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6. 1896: The Collapse of the Third Party System and of Laissez-faire Politics

1. The First Collapse: 1894

In the cataclysmic year 1896 the face of American politics was changed forever. With the capture of the Democratic Party by the inflationist, statist forces of William Jennings Bryan, the old Democracy of free trade, hard money, personal liberty, and minimal government was gone forever. As Grover Cleveland mournfully pronounced, “... the Democratic party as we knew it is dead.”1

The orthodox historical view holds that the Bryanite conquest of the Democratic Party resulted from the Depression of 1893. In response to the depression, the masses, led by the farmers of the South and West and clamoring for increased government intervention and the greater purchasing power provided by cheap money, swept Bryan into the presidential nomination in the summer of 1896. There are, on its face, several grave problems with this conventional interpretation. In the first place, if the masses were clamoring for Bryan, why was he beaten decisively in the election by McKinley and then crushed in the general election twice again in 1900 and in 1908? These decisive defeats, permanently reversing the upward Democratic trend until 1892, do not look like mass clamor. Furthermore, if the Bryan nomination was a reaction to the depression, why did the Bryan forces continue to dominate the Democracy from then on, long after the depression was over? Merely asserting that the public came to understand that the modern economy requires statism and government intervention explains nothing and only reveals the bias of the liberal historian.

But more importantly, why did Bryan lose the 1896 election so heavily? The Bryanite historians, reflecting the charges of the Bryan forces at the time, fall back on contemporary charges of coercion or corruption in the polling places; the masses wanted to vote for Bryan, but were intimidated into voting Republican instead. But this conventional charge is singularly unconvincing. In the first place, corruption — equally on both sides — was a marked feature of all the elections in this era, and there is no evidence whatever that there was any sudden or significant increase in pro-Republican corruption in 1896. Secondly, the Bryan forces did not charge rural coercion or corruption; the coercion was supposed to be over laborers by employers in the urban areas. And yet, the Australian secret ballot was by now prevalent and such coercion would have been unfeasible. Moreover, it must be noted that Bryan, though concededly far below the Democratic urban vote in 1892, was yet stronger than the Democratic urban vote in the intervening Congressional elections of 1894. Does this mean that the coercion of workers by Republican employers was less against the hated Bryan in 1896 than it had been against the conservative Democrats two years earlier? Finally, none of this even begins to explain why Bryan was rejected by the very Midwestern farmers who were supposed to be ardent Bryan supporters and whom no one claims were coerced.2

Poor Grover Cleveland had the ill fortune to assume office just after the Depression of 1893 had begun, and just soon enough to be hit with the blame by the voting public. The bankruptcy of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad had come two weeks before Cleveland’s inauguration in March, and then, in early May, the panic and its attendant bankruptcies hit the American economy.3 The result was, indeed, a cataclysmic defeat for the Democrats in the Congressional elections of 1894. In the elections of 1892, 61.2% of the House of Representatives was Democratic; but after the fall 1894 elections, only 29.4% of the House was Democrat, a disastrous loss of no less than 113 seats. The catastrophic declines hit across the board, in every region, occupation, ethnic, religious, and income group, and Democratic strength was in many areas at an all-time low. In the Midwest, the Democratic voting percentage fell an average of 9.9%, from 46.9% in 1892 to 37.0% two years later. In Ohio and Wisconsin, Democratic strength was at an all-time low, as was virtually true of Michigan as well.

Despite all the talk among historians of an “agrarian upheaval” in the 1890s, the urban areas in the Northeast and the Midwest reacted even more sharply against the Democracy in 1894 than did the rural areas. Taking urban as against rural areas, for example, Democratic voting dropped 13 points in urban Michigan (from 50% to 37%) from 1892 to 1894, and 18 points in rural Michigan (from 48% to 30%); dropped 16 points (from 50% to 34%) in urban Wisconsin, and 8 points (from 47% to 39%) in rural Wisconsin; and fell 7 points (from 49% to 42%) in urban Ohio, in contrast to 4 points (from 46% to 42%) in the rural parts of that state. The conclusion is that while Democratic strength fell in all parts of the state, it declined more heavily in urban areas, except for Michigan.

Furthermore, the large losses for the Democracy transcended income levels; wealthy and poor rural counties dropped their support to a similar extent. Moreover, the decline was trans-ethnic, with the various ethnic and religious groups all cutting their votes for the Democrats the degree varying with the intensity of Democratic loyalties.

Another point for the Midwest is that Republican gains did not match Democratic losses. For the region as a whole, the Democratic loss of 9.9 points in 1894 was matched by a gain of only 6.7 points by the Republican Party. The difference represented a gain of support for the Populist Party, which also gained from declines suffered by the Prohibitionists.

Thus, in rural Wisconsin, while all income classes cut their support of the Democrats to the same extent, the decline in Democratic strength among religious and ethnic groups depended on the intensity of each group’s Democratic commitment. Thus, the highly conservative and liturgical Wisconsin Synod Lutherans reduced their support of the Democracy by a lower amount than the less conservative Missouri Synod. German Catholics cut their support of the Democrats by an even lesser amount, and still lower were the defections of the Irish Catholics. Only the staunchly devoted Polish Catholics, of all the ethnic groups, actually increased their support of the Democracy in 1894.

In urban districts, too, the Democrats lost across the board among all income, occupational, and ethnic-religious groups. In some cases, Republican votes increased commensurately; in others, defecting Democrats either failed to vote at all or voted Populist. Defections from the Democrats were even greater among the depressed miners and lumbermen.4

The impact of the Depression caused the public to stress economic issues more intensively than before. In 1890, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act had cemented an alliance between the Republicans and the inflationist, pro-silver forces, and tended to ally the latter to the protectionist cause, the Republicans being above all the party of the protective tariff. The Democrats, as well as being free traders, had been historically a solidly hard-money, gold standard party, and the Democratic platform of 1892 condemned the Silver Purchase Act and called for its repeal.5 True to its commitment, the first act of the new Cleveland administration was to push through repeal, which enabled the Republicans to pull out the demagogic stops and blame the silver purchase repeal for the Depression.6 In response, and in despair at the increased defections to the pro-silver and inflationist Populists, the Democrats, at least in the South and West, continued to shift their positions and to take up the free silver cause. The two parties continued and intensified their differences, however, on the protective tariff question.

Pledged to tariff reduction, the Democrats drove through the Wilson-Gorman Act in 1893–94; unfortunately, however, the Southern and far Western Democracy, increasingly infected with Populist views, forced the Democrats to pass an income tax measure as part of the total package. Although rather astute businessmen and such New York and New Jersey Democratic leaders as U.S. Senator David B. Hill (N.Y.) and James Smith, Jr. (N.J.) fought against the income tax, the increasingly statist South and West were able to push it through, with the passive support of Cleveland, who was willing to accept the new tax in return for the tariff cut.7 Some Democrats were still able to champion their old low-tax and low-budget principles, however. Thus, in Wisconsin, the Democrats pointed out the depression relief their tax-cutting policies caused.

On generally weak economic grounds because of the Depression, the Democrats in 1894 tried to shift grounds to cultural issues, and therefore launched a blistering attack on the newly burgeoning American Protective Association. For the benefit of the German Lutherans, the Democrats stressed the nativist as well as the anti-Catholic policies of the A.P.A. In response, the Republicans intensified the regroupment of issues already underway; it would be folly to lose their current advantage on economic issues by alienating Lutherans and other potential defectors from the Democracy, and where the moderates were in control, the Republicans tried to avoid close identification with the A.P.A. Thus, in Wisconsin, the Republican Establishment managed to defeat the pietist Nils Haugen, an ardent supporter of the nativist and anti-parochial school Bennett Law, for the gubernatorial nomination. The moderates even wanted to nominate a German Lutheran for state treasurer, but were defeated by the furious opposition of the “La Follette gang,” the pietist Haugen–La Follette faction in the state party.8

2. The Final Collapse: 1896

One of Paul Kleppner’s great contributions is to show, for the first time, that the Democratic collapse of 1894 and 1896 were two very different movements with different explanations and occurring in very different segments of the population. Overall, the critical nature of both elections is seen by the unusually high degree of voter turnout in both cases, as well as in the fact that a very close contest was replaced by overwhelming Republican strength. Thus, in the Midwest, a difference between the two parties of plus or minus 3% throughout the region from 1888 to 1892 was replaced by a Republican margin of 16% in 1894, 11% in 1896, and 12.5% in 1900. Suddenly, the Democrats had been reduced to the status of a permanent minority party. But the overall figures are misleading. For the crucial point about 1896 is the great difference in the type of party support than had been true two years before.

