By 1896, Cleveland had virtually no chance of being elected for a third term. His presidency had been marred by a multitude of crises: he had failed to squelch the Depression of 1893, barely managed to keep the U.S. Treasury at a stable level, angered middle-class constituents by ending the Pullman Strike with federal forces, and not kept his promise to reduce the tariff significantly. As a result, Democrats instead nominated William Jennings Bryan, who at the nominating convention delivered his now-famous “Cross of Gold” speech in condemnation of the gold standard. In the speech, Bryan passionately proclaimed, “We will answer [the Republicans’] demands for a gold standard by saying to them: ‘You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!’” Because the Democrats ran on a Populist-inspired platform, campaigning for free silver, the two parties joined in supporting Bryan.
The Republican Party nominated Senator William McKinley of Ohio, sponsor of the controversial McKinley Tariff, on a pro-business platform. Wealthy Ohio businessman Mark Hanna financed most of the campaign and convinced his colleagues in the East to support McKinley. Hanna’s expert politicking won McKinley the presidency despite Bryan’s whirlwind speaking tour through the South and Midwest.
Ironically, Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, though seen as one of the finest rally cries in U.S. history, ended up creating many opponents of the free silver cause. Conservatives, fearing cheap money and inflation, flocked to the McKinley camp. The election of 1896 thus became less a race between Bryan and McKinley than a contest between those for Bryan and those against him. Wealthy businessmen in the East invested about $15 million into McKinley’s campaign, making it the largest campaign fund for a presidential candidate in history. Some Democrats quite reasonably claimed that McKinley had “bought” the White House.
McKinley ultimately killed the Populists’ dream of free silver in 1900 when he signed the Gold Standard Act, stabilizing the value of the dollar to one ounce of gold. In 1897, McKinley also signed the Dingley Tariff to set overall tariff rates at approximately 45 percent.
In retrospect, historians believe that the election of 1896 was one of the most important elections of the nineteenth century and certainly the most significant election since the Civil War. McKinley’s win represented a victory for urban middle-class Americans over agrarian interests in the West and South. Populism never really spread into the cities, and Bryan’s appeal for free silver and inflation alienated even the poorest Americans in the cities, who depended on a stable dollar to survive.
The Bryan campaign of 1896 essentially marked the end of the Populist movement, for the Populist Party effectively became a part of the Democratic Party by throwing its support behind Bryan. In addition, in light of Bryan’s defeat, the election of 1896 marked the last time in which a major candidate tried to win by appealing to agricultural interests. McKinley’s victory ushered in a new age in American politics in which conservatives dominated: Republicans would control the White House for the majority of the next thirty-six years.