1896 Election

print this page

The presidential election in 1896, a contest between the Republican candidate, William McKinley (1843-1901), and the Democrat candidate, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), was contested over McKinley's pledge to maintain the gold standard for the nation's currency, in contrast to Bryan's promise to increase the supply of money by expanding the coining of silver. William Steinway, a lifelong Democrat, strongly supported the gold standard, which he considered to be the basis of "sound money." He was horrified by Bryan's nomination, and during the months leading to the election, he helped form a group of German Americans voicing support for the gold standard.

Even before the political conventions, William Steinway presided over a non-partisan mass meeting of New York's German Americans to establish a Sound Money League.(Diary, 1896-05-22) (3)(4) The group stated among its objectives to urge German Americans to support the party in the upcoming election that in its platform "Will declare itself in the clearest and most emphatic language in favor of the maintenance of the gold standard."(3)

On June 17, 1896, the German-American Sound Money League sent to the Republican convention a letter outlining in strong language their support and that of others for maintaining the gold standard; William was among those signing the letter.(10) William McKinley was nominated for president the next day at the Republican national convention in St. Louis. As a congressman he had earned a national reputation for being a champion of high tariffs. In1890, he sponsored a severely protectionist bill that became known as the McKinley Tariff. Although William objected to the tariff policy of McKinley, he put more importance on the question of the gold standard.(11)

When the Democratic convention met in Chicago on July 10, 1896, William was surprised by the strength of delegates he called the 'silverites".(Diary, 1896-07-06) William Jennings Bryan had been a lawyer practicing in Lincoln, Nebraska, before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1891. As a congressman he promoted expanding the coinage of silver. He became a delegate to the 1896 Democratic national convention in Chicago. Although a majority of the convention delegates favored the expansion of silver currency, they were bitterly divided among various political factions. Bryan addressed the convention in a speech that electrified the delegates, ending with the words "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."(6) He immediately became one of the leading contenders for the nomination and became the party's candidate on the fifth ballot.(2)

William was horrified when Bryan was nominated.(Diary, 1896-07-10) Three months before the election, William predicted that Democrats supporting sound money would vote for McKinley.(11) He was appalled when New York's Tammany organization endorsed Bryan.(Diary, 1896-08-01) Tammany Hall was the headquarters of the Democratic Party's political machine that dominated New York City politics since the 1850s. William Steinway was one of the leaders of the German-American wing of Tammany, although he at times had supported a reform faction opposed to Tammany's corruption.

In the last half of the 19th century, the politics of the gold standard degenerated into an issue of class warfare. Until 1873, the nation's hard currency had consisted of gold and silver coins (bimetallism). The value of a dollar was set at a ratio of 16 ounces of silver being equal to one ounce of gold. However, the market value of these precious metals fluctuated, creating problems for the currency. In an attempt to establish a better foundation for the nation's money supply, the United States went on the gold standard in 1873. Only gold coins and gold-backed paper money circulated. The gold standard limited the amount of money available to transact the nation's business and had the effect of depressing prices and wages. Farmers, wage earners and small businessmen fared poorly under deflationary pressures. They promoted a return to silver currency. The movement found its support mainly among Democrats, and was particularly strong in the western mining states. The Republican Party, representing the interests of big business, vigorously supported the gold standard as representing "honest money."

While Bryan campaigned by embarking on a strenuous travel schedule, crisscrossing the country to deliver speeches, McKinley remained at his home in Canton, Ohio, addressing visiting delegations from his front porch.(7) However, he had hundreds of surrogate speakers throughout the nation and millions of pieces of campaign literature were being distributed. Bryan's campaign cost roughly $300,000, while McKinley's organization spent about $7,000,000.(9)

Two weeks before the election, William presided over a mass meeting of "sound money " German Americans supporting the gold standard.(Diary, 1896-10-15) The meeting was reported in several New York newspapers. (1)(5)(7)(8) On election day, William voted the straight Republican ticket and noted in his diary that it was the first time in his life that he had voted for other than the Democratic ticket.(Diary, 1896-11-03)

McKinley won the election with 51 percent of the popular vote, but he had 271 electoral votes. Bryan, with support of both the Republican and Populist Parties, won 47 percent of the popular vote, but only 176 electoral votes.(2) The clash between the adherents of the gold and silver effectively ended with the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.



  1. "Capital and Labor in the Campaign," The Evening Post, October 16, 1896, p. 4.
  2. DeGregorio, William, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. New York: Wings, 1991, pp. 358-361.
  3. "Germans Are For Gold," The New York Times, May 23, 1896, p. 1.
  4. "Germans for Sound Money," New York Tribune, May 23, 1896, p. 3.
  5. "Germans for the Right," New York Tribune, October 16, 1896, p. 3.
  6. Kazin, Michael, A Godly Hero, The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Knopf, 2006, pp. 60-61.
  7. Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford, pp. 798-799.
  8. "The Poor Man's Dollar, " The New York Times, October 16, 1896, p. 8.
  9. Schlesinger, Jr.. Arthur. M. (ed.) The Almanac of American History. New York: Putnam, 1983, pp. 337, 370, 377, 382-383.
  10. "Want Only Sound Money," The New York Times, June 17, 1896, p. 2.
  11. "William Steinway Thinks McKinley Will Stick to the Gold Plank," The New York Herald, July 28, 1896, p. 4.

 Read the National Museum of American History blog post on William Steinway and the 1896 election.