The first difference to be pointed out between 1894 and 1896 is the enormous drop of the minor party vote in the latter year. In fact, the minor party vote in the Midwest (Prohibitionist and Populist) had risen from 1892 to 1894 and then dropped far below the 1892 level in the 1896 election. Thus, the major party vote (combined Democrat and Republican) in Michigan was 91% in 1892, fell to 88% two years later, and then rose to 97% in 1896, a startling 9 point gain in the major party totals. Similarly, in Ohio the progression was 95% in 1892, 89% in 1894, and 99% in 1896; in Wisconsin, it was 94%, 90%, and 98% in 1896. Thus, what had been in a sense a four-party system suddenly became a veritable two party system in 1896 (or, a one-and-a-half party system, with the Republicans in a permanent majority). In short, both Republicans and Democrats made overall voting gains in 1896 as compared to 1894.

But particularly important is the sort of gains and losses experienced by both parties. For the old ethnic and religious verities in voting patterns were now broken. And the new and startling ethnic and religious pattern continued unbroken in 1900; in short, a new, fourth party system had emerged in the United States.

A key to the difference between 1894 and 1896 is that, while the defectors from the Democrats tended to return to the fold in the latter year, another and permanently significant shift occurred: a massive shift of traditional liturgicals from the Democrats to the Republicans, and of pietists from Republicans to Democrats. Thus, the biggest Democratic gains in Michigan and Ohio took place in traditionally Republican, Old Stock, and British counties.

What happened? The key factor was the conquest of the Democratic Party at the July 1896 national convention by William Jennings Bryan and the forces of inflation and free silver. An upheaval was occurring in the Democratic Party. The South, by now a one-party Democratic region, was having its own pietism transformed by the 1890s. Quiet pietists were now becoming evangelical, and Southern Protestant organizations began to call for prohibition. The new, sparsely settled Mountain states, many of them with silver mines, were also largely pietist. The existing hard money, laissez-faire Democracy of President Cleveland was suddenly and tragically repudiated; the traditional Democracy, the party of the fathers, was gone forever. The Bryanite victory had been made possible by the Depression-created heavy Democratic losses in the East and Midwest in 1893 and 1894, losses that swung the balance of national party leadership to the perpetually Democratic South and to the free-silver Mountain states of the West. The Bryan conquest was the result.

Bryan claimed to represent the “toiling masses,” the workers and farmers of America, and championed silver and inflation against the Eastern “interests.” Conventionally, historians have claimed that Bryan succeeded at least among his beloved rural and agrarian voters. Yet, if we examine the figures, a very different pattern emerges. In the Midwest, for example, Bryan gained only a minority of the rural vote, and in Michigan and Wisconsin that vote was very much lower than the Democrats had obtained in 1892 (41.0% as against 47.8% in Michigan, 37.2% as against 47.4% in Wisconsin). Similarly, the Bryan urban vote was also far below the 1892 levels. It is true that in each case, both urban and rural, the Democratic vote tended to be better than the 1894 disaster, but this was cold comfort to the Democrats when the enormous distance from 1892 was realized. It is true that if we compare the urban-rural Democratic percentages in the Midwest for the two presidential years, the Democrats had been very slightly better in urban areas before and were now generally better in rural areas. But this hardly constitutes a great rural strength, considering the Democrats being in a hopeless minority even there.

Kleppner has examined Democratic percentages by detailed size of “urban” unit, from 2,500 population to 100,000 and over, in Michigan and in Wisconsin.9 From his study it is clear that, in 1892, there was no trend by size of place in Wisconsin, and a very slight increase of Democratic support in the larger urban areas in Michigan. Democratic support fell drastically across the board in 1894, even more in small towns in Michigan and in larger cities in Wisconsin. In 1896, Democratic support — with the exception of Detroit — bounced back from two years earlier, but far below the 1892 levels in every area. In general, over the Midwest, he did badly in both, and there was generally no greater difference in urban and rural patterns than had existed since the 1870s.

What of the income class? Is there any support for the view that Bryan was beloved by the urban working poor? If we take the various wards in Chicago, we find an erratic pattern of votes from upper- to lower-class wards in 1892 (ranging from upper through middle and lower class, we get Democratic percentages in that year of 45%, 56%, 45%, 57%, and 63%). The Depression years of 1893 and 1894 saw steady and catastrophic declines of Democratic votes across the board in all income class categories (from 1892 to 1894, we see the following point reductions ranging from upper- to lower-class wards 16%, 24%, 15%, 25%, and 22%). Then all wards bounced back in 1896, but still far below the 1892 levels. It is true that the Democrats fared slightly less badly in the lower wards, but what we see, overwhelmingly, is an across-the-board multi-class repudiation of the Democracy (ranging from upper- to lower-class wards, the Democratic point losses from 1892 to 1896 were 18%, 17%, 12%, 15%, and 14%). The non-class nature of the Bryan vote may be seen even more clearly in Detroit, where, again, the Democrats did badly in all wards, but where they were able to bounce back better was in the rich wards than in the poorer. Thus, in 1892, the Democrats earned 52.2% in the richest wards and 59.0% in the working class wards. In 1894, they fell by 12 points in the rich wards to 40.4% and by 16 points in the working-class wards to 43.3%. In 1896, however, while the Democrats were able to rise a bit in the rich wards of Detroit to 41.2%, in the working-class wards they fell even more sharply, to the same 41.2%.

Similarly, there was no income cohesion in the rural areas. Marginal and prosperous townships behaved very differently among themselves, with no clear differences between the two groups. As Kleppner concludes on the rural areas, “there was no discernible relationship between receptivity to the Bryan candidacy and degree of economic prosperity.”10 In general, “as economic groups, neither urban workers nor farmers reacted favorably to the candidate and his gospel of commodity price inflation.” And the Bryan candidacy met a similarly disastrous fate in the Northeast as well.11

What happened to the Democracy? Why didn’t rural America respond to the agrarian economic appeals of the Bryanites? Simply, because the Bryan Democrats were most aggressively not the Democratic party of the fathers; they were neither the party of the liturgicals nor of personal and economic liberty. On the contrary, the Bryanites were both extreme economic statists and extreme religious and cultural pietists. All too far from the “party of personal liberty,” the Bryanites were statists and pietists across the board, ever more moralistic than the old Republican enemy. And when we consider that the Republicans had been moving rapidly, and moved still further during the 1896 McKinley campaign, toward the moderate center and away from statist pietism, we can readily understand the massive defection of the liturgicals from the Bryan Democracy and toward the Republicans or toward dropping completely out of the political process. Democratic loyalists, whom even a depression could not budge, were driven out of their party home by the invasion and triumph of the Bryanite forces.

Conversely, the conquest by Bryan heralded a substantial movement of pietists into the Democratic camp. Some were Old Stock Republicans; others were Prohibitionists and Populists. Indeed, that in effect is what happened to these latter two parties: a dissolution into the newly reconstructed pietistic and statist Democracy. In the Midwest, the Populists were of two breeds. There were the “1892 Populists,” who had begun as Republicans and then, disgusted by the Republican “sellout” to German Lutherans and to the saloon, moved to the Prohibitionist Party. Most were native Methodists, British and Welsh Methodists, or Norwegian and Swedish Lutherans — dedicated pietists all. In 1892, many of these shifted into the new Populist Party. Then, in 1894, the many Democrats defecting because of the Depression joined the Populist ranks. The “1892 Populists,” then, were originally Republicans whose main motivation was pietism; the “1894 Populists” were ex-Democrats whose main worry was economic.

Unsurprisingly, the two breeds of Populists reacted differently to the critical 1896 election. The pietistic 1892 Populists, ex-Republicans, moved solidly into the Democratic ranks; similarly, the Prohibitionists voted overwhelmingly for their fellow-prohibitionist Bryan in 1896. On the other hand, most of the ex-Democrat 1894 Populists shifted into the Republican ranks. Most of the Republican gains in 1896, indeed, came either directly from Democrats or from the ex-Democrat 1894 Populists.

The explanation was squarely ethnic-religious: pietist vs. liturgical. For a half-century, the Democrats had been the party of the Catholics and other liturgicals; the Republicans (and other minor parties) had been the party of the pietists, the coercive reformers and statists trying to reform the liturgicals by the use of the police. Now, suddenly, in 1896, a new party system arrived: the Catholics, repelled by the ultra-pietistic Bryanites, shifted en masse into the Republican Party that was prepared to receive their votes and support.

In the Midwest, the biggest shifts came in Michigan. A large majority of Catholics had voted Democratic in the 1892 and 1894 elections. Now, in 1896, an actual majority of Catholics shifted into the Republican ranks. The German Lutherans shifted to the same degree away from the Democracy. Conversely, Old Stock Protestants shifted toward the Democrats for the first time, although they often continued to give a majority to the Republicans who had not, after all, experienced the convulsive upheaval that had transformed the Democracy. The Republican change had been gradual, in the direction of fuzzy centrism, and its leadership continued to be the same.

In Detroit, Catholic wards shifted en masse from Democrat to Republican, regardless of economic class, and German Lutheran wards maintained their 1894 defection into Republican ranks. In Michigan cities where the Democrats had been strong until 1892, the Democrats continued to lose voters in 1896, while in cities with large numbers of Old Stock Protestant voters, the Democrats scored heavy gains. In short, the liturgical areas not only failed to bounce back from 1894, but suffered greater Democratic reverses; whereas Democrats gained votes in pietist areas. This result obtained regardless of the size of the town or city.

