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Bentley for President, 1896

In this centennial year of William Jennings Bryan's first campaign for the presidency, his career has been reviewed in an exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum, in newspaper articles, and at scholarly conferences. No such observances remind us of the Reverend Charles E. Bentley, another Nebraskan who was nominated for president in 1896.

Bentley was the candidate of the silver wing of the Prohibition Party, which, like the other political parties, split into silver and gold camps in 1896. The ballot was crowded with Democratic/Populist, Republican, National ("Gold") Democratic, Socialist/Labor, and two Prohibition tickets. None of the minor parties garnered any electoral votes and only modest numbers of popular votes. The contest over the "money issue" was fought out between Bryan, the Democratic/Populist nominee, and William McKinley, the Republican.

Bentley helped found the Baptist Church in the Butler County village of Surprise, where he lived for most of his life. Evidently it was Bentley who led the pro-silver members out of the Prohibition Party convention in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1896, and his initiative may have led to his nomination by the so-called "National Party." The "gold" members of the Prohibition Party nominated Joshua Levering of Maryland for president.

The ticket of Bentley and James H. Southgate of North Carolina received only 13,969 votes nationwide. By contrast, Bryan lost the election with nearly 6.5 million popular votes, while McKinley prevailed with slightly more than 7 million.

C. E. Bentley died February 4, 1905. Although the Prohibition Party would never capture the White House, its major issue was ultimately promoted by mainstream politicians, including William Jennings Bryan.

(July 1996)



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