Political and economic backgroundEdit
In 1896, the United States was effectively on the gold standard, as the government would accept gold bullion for conversion into coin, but, since the passage of the Coinage Act of 1873, would not accept silver. Many believed the gold standard deflationary, and that use of America's silver resources was necessary for a prosperous economy. In reaction to these views, Congress had passed the Bland-Allison Act in 1878, authorizing large purchases of silver to be struck into circulating money. The purchases had been greatly increased in 1890 by the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Both laws were compromises between those who sought free silver—that the the Bureau of the Mint would accept all the silver offered to it, and return it struck into coin—and supporters of the gold standard. As the silver in a dollar coin was worth only about half that amount, silver producers would profit under free silver, and the money supply would be increased Silver supporters argued that such a policy would benefit everyone; gold supporters alleged that allowing borrowers to repay in inflated currency was unfair to lenders.
President Grover Cleveland had been elected in 1892 to a second non-consecutive term as president following a first term in 1885–1889. Almost as soon as he resumed office in March 1893, the economy crashed in the Panic of 1893, one of the most severe recessions in the nation's history. Cleveland's major response to the economic downturn was to call a special session of Congress to repeal Sherman's act. Cleveland believed the inflation caused by the greatly increased silver purchases had caused the recession. The repeal proved bitterly divisive, and was opposed by many from the South and West in both major parties. Among those who spoke against the repeal in Congress was Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan. Aged 33 in 1893, Bryan was already acquiring a reputation as a compelling orator. Some in Cleveland's Democratic Party proposed compromises, such as continuing to purchase silver for a year, but the President refused to consider them. Cleveland was successful, and signed the repeal bill on November 1, 1893. Despite the repeal, the economy continued to perform poorly, and there was widespread unemployment.
Cleveland refused all proposals for any reinstatement of silver purchases, leading to considerable discontent in his own party, which was bitterly divided over the issue. Other actions by the President, such as the forcible suppression of the Pullman strike in 1894, made him even less popular among Democrats, and many in the party began forming organizations to take over the Democratic Party and deny Cleveland renomination in 1896 in favor of a silver-supporting candidate. Cleveland's unpopularity, and the disunity among the Democrats, caused the party to lose large numbers of congressional seats in the 1894 midterm elections According to historian R. Hal Williams in his study of the 1896 election, "by 1896, silver had become a symbol. For many, it had moral and patriotic dimensions and stood for a wide range of popular grievances. Cleveland and his fellow gold adherents never understood that."
Runup to the conventionsEdit
Advent of McKinleyEdit
As the year 1896 began, a number of candidates for the Republican nomination for president were spoken of. "Silver Republicans", mostly from the West and a minority in their party, favored one of the few easterners in their ranks, Pennsylvania Senator Don Cameron. Pennsylvania's other senator, political boss Matthew Quay was another possible contender, along with New York Governor (and former Vice President) Levi P. Morton, Iowa Senator William B. Allison, Illinois Senator Shelby Cullom, and Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed of Maine. Former President Benjamin Harrison was also deemed likely to attract support, should he seek another nomination.
Another contender was Ohio Governor William McKinley. As early as 1888, McKinley (then a congressman) had received votes for the presidential nomination at that year's Republican convention; in 1892, although not a declared candidate, he had finished third in delegate votes. The leading contenders as of the start of 1896 were McKinley, Reed, and Allison, with Harrison also a frontrunner if he joined the race.
McKinley, with his close ally and supporter, industrialist and future senator Mark Hanna, began planning his run as early as 1892. In 1893, Governor McKinley suffered a severe setback, as he was called upon to pay some $118,000 in notes he had guaranteed for a friend of his youth, Robert Walker. McKinley stated that he would resign and earn the money as a lawyer; he was talked out of this by wealthy friends, such as Hanna and Chicago publisher H. H. Kohlsaat, who instead raised money for McKinley, who was reluctant to accept it, but eventually did. With the personal crisis disposed of, McKinley was elected to a second two-year term as governor late in 1893, and remained in office until his term expired in January 1896.
In 1895, Hanna went east to meet with Republican bosses such as Quay and New York Senator Thomas Platt. He found them willing to support McKinley for the nomination in exchange for political favors should McKinley become president. When Hanna reported back to McKinley, the Ohio governor refused to make the deal, and Hanna undertook to gain McKinley the nomination without strings attached. The organizaton Hanna built, which included such McKinley supporters as Kohlsaat, Cleveland industrialist Myron Herrick, and Chicago businessman Charles Dawes, was generally first on the ground in any location, building a local McKinley campaign structure aimed at getting that state's Republican convention to send delegates to the national convention pledged to McKinley. According to Jones,
Only in the retrospect of McKinley's victory was is it seen that [Allison campaign manager James S.] Clarkson and [Reed campaign manager Joseph P.] Manley were ill fitted to run a campaign in competition with Hanna. They were established political leaders who knew the right bosses, the right business men, and all the tricks of their craft. They conferred with the powerful bosses, the influential business men and set up the traditional campaign machinery only to discover that in the year 1896, none of the traditional tactics worked.
Beginning in early 1895, McKinley and Hanna began to lay the groundwork for the governor's nomination. Hanna engaged a house in southern Georgia; McKinley visited there in both 1895 and 1896. Though these visits were ostensibly nonpolitical, McKinley met with many southern politicians, both whites and blacks.
- Jones, pp. 7–13.
- Williams, pp. 21–27.
- Williams, pp. 32–35.
- Williams, p. 36.
- Williams, pp. 36–37.
- Jones, pp. 96–97.
- Jones, pp. 99–101.
- Horner, p. 71.
- Morgan, p. 127.
- Horner, pp. 132–133.
- Morgan, pp. 129–134.
- Horner, pp. 134–135.
- Jones, pp. 101–111.
- Jones, p. 101.