McKinley Is Elected President Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In a presidential election that was dominated by debate over the silver and gold standards, William McKinley recaptured the presidency for the Republican Party and oversaw the beginning of the Republicans’ thirty-six-year domination of Congress.

Summary of Event

The Republicans approached the November 3, 1896, U.S. elections confident that they would regain the presidency that they had relinquished only twice since the Civil War (1861-1865), both times to Grover Cleveland, in 1884 and 1892. The failure of the Cleveland administration to deal effectively with the severe economic depression that followed the Panic of 1893 had led to significant losses for the Democrats in the 1894 elections. Republicans gained more than one hundred seats in the House of Representatives, the largest transfer of congressional strength in U.S. history up to that time. Moreover, the Democratic Party Democratic Party;and silver policy[Silver policy] was dangerously split over the issue of silver, and President Cleveland Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;and election of 1896[Election of 1896] had been repudiated by many in his own party. The Republicans, controlling the House of Representatives and seeing the continuing difficulties of the opposing parties, were certain that they could defeat the Democrats and the Populists Populism;and election of 1896[Election of 1896] in the presidential race. Presidency, U.S.;election of 1896 Presidency, U.S.;William McKinley[MacKinley] Silver;and U.S. election of 1896[U.S. election of 1896] McKinley, William [p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];election of 1896 Bryan, William Jennings [p]Bryan, William Jennings;election of 1896 Democratic Party;election of 1896 Republican Party;election of 1896 [kw]McKinley Is Elected President (Nov. 3, 1896) [kw]Elected President, McKinley Is (Nov. 3, 1896) [kw]President, McKinley Is Elected (Nov. 3, 1896) Presidency, U.S.;election of 1896 Presidency, U.S.;William McKinley[MacKinley] Silver;and U.S. election of 1896[U.S. election of 1896] McKinley, William [p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];election of 1896 Bryan, William Jennings [p]Bryan, William Jennings;election of 1896 Democratic Party;election of 1896 Republican Party;election of 1896 [g]United States;Nov. 3, 1896: McKinley Is Elected President[6180] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 3, 1896: McKinley Is Elected President[6180] Hanna, Marcus A. Hobart, Garret Augustus Sewall, Arthur Watson, Thomas Edward

The leading candidate for the Republicans was William McKinley, a former governor of Ohio, who had the nomination assured by the time that the Republican National Convention assembled in St. Louis on June 16, 1896. As the most popular leader in his party, McKinley defeated his disorganized rivals and won the nomination easily on the first ballot. He selected Garret Augustus Hobart Hobart, Garret Augustus of New Jersey as his running mate. Their platform promised to preserve the existing gold standard but to seek a wider use of silver through international agreements. The East liked the platform’s pledge for gold; the West admired its bow toward silver. McKinley expected to base his campaign on the gold standard and the protective tariff. Tariffs;protective The Republicans did not anticipate a serious challenge from the eventual Democratic nominee.

The Democrats were hopelessly divided about silver and its inflationary implications. Cleveland and his allies favored the gold standard. Party members in the South and West wanted free silver—the rapid expansion of the money supply—to raise agricultural prices and make debts easier to pay. The prosilver forces controlled the platform at the national convention that met in Chicago in July. No clear front-runner for the nomination had emerged, but a young Nebraskan named William Jennings Bryan hoped to sway the delegates when he spoke for silver during the debate on the platform.

Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech Bryan, William Jennings [p]Bryan, William Jennings;"Cross of Gold" speech[Cross of Gold speech] "Cross of Gold" (Bryan)[Cross of Gold (Bryan)] became an eloquent statement of the free-silver cause, and his oratory captivated the audience. The next day, the thirty-six-year-old Bryan was nominated on the fifth ballot. To balance the ticket, the convention chose Arthur Sewall Sewall, Arthur , a Maine banker who favored free silver, as Bryan’s running mate. Some Democrats who advocated remaining on the gold standard bolted the party and formed the Gold Democrats.

The nomination of Bryan and the adoption of a free-silver plank in the Democratic platform placed the Populists, Populism;and election of 1896[Election of 1896] whose national convention gathered on July 22 in St. Louis, in a dilemma. If they nominated Bryan and thereby fused with the Democrats, they would advance the cause of free silver but render their own party irrelevant. However, if they were to nominate a separate ticket, that might guarantee a victory for McKinley and the Republicans. The delegates decided to endorse Bryan for president and select their own vice presidential candidate. They chose Thomas Edward Watson of Georgia, a longtime Populist leader. As a result, there were two Bryan tickets in the field, with different vice presidential candidates. Bryan never accepted Watson as an official candidate, but the result was a good deal of confusion on many state ballots.

Republican campaign poster for William McKinley and his running mate, Garrett A. Hobart.

