Below are a few tips for educators who want to use the 1896 site in the classroom. If you do so, or if you have suggestions for adding to this page, please write to us! We'd like to include others' ideas and experiences in using the site.
1. Ask students to explore the site and come to class ready to explain how they would have voted in the 1896 presidential race. You might divide the class into two groups, pro-McKinley and pro-Bryan, for debate. Would the students have been 100-percent satisfied with their presidential choice? If not, what sorts of compromises would they have had to make?
2. Give each student a character to play: for example, a Nebraska farmer, an Irish-American Catholic priest in Cleveland, a Jewish shopkeeper in Philadelphia, a middle-class woman reformer in Colorado. Ask them to come to class prepared to explain how they would have voted and why.
3. Ask each student to pick one cartoon (see Chronology at right) which explains why McKinley won the election--either because it is persuasive (Republican) or unpersuasive (Silver), and for whom. Ask them to come to class prepared to show the cartoons (by printout, or by URL if your classroom connects to the web) and defend their choices.
4. "Free silver" was the central issue of the 1896 presidential campaign, but today the debates surrounding it may seem technical and obscure. Ask students to explore the site and explain why they think Americans cared so passionately about "honest money" and "free silver." What were the deeper meanings of these slogans?
5. In the First Amendment, the U.S. Constitution declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This clause prevents government from interfering with religion, but it has never prevented religious leaders from expressing their views respecting government. Use the site to explore: Why were prohibition of liquor, immigration, and "free silver" considered religious issues? By whom, and what were the opposing views?
6. Use the cartoons to consider the prevailing views, in 1896, of: women; African-Americans; non-Christian religious minorities within the United States; non-Christians overseas (for example, in Turkey). (For an analysis of the uses of gender in political campaigns, see the book by one of this site's creators': Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era.)
7. Ask students to look closely at the circulation figures on the Journals page. How did the circulations of pro-McKinley and pro-Bryan journals compare? Which had more color pictures? Which, in your opinion, had more talented cartoonists? What might account for these discrepancies, and how might it have affected the outcome of the campaign? (You may wish to explore the changing nature of the newspaper industry in the 1890s, starting with the information on Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.)
1. Building on discussion question #1 and #2, above: ask students to write letters to the editor, in their own voices or in the voices of their 1896 characters, seeking to persuade others to vote for the presidential candidate they have chosen.
2. Ask students to write a sermon, to deliver on November 1.
3. Building on discussion question #6, above: ask students to generate a list of viewpoints that are not well represented on the site, especially in the cartoons. (Some examples might be: Southern African-American men, Chinese-American immigrants, industrial laborers, women of many ethnicities and religions). Ask them to write a letter to the editor representing an opinion from one of these groups.
For Further Reading
1. The "reform novel" was a popular and wide-ranging genre of the 1890s. Ask students to read one such novel, and consider what issues the author might have considered most important in 1896, and how he or she might have voted.
A few suggested titles:
2. Explore non-fiction writing relating to the issues of the campaign, such as Coin's Financial School (by W. H. "Coin" Harvey), or Sarah V. Emery's Seven Financial Conspiracies Which Have Enslaved the American People (both by Populists). You could also assign excerpts from other works of economic criticism from the era, such as Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Woman and Economics.
3. A shorter assignment would be to read and compare Vachel Lindsey's poem "Bryan" and various elegies and poetic works published after William McKinley's assassination in 1901. You might find other campaign or political poems in the library.
4. Ask students to read and biography of a prominent literary or social leader of the 1890s, and to consider how his/her views changed between 1890 and 1900. How might he/she have voted in 1896? Some possible subjects: Jane Addams, Mark Twain, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, William Dean Howells, Florence Kelley, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, Frances Willard, Samuel Gompers, Terence Powderly.
5. Use Robert McMath's American Populism as a starting point for exploring various schools of thought on the meaning of Populism. In particular, your class might want to consider the interpretations of John Hicks, Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward, and Lawrence Goodwyn.
For Advanced Archival Research
1. Explore the history of a social movement that figured in 1890s politics: for example, the Farmers' Alliance, Knights of Labor, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, American Protective Association, Bellamyite Nationalism, or the woman suffrage movement. What decisions did they make in regards to the political parties and electoral politics, and why? (For classes on the history of women, Angels in the Machinery analyzes woman suffragists' partisan decision-making between 1880 and 1912, with special emphasis on the 1890s. Secondary works on the 1896 Bibliography page examine other movements of the era.)
2. Research the election of 1896 in your city, town, or county. Who spoke on behalf of Bryan, McKinley, or other candidates? What campaign events occurred, and who sponsored them? What were the local election results?
3. Explore a local or state race or issue (see Election Results for a state-by-state breakdown of returns). How did issues at this level differ from those in the national campaign? What were the key issues in gubernatorial, congressional, or local races?
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press
Major events of the campaign,
in cartoon and story. (Click date)