The same pattern held for rural areas of Michigan. In Calhoun County, the Democrats gained in every rural township except one, Fredonia, a German Lutheran unit, the only place in the county where the Democrats did less well than in 1892. Fredonia voted 55.5% Democratic in 1892 and a poorer 52.6% in 1896. The Republican gains were even more striking: 35.4% in 1892 and 44.6% in 1896. In contrast, the Methodist township of LeRoy, in the same county, shifted massively from the Republican into the Democratic camp. In 1892, LeRoy had voted only 30.4% Democratic, and the vote had dropped to a meager 11.4% in 1894. Yet, in 1896, LeRoy voted 47.9% for the Democrats, a plurality of the total vote. The Republican vote in LeRoy, a whopping 70.4% in 1894, fell to 47.6% two years later.

Similarly for other rural counties. The average Democratic gain in St. Joseph County was a huge 32.4 points. The German Lutherans in Mottville scored the lowest Democratic gain, 9.2 points, and thereby were the only township in the county to do less well for the Democrats than in 1892. In contrast, the Evangelical Association Germans of Park township scored a 45.3 point Democratic gain over 1894, and 35.5 points above the 1892 level. Neither did it make any difference whether the pietistic or liturgical townships were marginal or prosperous rural units. Thus, Park, a poor rural township, voted 60.5% Democratic in 1896, while Lockport, a prosperous Evangelical Association German township in the same county, voted 63.1% for the Democrats.

A striking change occurred in Branch County. In 1892, the Democrats had carried only one of Branch’s 16 rural townships; in 1896, they carried 11. The biggest Democratic gains came among the pietistic Methodists and Presbyterians. Thus, California township, consisting of Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists, voted a decisive 62.1% Democratic in 1896. But in 1892, it had voted 44.2% Democrat, a percentage which fell catastrophically to 5.0% in 1894 and then rose to new heights two years later. Similarly, Methodist Gilead, fell from 39% in 1892 to 13.0% in 1894, and then bounced up to 60.5% two years later.

Similarly in eastern Michigan’s rural Washtenaw County. The Democrats in 1896 were stronger than in 1892 in four townships in the county. The townships differed widely in their economic condition; they ranged from “marginal” to “very prosperous.” But in each case the township was native pietist Protestant: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists. In contrast were the Irish Catholic and German Lutheran townships. The Irish units rose slightly over the nadir of 1894 in their Democratic voting, but they remained on the average 10.1 points below their 1892 average. The German Lutheran units fared even worse for the Democracy, sinking below the 1894 levels and falling to 15.6 points below 1892.

In Houghton County on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the votes of the copper miners depended, once again, on their religious orientation. The Catholic miners in Hancock and Portage voted less Democratic than in 1892 or 1894, while pietist voters shifted into the Democratic ranks. In fact, there is a virtual 1:1 correlation between the Catholic or Protestant nature of the township and whether the Democrats lost or gained strength from 1894 to 1896. Even the devotedly Republican and anti-Catholic English Canadians in Houghton County now voted a majority for William Jennings Bryan.

The Ohio pattern was much the same, among the farming as well as the mining townships. In Wisconsin, Democratic losses were most striking among those very groups — Catholic and German Lutherans — who had remained steadfast to the Democracy in the 1894 depression. While the Catholics of Wisconsin did not go as far as their co-religionists in Michigan and give an actual majority to the Republicans, the degree of their defection from the Democrats was severe. The defection also varied among ethnic and cultural groups. The Irish Catholics defected the least, with only two Wisconsin units voting less Democratic than in 1894; all of them, however, registered less Democratic than in 1892. So severe was the trauma that even the loyal Polish Catholics fell away; every Polish unit reduced the degree of its Democratic support. The German and Bohemian Catholics defected more severely; 70% of German Catholic units in Wisconsin, for example, registered lower Democratic voting percentages than in 1894, much less 1892. And while no Irish or Polish Catholic unit in 1896 presumed to vote a Republican majority, 27.2% of the German Catholic and 50.0% of the Bohemian Catholic units voted Republican. Not a single one had failed to vote a Democratic majority either in 1892 or 1894.

The pattern was even more striking among the German Lutherans of Wisconsin. In Dodge County, for example, the German Lutherans of Hustisford township had voted a whopping 84.8% Democratic in 1892, and their support scarcely faltered in 1894, falling only to 81.8%. Similarly, German Lutheran Theresa township voted 90.7% Democrat in 1892 and 81.3% in 1894. Yet these two loyal townships, willing to serve through the hardships of the depression, could not countenance the takeover of their beloved party by the Bryanite enemy. In 1896, Hustisford voted only 46.0% Democratic, and Theresa only 42.7%. The pattern held throughout the state. Every German Lutheran unit voted less Democratic in 1896 than in 1892, and only 11.3% of them rose higher than the catastrophic depression lows of 1894. Over the whole state, the Democrats carried 85.2% of the German Lutheran units in 1892, 59.2% in 1894, and only 29.6% in 1896 — the lowest German Lutheran support for the Democracy in half a century.

Conversely, as Catholics and German Lutherans moved from Democrat to Republican, the pietists moved in the opposite direction. Wisconsin townships with Methodists, Swiss Reformed, and Evangelical Association Germans raised their Democratic vote from 10 to 13 points over 1892 levels. Among the Norwegian Lutherans, the more intensely pietistic Haugeans, previously far more Republican than the Norwegian Synod, now shifted more strongly into the Democratic camp. The Norwegians still voted more Republican, but the Democratic minority was higher than it had been in a generation. The highly pietistic Swedish Lutherans reacted in the same way as the Haugeans. Again, while a majority remained Republican, the Democratic minority was now three to four times the percentage in 1892. Thus, in Swedish Burnett County, the Democratic vote was higher than in 1892 in every unit, and the average Democratic vote was 21.4% points higher than in 1892.

A similar pattern held true for the urban areas of Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, the Democratic vote fell below the 1892 level in all but one of the wards, and the Republican percentage, 54.1%, was higher than it had been in a decade. Whereas the Irish and Polish Catholic wards fell only about 4 points below 1892 percentages, the defection was far more serious among German Catholics and Lutherans. A majority of both groups of Milwaukee Germans voted for the Republicans. The Democratic vote by German Catholics fell 12.9 points below the 1892 average. Only among non-Lutheran Protestants in Milwaukee did Bryan run above the 1892 Democratic norm.

Milwaukee, due to a local labor dispute and controversy over the Polish language in the public schools, had a more favorable Democratic climate for Catholics than the rest of the state. In the other urban areas of Wisconsin, the Democrats not only trailed their 1892 vote among Catholics and German Lutherans, they frequently fell even below 1894. The Democrats fell below 1894 in 37 of the state’s 51 urban areas; the degree of loss correlated strongly with the proportion of Catholics in the city’s voting population. Size of urban area mattered little in the voting shifts.12

The massive weakening of the Democratic Party was duplicated in the Northeastern states. The defecting Cleveland Democrats either returned to the fold in 1900 or, more likely, became Republican or dropped out of politics altogether. The German Democrats defected massively in New York, New England, and the Middle-West; one straw in the wind was the German-American Sound Money League, founded in 1896 and supporting the Republicans, which included such notables as Carl Schurz and Jacob H. Schiff, head of the Kuhn-Loeb investment bank.

While the Germans favored free trade and opposed a protective tariff, they were particularly incensed at inflation and free silver and staunchly supported the gold standard. Hence, they were willing to swallow the protective tariff to vote for McKinley and the Republican pro-gold position, however newly won, and against the hated inflationist Bryan. Hence it was the Germans who led the march to McKinley and the Republicans. Many of the Germans, who could not bring themselves to vote Republican directly, voted for the new National (Gold) Democratic Party, which had broken off from the Democrats in disgust.

A leading German Democrat in Illinois, Henry Raab, who had become state superintendent of education in an upsurge against the anti-German parochial school Edwards Law, typified the reaction of German Democrats to the political crisis of 1896. Several years earlier, in 1891, Raab had written of the conservatism and anti-emotionalism of the German religion and their desire to maintain their customs and ideals from political aggression. Raab asserted that the American patriotism of the Germans lay in their “courageous struggle against ‘bi-metallism’ and ‘Greenback inflation’; now the determination to pay with honest money, that is patriotism.”13 Now, in 1896, Raab left the party of gold, voted Gold Democrat, and supported William McKinley.

Decisive for the Germans of Milwaukee was the address by the Bryanite Populist-Democratic candidate for Congress, Robert Schilling. Sounding for all the world like modern Friedmanites or Keynesians, Schilling told the assembled Germans of Milwaukee in a campaign speech that it didn’t really matter what commodity was chosen as money, and that “gold, silver, copper, paper, sauerkraut or sausages” would do equally well as money. The German masses laughed Schilling off the stage, and the shrewdly opportunistic Republicans promptly adopted as their campaign slogan “Schilling and Sauerkraut” and swept Milwaukee.

