The Real McKinley: Setting the Record Straight on the Election of 1896

According to the popular historical narrative of the 1896 Presidential Election, William Jennings Bryan, running as a Democrat and Populist, was a champion of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised rural Americans. William McKinley, on the other hand, was supposedly the pawn of big businessmen who bankrolled a campaign of fear and intimidation in order to win the support of urbanites. Although there certainly is some truth to this perception, it is in many ways a narrow view of the election. McKinley and his campaign managers, not unlike modern candidates, orchestrated a positive campaign, emphasizing themes such as patriotism, idealism, and American exceptionalism. Additionally, contrary to popular belief, McKinley was not simply a pawn of big business interests and his campaign manager, Mark Hanna. McKinley was a shrew political actor, who had spent most of his adult life in the competitive and grueling world of Ohio politics. Through formal analysis of images from the 1896 campaign, such as campaign posters, souvenirs, and newspaper images, this essay demonstrates how the McKinley campaign cultivated an image of McKinley as a principled, folksy family man and flag-waving savior of American prestige and free-market capitalism. This essay also analyzes visual coverage of McKinley in selected publications to determine how his campaign successfully cultivated a specific public image of him that was covered similarly in many different publications.

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5 thoughts on “The Real McKinley: Setting the Record Straight on the Election of 1896”

  1. We just talked about this campaign today in my political science discussion, and how it was maybe the dirtiest presidential campaign in the history of the United States. This topic is extremely intriguing, and I’m extremely curious as to what conclusions you have made from your analysis of the different images and publications.

  2. The topic itself is very interesting but is there a larger idea that McKinley’s campaign is being used as an example for, or is this just focused on the political environment of the 1896 election?

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