McKinley and Bryan: The First Battle of the Bills,1896

William McKinley, long time Congressman and former Ohio Governor, was the odds-on favorite Republican candidate for president in 1896.

McKinley: Bill the First

[Wm. McKinley]

William McKinley, a kindly and conservative Republican candidate.

William McKinley (1843-1901) was a sweetheart of a fellow. An Ohioan of a poor, hardworking family, he enlisted in the Civil War as an eighteen-year-old private, and remained for the full four years, eventually becoming a major.  According to the tenets of his deep Methodist faith, he didn’t smoke, drink, swear, play cards, dance, gamble or chase women. Nevertheless, he was immensely popular with his comrades, and would have hundreds of friends during his lifetime.

His commanding officer, and long-time mentor, was Brig. General Rutherford B. Hayes, who took a liking to this clean-living young man, and encouraged him to study law. Once the war ended, McKinley followed his mentor’s advice, moved to Canton, Ohio, opened a law practice, joined every organization in town, and married the daughter of the local banker.

He was elected to Congress in 1876, when he was thirty-three, and served for seven terms, becoming a leading expert in tariffs and all things money-ish. He mellowed somewhat, and managed to pick up a few vices of camaraderie, in particular cigar smoking, a nip of whiskey or brandy on occasion, and playing benign card games – for points, not money. He also was extremely popular among his peers. It is said that they usually apologized first before arguing with his remarks on the Congressional floor.

Bryan: Bill the Second

William Jennings Bryan, young and dynamic and a Democrat.

Devout Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was almost young enough to be McKinley’s son. A middle class midwesterner, Bryan came of age in the post-Civil War era, when the “grange” movement began to peak. Farmers were in despair about high prices, usually due to tariffs, a very complicated and excruciatingly boring subject.

Bryan became a lawyer, located himself in Nebraska, and identified himself firmly with the nascent “populist” movement, which was associated with the “Free Silver” movement. They espoused free coinage of silver to make more money available, particularly to the farmers who needed it. This was seen as inflationary and a severe threat to the American economy, mostly by the Eastern money-men who knew about such things. To further clinch his rural-religious and we-the-people credentials, he was an ardent prohibitionist, never drinking anything stronger than root-beer.

The Power of Oratory

During the 19th Century, one key to political success was oratory. Early Presidents, i.e. Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, had mediocre powers of speech-making. Even Lincoln was said to be only middling as a public speaker.

But in those days before radio and television enabled a candidate to come into the living room of John Q. Public, political speech making was as popular a civic event as a sporting match. People came in droves to hear a good stump and thump.

McKinley was fair in that department, but William Jennings Bryan was the master of his voice. A good sized, barrel-chested and handsome man, he could be easily heard, even in a large venue. He had the flair of the dramatic.  He understood the power of the raised brow, the pregnant pause, the modulation between thunder and a near-whisper.

And it was this power that catapulted him to prominence in 1896.

The Democratic Candidate

Color lithography had become affordable and popular. Both candidates made good use of their images.

Bryan had served for two terms as an unremarkable Congressman. He ran for the Senate in 1894, and lost. He published a Nebraska newspaper and supported the Democratic, Free Silver, Prohibition and Populist causes.

In 1896, he was asked to make a speech at the Democratic Convention endorsing the free coinage of silver. He made history, instead. His “Cross of Gold” speech was one of the most mesmerizing pieces of oratory ever delivered at that time, and he swept the entire convention into a frenzy of support. He may (or may not) have given a thought to being its candidate, but the man, the speech and the moment had come together.

He would be the youngest presidential candidate of a major party. Ever. He was thirty-six.

The Battle of 1896

Many historians claim that the election of 1896 was the first “modern” presidential election. Indeed it had many elements that are still important today. The difference between “the Bills” was not merely a difference in political philosophies or agendas (which it was, of course), but it was also a difference between energy and money.

The color celluloid campaign button first made its appearance in 1896, and has proliferated ever since.

Bryan, young and aggressive, had a youthful vitality and energy that predated a young Theodore Roosevelt. He gave new meaning to the word “campaigning.” Prior to this time, it was unseemly for a candidate to actively seek office. “Standing” for election, rather than “running” for it, was the accepted way. Bryan ran. He traveled the entire country, happy to give his Cross of Gold (or other) speech to anyone who would listen. And everybody was listening to this “Silver-Tongued Orator of the Platte” as they called him.

Bryan’s “Democratic platform,” as it were, was considered radical for the time, yet today, many of the progressive reforms he espoused have long been a part of everyday society: woman suffrage, minimum wage, an income tax, labor arbitration and only two terms for a President.  McKinley’s “platform” was more subdued and devoted to the long recognized continuation of sensibly-tried-and-true.

McKinley and his running mate, Garret Hobart. Every club and organization produced its own campaign buttons.

But while Bryan criss-crossed the country at a frenetic pace, McKinley, partially in deference to his semi-invalid wife, chose to remain in Canton, Ohio, and let visitors come to him. They did. In droves. Meanwhile, his long-time closest friend, Marcus A. Hanna, one of the wealthiest industrialists in Ohio, was delighted to spend a good part of his vast fortune “advertising” McKinley. There had been campaign “souvenirs” before; handbills, scarves, parade banners and songs. But now there were color photographs, colored posters plastered on barn walls, trinkets, cigar silks, and the very latest gimmick: celluloid buttons with the candidate’s photo on it! Things that we recognize today as “premiums” were disseminated with abandon. They were immensely popular, and became a instant component of modern political campaigning.

Money talked. It talked louder and clearer than William Jennings Bryan the orator. McKinley won easily.

But the Battle of the Bills had only just begun.


Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959

Morgan, H. Wayne – McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964

Prescott, Lawrence J. – The Great Campaign of 1896 – Loyal Publishing Col., 1896


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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