So intense was the German-American devotion to gold and hard money that even the German communist-anarchist Johann Most, leader of a movement that sought the eventual abolition of money itself, actually came out for the gold standard during the 1896 campaign!

The Illinois Staats-Zeitung, looking back on the 1896 campaign and the decisive shift of the German electorate, summed up its motivations:

They [the Germans] have had many complaints against the Republican party, which ... annoyed them continually with Prohibition laws, Sunday-closing laws, and school laws. The Germans consequently turned their backs upon the Republicans, with the result that Cleveland was twice elected, and if the Democrats had not inscribed repudiation, bankruptcy, and dishonor upon their colors as a result of their union with the Populists, the Germans would have supported them this time also ...14

Since the Irish Catholics bolted less drastically from the Democracy than the other groups, they remained to pick up the pieces and assume control of the Democratic Party, especially in the big cities. In the Northeast, the wholesale defection of the Cleveland Protestants left control within the party to the Irish Catholics, who proceeded for the first time in ensuing years to nominate and even elect Irish Catholic governors in New York, New Jersey, and New England. In the two years after McKinley’s election, the Irish-led Democrats ousted Republican mayors from a host of big cities in the Northeast and Midwest: New York City, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Akron, Dayton, Springfield, and Milwaukee. Partly, the Irish stuck to the party as a strategy of gaining control; partly, it was a function of the pervasive dependence of the Irish on municipal government jobs and hence on party patronage.

In short, the election of 1896 left the United States with a new party system: a centrist and moderately statist Republican Party with a comfortably permanent majority of the country, and a minority Democratic Party roughly confined to the one party South and to Irish-controlled big cities of the Northeast and Midwest, which were nevertheless a minority in those regions. Gone was the sharp conflict of ideology or even of ethnic-religious values; both parties were now moderately statist in different degrees; both parties contained pietists and liturgicals within their ranks. The McKinley Republicans were happy to be known as the “party of prosperity” rather than the “party of great moral ideas.” The familiar lack of clear and genuine ideological choice between two dominant parties so characteristic of modern America was beginning to emerge. Above all, there was no longer a political party, nor a clear-cut constituency, devoted to the traditional American ideology of laissez-faire.

3. The Transformation of the Parties

The key to the drastic change in the American party system in 1896, then, was the ideological change in each of the major parties. The forces of hopped-up pietistic Bryanism had captured the Democratic Party and changed its character forever from its ancient laissez-faire principles. At the same time, McKinleyite pragmatism had transformed the Republican Party from the home of statist pietism, from the “party of great moral ideas,” to a moderate statist organization cleaving only to the protective tariff, and dumping any emphasis on such emotional and pietistic issues as prohibition or Sunday blue laws. The pull of the newfound Republican pragmatism combined with the push of the Bryanite takeover to drive the liturgicals into the Republican Party and cement Republican hegemony for a generation.

How did the fatal transformations take place? In the first place, in both parties, the metamorphosis was made possible by the short-run but cataclysmic Democratic losses, matched by Republican victories, in the state and Congressional elections of 1894 — losses and victories brought about by the general blame placed upon the Cleveland administration for the Depression. In the Democratic Party, the losses concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest seemed to discredit Cleveland and his hard money and laissez-faire policies, and also toppled laissez-faire and Clevelandite officeholders, with the power vacuum bringing the pro-inflationist and pietist South and mountain West into national leadership in the Democratic Party. In the Republican Party, too, the cause of pragmatic moderation, which McKinley and others had preached for several years, was advanced by the new Republican officeholders of 1893 and 1894 who did not want to be retired by liturgical constituents after the Depression was over. As a corollary, their increased majorities freed the Republicans from their political dependence on the Prohibition Party and its small but important marginal bloc of voters. Furthermore, the depression made economic issues more important relative to personal issues in the eyes of the voters and gave the Republican moderates leeway to deemphasize the “social” issues for once and for all and to become, in their own claim, the “party of prosperity.”

The important transforming role of the new Republican state legislators in previously Democratic districts is shown by the fact that, in the 1894 and 1895 sessions, they voted more nearly like their Democratic predecessors than like traditional Republicans. This was definitely true of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. In the 1894 session of the Ohio legislators, the new Republicans voted cohesively to weaken a local liquor option bill, and then finally to defeat this prohibitionist measure. In Michigan, the new Republicans consistently voted not to discuss prohibition, as well as to table petitions from evangelical religious groups calling for a prohibition referendum. Furthermore, they united to table a favorite measure of the American Protestant Association to repeal the Michigan law permitting Catholic bishops to hold the property of their churches in trust.15

William McKinley came to the 1896 Republican convention as the obvious front-runner. In 1890, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, McKinley had given his name to the highest protective tariff in American history and thereby became inextricably linked with the hottest Republican issue. It was an issue that endeared McKinley to the protected manufacturers fearful of foreign competition and anxious, furthermore, to organize cartels or mergers under cover of the tariff umbrella protecting them from foreign competition. This was particularly true of the manufacturers of western Pennsylvania and of McKinley’s home state of Ohio. Furthermore, McKinley established his front-running status by bucking a Democratic tide, and by raising the banner of pragmatism, winning of governorship of Ohio.

William McKinley, though a Methodist of Ulster Scot ancestry, learned early the value of a moderating and integrative role across the religious and ethnic groups. His career in law and politics was developed in Stark County, Ohio, where he found it necessary to appeal to a large proportion of German Lutheran and German and Irish Catholic voters. Furthermore, his family’s connections with iron manufacturing also led McKinley to stress economic issues and the protective tariff. America’s inefficient iron and steel industry had led the cry for a protective tariff ever since 1820, and had continued to do so in the protectionist years after the Civil War.

McKinley’s long-time friend, political boss, and mentor in the new pragmatic approach was the Cleveland industrialist Marcus Alonzo Hanna. As a coal and iron magnate, Hanna also championed the protective tariff. Hanna was a long-time friend and business associate of John D. Rockefeller and provided the channel by which the Cleveland oil refiner was able to influence the powerful Ohio Republican Party, a party which gave no less than five presidential nominees to the national party between 1876 and 1920.16 Hanna had been a high-school chum of Rockefeller’s at Central High, Cleveland, and his coal and iron business was economically closely allied with Standard Oil. Relatives of Hanna were direct investors in the stock of the closely held Standard Oil Trust.

Hanna repeatedly loaned money to the ever hard-pressed McKinley while in office, and in 1893 Hanna organized a secret consortium of industrialists to salvage the Governor when he went bankrupt. It was Hanna who engineered the McKinley nomination, promptly became national chairman of the party, and was then, at McKinley’s instigation, elevated to the U.S. Senate the year after McKinley’s election to the presidency.

But while McKinley was the leading candidate for the nomination, he had a problem. The Republican Party had been the home of the inflationists and the free-silver forces, and Congressman McKinley had repeatedly voted for silver purchase acts and for free-silver. He was therefore distrusted by the pro-gold Morgan forces and the rest of Wall Street, which considered McKinley — and with good reason — dangerously soft on silver and inflation. The Morgans, it is true, were traditionally Democrats, but the impending takeover of the Democracy by the wild-eyed Bryanites forced them to focus on their allies within the Republican Party, and look to that party for salvation. Also distrusting McKinley’s silverite record was the powerful Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed of Maine, who presented himself for the nomination.

Furthermore, McKinley would aggravate the Morgans further by refusing to agree to the Morgans’ candidate for the presidency, the prominent banker and close friend of Morgan, Levi P. Morton, as a consolation choice for vice president. Morton, currently the governor of New York, was former vice president of the United States under Benjamin Harrison and president of the Morton Trust Company, which was later to form the nucleus for the Morgan-dominated Guaranty Trust Company.

From the summer of 1895 until the Republican convention in June of the following year, the Morgan forces put enormous pressure upon McKinley and Hanna to abandon silver as well as trimming upon the currency issue, to advocate gold openly and squarely. The sources of pressure included William C. Beer, attorney for the Morgan-controlled New York Life Insurance Company; Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Tribune; and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. They were joined by Thomas C. Platt, Republican boss of New York State, who was fueled by an $85,000 fund provided by the American Bankers Association. McKinley and his associates had prepared a Republican monetary plank calling for the maintenance of the “existing standard.” Forwarding this insertion to McKinley, Whitelaw Reid urged, in commenting upon Wall Street opinion:

The anxiety here, on the whole subject of the money plank to be adopted next week [in late June at St. Louis], can hardly be exaggerated. There seems to be no doubt that the most conservative bankers are extremely apprehensive that any hesitation on our part to take the squarest sound money ground would bring a great and probably sudden depression in values. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the enclosed plank ... will be followed by an appreciation in values.17

Finally, on the eve of the Republican convention, McKinley capitulated and committed himself wholeheartedly to the gold standard. In its platform, the Republican Party declared itself “unreservedly for sound money” and “unalterably opposed to every measure calculated to debase our currency, or impair the credit of the country.” It concluded that it was “opposed to the free coinage of silver” except by international agreement, and that “until such agreement can be obtained the existing gold standard must be preserved.”18

The adoption of the firm gold standard plank by the Republican Party drove the Silver Republicans out of the convention and out of the party. Their leader, Senator Henry Teller of Colorado, one of the founders of the Republican Party, mounted the rostrum at the convention and announced that he and 33 other delegates, largely from the mountain states of Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho, were bolting the convention and the Republican Party. Clearly, they were planning to leave for the reconstituted Democratic Party that was widely expected to emerge the following month at Chicago.19

The Silver Republicans were gone, but it was a bargain price for the Republicans to pay for becoming the gold party in the United States. For, in return, the Republicans were able to attract not only the Morgans and Wall Street, but also the Germans and other liturgicals devoted to gold and sound money.20

The next month, in July at Chicago, the Bryanites achieved their conquest of the Democratic Party at the national convention. Their triumph had been prefigured for the past two years, as the Bryanites had captured state after state party in the South and West. Even the Midwestern state parties fell, with only staunch Wisconsin remaining in pro-gold hands. After teetering back and forth, the Michigan Democracy finally fell to the Bryan forces, with the result that the Democrats lost the state for a decade.

