Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

A Question of Loyalty: The 1896 Election in Quincy, Illinois

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

A Question of Loyalty: The 1896 Election in Quincy, Illinois

Article excerpt

LIKE MOST OF THE NATION, the citizens of Quincy, Illinois looked forward to 1896 as a year of change. They would help elect a new president and, with luck, begin to recover from the down side of a serious economic recession that began with the Panic of 1893. The city's economy had been stagnant, but local businessmen had reason to hope. With 40,000 citizens, a busy Mississippi waterfront, multiple rail line connections, a sound manufacturing base, and prosperous merchants, the city was in a strong position from which to move into the new century. The city also boasted a professional baseball team, a substantial park system, extensive public works projects, and the newly built thirteen hundred seat Empire Theater. Yet the future held political uncertainty, for the party lines which had marshaled voters for the last two decades threatened to shift. The People's Party, while weak in Quincy and surrounding Adams County, had reinvigorated a national political debate and had moved the question of the free coinage of silver from the fringe of American politics to its center. The hard-fought campaign threatened long-established party loyalties, created opportunities for new leaders to emerge, and strengthened minority voices.

The election of 1896, it turned out, would prove to be one of the most important in the nation's history. Like Jefferson's revolution of 1800, the appearance of Jackson's democracy in 1828, Lincoln's victory in i860 and Roosevelt's New Deal in 1932, McKinley's victory signaled a clear, lasting shift in American politics. The election saw a significant change in campaign strategies, with the Republicans raising funds at an unprecedented rate and then targeting those funds for use in closely disputed states. Campaign issues also shifted as tired Civil War rhetoric slipped away and a vigorous debate over economic programs and the role of the national government took its place. The election also began a period marked by reduced partisan competition, higher margins of victory, lower voter turnout, and, outside the South, Democratic infighting and decline. More importantly, the election ushered in thirty-six years of Republican dominance by shifting the balance of power in urban centers and among Midwest farmers.1

The emergence of what scholars call the fourth party system might seem clear today, but from the perspective of Americans who experienced the election, the political landscape must have appeared fractured and shifting. The Populist Party had formally entered the political fray in 1892, when it elected ten congressmen and five senators in a campaign that saw Populist presidential candidate James Weaver capture over a million popular and twenty-two electoral votes. The new party proved strongest in the farming South and mining West, where the Populist cry for the coinage of silver promised inflation to aid debt-ridden farmers and new jobs in the western mining states.2 The Democrats faced the greatest threat from the new party, for it threatened to break the solid South. They responded to the Populists with a variety of political weapons, including fraud and intimidation, but by 1896 were considering a far more potent countermeasure-adopting key Populist positions and returning stray Democrats to the fold. The Democrats' nomination of William Jennings Bryan and adoption of a free silver plank in their platform caused the Populists to fuse with the Democrats in their support for Bryan.3 Conservative Democrats had a difficult time supporting Bryan and many voted for McKinley, cast a protest vote for John Palmer, the National Democratic candidate, or chose not to cast their vote. The Republicans responded to Bryan's challenge with a carefully choreographed plan that combined overwhelming gains in the 1894 off-year elections, a disciplined political machine, abundant campaign money, and claims that the gold standard and higher tariffs would restore the American economy. Their candidate, William McKinley, won a hard fought victory by sweeping the Northeast and winning the key midwestern battlegrounds-including Illinois. …

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