Why is the election of 1896 considered a watershed in American politics?
A watershed Election is one that changes history. The candidate has a campaign that decides the course of politics for decades; one that is especially memorable, or that proves to be a dividing line between historical periods. [ The election of 1896 was just that.
The depression of the 1890s, and President Cleveland’s unwillingness to use federal resources to assist the unemployed, alienated
irate farmers and workers from the Democratic Party. During the 1892 and 1894 elections, Democrats suffered large Congressional seat losses while Republicans and Populists each achieved significant gains.
As the presidential election of 1896 drew closer and political leaders worked to define party platforms, currency standards became the hottest issue. While Republicans endorsed the gold standard to win east coast industrialist votes, Populists continued to support unlimited silver coinage to increase the money supply. Democrats, meanwhile, were split as they struggled to find a common direction for their party and overcome the unpopular actions and policies of the Cleveland administration.
At the Democratic convention in Chicago, the commanding presence of William Jennings Bryan captured the attention of the delegates as he spoke in favor of using the ratio of 16 ounces of silver to 1 ounce of gold to create coins. Bryan’s support of silver over gold angered those who favored only gold, commonly called Goldbugs. But through a series of speeches, primarily in the south and west where farmers and silver miners lived, support for Bryan’s plan grew rapidly.
Many considered the 36-year-old, two-term congressman from Nebraska one of the best speakers of the day. Bryan rose to national prominence when he fought for the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which required the treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver each month. The agreement, he claimed, would have a harmful inflationary impact on the economy. ]
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