At Chicago, the Democrats repudiated their own sitting president, Grover Cleveland, adopted a radically new platform, and, for the first time since the Civil War, turned away from the Northeast and chose as their presidential nominee someone from west of the Mississippi.

William Jennings Bryan was born of small-town pietist stock in southern Illinois. As a southern Baptist, Bryan’s father was a leading Democrat and one-time State Senator. Bryan was the quintessential pietist and believer in state paternalism and compulsory morality, believing in the Christian duty of the state to create a “safe” social atmosphere for the righteous. So marked were these traits in Bryan that his leading biographer calls him a “political evangelist,” while another distinguished historian has dubbed Bryan a “Revivalist.”21 Moving to Lincoln, Nebraska as a young attorney, Bryan quickly rose in Democratic Party politics. As a Democrat, he could not yet commit himself or his party to prohibition, but he soon made his mark as a personal temperance man, and he managed to commit the state party in 1889 to restricting the flow of liquor through high license fees.

The following year, Bryan ran successfully for Congress. With many liturgicals living in a district which encompassed both Lincoln and Omaha, Bryan managed to pick up votes from both sides of the prohibition issue for his middle-of-the road stance. Instead, he stressed the veteran Democratic issue of opposition to the protective tariff. But two years later, Omaha had been reapportioned out of Bryan’s district, which was now significantly more pietist, native Protestant, prohibitionist, and agrarian. In his campaign for reelection, Bryan could adopt free silver as his major cause and thereby win over the votes of the pietistic agrarian Populists in his district.

At the Chicago Democratic convention, the fateful result was prefigured by the first tussle at the meeting, one in which Clevelandite Senator David. B. Hill of New York moved that the convention endorse the Cleveland administration. When the motion was voted down, the pattern of the convention, and of the new Democratic Party, was clear.

The Cleveland Democracy was now squarely confronted with what their course of action should be. Probably the only hope for the old laissez-faire Democracy would have been an immediate and massive bolt, a blistering denunciation of the Bryanites, and the creation of a new “third” party to carry the Clevelandite banner. This might have kept the liturgical and laissez-faire constituency, and the new party could either have continued permanently, or else dissolved into a recaptured Democratic Party. A bolt and denunciation was the courageous course advocated by a group headed by New York Governor Roswell P. Flower and 25 other New York delegates, including financier Perry Belmont and Wall Street lawyer Frederic R. Coudert. But the New York Clevelandite leaders, Senator Hill and Cleveland’s financial and political mentor William C. Whitney, decreed otherwise. The Cleveland forces temporized instead and merely decided to abstain from future ballots or even vote in token fashion for former Governor Robert E. Pattison of Pennsylvania.

Having lost their best chance, the Cleveland Democrats tried to decide what to do. Financier Whitney pleaded with McKinley to soft-pedal the protective tariff and thereby form a broad coalition against Bryanism; McKinley, however, was willing to soft-pedal everything else, but protectionism, after all, was both his own and his party’s only distinctive program remaining. The Clevelandites, therefore, decided at last to form a third party, the National Democrats, or “Gold Democrats,” who met in September at Indianapolis. The best and most dramatic candidate for the Gold Democrats would have been President Cleveland himself, but he refused any nomination in advance. The new party then nominated Senator John M. Palmer of Illinois for president and Simon B. Buckner of Kentucky for vice president. The fact that Palmer had been a Union general and Buckner a Confederate general in the Civil War symbolized the desire of the Gold Democrats to bury the old North-South hatchet. The platform, prepared by the veteran head of the Wisconsin Democracy, Senator William F. Vilas, not only came out strongly for the gold standard and denounced free silver; it also denounced protectionism, free silver’s ally in the governmental creation of special privilege. It went on to attack all forms of governmental paternalism. The National Democratic platform was the last gasp of the old hard money, laissez-faire Democracy. The major support for the new party came from the “Honest Money Democrats” of Illinois and of other Midwestern and Border states. They had found their state parties captured by the Bryanites and were therefore desperate enough to form another party. The Eastern Clevelandites, however, still controlled their local parties and were therefore less willing to form a new one. The Southern Democrats, also, were too worried about Populists or about a possible Republican revival to dare to bolt the party.

The Eastern sound money Democrats also failed to support the third party because of their understandable but short-sighted eagerness to defeat Bryan in the election made them virtual or outright champions of McKinley. This was the route taken by Whitney, Flower, Coudert, Representative William Bourke Cockram of New York’s Tammany Hall, and the financier Thomas Fortune Ryan. Cleveland himself approved of the National Democrats but vacillated in public support. Leading New York supporter of the Gold Democrats was Calvin Tompkins, head of the state committee of the new party and chairman of the ardently pro-gold Sound Currency Committee of the Reform Club of New York, an organization which was also fervently in favor of free trade. In contrast to the other short-sighted Clevelandites, Tompkins saw the need for a long-run sound money party, which could educate the public permanently and form a continuing structure for the hard-money constituency in the country.

Unfortunately, even Palmer and National Gold Democrat Chairman William D. Bynum of Indiana envisioned the new party as merely a pro-McKinley move rather than the beginnings of a permanent organization on behalf of laissez-faire Democracy. Apart from Tompkins, only Ellis B. Usher, chairman of the Wisconsin Gold Democrats, saw the party as a permanent way of keeping alive the flickering flame of personal and economic liberty — of rebuilding the old Democracy in a new institutional form.

Beset by a lack of spirit and vision, the National Democratic Party unsurprisingly played only a minor role in the 1896 campaign. They polled only roughly 133,000 votes out of 13.7 million and achieved balance-of- power status only in Kentucky and California. The National Democrats quickly faded from view after the election. The last chance to preserve laissez-faire Democracy was lost. But, to be fair, even the best will in the world might not have established the National Democrats as a permanent political force. For the liturgicals shifted to the Republicans, rather than the National Democrats, precisely because they correctly perceived the new McKinley Republicanism as having abandoned pietism and changed to a pragmatic and centrist party.22

The woes of the Democrats intensified after the election. The Eastern sound-money men were scarcely rewarded for not joining the National Democracy. On the contrary, in the wake of the smashing Democratic defeat, the old-stock Protestants who had run the Democratic Party in the Eastern cities (men such as Grover Cleveland, Calvinist — and hence creedal rather than pietist — Presbyterian from Buffalo) were now removed from leadership positions and deposed by men rising up from the predominantly Irish constituency. But the Irish Democrats soon found that it had been easier to unite Catholic and Lutheran ethnic groups under the benign leadership of old-line WASPS; throughout New England the new Irish domination of the Democratic Party rapidly alienated newly burgeoning Italian and French Catholic voters, who now proved amendable to the lures of the new, open Republican Party. In urban eastern areas, the growing identification of the Democracy as “the Irish party” succeeded in repelling other Catholic and liturgical voters and cemented the Republican Party as the national majority party.23

In addition to these troubles, the Democracy became shaken after Bryan’s takeover by prohibitionist sentiment. The South became converted to prohibitionism and was now the preeminent sectional stronghold of the Democratic Party. The post-Bryan Democracy outside of the South was not cohesively prohibitionist, but it was racked by powerful struggles over the issue within each state party. In some Eastern states, such as New York and Massachusetts, the internal battle was quickly won by the wets and Catholics. In others, however, the battle was closer and longer-lasting. Thus, in Ohio in 1905, the Democrats gained the endorsement of the powerful Anti-Saloon League by nominating a prohibitionist for governor against a post-McKinley Republican. In New Jersey, Anti-Saloon League endorsement of the rising progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson ensured his election for governor in 1910 and put him on the road to the presidency. The Anti-Saloon endorsement raised the turnout rate in the rural, native Protestant southern counties of the state by a remarkable 10 to 15 percentage points over the 1906 election, and Wilson’s share of the vote increased by 12 to 20 points above the Democratic gubernatorial vote four years earlier.24

What of the other minor parties, the Populists and the Prohibitionists? The inflationist and statist Populists, gleeful at the Bryan victory as a triumph for their principles, happily nominated Bryan for president and later dissolved themselves into the Democratic Party. The Farmers’ Alliance movement, as much prohibitionist and pro-Sabbath law as they were agrarian statists, also supported Bryan to the hilt. While Bryan did not openly come out for prohibition, the prohibitionists correctly perceived him as one of their own. While the Prohibition Party refused to fuse into the Democracy, much fusion for Bryan occurred at the county level throughout the Midwest. Indeed, when the national convention of the Prohibition Party insisted (as “narrow gaugers”) on keeping to one issue and to their separate entity, the “broad gaugers” split from the Prohibition Party and formed the National Party, dedicated to fusing prohibitionists with the new Bryanite Democracy. Their support, added to the whole support of state and local W.C.T.U. organizations, brought most prohibitionists into the Bryan camp. In effect, then, the Prohibition Party also dissolved into the Bryanite Democracy.

