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The Elections of 1896 and 1900 Key Events Maps Transcript Webography
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Regionalism in Voting Patterns

Republican William McKinley's political support came from the industrial states and the urbanized states of the East and North. Democrat William Jennings Bryan's strength came from the non-industrialized South and the Western States, where Populism and opposition to control by eastern bankers and industrialists was strong.

Voting patterns in congressional and presidential elections often reveal strong trends based on the region of the country and the economic interests of the different regions. In the elections of 1896 and 1900, Republicans were strong in the North and Northeast, while Democrats were strong in the South and West. The industrialized, urbanized Northeast and Midwest often voted as a block in U.S. elections. The South, mainly the eleven former Confederate States, was rural and agricultural and represented another block. The West, the newest region of the nation, frequently sided with the South.

These patterns were fairly stable throughout much of the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. Expressions like the "Solid South" emerged to describe the South's loyalty to the Democratic Party. These "traditional" patterns began to break down in the 1960s, as new issues and changing demographics eroded Democratic Party strength in the South and West. Since the 1960s Democratic strength has come from industrialized regions of the North and Midwest that used to be Republican, while Republican strength has come from the South and West, which formerly was the stronghold of Democrats. Both congressional and presidential elections have reflected these trends, but it is too simple to say that congressional elections and presidential elections follow the exact same patterns.

The Populist Party

The Populist Party, more formally known as the National People's Party, was formed in 1892 to represent the interests of southern and western farmers who were particularly stressed in the 1890s by high interest rates on loans, severe drought in the Midwest, a high rate of foreclosure of farm mortgages, and unfair railroad shipping rates for their products. Many of those who supported the Populist Party blamed their economic plight on a conspiracy of eastern bankers and railroad millionaires who were out to ruin them in order to maximize their own profits. In many ways the Populists represented the growing antagonism between labor and industry that marked the 1890s and the early decades of the twentieth century.

The Populist platform included such issues as the free and unlimited coinage of silver, lower interest rates, national ownership of the railroads, labor reforms, and a graduated income tax. The first Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, garnered more than a million popular votes and 22 electoral votes in the election of 1892. In 1896, the fiery young Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan adopted much of the Populist platform, and the Populists supported Bryan. Eventually the Democratic/Populist alliance weakened the Populist movement, although the party survived until 1912. Many of the issues raised by the Populists would continue to echo in American political history during the Progressive Era and the New Deal.

What is a Gold Bug?

"Gold Bug" was the popular name given to Democrats who split with their party over the silver issue in 1896 and supported the gold standard as the basis of U.S. monetary policy. The Gold Bugs, or Gold Democrats, called themselves the National Democratic party, held their own convention, and nominated their own presidential candidate in 1896, John M. Palmer, a 79-year-old Kentuckian. In their platform, the Gold Democrats criticized William Jennings Bryan and the regular Democrats as being reckless radicals. "They advocate a reckless attempt to increase the price of silver by legislation to the debasement of our monetary standard, and threaten unlimited issues of paper money by Government."

The Cross of Gold Speech

At the Democratic Convention of 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a 36-year-old former congressman from Nebraska, electrified the convention when he gave a powerful speech attacking some members of his party for failing to rally behind the silver issue. Bryan thought the gold standard was so detrimental to the welfare of the working people of the nation that he compared the burden to the crucifixion of Christ. "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns," Bryan thundered, "you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

The Full Dinner Pail

William McKinley's style of campaigning in 1900 was generally to stay in the White House and let his energetic running mate, vice-presidential nominee Theodore Roosevelt, do all the campaigning. McKinley's campaign slogan, "The Full Dinner Pail" implied that America was prosperous, everyone had plenty to eat, and that re-electing him would result in continued prosperity. It worked. McKinley was re-elected by even larger margins than he had been in 1896. Unfortunately, less than a year later, while visiting the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, McKinley was shot by an assassin and died of his wounds on September 14, 1901.

Who Was Eugene V. Debs?

Eugene Debs made his debut as a presidential candidate in the election of 1900 running on the Social Democratic ticket. Debs, from Terre Haute, Indiana, was a railroad worker from age 14 who rose in prominence as a labor organizer and Indiana state legislator. He became president of the American Railway Union in 1893 and led the massive railroad strike against the Pullman Company in 1894. For his part in the strike, he served six months in jail. Debs saw American politics as a class struggle between labor and capitalists. He was popular with many native-born workers, immigrants, and farmers who felt dispossessed by rising corporate power in America. Debs subsequently became a socialist and ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. The last time he ran for president was from his cell in a federal prison, having been sentenced to ten years for sedition, for protesting United States involvement in World War I.


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