The 1896 presidential contest was in part a fight for the votes of farmers and industrial workers. While the former were still more numerous, the growing numbers of urban wage-workers were a crucial constituency, especially in the hotly contested Midwest. Many Western and Southern farmers were inclined to identify their interests with those of the poor, since the depression had devastated these regions. On the other hand, it is difficult to ascertain how many farmers and workers considered themselves members--or potential future members--of the middle class. Such designations were partly a matter of material circumstance, but also of a voter's perception of his (or her) interests. The impact of employers is also hard to ascertain: at the end of the campaign, well-documented reports emerged (along with unsubstantiated rumors) that employers were promising workingmen to shut their businesses if the Silver Democrats won, or to fire employees who voted for Bryan.
McKinley advertised himself as 'the Advance Agent of Prosperity' and promised that Republicans' tariff and sound monetary policies would bring about an end to the severe depression. In his 'Cross of Gold' speech, Bryan told gold-standard advocates they should not press down this 'crown of thorns' on labor's head. Silver Democrats and Populists warned workers that the party of financiers and industrialists (who were providing Republican campaign funds to Mark Hanna) was unfriendly to the interests of workers. They argued for a looser money supply, beneficial to debtors; lower tariffs, to benefit working-class consumers; an income tax on the wealthy; and a fight against monopolies and trusts. Socialists argued that far more radical reforms were needed.
See also information on the depression, the Pullman and Homestead strikes and the imagery of slavery.
Cartoons on Workingmen and Farmers
27 February, People's Advocate
25 July, Harper's Weekly
5 August, Rocky Mountain News
13 August, American Non-Conformist
20 August, Sound Money
22 August, The Ram's Horn
30 August, St. Louis Globe Democrat
3 September, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
5 September, Harper's Weekly
9 September, Rocky Mountain News
12 September, Labor Advocate
12 September, New York Journal
17 September, Rocky Mountain News
19 September, Labor Advocate
19 September, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
20 September, L.A. Times
20 September, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
6 October, St. Paul Pioneer Press
8 October, New York Journal
10 October, The Coming Nation
13 October, New York Journal
15 October, Rocky Mountain News
17 October, Coming Nation
21 October, Coming Nation
22 October, Sound Money
22 October, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
30 October, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
14 November, Coming Nation
To the Editor of the Globe:
...There is a feeling abroad in this country that the rich and pampered class have got the poor man by the throat, metaphorically speaking. Here is an appalling state of affairs. Let McKinley be elected, and just as sure as the sun is to rise Nov. 6, it will rise on a nation plunged in a moment in all the horrors of civil war. I do not claim that Bryan is right. I do not claim that silver should be coined in unlimited quantities, but I claim to be able to read in the faces of the men on whom this nation depends for its very existence, that England, Morgan, and Hanna will never live to cut up another big dividend obtained from a United States bond deal. In my opinion, the workingmen of this country have made up their minds to die on the battlefield rather than live under the dominion and by the sufferance of Lombard and Wall Sts. There is only one trouble in this country today, although one hears so much about currency, etc., and that is, that the rich have driven the poor to construct the Chicago platform. It is not perfect, but it may have a trial.
--Arthur Brown, Somerville, Mass., Boston Globe, 3 September 1896
Here in this country we find in place of an aristocracy of royalty an aristocracy of wealth. Far more dangerous to the race is it than the aristocracy of royalty. It is the aristocracy of gold that disintegrates society, destroys individuals and has ruined the proudest nations. It has called Rothschild's agent here to make the platform of the Republican party.... We have advanced scientifically, ethically and otherwise, but in finance we have followed the barbaric methods of our ancestors and the teachings of college-bred idiots who tell us that gold is the only desirable coin.
--Mary E. Lease, speech in Cooper Union Hall, New York World, 11 August 1896
... Men who have been taught to believe that capital and labor are irreconciliable foes will go to the polls on Nov. 3 and vote to cut down the wages of their own labor and make it difficult, if not impossible, for their employers to continue business under the disastrous conditions which would be brought about by the election of Bryan, under the singular hallucination that in some way they will be benefited by inflicting an injuring on the men who employ them.
This is not an American spirit. It is not the spirit of the free American citizen. It is a foreign exotic, imported by the anarchists and socialists who have come to this country from Europe, and who have been for years engaged in propagating among the workingmen of America the class hatreds and prejudices which have grown up among the laboring classes of Europe against the aristocratic and ruling classes of those countries. There the laboring man is always a laboring man. He follows naturally the same pursuits as his father and grandfather before him. He is seldom able to leap the social and political barriers which oppose his efforts to rise to a higher rank....
But there is no such thing in free America as a distinctive working class.... Talk about classes and masses to free American citizens! Out with this un-American jargon of foreign anarchists! There are no classes in the United States of America, but one. And that is the class of workingmen. For we are all working together for the common welfare of our country and each other--all working in our several occupations for the good of each and all. And all our interests, instead of being in conflict, are reciprocal and interdependent.
--St. Paul Pioneer Press, 18 October 1896
Sixteen to One.
A--Do you see those farmers standing over there in front of the Court-House?
B--Yes. What are they all doing there?
A--Why, there are sixteen countrymen discussing politics, to one staying at home and attending to his farm.
--Hugo Platt, Charlotte, N.C., in New York World, 11 October 1896
Mr. Bryan has been going around the country telling the laboring men that they are being "coerced" by their employers... The only proof of coercion he has ever pretended to offer is that he has heard that in some of the cities he has passed through "the employers have notified their employees that they would not open up business if I was elected." From which it appears that the employers referred to have already suspended their business operations on account of the apprehensions excited by the bare possibility of his election. Talk about coercion! Who and what forced them to shut up shop? What is the malignant power that for over two months after Bryan's nomination forced business to a standstill all over the country? ... It was the threat of the party represented by Bryan to drag this country down to the silver standard.
--St. Paul Pioneer Press, 9 October 1896
Hanna is an industrial cannibal. He has always been a vindictive foe of organized labor. He has crushed union after union among the thousands of his own employees. He has always oppressed and humbled the laboring man, and taken a delight in doing so. How then can any self-respecting laborer be expected to vote for him? --Raleigh News and Observer, 20 September 1896
There is a studied effort made in some quarters of this country to teach that the employer of labor is attempting to enslave the workingman. I submit to you men of toil all around and about me, who is the better friend of labor, he who gives you work that brings contentment, or he who breathes only words that create discontent? There cannot be, there ought never to be, any enmity between labor and capital. The interest of the one is the interest of the other.
--William McKinley in Canton, to a delegation of "railroad men, dock men, farmers, and miners from Ohio," in Cleveland Gazette (African-American), 31 October 1896
© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College