Populists for Bryan habitually hailed his candidacy as the new “moral crusade,” a crusade against the “saloon power” and the embodiment of a new “party of piety.” Bryanite “silver clubs” arose throughout the South and West, behaving like revival meetings on an all-out moral crusade, and thereby frightening the liturgicals as much with their style and rhetoric as well as the substance of their program.

As Professor Kleppner writes:

The tripartite cooperation of Democrats, Populists, and Prohibitionists was the type of grand union of “reformers” that many of the Midwestern Prohibition leaders especially had sought for several years. ... Bryanites were not concerned with a mere reactivation of old loyalties, but with the creation of a new coalition of voters. They hoped to draw support from the Prohibition, Populist, and Republican ranks by appealing to the concern of such voters for the creation of a moral society. To reinforce the proclivity of these voters to shift to the “new party of morality” ... they employed free silver ideology. It was intended ... to function as a morally toned ideology enlisting the support of voter groups that looked to the use of government power as a remedy for society’s increasing amorality ...

     Because they were relatively more concerned with conversion than with reactivation or reinforcement of old commitments, both Bryan and his Midwestern supporters deemphasized their Democratic lineage and their connections with the old Democratic ideology. The image they projected of themselves was not that of “negative government,” but of a government dedicated to the use of positive action to remedy social inequities. This was not the Democracy whose usual program was a litany of “thou shalt nots,” but a Democracy espousing that very type of government which for over half a century had repelled religious ritualists [liturgicals].25

How did the old-line Democratic leaders and organs of opinion counter the Bryanites and persuade their readers and supporters to shift to the formerly hated Republicans? They attacked free silver, not primarily on economic grounds, but as part of the Bryanite betrayal of the principles of the old Democratic Party. In short, the Cleveland Democrats correctly pointed out to their constituents that Bryan was the reverse of a true Democrat in the previous scheme of things. Specifically, Bryanism was a violation of the old Democratic belief in “personal liberty,” for it was yet another attempt to “regulate things ... and to propose laws governing the habits, pursuits, and beliefs of men.”26 And German anti-Bryan papers argued that Bryan was at heart a prohibitionist.

For their part, the new McKinley Republican Party cooperated enthusiastically in welcoming liturgicals into their ranks. They abandoned the old pietist symbolism and presented themselves now not as the party of morality, but as the party of prosperity sheltered by the protective tariff. In Wisconsin, for example, the Republicans followed this strategy by rejecting Robert M. La Follette, pietist, champion of the Bennett Law, and friend of the nativist and anti-Catholic American Protective Association, in deference to the fierce opposition of German Lutheran leaders.

The A.P.A., indeed, was in a quandary in the 1896 election. Previously solidly Republican, the A.P.A. had fought the moderate McKinley bitterly in Ohio politics and had supported the prohibitionist Foraker. The A.P.A. was also embittered at McKinley’s willingness to appoint Catholics to public office and at his refusal to appoint leading A.P.A. members. In 1896, the A.P.A. fought McKinley’s nomination with great bitterness. During the spring, the National Advisory Board of the A.P.A. accused Governor McKinley of having discriminated in favor of Catholics and against native-born Protestants in his appointments to public office. And in May, both the Executive Committee and the Campaign Committee of the A.P.A. publicly denounced McKinley and announced the support for any other Republican candidate.

The upshot was dissension and confusion during the 1896 campaign in A.P.A. ranks. Indeed, the consequence was the rapid disintegration of the A.P.A. and its early disappearance from American life. A.P.A. attacks, however, greatly aided McKinley’s ability to attract Catholic support.27,28

William McKinley gained the presidency in the first decisive Republican victory for the office since 1872 as the first presidential candidate of either party since 1876 to gain a majority of the popular vote. And, as we have pointed out, he began a long era of Republican control of the presidency along with both houses of Congress. McKinley’s presidency quickly moved to bury old divisive pietist concerns. Prohibitionism was scuttled by the Republicans, was only revived by the Progressive movement, and was fastened on the country by the temporarily resurgent Democrats, and then only under cover of war.29 The woman suffrage movement also died out after 1896 and was revived 15 years later by the Progressive movement.30 And, while President McKinley formally supported the immigration restrictionists’ drive for a literacy test, the Republican enthusiasm for the bill was gone. For many Republicans observed that liturgicals and the foreign-born vote had shifted to McKinley, and the newly powerful German groups were organizing strongly to prevent immigration restriction. Officers of 150 German-American societies condemned any such bill as a revival of Know-Nothingism and bigotry, and German and other nationalities formed an Immigration Protective League to combat restrictionism. The House simply failed to act on immigration restriction in 1898, and the agitation died. Once again, it took the Democratic Party and World War I to put an end to America’s tradition of free immigration.31

Some of the new dimensions of the new American party-system which emerged from the 1896 election may be seen in a study by Paul Kleppner. Kleppner compares the average partisan leads in the various regions in the two decades, 1882–1892, the final and mature years of the third party-system, and 1894–1904, the beginnings of the fourth party-system. The average partisan leads for the two periods are as follows:

    Partisan Leads (Percentage Points)32

It is clear that a one-party Democratic South with a slight Republican lead or tie in the rest of the country had been transformed into an even more one-party South with a strong Republican lead everywhere else. More specifically, a comfortably Republican New England was now heavily Republican, the evenly fought Middle Atlantic states were now solidly Republican, and the equally evenly fought East-North-Central (roughly what we have called “the Midwest”) was now also decisively in the Republican camp. The same fate had hit the previously narrowly Republican Pacific states, while the previously solidly Democratic Border areas were now nip-and-tuck. The fact that Bryanite free-silver agitation had changed the thinly-populated western Mountain states from firmly Republican to narrowly Democratic was hardly sufficient comfort for the bushwhacked Democratic Party.

The unchallenged hegemony of the Republican Party was reflected in all of America’s political institutions. For instance, the previously close presidential races where there was either a tie in the popular vote or a Democratic lead was now replaced by significant Republican victories. In 1876, Samuel Tilden notably bested Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote (50.9% versus 47.9%), despite not getting the presidency. In 1880, James Garfield narrowly beat Winfield Scott Hancock (48.27% versus 48.25%), while Grover Cleveland accomplished the same against James Blaine in 1884 (48.9% versus 48.3%). In 1888, the Democrats won the popular vote again but did not gain the presidency when Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison (48.6% versus 47.8%). In the 1892 rematch, Cleveland defeated Harrison by a sizable lead (46% versus 43%). But starting in 1896, the Republicans dominated the next several elections. In 1896, William McKinley triumphed over William Jennings Bryan (51% versus 46.7%) and won by an even larger lead in the 1900 rematch (51.6% versus 45.5%). Theodore Roosevelt crushed Alton B. Parker in 1904 (56.4% versus 37.6%), and William Howard Taft won by a similarly large margin against Bryan in 1908 (51.6% versus 43%). Not only was there a Republican president from 1896 until the party split temporarily in 1912, but so too were the other political structures. Whereas only once since the mid-1870s until the mid-1890s did any one party control the presidency and both houses of Congress, now, from 1897 through 1911, the Republicans continuously and simultaneously controlled all three organs. Between 1894 and 1904, the Republicans elected 70.6% of all the members of non-Southern state legislators, and from 1894 to 1931 the Republicans elected no less than 67.2% of the governors of the Midwestern and Western states, as well as 83.1% of the governors in the New England and mid-Atlantic regions. The South was one-party Democratic, and only the relatively insignificant Mountain states experienced any sort of vibrant two-party contest.

