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A truly pivotal election

Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 - R. Hal Williams

As the series' editors note in the forward to this book, "[e]very election seems `critical' at the time it is held", yet only a very few prove to be truly pivotal in terms of reshaping the national political landscape. The presidential election of 1896 is one of those that deserves to be ranked in that select category. As R. Hal Williams explains, over the course of the contest between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, "[n]ew voting patterns replaced the old, a new majority party arose to govern the country, and national policies shifted to suit the new realities." Williams's book, a volume in the "American Presidential Elections" series published by the University Press of Kansas, offers a history of the campaign, one that details just how and why it changed the nation in such profound and lasting ways.


Williams begins his study by providing the background to the election with a description of the political environment of the period. American voters began the decade by handing the Democratic Party a series of victories in the elections of 1890 and 1892, culminating in the return of Grover Cleveland to the White House. In the decades prior to the 1890s, the parties were closely matched, with presidential election usually decided by a mere percentage point or two - an environment that Williams notes made politicians cautious and denied any one party the majority needed to carry out bold initiatives. Exploiting discontent with Republican policies, Democratic candidates scored a series of victories at the start of the decade, victories which seemed to signal a realignment in their direction.


Yet these victories soon proved to be pyrrhic. Cleveland's inauguration coincided with a growing business panic, one that triggered a painful economic depression. Exacerbating the problem was a demand for gold that drained the government's reserved to dangerously low levels. Though many Democrats demanded that currency be made redeemable in silver as well as gold, Cleveland instead sought to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, a move that earned the enmity of many within his party. As Williams notes, silver took on a symbolic importance out of all relation to its actual economic significance. Most Democrats soon moved to repudiate the unpopular Cleveland, while the pro-gold standard Republicans profited from voter discontent with both his party and his administration.


With victory in the upcoming presidential contest increasingly likely, a number of Republicans sought their party's nomination. Williams argues, though, that it was never much of a contest, with McKinley easily sewing up the nomination well before the party's convention. He emerges in these pages not as Mark Hanna's colorless puppet, but as a shrewd politician who worked hard for several years to become the Republicans' frontrunner. While no less ambitious, Bryan faced a more challenging path to his party's nomination one dependent upon several breaks that all went his way. As Williams points out, both men's campaigns presaged the presidential contests of the century to come: Bryan's for his systematic touring of the country to win over voters, McKinley's for the move away from the "military" style of campaigning that prevailed after the Civil War in favor of one that marketed the candidate and his issues to voters. Though Williams argues that Bryan performed better than any other Democratic candidate would have, McKinley's victory proved to be the most lopsided in nearly a quarter-century, ushering in a period of Republican political dominance that would last until the Great Depression.


With an extensive background as a historian of the politics of the era, Williams is a sure guide to the context and events of the 1896 presidential campaign. His book provides an insightful study of the contest, one that explains its role in shaping the history of our country. The attention Williams gives to the role of the third party campaigns is especially commendable, for while they played perhaps only a minor role in shaping the outcome he shows how the reflect the pivotal issues of the election. All of this makes Williams's book the go-to account for anyone seeking to understand this pivotal presidential election or politics in the 1890s, one that will serve as the standard by which other books in the subject will be measured for decades to come.