3. 1896 Election. William McKinley (R) v. William Jennings Bryan (D)
In my opinion the 1896 election is the third most important election. In 1896 Grover Cleveland was the incumbent president finishing his second term. McKinley would run on the Republican ticket and was expected to win considering the Republicans had been in power since 1860 with one exception. Like most of his predecessors, McKinley was a Civil War veteran, which was an important aspect in winning elections in the period after the Civil War known politically as the Gilded Age. More importantly for this story, McKinley was an old school Gilded Age politician. It is difficult to see many differences between the Republicans and Democrats in the Gilded Age, mainly because neither party did much. The idea of government actually helping the people was a foreign concept; Gilded Age politicians would be shocked and confused to hear about our recent economic bailout. The biggest difference between the two parties was Republicans believed in a high tariff, while Democrats wanted to keep the tariff low. I challenge anyone today to tell me what the current tariff rate is, but in 1896 bringing up the tariff was bound to get you into a fight. For those who may not know, tariffs are taxes placed on imported goods. One benefit is to make money, but the more important reason is to support American business. If we tax items that America also makes it forces foreign competitors to charge more for their goods and we can under sell them. The other minor difference was that the Republicans believed in big government (just the opposite from today), but high tariffs were about as big as they got. The only other thing the federal did to help people was sell cheap land and give Union soldiers pensions. Most of the support for the Republicans came from New England and mostly Protestants who wanted moral reform (anti-drinking leagues). The Democratic party wanted a government that did nothing, hence low tariffs. White Southerners who wanted the federal government to leave them alone so they could continue to build on white supremacy mostly supported them. In the North their support came from catholic immigrants who did not think the government should have a say in their personal lives, but insisted that was the job of the church. So voters in the Gilded Age did have a choice in parties, if not in major ideology.
All that began to change in the 1890s when farmers (who made up the majority of the population) came to the realization that neither party cared much about their welfare. In states like Kansas, Texas, and Nebraska farmers began to come together to create a third party to assist the plight of farmers known as the Populists party. The Populists party is by far the most powerful third party in American history; they elected US Senators and Governors. What makes the Populists stand out from the other mainstream parties was that they believed that the government had a responsibility to help them, they would cheer the economic bailout. They wanted the government to give them low interests loans, build them warehouses to store their crops, and even tell railroads how much they could charge to ship crops. The Populists number one issue was called free silver. We were still on the gold standard in the 1890s, and the Populists were hopeful to add silver to the currency to allow for more money into the system to cause inflation which would weaken the dollar and make it easier for debt ridden farmers to pay back their loans. Ideas like the government telling private business how much to charge and government interfering with the economy were extremely radical ideas, but from their growth in such a short time, must have been appealing.
In 1892 the Populists ran their first presidential candidate, James Weaver. He came in third place but did carry a respectable five states, which is good for a first time party. If nothing else they made the other parties take notice. Over the next 4 years the party continued to grow and put their trust behind their newly appointed leader: William Jennings Bryant. Bryant was the ultimate politician. He was an extremely capable leader and was dripping with charisma, kind of cross between Clinton, Kennedy, and Lincoln when it came to giving speeches.
In 1896 the Democrats were at a loss. In every election they had been close to victory but would always fall a bit short. The Democratic leaders decided they needed to do something radical to win. They realized if they could capture the Populist voters they could win, but in order to win over Populists they had to make drastic changes to their party beliefs. Remember Democrats were the party of small government, but in 1896 they ran a platform of government involvement. To guarantee that Populists took them seriously, they asked William Jennings Bryan to run on their ticket, to which he agreed. Following Bryan’s beliefs, the principle issue for the Democrats in the election was free silver. The reason why this is the third most important election is that for the first time a major party would decide it had a responsibility to help the American people, and we have never looked back. The Democrats would lose this election, but their Populists influence will not wear down. In fact even the Republicans would be forced to move over closer to the Democratic point of view, and just a few years later the Republicans would elect Teddy Roosevelt in 1804 who will do more to increase the size and power of government more than any other president.
To finish this election story, the 1896 race was between three parties but only two men. The Republicans ran McKinley, the Democrats ran Bryan, and not to be left out the Populists also ran Bryan but with a different VP. Bryan will do a good job at winning over some Populists to the Democratic party and will win the rural vote but could never make head way into the massive northern industrial cities where they saw him as a back water hick with too much of a religion attitude (catholic immigrants in the cities, though religion, still did not want the government meddling with morality). As for the Populists party, this was their last election, as they will fuse with the Democrats changing the latter forever. As for Bryan he will run for president two more times, but is probably most well known as the guest prosecuting attorney for the Scopes trial that convicted John Scopes for teaching evolution in the 1920s. He will die a couple days after the trial. McKinley will win a second term only to be assassinated by anarchists at the Buffalo Worlds Fair in 1901.
Though McKinley wins the election and quickly passes the Gold Standard Act keeping American on the Gold Standard, the real importance of this election is the change from Government believing it should do the very minimum to the government believing today it should be involved in every aspect of our lives.