto pen.

Despite their advanced ages, Palmer and Buckner embarked on a busy speaking tour. 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 Kenesaw M. Landis to Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont. “He has actually gotten it into his head he is running for office.”

On one extreme of the National Democratic Party were those who regarded the Palmer ticket as little more than a vehicle to elect McKinley. Gold Democrats who subscribed to this point of view were William C. Whitney and Abram S. Hewitt, the national treasurer of the NDP. To Hewitt, the election of McKinley, and thus protection of the gold standard, overrode all other issues. He had initially opposed a third ticket but had come to the conclusion that it would help defeat Bryan. 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”.

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. To this end, the Republicans contributed one-half to an NDP fund of $100,000 in the battleground states of Michigan, Indiana, and Kentucky. The two parties joined forces in the distribution of “sound money” literature, and in some areas the Republicans gave direct aid to the National Democratic Party. Although it brought obvious financial benefits, the alliance with the GOP did tremendous damage to the National Democratic Party's credibility.

The National Democrats did not carry any states, but they did divide the Democratic vote in some states and helped the Republicans to carry the state of Kentucky. Gold Democrats made much of the fact that Palmer’s small vote in Kentucky was higher than McKinley’s thin margin in that state. From this, they concluded that Palmer had drained off needed Democratic votes and thrown the state to McKinley. However, McKinley would have won the election even if he had lost in Kentucky.

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 and other nominations

Several third-parties were active in 1896. By far the most prominent was the Populist Party. Formed in 1892, the Populists represented agrarian interests in the South, West, and rural Midwest. In the 1892 presidential election Populist candidate James Weaver had carried four states, and in 1894 the Populists had 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.[5][6] 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 agreed with many Populist goals and ideas—placed the party in a dilemma. Torn between choosing their own presidential candidate and supporting Bryan, the party leadership decided that nominating their own candidate would simply divide the forces of reform and give 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 Georgia Senator 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, dividing the party between members who favored cooperation with the Democrats to achieve results 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, in many states both the Bryan-Sewall Democratic ticket and the Bryan-Watson Populist ticket appeared on the ballot. 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.)

Other notable third-party efforts were presented by the Socialist Labor, Prohibition, National Prohibition and National Democratic parties each offering tickets for President and Vice President. The Democratic ticket was also endorsed by Nevada's Silver Party.[7]

General election

The fall campaign

Three-quarters standing portrait of Bryan in a dark suit and white tie, with hands clasped before him, and with a serious and commanding expression
Bryan's imposing voice and height made a deep impression on many who thronged to hear him. Here he stands on a campaign stage, October 1896.
Bryan campaigned largely in the critical Midwest, giving over 500 speeches.

The primary issue of the 1896 campaign involved this economic question: would America remain on the gold standard, as McKinley and the Republicans wished, or would the nation's economy switch to following the free silver theories espoused by Bryan and the Populists? Bryan argued that by leaving the gold standard and having paper money backed by silver instead of gold, it would allow more paper currency to enter the national economy (a popular Bryan slogan was "16-to-1", based on the claim that 16 silver-backed dollars could be printed for every one dollar backed by gold). Bryan and his supporters argued that this "easy money" would allow impoverished farmers in the South and West to get out of debt and pay their bills, and that having more paper money circulating in the economy would help lift the nation out of the economic depression which had started in 1893. However, McKinley and the Republicans responded that the gold standard was vital to the American economy, and that if the nation went off the gold standard paper currency would lose its value by half and inflation would soar. To ridicule what they believed were Bryan's radical and unwise economic policies, the Republicans printed fake dollar bills which had Bryan's face and which read "IN GOD WE TRUST...FOR THE OTHER 53 CENTS", thus illustrating their claim that a dollar bill would be worth only 47 cents if it was backed by silver instead of gold.

The Republican Party had amassed an unprecedented war chest at all levels- national, state, and local- which amounted to about $16 million as contrased with about $1 million for the poorer democrats (roughly "16 to 1"). [8] Since he was being outspent, Bryan decided his best chance to win the election was to conduct a vigorous national speaking tour by train; in that way he could speak to the voters directly. He was the first presidential candidate to travel across the nation and meet voters in person; prior to 1896 it had been considered undignified for presidential candidates to widely travel before an election. The novelty of such an event, combined with Bryan's spellbinding oratory and the passion of his beliefs, led to huge crowds. In many parts of the South and West Bryan supporters welcomed him with parades, speeches, and wild demonstrations of support. Although Bryan traveled to most sections of the nation, he focused his efforts on the Midwest, which he believed would be the decisive battleground in the election. In just 100 days, Bryan gave over 500 speeches to several million people, a remarkable feat at the time.

