Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Some Things Never Change – The Presidential Election of 1896

Though Sara Eva Howe was only 13 years old in 1896, she was tuned in to politics. Today, as we endure the contentious presidential primary and general elections of 2016, we look at Sarah's memories of the equally contentions campaigns of Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican William McKinley. To this day, historians call that year's presidential election one of the most dramatic and complex in American history. No wonder Sarah had such vivid recall as she wrote about it some 15 to 20 years later.

I'm no political historian, so I poked around on the internet to learn about the presidential election of 1896. If I understand correctly, Republican William McKinley drew most of his support from businessmen, bankers, professionals, skilled workers, and prosperous farmers, all of whom stood for gold as the U.S.A's currency standard. Democrat William Jennings Bryan's was supported by Democrats, the Populist Party, and the "Silver Republicans." His campaign blamed the wealthy for impoverishing America by limiting the money supply by basing it solely on gold. He supported coining more-abundant silver to restore prosperity.

Comments in brackets within the following transcription are my own and not Sarah's.

The fall of 1896 found us politically minded indeed, for it was the great gold standard, silver standard campaign, and William Jennings Bryan was running for President for the first time on a platform of “Free and Unlimited Coinage of Silver” which many thought meant lots of silver money for everyone! Just as the cry of McKinley and Protection, or The Full Dinner Pail or even The Gold Standard prejudiced many, including my young and impressionable self, in its favor.

Papa being a Prohibitionist was of course not directly concerned, but Uncle Joe [Joseph B. Howe] swerved from his former support of the Prohibition ticket (he voted for it before Papa did) to vote out and out Republican – so did Mr. George Winslow (also a former Prohibitionist). We privately thought their intensely Republican spouses brought this about.

Uncle Will [William Ficklin Howe] supported the Gold Democrats, who had on a ticket Palmer and Buckner. Uncle John Smith never would tell how he voted, which was an admission of something or other. Feeling ran higher than at any election, I believe, since the Civil War, and think of what the fuss was all about – Money!

Of course, the Salyers folks [Sarah's in-laws starting in 1905] were all Republicans – and Mrs. King [probably Mary Catherine Mayfield King, the grandmother of Sarah's husband] herself was for “gold” and had many arguments with Uncle Alec Trout who was for Bryan (Uncle Bill Fisher too was Republican). We all wore campaign buttons and many were the arguments in our class of six at school. [Sadly, the scrapbooks did not include any campaign buttons or other memorabilia.]

Note on the election business
In our class there were two silver Democrats Vachel and Dick Stanton
2 gold Democrats Florian [Browinski] and Jenne [Howe]
one Republican Mamie Merrill
and one Prohibitionist (goldily inclined) - myself.

To pursue the election excitement a little further, we were wildly excited for the returns. Papa kept coming in and telling us how it was going as he spent most of his time at the Court House and nobbing with the Republicans (as he said) they were getting their returns by wire there.

Democratic Campaign Poster, 1896 --
By Amos Currier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Republican Campaign Poster, 1896 --
by Gillespie, Metzgar & Kelley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On election day Nov. 3, 1896, the national voter turnout of 79.3 percent, and some places reported a turnout exceeding 90 percent. (Compare that with the substantially lower turnouts over the past few elections!) McKinley, who had a campaign budget of $3.5 million (equivalent to $3 billion today!), outspent Bryan 5 to 1 during the campaign and won the election with 51.03 percent of the vote.

I'll leave the political analysis and commentary to others, but it seems to me that some things never change. This year's presidential campaigning includes a degree of "class clash," wouldn't you agree? Also, in the past few decades, the candidate with the biggest campaign budget often wins.

If this post stirs your interest in the election of 1896, please search the internet for articles about them. There are a half-million or more sites about this topic.


ScotSue said...

How topical - and fascinating to read!

Frances Nelson Salyers said...

I agree, Sue. In this year's presidential election season, it's important to know that this country has a history of questionable campaign tactics and name-calling -- and yet here we are, still a nation.