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Election In Silver And Gold
A century ago this fall, voters were at one another’s throats in one of the hardest-fought campaigns ever
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
The Populists, who had done very well in state and congressional elections in 1892 and 1894, were primarily a Farm Belt coalition. They embraced free silver but also had a much more far-reaching program for taming corporations and democratizing the industrial order; it included the direct election of senators, rural credit systems, and public ownership of railroads among other highly radical ideas for the 1890s. In their July 1896 convention the Populists had to choose between naming their own candidate to run on this wider agenda or getting an actual chance of having a friend in the White House by endorsing Bryan. He himself, while sympathetic to many Populist ideas, would fight hard only for silver, the cause that had made his reputation since he embraced it as a congressman from Nebraska. He had won the nomination mainly through a stem-winding and unforgettable oration climaxing with the thundering admonition to Cleveland Democrats: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” After heated debate the People’s party delegates chose “fusion” with Bryan over independence. Ultimately the merger worked to their disadvantage and his.
That was because Bryan could thereafter be easily tarred both with Populist “extremism” and the ignorance and inexperience of youth. In 1896 he was just thirty-six years old, and he had been in diapers when McKinley was advancing from private to major on bloody fields. Actually, there were personal similarities between the two, both small-town Midwesterners (Bryan was raised in Illinois), good family men, devout churchgoers and faithful to the belief that success in life was largely self-made by the exercise of will and virtue. But these parallels were obscured by the storms of a canvass in which multitudes of family farmers who considered themselves the moral backbone of the Republic were fighting a rear-guard action against being marginalized, and legions of other Americans likewise buffeted and bewildered by a changing economic order were terrified of unfamiliar initiatives. The ordinary billingsgate of politics turned into the language of class war.
The Populists had always received a poor press in the big cities; one newspaper described the delegates to their convention as “anarchists, howlers, tramps, highwaymen, burglars…men with unkempt and matted hair.” One clergyman said that the Democratic platform “was made in Hell,” while Harper’s Weekly warned that beyond Bryan’s “feeble and ignorant presentation of his money heresy” lay “the deep abyss of socialism.” John Hay, a future Secretary of State, described Bryan as “a halfbaked glib little briefless jack-leg lawyer…promising the millennium to everybody with a hole in his pants and destruction to everybody with a clean shirt.” Hay’s friend, young Theodore Roosevelt, the police commissioner of New York City, supposedly told a New York editor that “the sentiment now animating a large proportion of our people [could] only be suppressed…by taking ten or a dozen of their leaders out, standing…them against a wall, and shooting them dead.” (Roosevelt later denied the words; the editor stood by his version.)
Not all the vehemence was on the Republican side. Pro-Bryan cartoonists drew caricatures of McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, as a bloated plutocrat wearing a vest patterned in dollar signs—ignoring the fact that wealthy silver miners and their heirs, like William Randolph Hearst, were among Bryan’s backers. In fact, Hanna did raise much more cash—some $3.3 million, a huge sum in 1896—from worried businessmen than did the Democrats. And businessmen had especially persuasive tactics; persistent stories of factories that hung out placards announcing that they would be shut down after election day if Bryan won seem to have some historical foundation. As Lindsay recalled it later, “the whole Atlantic coast/Seemed a giant spiders’ nest.”
Bryan could not offset these disadvantages with his own incredible outpouring of energy. He barnstormed the nation by rail, speaking to perhaps five million people in twenty-seven states as he journeyed some eighteen thousand miles. But the results on the night of November 3 were crushing. McKinley won 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 176. The popular vote was closer—some 7 million to 6.5 million—but no matter that, the election had really made a difference. The people had voiced their clear preference, if not for gold, at least for the industrial status quo and what McKinley called “the Full Dinner Pail.” In a sense they had voted in the twentieth century.
Vachel Lindsay never forgave them. His 1919 verses cruelly lampooned McKinley as “the man without an angle or a tangle,” Mark Hanna’s “slave, his echo, his suit of clothes.” Even “boy Bryan,” the “gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun” in 1896, had by then become fat and old and a consistent but outdated defender of an “old-time” religion that contested not only evolution but much of the open-mindedness that characterized modern thought. That may be why, though Bryan still had six years to live, Lindsay wrote that he, too, had “gone to join the shadows…where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest.”