The election of 1892 was a repeat of the election of 1888 with the same candidates and same issues, but with a different result. Neither Benjamin Harrison nor Grover Cleveland was especially popular with their respective party leaders. Benjamin Harrison was widely perceived to be cold and unfriendly. He was a reserved man who didn’t seem to have much of a personality. Grover Cleveland, on the other hand, had rather too much personality for the Democratic party leaders, with his stubborn tendency to go his own way regardless of the party leaders wanted or what happened to be popular with the people.
The Republicans held their convention first in Minneapolis from June 7 to 10. President Benjamin Harrison had not really wanted to run for a second term. His health was failing and his wife was suffering from tuberculosis. Besides, the economy had gone into recession and the Republicans had been beaten badly in the 1890 Congressional elections and Harrison was not seen as a particularly successful president. However, Harrison did not want his Secretary of State James G. Blaine to be nominated, so he reluctantly decided to run for reelection. Vice-President Levi Morton was dropped from the ticket, because of his association with Blaine and the Republicans nominated Whitelaw Reid in his place. Whitelaw Reid was a newspaper editor from Ohio who had written a history of Ohio in the Civil War. He had served as Minister to France from 1889 to 1892. The Republicans adopted a platform supporting protective tariffs and the gold standard.
The Democrats held their convention in Chicago from June 21-23. There was a lot of opposition to Grover Cleveland by delegates from the South and West over his continuing support for remaining on the gold standard and from Tammany Hall. Nevertheless, Cleveland narrowly won the nomination on the first ballot. For Vice-president, the Democrats selected Adlai Stevenson I from Illinois. Adlai Stevenson had served as a Congressman from Illinois from 1875-1877 and 1879-1881. He went on to become Assistant Postmaster General from 1885-1889. Stevenson’s free silver views did not mesh with Clevland’s support of the gold standard, but he was nominated to balance the ticket. The Democrat’s platform condemned Republican protectionism, particularly the recently passed McKinley tariffs.
It was not a very exciting race. Neither major party candidate actively campaigned for office. Benjamin Harrison did not even run a traditional front porch campaign, being more concerned about the health of his wife than whether he would win reelection,. She died just two weeks before the election and both candidates ceased campaigning altogether. For excitement, you had to go to the third parties. Since many people in the West and South felt that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans represented their interests, 1892 was a good year for minor parties
First, there was the People’s Party or Populist Party, The Populist Party was the successor to the Greenback Party and the Farmer’s Alliance. The Populist Party represented the interests of the farmers of the South and West and were opposed to the corporate interests which they viewed as dominating the politics of the nation. The Populists wanted soft money, or an inflationary monetary system either by coining silver along with gold or by the government printing fiat currency or greenbacks. The Populists also favored federal regulation of railroad rates and a progressive income tax. The Populists tried to forge an alliance between farmers and urban workers but were not entirely successful. In any case, the Populists met in Omaha Nebraska and nominated James B. Weaver, a Congressman from Iowa from 1879-1881, and from 1885-1889 for President along with James G. Field, the former Attorney General of Virginia for Vice-President.
The Prohibition Party obviously supported the prohibition of alcohol, but they also had a progressive platform rather similar to the Populists. In fact, some believed the Populists and the Prohibitionists should merge to form a united progressive party. This plan never came close to materializing, and the Prohibition Party met in Cincinnati to nominate John Bidwell, a former representative from California for president and William Jennings Demorest for vice-president.
There was also the Socialist Labor Party who nominated Simon Wing for president and Charles Matchett for vice-president. The Socialist Labor Party was only on the ballot in five states, but they deserve to be mentioned because this was the first time an explicitly socialist party was on the ballot in the United States.
The main issues of the campaign were, as I said, tariffs and the money question. Populists and many Democrats wanted the nation to adopt a soft money or inflationary monetary policy. It might seem strange to us that many people actually wanted inflation. We are living in an inflationary period in which prices are expected to keep rising. The decades after the Civil War were a period of deflation or decreasing prices in the United States. The American economy was growing very rapidly but because the nation was on the gold standard, the amount of money was limited. If inflation can be described as too much money chasing too few goods, the post Civil War deflation was too little money chasing too many goods. For us, deflation might seem to be a good thing, but in fact, it is not. Excessive deflation can be just as devastating as excessive inflation. For consumers and creditors, deflation can be a good thing, but for producers and debtors, decreasing prices can be a problem, particularly for farmers.
In a way, American farmers had become victims of their own success. American farmers had become enormously productive, flooding the world with their products, causing food prices to plummet, while the supplies they needed remained relatively expensive. The farmers, caught in the middle, hoped that inflationary soft money would get them better prices for their crops. Urban workers, on the other hand, did not like the idea of spending more their meager wages on food, so the hoped-for worker-farmer alliance never materialized because of their differing interests.
Tariffs and labor unrest were the other major issue of the election of 1892. The Republican argument that high protective tariffs led to high wages for industrial workers was undercut when Henry Clay Frick, Chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, abruptly cut wages for the steelworkers at Homestead, Pennsylvania. The workers did not appreciate this and went on strike. The Pinkertons and the State Militia were called in and there was a pitched battle between strikers and strikebreakers. It seemed to many that high tariffs simply increased the profits of the protected industries while raising prices for consumers. Meanwhile, such violent confrontations did not help President Harrison’s chances of reelection.
On Election Day, Grover Cleveland won easily with respectable margins in the popular vote and the Electoral College. Cleveland won 5,556,918 (46%) popular votes to Benjamin Harrison’s 5,176,108 (43%). James Weaver of the Populist Party got 1,041,028 (8.5%) popular votes. In the Electoral College, Cleveland won with 277 electoral votes, sweeping the South and Midwest and winning his home state of New York, as well as New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, along with California. Harrison got just 145 electoral votes in the North and West. Weaver carried five states, North Dakota, Kansas, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada, winning 22 electoral votes.
Grover Cleveland won another term making him the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. This second term was marred by the Panic of 1893 and continuing labor unrest. The dissatisfaction that led to the creation of the Populist Party would only grow until it led to the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century.