(Library of Congress)

Free silver became the dominant issue of the election. Debtors and those who mined silver believed that silver should be minted in unlimited quantities at the fixed silver-to-gold ratio of sixteen to one. They argued that increasing the money supply would raise prices for agricultural products and make debts easier to pay. Supporters of the gold standard countered that inflation would penalize those with savings and those on fixed incomes. Silver supporters within the Republican ranks held a national convention and supported Bryan and Sewall Sewall, Arthur . The Gold Democrats nominated John M. Palmer of Illinois as their presidential candidate. Prohibitionist and Socialist-Labor Party candidates were also on the ballot in many states.

Bryan waged a vigorous personal campaign. He traveled eighteen thousand miles, made more than six hundred speeches, and was heard by an estimated 500,000 people. Crowds cheered the Boy Orator of the Platte, as Bryan was known. The Democrats’ main asset was Bryan himself. Otherwise, the party had little money or effective campaign resources. In the East, conservative Democrats supported McKinley or the Gold Democrats. The major battleground of the election became the Midwest.

Knowing that he could not match Bryan’s skills as a speaker, McKinley conducted a “front-porch” campaign from his home in Canton, Ohio. Republican groups came to meet with him and hear short, effective speeches that McKinley gave about the dangers of free silver and the virtues of the protective tariff Tariffs;protective . McKinley warned workers that inflation would erode the value of their paychecks. Under the leadership of campaign manager Marcus A. Hanna Hanna, Marcus A. , the Republicans raised four million dollars from large contributors and corporations. Hanna used the money on a campaign of education that saw 250 million pamphlets of Republican literature distributed to the voters. Speakers for McKinley crisscrossed the North in a well-organized drive to arouse Republican voters.

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At the outset of the campaign, a wave of enthusiasm swept the country for Bryan. Some conservatives warned that the nation stood on the brink of social revolution. It proved difficult, however, for Bryan to sustain his one-issue campaign throughout the entire presidential contest. By the middle of the fall, the luster of the silver issue was becoming tarnished, and the Republicans surged ahead in the key states. McKinley’s pluralistic and inclusive style attracted voters, particularly in the industrial states, to his message. Meanwhile, the divided and underfinanced Democrats could not overcome the obstacles that the Cleveland Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;and election of 1896[Election of 1896] administration had imposed upon them.

The excitement and controversy of the 1896 campaign produced a large voter turnout in percentage terms. Women and members of minorities were still barred from voting in many states, but more than 75 percent of the eligible male electorate went to the polls in the North. Two million more people voted than in the previous presidential contest. McKinley captured 271 electoral votes, and Bryan had 176 (including 27 Bryan-Watson electors). Bryan’s strength lay in the plains and southern states; McKinley ran well in the industrial Midwest. The popular vote totals were 7,104,779 for McKinley to Bryan’s 6,502,925.

Significance

After the election, Bryan and the Democrats alleged that corporations supporting McKinley and Hanna Hanna, Marcus A. had coerced workers into voting Republican, but Bryan’s inflationary ideas were a better explanation of why so many industrial employees voted Republican. The outcome of the election completed the electoral upheaval of the 1890’s and made the Republicans the majority party for a generation. McKinley was reelected in 1900 but was assassinated McKinley, William [p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];assassination of the following year and succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.

McKinley interpreted his electoral victory in 1896 as a victory for the gold standard and the concomitant interests of big-business industrialism over agrarian Populism. Passage of the Dingley Tariff Act in 1897 Dingley Tariff Act of 1897 and the Gold Standard Act in 1900 attest that victory.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of William McKinley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1980. The first chapter looks at the 1896 election and McKinley’s rise to national prominence. The book stresses McKinley’s skill as a politician.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Lewis L., and Craig H. Roell, eds. William McKinley: A Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1988. Exhaustive listing of articles and books on Mckinley and the 1896 election that were published before 1988.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Stanley L. The Presidential Election of 1896. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964. Balanced and fair treatment of the election that contains a wealth of information about the activities of all the major participants in the 1896 contest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGerr, Michael. The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Review of campaign styles, useful for placing the partisan techniques in 1896 within a historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, H. Wayne. From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1969. Well-written narrative history of U.S. politics during the late nineteenth century. Argues that the outcome of the 1896 election was the culmination of Republican policies of nationalism and economic development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, Kevin. William McKinley. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2003. This analysis of McKinley’s presidency argues that McKinley was a “near great” president, whose place in history has been diminished because he was unable to complete his second term.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, R. Hal. Years of Decision: American Politics in the 1890’s. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Books, 1993. Excellent narrative. Includes information on the election of 1896 and its significance. Good discussion on the emotions the election aroused.

Hayes Becomes President

U.S. Election of 1884

Birth of the People’s Party

Congress Passes Dingley Tariff Act

Spanish-American War

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