The country was mired in one of the worst economic periods in its history and it was on the verge of an increasingly pivotal and momentous election. Americans were polarized and each of the two great factions slung accusations of class warfare toward the other.
The Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party championed a “fairer and more balanced” economy. He saw an increasing burden carried by average Americans and he sought policies intended to provide relief. The nominee of the Republican Party was considered a great friend of the business class. He espoused the belief that all Americans would be “better off” when the American business economy was considered “best off.”
The Republican hopeful received great and unprecedented sums of donations from wealthy businessmen and interests. He greatly outspent his Democratic counterpart throughout their grueling campaign. This, in part, spurred many on the political “left” to call the Republican a pawn of the wealthy and the powerful. They feared the power that the most wealthy possessed and the influence that they exerted on the policies of government. In contrast, those from the more conservative “right” referred to the Democratic candidate as a socialist and a dangerous liberal that wanted to redistribute money from the wealthy to the less so. Some employers advised their workers that jobs may be lost if the Democrat won.
If you read only the preceding paragraphs, and missed this article’s title before them, you might be reminded of any number of past presidential elections. Yet, given either a natural focus on the immediate or the magnitude of current concerns, you’ve probably been reminded of Obama vs. Romney. The lessons of the Presidential election of 1896 provide insight about the significance of version 2012.
The great economic issue of 1896 was the question whether the United States should change its monetary policy reliance on the “gold standard,” whereby the value of the U.S. Dollar was pegged to a given amount of gold in the federal gold reserve. The government’s supply of gold was not keeping up with the increasing need for more dollars. If the government was unable to add more gold to its supply, it would be unable to print more dollars.
In response to the gold shortage, some progressive politicians and farmer advocates promoted the cause of “bi-metalism,” a proposal to peg the value of the dollar to both silver and gold. By including silver, the government might be able to accumulate a new inventory of silver that would allow the printing of additional dollars. Advocates of bi-metalism also argued that it would provide more money for industrial expansion and job creation for the lower working class.
For the three years prior to the 1896 election, the nation had been in a deep economic depression with very high unemployment. It was in many ways a much bleaker time than 2012 and our recent economic pain.
In the 1890s, much of the United States was still devoted to agriculture and many Americans were farmers. Many of the farmers mortgaged their farms and borrowed more money to purchase farming machinery and other needed items. With the bi-metalism monetary approach and the increased supply of dollars it would enable, it was hoped that the farmers would earn higher prices for their crops and it would be easier to repay their existing debts. It was an age before governmental farm aid programs and little other hope was offered to the country’s many struggling farmers.
William Jennings Bryan was the young 36 year old Democratic nominee while William McKinley was the more experienced 53 year old Republican choice. Bryan forcefully championed the cause of bi-metalism and McKinley, a consistent supporter of the status quo, preferred to remain on the singular gold standard. Bryan had won the Democratic nomination over Grover Cleveland, the incumbent Democratic President that represented the more business-connected wing of their party.
The Republican campaign’s $3.5 million budget was enormous for its day. It enabled McKinley to outspend Bryan by a factor of five. Much of the McKinley campaign was run by a millionaire businessman named Mark Hanna who made his fortune primarily through the coal and iron industries.
Bryan, on the other hand, spoke out against the “money power” in Washington. In fact, Bryan was curiously also the 1896 presidential nominee of the more liberal Populist Party that most prominently championed the welfare of farmers and the rural population.
In addition to his support for a bi-metalism monetary policy, Byran also urged the implementation of a progressive federal income tax and the right of women to vote. The McKinley campaign accused the Democrat of supporting government ownership of communication and transportation businesses.
On November 3, 1896, McKinley became our 25th President with 276 electoral votes compared to Bryan’s 176, and by a popular vote margin of 51% to Bryan’s 47%.
The significance of the Republican victory included its symbolic and policy importance to the shift of the country from an agrarian nation to one of predominantly urban interests. The victory also began a 36 year period during which the White House was occupied by a string of Republicans, interrupted only by the two terms of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. But, the significance also included a missed opportunity.
Our younger country missed an opportunity to give more prosperity, and the power that it brings, to more people. It isn’t my position that a Bryan presidency would have promised only better results than those of the McKinley legacy. But, maybe, in some important ways, a Bryan administration would have led our country on a more just and egalitarian path that might still lead us today.
Bryan was twice more the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, in 1900 and 1908. While he did serve as the Secretary of State from 1913 through 1915 under Woodrow Wilson, he never got a chance to implement the changes he sought.
The era that led up to 1896 is often referred to as the “Gilded Age.” It was the time of the super wealthy “robber barrons” like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. While some of those men donated generously to worthy causes, as Carnegie and Rockefeller did later in life, it remained a time of incredible disparity of wealth and life quality.