Election results by county.     William McKinley      William J. Bryan

In contrast to Bryan's dramatic efforts, McKinley conducted a traditional "front porch" campaign from his home in Canton, Ohio. Instead of having McKinley travel to see the voters, Mark Hanna brought thousands of voters by train to McKinley's home; once there McKinley would greet the groups of voters and give a speech to them from his porch. McKinley labeled Bryan's proposed social and economic reforms as a serious threat to the national economy. With the depression following the Panic of 1893 coming to an end, support for McKinley's more conservative economic policies increased, while Bryan's more radical policies began to lose support among Midwestern farmers and factory workers. To ensure victory, Hanna paid large numbers of Republican orators (including Theodore Roosevelt) to travel around the nation denouncing Bryan as a dangerous radical. There were also reports that some potentially Democratic voters were intimidated into voting for McKinley. For example, some factory owners posted signs the day before the election announcing that, if Bryan won the election, the factory would be closed and the workers would lose their jobs. McKinley gained a narrow but solid victory, carrying the core of the East and Northeast, while Bryan did well among the farmers of the South, West, and rural Midwest. The large German-American voting bloc supported McKinley, who gained large majorities among the middle class, skilled factory workers, railroad workers, and large-scale farmers. However, in the national popular vote the election was close, as McKinley took 51% to Bryan's 47%. In the electoral college McKinley received 271 electoral votes to Bryan's 176 (224 were needed to win).


The addition of Utah earlier in the year raised the number of states participating to 45. Political scientists widely regard the 1896 election as a realigning election. An often forgotten facet of that realignment was the disappearance of the old Democratic Party, which had upheld free trade, hard money, and minimalist government.

Presidential candidate Party Home state Popular vote Electoral
Running mate Running mate's
home state
Running mate's
electoral vote
Count Pct
William McKinley Republican Ohio 7,105,144 51.1% 271 Garret Augustus Hobart New Jersey 271
William Jennings Bryan Democratic/
Nebraska 6,370,879 45.8% 176 Arthur Sewall(a) Maine 149
Thomas Edward Watson(b) Georgia 27
John McAuley Palmer National Democratic Illinois 132,718 1.0% 0 Simon Bolivar Buckner Kentucky 0
Joshua Levering Prohibition Maryland 125,088 0.9% 0 Hale Johnson Illinois 0
Charles Horatio Matchett Socialist Labor New York 36,359 0.3% 0 Matthew Maguire New Jersey 0
Charles Eugene Bentley National Prohibition Nebraska 19,391 0.1% 0 James Southgate North Carolina 0
Other 1,570 0.0% Other
Total 13,905,691 100% 447 447
Needed to win 224 224

Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. 1896 Presidential Election Results. Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections (August 5, 2005).Source (Electoral Vote): Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996. Official website of the National Archives. (July 31, 2005).(a) Sewall was Bryan's Democratic running mate.
(b) Watson was Bryan's Populist running mate.

See also


  1. ^ William (2010)
  2. ^ See Krugman, Paul. Conscience of a Liberal. page 23
  3. ^ Graff, 128–129
  4. ^ William DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, Gramercy 1997
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ See Bailey, Thomas A. The American Pageant 12th ed. page 618


  • Graff, Henry F. (2002). Grover Cleveland. 
  • Coletta, Paolo E. (1964). William Jennings Bryan, Political Evangelist. vol. 1. University of Nebraska Press. 
  • Fite, Gilbert C. (2001). "The Election of 1896". in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., ed.. History of American Presidential Elections. vol. 2. 
  • Glad, Paul W. (1964). McKinley, Bryan, and the People. 
  • William D. Harpine. From the Front Porch to the Front Page: McKinley and Bryan in the 1896 Presidential Campaign (2006) focus on the speeches and rhetoric
  • Jensen, Richard J. (1971). The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict 1888–1896. 
  • Jones, Stanley L. (1964). The Presidential Election of 1896. 
  • Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006).
  • Williams, R. Hal (1978). Years of Decision: American Politics in the 1890s. 
  • Williams, R. Hal. Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 (University Press of Kansas; 2010) 250 pages
Journal articles
  • James A. Barnes, "Myths of the Bryan Campaign," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 34 (Dec. 1947) online in JSTOR
  • David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, "Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896-1900,"Independent Review 4 (Spring 2000), 555-75.
  • Gilbert C. Fite. "Republican Strategy and the Farm Vote in the Presidential Campaign of 1896" in American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Jul., 1960) , pp. 787-806 online in JSTOR
  • Jeansonne, Glen. "Goldbugs, Silverites, and Satirists: Caricature and Humor in the Presidential Election of 1896." Journal of American Culture 1988 11(2): 1-8. ISSN 0191-1813
  • Kelly, Patrick J. (2003). "The Election of 1896 and the Restructuring of Civil War Memory". Civil War History 49: 254. doi:10.1353/cwh.2003.0058. 
  • Mahan, Russell L. (2003). "William Jennings Bryan and the Presidential Campaign of 1896". White House Studies 3: 41. doi:10.2307/1917933. 

Primary sources

Journal articles

External links


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