The political situation in 1896, when the parties began to prepare for the presidential election, was more complex than it had been since 1860. The repeal, in 1893, of the purchase clause of the Sherman silver act had divided the Democrats into factions; the financial and industrial distress in the same year had been widely attributed to fear of Democratic misgovernment; the Wilson-Gorman tariff act of 1894 had discredited the party and aroused ill-feeling between the President and Congress; the Pullman strike and the use of the injunction had aroused bitterness in the labor element against the administration; the income tax decision of 1895 had done much to shake popular confidence in the Supreme Court; the Hawaiian and Venezuelan incidents had caused minor dissent in some quarters; and the bond sales had made Cleveland intensely unpopular in the West and South. The Democratic party was demoralized and leaderless. The Republicans were better off because they had been out of power during the years of dissension and panic, but they had been without a leader since the death of Blaine in 1893 and were far from united in regard to the most pressing issues. Indeed, the sectional differences in both parties, and the unexpected strength of the Populist movement caused no little anxiety among the political leaders. And finally, the volume and character of the currency was still undetermined. The Democrats had divided on the question. The Republicans were almost as little united; they had played politics in passing the Sherman silver act and three years later had assisted a President of the opposite party in accomplishing the repeal of its most important provision. From the standpoint of the silver supporters neither party organization was to be trusted. The outstanding political questions of 1896, therefore, were whether the supporters of silver could capture the machinery of one of the parties and whether the other unsettled issues could ride into the campaign on the strength of the financial agitation. The answers to these questions gave the campaign and election its peculiar significance.

The background of 1896 is to be found in the South and West, where the farmers' alliances and the Populist party continued their success in arousing and directing the ambitions of the discontented classes. In 1892, it will be remembered, the Populists had cast more than a million ballots and had chosen twenty-two presidential electors, two senators, and eleven representatives. In 1894, at the time of the congressional election, they had increased their voting strength more than forty per cent., and had elected six senators and six members of the House, besides several hundreds of state officials. In the Senate it happened that the two great parties had been almost equally strong, after the election of 1894, so that the Populist group had held the balance of power. The insistence of the South and West that Congress do something further for silver had not lessened. A measure providing for the coinage of a portion of the silver bullion in the treasury had been defeated in 1894 only through the President's veto. Indeed the only hope of the East and of the supporters of the gold standard was the unflinching determination of the head of a party to which the East and the gold supporters were, in the main opposed.

The growing enthusiasm for silver which was sweeping over the South and West and rapidly developing into something resembling frenzy was difficult for the more stolid East to comprehend. Not merely the politician, but the man on the street and in the store, the school-teacher, the farmer and the laborer, in those portions of the country, fell to discussing the virtues of silver as currency and the effect of a greater volume of circulating medium upon prices and prosperity. The two metals became personified in the minds of the people. Gold was the symbol of cruel, snobbish plutocracy; silver of upright democracy. Gold deserted the country in its hour of need; silver remained at home to minister to the wants of the people. Such arguments as those presented in Coin's Financial School, published in 1894, brought financial policy within the circle of the emotions of its readers even if they did not satisfy the more critical student of monetary problems. This influential little volume, written by W.H. Harvey, acted as a hand-book of free coinage, cleverly setting forth the major arguments for the increased use of silver and bringing forward objections which were triumphantly demolished. Simple illustrations enforced the lessons taught by its pages: a wood-cut of a cripple with one leg indicated how handicapped the country was without the free coinage of two metals; in another, Senator Sherman and President Cleveland were depicted digging out the silver portion of the foundations of a house which had been erected on a stable basis of both gold and silver; in a third, western farmers were seen industriously stuffing fodder into a cow which capitalists were milking for the benefit of New York and New England.[1] With the enthusiasm and the sincerity of the early crusaders, the people assembled in ten thousand schoolhouses to debate the absorbing subject of the currency. Indeed the South and West had become convinced that the miseries inflicted upon mankind by war, pestilence and famine had been less "cruel, unpitying, and unrelenting than the persistent and remorseless exaction" which the contraction of the volume of the currency had made upon society. Low prices, the stagnation of industry, empty and idle stores, workshops and factories, the increase of crime and bankruptcy - all were laid at the door of the gold standard.