1896 Campaign




On Thursday, July 9, 1896, on the main stage in the Chicago Coliseum, thirty-six year old William Jennings Bryan stood and delivered a rousing speech to party members at the Democratic National Convention. His address, commonly known as the "Cross of Gold" speech, won Bryan the Democratic presidential nomination and launched a campaign in which he traveled 18,000 miles and gave more than 700 speeches in less than four months.

Bryan's ability to reach millions of potential voters in 27 different states was made possible by the country's vast railroad network. The United States' half-century of railroad expansion facilitated a tremendous degree of mobility, all but unused by previous candidates. Although he lost the November election to Republican William McKinley, Bryan's nationwide campaign set the new standard for all subsequent presidential candidates. After Bryan, nominees no longer sat at their homes—like McKinley had done—to receive potential voters, they toured the nation for support.

William Jennings Bryan and the Railroad displays his speeches, follows his stops, details his railroad travel, and provides a complete record of his first presidential run. This project demonstrates how Bryan's innovative use of the railroad paralleled the country's emerging mobility and ushered in a new type of political campaign.

© Nathan Sanderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2008