Not only did liturgicals shift heavily to the Republican Party after 1896, but, ironically, the new moderate McKinley Republicanism, the “Party of Prosperity,” which had clung only to the protective tariff of the old-time Republican issues, was eventually even able to attract many pietists back from the lures of Bryan Democracy.  In consequence, the crushing of Bryan in the presidential elections of 1900 and 1908 was even more decisive than in 1896. Kleppner has examined typically pietist and liturgical areas in the two decades. Six Pennsylvania German counties, +5.5% Democratic in the 1882–1892 decade, shifted to +6.6% Republican in the following ten years. Even more decisively, the liturgical Wisconsin Germans, an average of +24.7% Democratic in ten counties in the first period, shifted to +1.6% Republican in the latter. In contrast, ten counties of pietistic Pennsylvania Yankees, +10.3% Republican in the first decade, increased their margin to +23.1% Republican in the next; while ten counties of pietistic Wisconsin Scandinavians, +24.8% Republican in the former, shifted to a whopping 45.5% Republican in the latter. Turnout rates fell in all these groups, ranging from a drop of 11% to 20%. Even the largely liturgical big cities, heavily Democratic cities (Boston, Brooklyn), shifted to nip-and-tuck contests; Baltimore fell from heavily Democratic to decisively Republican, while Chicago shifted from solidly Democratic to heavily Republican.

Thus, after 1896, neither major party could any longer be considered the home of consistent ideology or of emphatically pietist or liturgical religious values. Both parties were a mixed bag. The new Republican hegemony, as well as the even stronger Democratic hegemony in the South, combined with the great decline of sharp ideological or ethno-religious conflict between the parties, led to a precipitate drop in voter turnout in state and national elections. The following table of average voter “turnout rates” (percentages of eligible persons voting) for the two-party systems was presented by Professor Kleppner:

Turnout Percentages33

The 14 and 13 point turnout drops in the Mid-Atlantic and East-North-Central regions reflected the sudden shift from close conflict to Republican hegemony, as did, to a slightly lesser degree, the drops in New England and the Pacific states. The extreme drop in Southern participation rates reflected also the disenfranchisement of blacks that took place in this period.34 Only in the relatively unimportant Border and Mountain regions, where the intensity of party conflict heightened instead of slackened, did turnout rates stay the same or even increase.35

Looking at the turnout rates for the presidential elections, we can see even more starkly from the following table the steady and drastic decline in voter participation:

Turnout Rates in Presidential Elections Outside of the South36

To put these figures in perspective, voter turnout rates in presidential elections had risen from 55–58% from 1828–36, to 80.2% in 1840, after which they ranged from 70% to 84%. The post-1896 declines dropped turnout rates back to pre-1840 levels.

Not only did voter turnout drastically decline, but the character of that turnout changed sharply to reflect the new conditions of American political parties. Before 1896, as we might expect, turnout rates were much higher among church members than among those unaffiliated with churches; now, however, turnout of church members dropped far more precipitously. In the third electoral system, the poor tended to vote more proportionately than the wealthy, but now the relative participation of the poor declined greatly. The same is true of young, and first- and second- generation foreign voters. Old habits die hard, and we would expect the new trend toward non-voting to hit first and deepest among the young, newly-eligible age groups. Thus, between 1876 and 1892, 62.1% of newly eligible non-southern voters turned out to the polls, but from 1900 to 1916, only 41.2% of the newly eligible bothered to vote.37
    As Kleppner states:

... the electoral demobilization that occurred was neither uniform nor random in its social effects, but clearly and strongly class skewed. The participation gap was most noticeable among voters towards the bottom end of the economic scale, and — even net of these economic effects — among younger-aged cohorts. Around the turn of the century, in other words, electoral politics seemed to lose much of its earlier capacity to arouse the enthusiasm of most citizens and to enlist their active participation.38

But how could voter interest decline drastically, especially among the poor and the young, in the very Progressive Era (approximately 1900–1917), which has been trumpeted by the Progressives themselves and laudatory historians as the voice of “the people” and the “march of expanding democracy”? Obviously, historians have, at least until the last decade or so, unfortunately taken the progressives at face value. The march of triumphal democracy was, in stark reality, a mere camouflage for an assault on democracy and on freedom on behalf of the burgeoning coalition of technocratic and Big Business elites.

For the new non-ideological party system and demobilized electorate meant also that the political party itself became far less important in deciding government policy. And, along with the parties, their constituencies — the voting public — became less important in influencing government actions. This decline of the political party as well as its voting constituency left a power vacuum which, as will be detailed below, the new order of experts, technocrats, and organized economic pressure groups rushed to fill. The dominance of the new elites alienated still more citizens and swelled the ranks of non-voters. The way was paved for the Progressive period.

    As Paul Kleppner sums up the new trend:

... the cumulative effect of noncompetitiveness and mass demobilization, combined with legal changes downgrading the role of the party as organization, was to lower party effectiveness as a mobilizing agency and thus to reduce its capacity to shape policy outputs. Freeing elected decisions-makers from the constraints of the party was a requisite condition to increase the policy-shaping role of other political institutions capable of articulating group interests. As the party’s role as a determinant of legislative voting behavior declined, for example, the influence of functionally organized economic interest groups increased. That was accompanied by an accelerated tendency to remove large clusters of policy from even the potential influence of party behavior by shifting decision-making from elected to appointed bodies. Done in the name of “efficiency” and “expertise,” the consequence of that removal was further to insulate decision-making from organized mass opinion. That insulation was an indispensable stage in the efforts of cosmopolitan elites to eliminate the party as a critical source of localist resistance to the centralizing impulses of corporate capitalism.39

