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Election In Silver And Gold
A century ago this fall, voters were at one another’s throats in one of the hardest-fought campaigns ever
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan,
Bryan, Candidate for president who sketched a silver Zion,
The one American Poet who could sing outdoors…
Neat stuff, in my opinion. Can you imagine anyone writing passionate poetry about either contestant in this November’s election? I certainly can’t. But in 1896 sixteen-year-old Vachel Lindsay was set afire by his hero-candidate, even though he didn’t write “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan” until 1919. I have enjoyed every line of the poem ever since running across it in my own youth, though I now know that it’s far from historically accurate. Despite that flaw, it’s still an important witness to the intensity of the Bryan-McKinley electoral contest of just a century ago, and the story of that canvass, its tempests and its legends, deserves retelling for the light it throws on what makes an election truly pivotal. Few candidates have been so openly feared and hated as was William Jennings Bryan, and few electorates have ever been so convinced that the fate of democracy hung on the outcome.
To condense the story is not easy, but clarity dawns if we approach the election through three avenues: the issues, the parties, and the candidates. The absolute defining question of the hour was how to rally a stricken economy. A massive depression beginning in May of 1893 had shattered the just-begun second administration of the Democrat Grover Cleveland. The President’s early response was to protect the Treasury’s shrinking reserves of gold (the only authorized backing for the nation’s currency) by compelling Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. That measure commanded the government to buy a fixed quantity of silver each month and add it indirectly to the circulating medium. In killing it, Cleveland thwarted a growing political demand from the solid Democratic South (and the West as well) to restore silver to the status of legal tender, which it had lost twenty years earlier. Though other conflicts would soon arise, from the moment of repeal—November 1, 1893—the “money question” swallowed up competing issues like a rampaging shark.
Was it truly so central? As a historian I sensibly leave the jungle of monetary theory to economists. I have no idea of how the supply of money actually affects economic activity. But I can readily explain why voters of the 1890s perceived the matter in life-and-death terms. Producers—especially wheat and cotton farmers—had suffered through a long period of falling prices for what they sold, while their fixed expenses like interest, freight charges, and manufactured goods seemed to rise, helped not a little by the price rigging of trusts and railroad cartels and by a stiff protective tariff. They believed that the sickening drop in the prices they got for their crops was deliberately exacerbated by a shortage of circulating currency—too many goods chasing scarce dollars. But there was an answer in the rising output of the silver mines of the Far West. If the government would coin silver at a fixed, artificial value—say, one-sixteenth that of gold, even when it was worth less on the market- there would be plenty of dollars in circulation again. Debtors believed passionately that sticking to a gold-only currency condemned them to work more and receive less while parasitic bankers fattened on their labor.
Gold’s defenders like Cleveland thought otherwise. If the government could manipulate the value of money by decree, it could turn economic law upside down. It could replace reliance on an ancient, honorable, and universal standard of value with a currency fluctuating in tune with political expediency. Contracts would have no meaning; valuable dollars loaned out could be repaid with tinsel; business would collapse. It was the classic confrontation between debtors and creditors, each wanting an “honest dollar” that benefited them most. But in the pain of the 1890s the clash took on ugly overtones. Were you for gold, the tool of plutocrats and plunderers? Or for silver, the vehicle of expropriation, socialism, and chaos?
In their national conventions of 1896, the two mainstream parties staked out their currency positions in opposing trenches. The Republicans held on as the party of prosperity through industrial growth and the tariff, nominated their fifth Union-army veteran since 1868, Ohio’s governor William McKinley, and declared essentially for a gold standard. The Democrats were taken over by silverites, produced a platform plank calling for the unlimited coinage of silver at sixteen to one, and named Bryan their candidate. But there were three parties in the game (actually five, counting disgruntled splinter factions of “Gold Democrats” and “Silver Republicans”), and the new People’s party, better known as the Populists, was one more frightening symptom of impending calamity to political regulars of 1896.