Monday, July 15, 2013

The People's Party Urged Silver

1890 Political Cartoon from the County Capital
During the People's Party movement of the late 1800s one of the most politically divisive issues was bimetallism.  Many members of the People's Party supported bimetallism, in which silver as well as gold would support our currency.
Initially, both gold and silver were legal tender of the United States, first with a floating exchange rate that was fixed at a 15:1 ratio in 1792 by Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury.  During the Civil War money was needed to pay soldiers, and "Greenbacks" were issued, but the bonds to pay for the War were redeemable in gold.  This was pointed to by the People's Party as an example of the wealthy getting their bonds repaid in valuable gold while the soldiers were left with the deflated paper money.  It was in 1873 that the free and unlimited coinage of silver ended, putting the country on a gold standard.  When the Panic of 1893 struck the nation, the schism between the wealthy and the working classes intensified, particularly regarding the continuance of the gold standard.
1890s Political Cartoon from the County Capital
Membership in the People's Party consisted largely of farmers, laborers, and miners, and the majority believed that a return to silver would inflate the money supply, giving more cash to everybody.  Farmers especially saw a double benefit from inflation--higher prices for their crops and repayment of their outstanding loans with deflated dollars.  Bankers and other investors obviously opposed the idea of accepting deflated dollars in payment of the notes they held.  Politically, this translated into Republicans supporting candidates and policies that adhered to the gold standard while Democrats and the People's Party supported candidates and policies that supported bimetallism.
The political cartoon at the start of his blog shows rich men in top hats, holding government bonds as they cheer for President Cleveland, who is struggling to compete on a unicycle representing the single metal gold standard.  The common man, on a 2-wheeled bicycle representing bimetallism, stays in the lead.  The political cartoon just above uses a one-wheeled bicycle, showing how impossible it is for Uncle Sam to make any progress toward prosperity when the rear wheel, labeled "silver" has been removed.
Abandoned silver mines near Creede, Colorado
The prosperity of  silver mines declined as an oversupply of the metal caused the market to fall.  In an effort to prop up the market and appease those calling for a return to bimetallism, the government agreed to buy a certain amount of silver each month at a fixed price.  Naturally, this caused silver mines to reopen and increase operations, driving the silver market below the government price to the extent that the government program was ended.  When we visited Creed, Colorado, we saw the evidence of that tumultuous period for miners in the form of abandoned mines.
In 1896 the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, and the People's Party also nominated Bryan, believing that the combined votes of the two parties would defeat the Republican candidate and put a "Free Silver" president in the White House.  Bryan's focus on the silver issue was apparent at the Democratic Convention, where he delivered his famous "Cross of Gold" speech, declaring:  "The gold standard has slain tens of thousands."  He contrasted "idle holders of idle capital" with "the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country."  
Regional voting in 1896 Election
 Bryan's speech takes its familiar title from his rallying challenge to the Republicans:  "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."  (To read the full text of this speech you may go to
Disagreements about the silver question resulted in groups splintering off from both of the major parties, but on election day Bryan swept the rural South, the heartland states, and the upper Northwest, areas where farming, mining, and lumbering were dominant.  However, McKinley held the banking, railroading, and manufacturing states and gained the presidency with 51 % of the vote.
The push by the People's Party to join with Democrats to gain the White House and put a Free Silver President in office failed.  (For a good explanation of the 1896 Currency Question you may visit 

Next week's blog will share more about William Jennings Bryan from his own book published immediately after the 1896 campaign and titled "The First Battle."


The Blog Fodder said...

The cycle continues, it appears.

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