  • 1. See Allan Nevins, ed., The Letters of Grover Cleveland (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933), pp. 440–41, 525. Cited in Paul Kleppner, “From Ethnoreligious Conflict to ‘Social Harmony’: Coalitional and Party Transformations in the 1890s,” in Emerging Coalitions in American Politics, S.M. Lipset, ed. (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1978), p. 42.
  • 2. Kleppner, The Cross of Culture, p. 297.
  • 3. [Editor’s footnote] For more on the Panic of 1893, see Rothbard, “A History of Money and Banking,” pp. 167–69. For the ensuing political crisis, see Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 77–105. The entire book is indispensable for understanding the transformation of ideology and government during the Progressive Era and later years.
  • 4. [Editor’s footnote] Kleppner, The Cross of Culture, pp. 179–90.
  • 5. [Editor’s footnote] Rothbard’s evidence that the Democratic Party was more hard money than the Republicans in the post-Civil War era, concentrating on the 1860s and 1870s, can be found in Rothbard, “A History of Money and Banking,” pp. 150–53. See also pp. 156–59, 167. By the end of the 1880s, many more Republicans, especially in the East, favored hard money policies. The Republican campaign platform of 1888 supported the use of both gold and silver, and true to its pledge, President Harrison signed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. See Allan Nevins, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1932), pp. 465–66.
  • 6. Unfortunately, Cleveland made the fateful decision to go back on his platform commitment to repeal the 10% tax on state bank notes, in force since the Civil War. This tax had destroyed the decentralized, free banking system of pre-Civil War America, and had replaced it with a quasi-centralized and more inflationary banking system. Repeal would have changed the banking system in the strong direction of decentralized free banking, and while it would not really have been inflationist, the pro-inflationary South and West believed differently. The Cleveland administration, then, could have split the inflationist South and West while fostering rather than crippling the long-standing Democratic free banking and hard money principles.
  • 7. The Democrats, in passing an income tax, were also responding to Republican taunts of where government revenue would be coming from if tariffs were significantly lower. There was, of course, another answer: that pre-Civil War America had gotten along nicely with free trade and no income tax, and reduced spending could have restored that kind of a revenue system. [Editor’s remarks] Cleveland was ultimately dissatisfied with the minor tariff reductions in the Wilson-Gorman Act and allowed the bill to become law without his signature. The income tax was later struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1895, and the Wilson-Gorman Tariff was replaced by the 1897 Dingley Tariff, which reaffirmed protectionism. The income tax would return in the Taft administration, and alongside the rate reducing Underwood Tariff, the 16th Amendment was passed under the Taft and Wilson administrations in 1913. The passage of the income tax was due to a coalition of groups favoring tariff reduction but eager to find a substitute source of revenue. They were the progressive populists who wanted to reduce income inequality,  manufacturing export firms, and those involved in South American and Asian foreign direct investment. The latter also had a vested interest in using the tax to fund the growing pension plans and naval military buildup, which would be used to protect their overseas investments. Although under the initial law the tax only hit the upper class with the top rate at 7%, during World War I the government extended its encroachment, and rates skyrocketed, including on the middle class. See Chapter 7 below, pp. 206–07; Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan, pp. 97–103, 112–13, 150–52; Ben Baack and Edward John Ray, “The Political Economy of the Origin and Development of the Federal Income Tax,” in Emergence of Modern Political Economy, Robert Higgs, ed. (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1985), pp. 121–38.
         A high income tax penalizes up-and-coming entrepreneurs who earn high annual incomes relative to their wealth at the expense of existing wealthy entrepreneurs who earn relatively low annual incomes. As a result, it reduces income mobility and ossifies the existing elite. See Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2008 [1949]), pp. 804–05. 
  • 8. [Editor’s footnote] McSeveney, The Politics of Depression, pp. 35–41, 87–100; Kleppner, The Cross of Culture, pp. 255–59; Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest, pp. 213–18; Richard Franklin Bensel, The Political Economy of American Industrialization, 1877–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 136, 139–40, 417–18; Gretchen Ritter, Goldbugs and Greenbacks: The Antimonopoly Tradition and the Politics of Finance in America, 1865–1896 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 243.
  • 9. Kleppner, The Cross of Culture, p. 286. [Editor’s remarks] Ibid., pp. 273–86.
  • 10. Ibid., pp. 291, 294. [Editor’s remarks] Ibid., pp. 273–93.
  • 11. See McSeveney, The Politics of Depression.
  • 12. [Editor’s footnote] See Kleppner, The Cross of Culture, pp. 316–38.
  • 13. Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest, p. 293.
  • 14. Illinois Staats-Zeitung, November 21, 1896. Cited in ibid., p. 295.
  • 15. Paul Kleppner, “The Demise of Ethnoreligious Politics, 1900–1920,” in “The Demise of Ethnocultural Politics: Parties and Voters, 1896–1920” (Unpublished paper delivered at the 1980 annual meetings of the Organization of American Historians, San Francisco, April 1980), vol. 3, pp. 22–23.
  • 16. [Editor’s footnote] During the post-Civil War era, virtually all of the Republican and Democrat candidates came from the Midwest and New York, respectively.
  • 17. Cited in Matthew Josephson, The Politicos, 1865–1896 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), p. 657.
  • 18. Ibid., p. 660. [Editor’s remarks] Ibid., pp. 639–61; Burch, Elites in American History, pp. 136, 185; Kleppner, The Cross of Culture, pp. 347–48; Ferdinand Lundberg, America’s 60 Families (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1938), pp. 57–59. 
  • 19. Senator Teller himself owned $2,000,000 in silver and other mining stock. This points up the role of the silver mining interest in pushing for Bryan and free silver. Silver advocates Senators John P. Jones and William Stewart of Nevada were both wealthy silver mine operators. Marcus Daly, major owner of the great Anaconda mines in Montana, fought for free silver and was the main subsidizer of the American Bimetallic League, which employed Bryan as a lecturer. Daly and his Anaconda associates spent $289,000 to obtain delegates for free silver at the Democratic convention, and Daly gave $50,000 more to the Bryan campaign after the nomination. William Randolph Hearst, young newspaper publisher and son of Daly’s late partner at Anaconda was the major press supporter for the Bryan campaign. [Editor’s remarks] Josephson, The Politicos, pp. 663–64.
  • 20. [Editor’s footnote] With McKinley firmly committed to gold, his subsequent success in 1896, and the affirmative Gold Standard Act of 1900, the Morgans, and other big bankers could gather their forces and now concentrate on monetary reform to correct the defects of the National Banking System and replace it not with free banking, but with a more centralized and cartelized system of monetary expansion — namely, a central bank. This was in contrast to the more blatant congressional inflationism of the Bryanite Democracy. For the early years of the 20th century surrounding this drive, see Murray Rothbard, “The Origins of the Federal Reserve,” in A History of Money and Banking in the United States: From the Colonial Era to World War II, Joseph Salerno, ed. (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2005 [1999]), pp. 185–208.
  • 21. Paolo E. Coletta, William Jennings Bryan, I: Political Evangelist, 1860–1908 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1960); Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), p. 186. [Editor’s remarks] See also Kleppner, The Cross of Culture, pp. 338–48.
  • 22. [Editor’s footnote] McSeveney, The Politics of Depression, pp. 163–76. For more on the National Democrats, see David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, “Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896–1900,” Independent Review (Spring 2000): 555–75.
  • 23. Kleppner, “Demise of Ethnocultural Politics,” vol. 3, pp. 23–24. There is particular evidence for this new Irish dominance in New Haven, Providence, and Boston.
  • 24. Ibid., pp. 24–25, 55–56.
  • 25. Kleppner, The Cross of Culture, pp. 354, 361–62.
  • 26. Cited in Ibid., p. 364.
  • 27. [Editor’s footnote] Kleppner, The Cross of Culture, pp. 349–52.
  • 28. While Jews were not politically important at this time, it might be pointed out that Bryanite pietism had distinctively anti-Semitic overtones. President Cleveland and the gold standard were attacked as agents of the “European Jew Rothschild,” it being noted that the Belmonts, as Rothschild agents, had long been highly influential in the old Democratic Party. Herman Ahlwardt, a leading German born anti-Semite, endorsed Bryan in The Gentile News. More importantly, Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Lease, the great woman orator of Kansas Populism, attacked President Cleveland as “the agent of Jewish bankers and British gold,” while leading Minnesota populist and prohibitionist Ignatius Donnelly wrote a novel Caesar’s Column, prophesying a future society ruled and exploited by a Jewish world oligarchy. McSeveney, The Politics of Depression, pp. 186–87.
  • 29. But neither party could be called the prohibitionist or the anti-prohibitionist party. On this as on almost all other issues, neither party stood for anything definite and enduring anymore. Both had become the confused and confusing centrist parties that we know all too well today. [Editor’s remarks] For more on the national enactment of prohibition and the 18th Amendment, which passed in 1919 under the guise of World War I, see Chapter 13 below, pp. 400–07.
  • 30. [Editor’s remarks] See Chapter 13 below, pp. 408–13. These efforts eventually culminated in the 19th Amendment, which enacted nationwide female suffrage in 1920.
  • 31. [Editor’s footnote] Higham, Strangers in the Land, pp. 106–07. The Immigration Act of 1917 finally passed the literacy test requirement. From there, quotas emerged in the 1920s. See also Chapters 10 and 13 below, pp. 314–16, 411–13.
  • 32. Kleppner, “Party Transformations in the 1890s,” p. 44.
  • 33. Ibid., p. 44.
  • 34. The Southern turnout rate in presidential elections declined from about 75% in 1876 to about 68% from 1880–88, a decline reflecting the end of Reconstruction and the ouster of northern “carpetbagging” whites from the South. Then, a series of sharp declines occurred, to 60% in 1892 and 1896, then to 50% in 1900, and finally to approximately 38% in 1904 and in subsequent elections. These declines, in poor white as well as black turnout, reflected the imposition of the poll tax and of literacy requirements for voting throughout the South during this period. They also reflected the failure of the pietist-Republican Force Bill in 1891, which would have imposed federally supervised elections in Southern state elections to ensure black voting. See Jerrold G. Rusk and John J. Stucker, “The Effect of the Southern System of Election Laws on Voting Participation: A Reply to V.O. Key, Jr.,” in The History of American Electoral Behavior, J. Sibley, A. Bogue, and W. Flanigan, eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 198–250. Also see J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restrictions and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974).
         [Editor’s remarks] The Jim Crow segregation laws enacted during this time were openly championed by Southern Progressives. This support was not a “blind spot” of the well-intentioned reformers, but rather part and parcel of their interventionist agenda to control and cartelize society to benefit special interest groups (such as the Anglo-Saxon white worker). See William L. Anderson and David Kiriazis, “Rents and Race: Legacies of Progressive Policies,” Independent Review (Summer 2013): 115–33, and Chapter 9 below, pp. 292–93.
  • 35. 35The alternative view to that presented here holds that the sharp drop in post-1896 voter turnout stemmed from the adoption of personal registration requirements for voting in nearly every state. But such explanation ignores the fact that (a) voter turnout nevertheless increased in the Mountain states where party conflict intensified, and (b) the registration requirements were imposed only in the cities, but turnout declines occurred with equal severity in the rural as in the urban areas. See the following works of Walter Dean Burnham: Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970), “Theory and Voting Research: Some Reflections on Converse’s Change in the American Electorate,” American Political Science Review (September, 1974): 1002–23, and “Rejoinder,” ibid., pp. 1050–57; and also see Kleppner, “Party Transformations in the 1890s,” p. 465.
  • 36. 36From Howard W. Allen and Jerome Clubb, “Progressive Reform and the Political System,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly (July, 1974): 140. [Editor’s remarks] Turnout rates as a percentage of the voting age population remained subdued throughout the 20th and 21st centuries and has hovered around 50–60%.
  • 37. Kleppner, “Demise of Ethnocultural Politics,” vol. 3, pp. 27–32, 67.
  • 38. Ibid., p. 33.
  • 39. Kleppner, “Party Transformations in the 1890s,” p. 59. Also see Kleppner, “Demise of Ethnocultural Politics,” vol. 3, pp. 33ff.
         [Editor’s remarks] Many alleged instances of a democratization of politics during the Progressive Era, such as the 17th Amendment in 1913, which allowed for the direct election of senators instead of being chosen by the state legislatures, or the push for the political primaries, still fit in this schema. Their main effect was to reduce the ideological and institutional role of the political parties, allowing anyone to run based off of their public relations and contributed toward the transformation of politics into a bland popularity contest. This was highly related to the increased centralization and similarity of the parties, and the creation of the vacuum for technocrats and policymakers to control everything behind the scenes. Moreover, the 17th Amendment weakened state legislatures, and hence state governments, and transferred this power into the hands of the federal government. The diminished ability of the states to check the power of the federal government allowed for a greater expansion and consolidation of government activities.