Original Electoral Vote Certifications From the Landmark 1896 Presidential Election, Signed by All the Electors: 13 Documents

The envelopes on which they are written contained the actual electoral votes

Preserved for history by Alonzo Stewart, Sergeant-at-Arms of the U.S. Senate

The presidential campaign of 1896 was one of the most exciting and transformative in American history, forever altering how presidential campaigns were run. The central issue was the country’s money supply. An economic depression had begun in 1893, and public opinion—and...

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Original Electoral Vote Certifications From the Landmark 1896 Presidential Election, Signed by All the Electors: 13 Documents

The envelopes on which they are written contained the actual electoral votes

Preserved for history by Alonzo Stewart, Sergeant-at-Arms of the U.S. Senate

The presidential campaign of 1896 was one of the most exciting and transformative in American history, forever altering how presidential campaigns were run. The central issue was the country’s money supply. An economic depression had begun in 1893, and public opinion—and even the Democratic Party—was split between those who favored the gold standard and a tight money supply, and those who favored free silver, a type of currency inflation that would increase the amount of money in circulation to help alleviate the depression. Most Republicans, as well as Democratic supporters of Pres. Grover Cleveland, were in favor of the gold standard. Southern and western Democrats and Populists—many of them farmers who were suffering financially—vied for free silver, which ultimately helped bring those two parties together.

In June at the Republican national convention, former Ohio congressman and governor William McKinley, who was popular in his party for his moderate views on gold and silver, easily won the Republican presidential nomination. Garret A. Hobart was chosen as his running mate. At their convention in Chicago the following month, the Democrats chose magnetic orator and former Nebraska congressman William Jennings Bryan. Although he was only 36 years of age, Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech given in support of including a platform plank endorsing free silver, so electrified the convention that he was nominated for president, winning on the fifth ballot. He was the darkest of dark horses, he not previously having been considered a candidate. His solution for the depressed economy was an “easy money” policy based on the unlimited coinage of silver at a ratio to gold of 16 to 1. On that platform he also received the nominations of the Populist and National Silver parties. Arthur Sewall was chosen as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate.

Bryan became the first presidential nominee to campaign publicly for the presidency, traveling thousands of miles in a whistle stop effort, delivering hundreds of speeches in support of an inflated currency that would help poor farmers and other debtors. Untold thousands turned out to hear him, as he gave dozens of speeches every day. McKinley remained at home in Canton, Ohio, greeting visiting delegations of Republicans at his front porch and giving carefully prepared speeches promoting the benefits of a gold-backed currency. In this election, money played an important role, for the first time, as prominent Republican industrialist Mark Hanna, who ran McKinley’s campaign, tapped big businesses for enormous campaign contributions (he raised $3 million, a huge sum back then; Bryan raised just $600,000). This cash enabled Hanna to direct a network of Republican speakers, and an avalanche of publicity, to portray Bryan as a dangerous radical and McKinley as agent of prosperity.

Although Bryan rallied a devoted voter base, sweeping the South and most of the mountain West, McKinley won the election, carrying the North and Pacific West and becoming the first president to achieve a popular majority since 1872, winning 7,111,607 to Bryan’s 6,509,052 votes. In the electoral college, McKinley defeated Bryan 271 to 176. These electors met in their respective state capitals and cast their ballots in December 1896 and January 1897, and sent them to Washington to Vice President Adlai Stevenson, whose job it was as presiding officer of the U.S. Senate to tally them and make the election official. On the outside of the envelope containing the votes (or occasionally on an accompanying statement) in each case was a certification that the enclosed votes were complete and official. A typical example would read: “We the undersigned Electors of President and Vice President for the state of ….. do certify…that the lists of all the votes…cast by us as the Electors…for the respective terms beginning on the fourth of March AD 1897 are herein contained.” The certifications were signed by all of the electors casting the enclosed votes. After being opened and the ballots removed, the envelopes were often discarded.

Alonzo Stewart was for years the Sergeant-at-Arms of the U.S. Senate, and had the honor of presenting the Congressional resolution annexing Hawaii in 1898 to President McKinley. In 1897 he determined to salvage the certifications – or a portion of them – for his own collection. Ten certifications have survived and come down to us in his papers. They are:

Georgia, with 13 electoral votes. This state put Bryan’s name into nomination at the Democratic Convention. Leading its electors was Confederate Colonel James W. Robertson, the Adjutant-General of Georgia. The envelope’s postmark indicates it was received in Washington on January 15, 1897;

Maine, with 6 electoral votes. The printed certification was dated Augusta, January 11, 1897. Leading the electors was John F. Hill, who went on to be the governor of Maine;

Massachusetts, with 15 electoral votes. The manuscript certification was dated Boston, January 11, 1897. Leading the electors was Governor John Q.A. Brackett;

Mississippi, with 9 electoral votes. The certification was dated Jackson, December 2, 1896. Leading the electors was arch-white supremacist James K. Vardaman, called “The Great White Chief”, who was later governor and senator, and paradoxically Judge J.C. Longstreet, who accepted a black student to study law under him;

Wisconsin, with 14 electoral votes. The certification was dated Madison, January 11, 1897, and is on stationery reading Executive Mansion of Wisconsin. Leading the electors was George D. Breed, commander of the Wisconsin Grand Army of the Republic. There are two identical originals;

South Carolina, with 9 electoral votes. Leading the electors were future governor Cole L. Blease, and M.R. Cooper, state secretary of state;

North Dakota, with 3 electoral votes. Leading the electors were Nils H. Dyste, immigrant and shopkeeper, and John P. Bray, state auditor. This was just the second presidential election in which North Dakota participated;

Kentucky, with 13 electoral votes. The certification was dated January 11, 1897, and stamped as received on January 14. This was Kentucky’s first direct election of electors, and that combined with the closeness of the race resulted in a split between the Republican and Democratic electors: twelve for McKinley and one for Bryan;

Alabama, with 11 electoral votes. The certification was dated January 11, 1897. Leading the electors was John W.A. Sanford, Confederate colonel and state attorney general; and

Iowa, with 13 electoral votes. The certification was dated January 11, 1897. Leading the electors was Edwin H. Conger, former congressman and US ambassador to Brazil. There are two identical originals.

A search of public sale records going back 40 years turns up only a handful of original electoral vote certifications having reached that market.

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