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The Contentious 1896 Election That Started the Rural-Urban Voter Divide

August 5, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

William Jennings Bryan’s campaign rhetoric to end government favoritism toward business at the expense of farmers and the working class resonated for generations to come.

As the presidential election year of 1896 began, things were looking rosy for the Republicans. But the emergence of a brash, young politician, William Jennings Bryan, soon turned the tide. Bryan’s campaign laid bare the diverging interests of those whose livelihoods were linked to urban institutions and those who lived by the land in rural America.

With the nation mired in the aftermath of a serious economic depression and a deeply unpopular Democrat incumbent—Grover Cleveland—in the White House, the GOP had surged back in the most recent midterms to win control of both the House and Senate. Governor William McKinley of Ohio easily won the Republican presidential nomination, and seemed poised for a smooth ride to the White House on his platform of economic protectionism and support for the gold standard, which defined the value of the nation’s currency in terms of how much gold it had in reserve.

But in an unexpected turn of events, the young Democratic Nebraska lawyer and former congressman Bryan challenged McKinley in 1896. Bryan’s appeal to America’s farmers and the working class, his passionate support of the free silver movement and his powerful speaking style galvanized both disaffected Democrats and members of the People’s (or Populist) Party, turning the election into one of the most hard-fought and consequential in the nation’s history.

READ MORE: Populism in the United States: A Timeline

Backdrop: Panic of 1893

The battle between McKinley and Bryan took place during an economic downturn that had begun in 1893, when two of the nation’s biggest employers, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, collapsed, setting off a stock market panic. Thousands of businesses closed, and the nation suffered more than 10 percent unemployment for more than five straight years.

While President Cleveland favored the gold standard, many in the Populist Party and the rural, agrarian wing of the Democratic Party—including many farmers in the South and West—supported the Free Silver Movement. Rather than rely on gold to back the nation’s money supply, they believed the country should use silver, which was much more abundant at the time. This would inflate the currency, increasing the prices farmers would receive for their crops and helping them pay …read more


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