The setting for the 1896 presidential election was held against the backdrop of the economic panic of 1893, which brought social unrest and high unemployment. Democratic president Grover Cleveland was unwilling to respond to the growing popular demand for the free coinage of silver, and other progressive demands like a graduated income tax. His administration was repudiated by his divided party. The Democrats lost 112 House seats in the midterm election. The major Republican contenders were William Allison of Iowa, House Speaker Thomas Reed of Maine, and William McKinley of Ohio.
William McKinley, the governor of Ohio, had established a national reputation as a proponent of high tariffs. His major ally in his bid for the presidency was the skillful, wealthy, Ohio industrialist Mark Hanna. Through the able organizational ability of Mark Hanna, William McKinley was nominated on the first ballot at the St. Louis GOP Convention in June 1896. The Republican platform stated that “the existing gold standard must be preserved. ” Garret Hobart was selected to be McKinley’s running mate.
Mark Hanna, a wealthy Ohio businessman, Republican party leader, and close friend of McKinley, suggested that the former congressman run for the Ohio governorship. With Hanna’s help, McKinley won two gubernatorial terms and then the Republican presidential nomination in 1896. McKinley’s main domestic concerns were the gold standard, which he maintained, and the protective tariff, which he reinstated. Riding the wave of economic recovery and prosperity originally created by the policies of Grover Cleveland, McKinley faced down the usual critics of his positions with success.
His gaze was turned outward, however, focusing on expanding the role of the United States on the world stage. Hanna’s philosophy matched McKinley’s. They were both Hamiltonians in believing broadly that men who owned should rule, but they wanted more men to own, and to rule in favor of all sectors of life, not merely business. Hanna did not trust businessmen in politics. They easily panicked, lacked insight into the total system, and tended to a dangerous snobbery. He and McKinley slowly gathered a group of aides committed to the ideals of silence and patient organization.
All were intensely loyal, and able to blend into a system. None swore allegiance to a simple profit ethic. Governor McKinley had been the one Republican speaker in the campaign whom every state committee wanted. The demands were so numerous and so insistent that it became a matter of extreme difficulty to arrange his dates. From September 25 to November 2, he made three hundred and seventyone speeches, in three hundred different towns and in sixteen States. People came many miles to hear him and his audiences were enormous.
He was hailed with enthusiasm as the hope of the country, the man whose policies had meant prosperity, and the only man who could break through the cloud of doubt and distrust that had overwhelmed the country. A Cleveland newspaper published a cartoon in which Uncle Sam was pointing to McKinley as the rising sun of national prosperity. The idea was seized upon by his political supporters, and thereafter McKinley was persistently pictured to the voters as “the advance agent of Prosperity. ” The presidential nomination was more complicated.
By the fall of 1895 there were three leading candidates: Senator William B. Allison of Iowa; Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed of Maine; and exGovernor William McKinley of Ohio. McKinley, however, was considered the favorite. As a congressman, he had become closely identified with the tariff issue. A quiet and astute manager of men, he represented “the dominant taste and morality of his time. ” As his recent biographer notes, McKinley favored the protective tariff and the Republican party because “he believed both promoted national rather than sectional interests or class development. ” McKinley’s rhetoric echoed these beliefs and made him extremely popular among the mass of Republican voters.