The Election of 1896 and the Restructuring of the Civil War Memory
The 1896 United States presidential election is regarded as one of the most complex and controversial presidential elections in the country’s history. The election marked the end of the Third-Party system that entailed the rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party. The Fourth-Party era was characterized by a shift to relevant issues of debate and political ideology. Kelly (254) prefaces his argument by highlighting the necessity of a philosophical shift from vouching for partisan interests to promoting the greater good of the country. Evidently, the Republican Party evoked sentimentalism among the voters by stoking their memories of the Civil War. The political protests were then misconstrued to be unpatriotic attacks against national security (Kelly 258). The author accurately depicts the ideological shift in the minds of voters that was precipitated by the 1896 election.
Although the article attributes the emergence of the Fourth Party system to the mistakes of the Democratic Party, the change can be linked to the Great Depression of 1893. Kelly (259) squarely places the blame for the Democratic Party’s loss in the elections on its leaders like the promising Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina who inadvertently used sectionalism in his speech to create a sense of disillusionment with the party among voters. The depression of 1893 affected all aspects of American lives by limiting jobs and wages. Consequently, the Republican Party was able to present itself as the party that was concerned with economic transformation to aid the common populace in getting jobs, as opposed to the Democratic Party that sought to pit the South and West against the North and East.
The Republicans sought the financial backing of the prominent businessmen at the time like J.P Morgan and John McCall who heavily contributed to the campaign kitty (Kelly 261). The Republican kitty significantly outweighed the Democratic campaign account; therefore, the loss cannot be solely associated with the revamping of the Civil War memory in the minds of voters. The emergence of the Fourth Party system was mainly triggered by the innate desire of the voters to avoid an economic meltdown like the financial crisis of 1893.
The wanton use and misrepresentation of the facts that led to the Civil War ultimately endeared the Republicans to the voters who did not want a repeat. However, the author’s association of the loss with the Civil War memory is both right and misleading. Although the misrepresentation of the Civil War memory is credited with the Republican victory, it was one of the causative factors like the depression, the fall of populism, and a huge Republican campaign chest.