It’s estimated that in 1890 the richest 10% of households owned about 75% of the nation’s wealth. It was the height of the Gilded Age. In 2009, an estimated 73.1% of the wealth was controlled by the top 10%, with 34.6% held by just the top 1%. It is also widely estimated that the disparity has further increased during the recent recession and economic turbulence that began in 2008. The growing gap is even more stark if you examine the share of wealth held by the most extremely wealthy within the top 0.1% or 0.01%.
The period immediately before the Great Depression, together with the Gilded Age, have often been referenced as our country’s most notable periods of great inequality. In October 1929, a stock market crash began the Great Depression and in 1929, the top 1% of wealth holders are estimated to have controlled 44.2% of the nation’s wealth.
Yet, our country has also experienced periods of far less inequality. In 1976, shortly before the “Reagan Revolution” of the ‘80s, the wealth of the top 1% of Americans is estimated at 19.9% of the total.
We must learn from our history. The America that followed its “lost opportunity” to elect William Jennings Bryan, was an America that became the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world with its greatest average standard of living. Yet, many Americans remained in great poverty with few, if any, economic safety nets, healthcare opportunities, employment safety protections, child labor standards or food safety requirements. The “missed opportunity” meant that millions of Americans would continue to suffer for many more years until subsequent opportunities were seized.
Intermittently during the 36 years that followed the election of 1896, the country implemented some progressive legislation that had been championed by Bryan. The adoption of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913 brought a progressive federal income tax. With the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the right of women to vote was finally recognized.
After the great wealth disparity of the 1920s, this country did seize its opportunity to replace the wealthy businessman, President Herbert Hoover, who didn’t believe that it was the “job” of the federal government to provide assistance to the poor or sick. He believed that the free market or private charities would sufficiently fill all needs. The Great Depression highlighted their failure and, this time, the country seized its opportunity.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932. During his three full presidential terms, and his fourth term cut short by his death, FDR and his “New Deal” brought our country Social Security, FDIC insurance for bank accounts, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the country’s first real regulation of Wall Street abuses, the National Labor Relations Act and its protections for organizing labor unions, the Fair Labor Standards Act which created the federal minimum wage, mortgage relief programs, farm aid programs, unemployment aid and government jobs programs.
In a 1962 interview, former President Harry Truman said that “if it wasn’t for old Bill Bryan there wouldn’t be any liberalism at all in the country now. Bryan kept liberalism alive, he kept it going.” Truman was raised on a farm in the late 1800s and he never forgot the work of the great advocate of indebted farmers.
Yet, if elected, William Jennings Bryan may not have been a good President. It’s true that any study of his biography would find flaws and concerns. Even on the central issue of “bi-metalism” vs. the “gold standard,” it is unclear what effect Bryan’s chosen path would have had on many of the country’s poor. While the inflation caused by bi-metalism would have aided the debt-ridden mortgage-paying farmers, it might have hurt the many other wage-earning, rent-paying poor.
However, on the singular issue of economic justice and equality, the election of 1896 represented a deferral of action, a kicking of the proverbial can further down the road, to the detriment of many Americans.
America’s increasing wealth gap between the rich and the poor or middle class resembles, in many ways, the conditions that existed during the Gilded Age and immediately before the Great Depression. One of the great questions for the elections on November 6, 2012 will be whether Americans will “kick the can down the road” again. The Presidents and the Congress elected during the first Gilded Age failed to deal, in any significant way, with the wealth disparities and the welfare of its poorer citizens. A greater, and more noble, path would resemble the election of 1932 that brought us FDR.
To compare the moderate President Obama to the more ambitiously liberal William Jennings Bryan might be more an act of contrasting then comparing. Yet, compared to the extreme positions advanced by the current dominant powers within the Republican Party, a second Obama term may be equally important to limit the increasing concentration of wealth and power in corporations and the super wealthy.
President Obama will likely appoint Supreme Court Justices that will vote to overturn the “Citizens United” decision that has allowed corporations and billionaires to gain even greater control of our government. I also expect that he would champion an effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to specifically permit limits on political contributions and eliminate the “Citizens United” precedent.
President Obama does not propose tax cuts that include the super wealthy which would be funded by cuts in FDR’s Social Security, in Medicaid, in Medicare, and in a multitude of other “safety nets” and programs that are not needed by the wealthy, but are part of what made our country increasingly great during its last century.
In 2012, the Republican Party has re-energized the failed “trickle-down economics” that theorizes that providing more prosperity to the most wealthy will invariably bring the same benefit to everyone else through job creation and economic stimulus. Many years before Reagan and Romney, William Jennings Bryan said that “[t]here are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests up on them.”
Much like 1896, the American electorate has a choice to make about who, and how many, among us will have a voice in our country and whether we want to continue down the path of providing more and more to a smaller number of the wealthy and powerful while leaving less and less for the rest. November 6th will be our second chance at 1896.