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XX September 2012

The Impact of the Depression of the 1890s on Political Tensions of the Time

In the last decade of the 19 th century, a severe economic crisis hit the United States. It

is frequently defined as one of the worst economic collapses in American history. It was the

time of staggering unemployment, widespread protests, political turbulence, labour unrest,


grinding poverty throughout country, particularly in rural areas. The economic meltdown


a considerable impact on social and political aspects of life in the US. As economic

disaster deepened, political tensions increased and debates concerning monetary issue

became more heated. The aim of the given research paper is to discuss how the depression of

the 1890s influenced political movements and views of the time and demonstrate that

economic problems were in the core of the presidential election of 1896.

Before analyzing the political situation of the time, it is necessary to define the causes

and consequences of the depression. The crisis of the 1890s began with the Panic of 1893,

when a number of banks and factories had to close down, and millions became unemployed

(Brands 147). Agrarian sector was hit by the depression as well. Farmers complained about

low prices of wheat and corn, high railroad charges, and high interest rates. The economic

meltdown caused a number of desperate strikes. Jacob Coxey, for example, led hundreds of

people who had lost their jobs on a march to the capital city in order to attract attention to the

problems of impoverished population and demand relief for workers (Divine et al.).

The following issue that should be mentioned while discussing the depression is the

rise of Populism. The People’s party, so-called Populist Party, was formed even before the

outbreak of the crisis. Most of the proponents of the above mentioned political movement

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were from agrarian areas. They supported coinage of silver and suggested that federal

government should be more engaged in regulation of business and trusts.

The depression of the end of the 19 th century prompted the change of political power.

The economic disaster marred the reputation of President Cleveland, who proved to be unable

to take adequate measures to restore the economy. Tensions between Democrats and

Republicans increased. One of the chief issues in the political debate of the time was a

monetary question. The two opposing political parties had different approaches to governing

the country and solving the economic problems. Whereas the Democrats supported the idea

of decentralized power in the states, the Republicans emphasized the necessity of a more

active national government (Divine et al.). The Democratic Party was not strong and united at

the time; the controversial point which divided the party was unlimited coinage of silver.

While some members of the party supported the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, others

demanded its repeal and insisted on the gold standard (Graff). As a result of the above

mentioned inner-party conflict, the Democrats did not have a solid political program and a

clear view of the way out of the crisis and their reputation was ruined.

Since the Democrats failed to improve the economic and social situation in the

country and could not agree on the monetary issue, their chances to win the elections of 1894

and 1896 were low. The election of 1894 initiated the Republican supremacy and

demonstrated that the Democrats started losing its popularity. The presidential election of

1896 is frequently referred to as the “battle of the standards”, since at the heart of it there

were economic issues and the debate over bimetallism (Divine et al.). The Republicans, who

put forward a pro-gold program, gained a decisive victory over their political opponents.

To sum up, the depression which marked the last decade of the 19 th century led to

heated political debates and significant changes in US government. The economic meltdown

led to the dominance of the Republican Party.

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Works Cited

Brands, H. W. The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. University of Chicago Press,

2002. Print.

Divine, Robert A, Breen, T, H., Fredrickson, George M., Williams, R. Hal, Gross, Ariel J.,

Brands, H. W. “Chapter 20: Political Realignments in the 1890s.” America Past and

Present. AP ed. Web. 7 Sept. 2012


Graff, Henry F. “William McKinley.” The Presidents: A Reference History. 3 rd ed. Cengage

Gale, 2002. Web. 7 Sept. 2012 <http://www.presidentprofiles.com/Grant-