Election of 1896

A watershed in U.S. economic/social history, the Election of 1896 witnessed the last great surge of agrarian populist protest clashing against the growing power of an urbanizing, industrial America. Despite a spirited campaign, comprising more than 600 speeches and 18,000 miles across 27 states, William Jennings Bryan (D), the "silver- tongued orator" and "boy wonder of the Prairie," was narrowly defeated by William McKinley (R) by under 600,000 votes. The electoral results -- McKinley's 271 to Bryan's 176 -- did not tell the real story. A slight shift of less than 20,000 votes across California, Oregon, Kentucky, North Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana would have given victory to Bryan.  Outspent 10:1, and with little organization to match McKinley's "front porch campaign," Bryan's momentum spooked the Republican deep pockets. Mark Hanna, McKinley's campaign manager, raised enormous sums from Wall Street, which were used to finance an army of 1,400 anti-Bryan speakers and a widespread variety of "dirty tricks."  Post-election analysis cast a pall of doubt on the McKinley results with gross election irregularities reported in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. Comparisons to 1876 were common. Some observers stated that 1896 showed a premeditated "fix" had rigged the outcome in advance, whereas twenty years earlier the dirty work was done after the election. Money and raw power were becoming more sophisticated in denying the will of the people (see Election of 1876).


William Jennings Bryan