The Gold Democrats were conservative Democrats who strongly opposed the takeover of the Democratic Party in the 1896 U.S. presidential election by silverites, agrarians and radicals. They formed the National Democratic Party in 1896 as a vehicle for fellow Bourbon Democrats to oppose the regular Democratic party nominee William Jennings Bryan in the intensely fought presidential election of 1896. Most members were admirers of Grover Cleveland. They considered Bryan a dangerous man and charged that his "free silver" proposals would devastate the economy. They nominated the conservative Democratic politicians John M. Palmer, a former Republican governor of Illinois and Union general, and Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., a former governor of Kentucky and Confederate general, for President and Vice President, respectively. The party only ran a few candidates for Congress and other offices including William Breckenridge in Kentucky.
The founders were disenchanted Democrats who saw it as a means to preserve the ideals of Thomas Jefferson and Grover Cleveland. In its first official statement, the executive committee of the party accused the Democratic Party of forsaking this tradition by nominating Bryan.
For more than a century, it declared, the Democrats had believed:
- In the ability of every individual, unassisted, if unfettered by law, to achieve his own happiness” and had upheld his “right and opportunity peaceably to pursue whatever course of conduct he would, provided such conduct deprived no other individual of the equal enjoyment of the same right and opportunity. [They] stood for freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of trade, and freedom of contract, all of which are implied by the century-old battle-cry of the Democratic party, "Individual Liberty."
The party criticized both the inflationary policies of the Democrats and the protectionism of the Republicans. Almost a “who’s who” of classical liberals gave the party their support, including President Grover Cleveland (who gave quiet support); E. L. Godkin, the editor and publisher of The Nation; Edward Atkinson, a Boston publicist for free market causes; Horace White, Jr., the editor of the Chicago Tribune and later the New York Evening Post; and Charles Francis Adams Jr., a leading political reformer in Boston.
Two other supporters of Palmer and Buckner became better known in the decades after 1896: Moorfield Storey, the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and journalist Oswald Garrison Villard, an anti-imperialist and civil libertarian. But the supporters of Palmer and Buckner who enjoyed the greatest influence after 1900 were two liberal leaders of the Progressive Era, Louis Brandeis and Woodrow Wilson.
Probably most backers of the ideals of the party ended up voting for Republican William McKinley in the 1896 election, but it did poll 137,000 votes, about 1.0%. After disappointing results in the 1898 elections, the executive committee voted to disband the party in 1900. Many former members probably returned to the regular party in 1900 because they opposed McKinley's imperialistic foreign policy.
- David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, "Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896-1900," Independent Review 4 (Spring 2000), 555-75.
- Stanley L. Jones, The Presidential Election of 1896 (1964).
- Campaign Text-book of the National Democratic Party (1896) by Democratic Party (U.S.) National committee this is the Gold Democrats handbook, with many speeches and statistical tables