The years between the American Civil War and the election of 1896 were certainly turbulent and exciting times in American politics. More progressive ideology was emerging and political parties were splitting due to differing beliefs. It is among these reasons why the election of 1896 was considered to be a watershed in American politics.

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Why is the Election of 1896 Considered a Watershed in American Politics?

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“In the years between the Civil War and 1896, the two major parties had remained nearly equal in political strength. But the rejection by the voters on the currency issue reduced the Democratic Party to minority status” (Kennedy, 1996, par 1). The election of 1896 saw the race between candidates William McKinley (R) and William Jennings Bryan (D). The debate of silver and gold currency was at the heart of the race. “Farmers favored bimetallism, in the belief that it would raise both prices and wages. Industrial interests opposed the coinage of silver as inflationary…and the gold standard as the only way to maintain a stable currency” (Kennedy).

Bryan campaigned throughout the states, earning the nickname of the silver-tongued orator. However, some Democrats disagreed with Bryan’s push for silver currency and formed their own party, The Jeffersonians. “This split in the party put the Democrats well behind the Republicans in organizing their campaign” (Kennedy).

Meanwhile, the Republican campaign “crafted an electoral strategy that emphasized a renewed nationalism based on sectional reconciliation” (Kelly, 2003, p.254). McKinley’s push was to recognize the country as a whole, and not North and South. Additionally, Bryan “alienated many immigrant voters and failed to carry any Northern Industrial states” (“Election of 1896,” n.d.). With McKinley’s victory, the voters showed that the preferred McKinley’s conservative approach to Bryan’s smooth talking, progressive ideas. It is among these reasons that the election of 1896 was considered to be a watershed in American politics.

  • Election of 1896: Republican McKinley Defeats Democrat Bryan. ( n.d.) Retrieved from
  • Kelly, Patrick. (2003). The Election of 1896 and the Restructuring of the Civil War Memory. Civil War History, 49 (3), 254-280.
  • Kennedy, Joseph S. (1996, August 25). 1896 election a watershed, especially for the county’s GOP the presidential race had a hot issue-and a lasting result. The Philadelphia Inquirer, pp, C1.