December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
On May 7 of 1897 the rich and powerful of Chicago gathered in the great hall at the Art Institute. The bank president and future Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage was there, and Potter Palmer, Marshall Field and Leander McCormick, and Philip Armour, along with a horde of newspaper editors and economic experts. They had come to attend Coin’s Financial School, which was not really a school at all but a series of six lectures given by a mysterious Professor Coin. The professor turned out to be a very young man indeed—his age would later be reported as ten—immaculately clad in black dress coat and knee breeches. Many had come to jeer him, but this remarkable youth spoke in such a clear and forthright manner that gradually even the most arrogant among his audience were cowed. He was a freesilver man, his listeners dedicated to the gold standard, and he addressed himself with steady patience to dismantling their dogma. “Coin was like a little Monitor in the midst of a fleet of wooden ships. His shots went through and silenced all opposition. ” When, for instance, a bemused Lyman Gage rose to ask, “How can you have, at any fixed ratio, the same commercial value on two separate metals, that are from time to time varying in the quantity of each produced,” the composed Coin replied, “This is the ‘stock fallacy’ of the gold monometalists. All commercial values are regulated by supply and demand. … If the demand for a particular commodity is continuously rising and the supply does not increase, the commercial value will continuously rise.” And so forth. Coin swept the field. His audience “had listened critically, expecting to detect errors in his facts or reasoning. There were none. They were amazed. He was logical.”
Of course, this never happened. The likes of Philip Armour did not turn out to hear prepubescent boys tell them about money. But what matters is that thousands of people believed it had happened, believed that Professor Coin had coolly stepped forward and routed the plutocratic goldbugs who were bringing disaster on the land. People had read the story in a wildly popular little book called Coin’s Financial School . It had been written by a man named William Hope Harvey, who was, said Richard Hofstadter, “the Tom Paine of the free silver movement … Coin’s Financial School was to the silver men of 1896 what Common Sense had been to the revolutionaries of 1776.”
The author of this potent tract was born in West Virginia in 1851, was admitted to the bar at nineteen, and moved to Ohio a few years later, where, in 1876, he married Anna Halliday. In 1883 his practice brought him to Colorado, where he had his first practical experience with the metal that would make him famous—he worked as superintendent at the rich Silver Bell mine. Then, when silver prices began to fall, he entered real estate and, in between bouts of peddling a nostrum called “The Elixir of Life,” lost a good deal of money trying to set up a Mardi Gras festival in Salt Lake City. After this last luckless enterprise, he scraped together enough cash to return to Chicago, having had nine homes in the preceding thirteen years.
The country was in pretty much the same shape as Harvey; he looked around him at increasing depression and sent out Professor Coin to set things right. His 165-page book was thicketed with charts and digressions, but its lively, straightforward tone made the irrelevancies less apparent and smoothed over a tortuous attempt to make the Founding Fathers of the Republic appear to have been wedded to the credo of free silver. It was a success from the start and ended up selling something on the order of a million copies. As the 1896 presidential campaign approached—the first since Jackson’s day to hang on a financial issue—a Mississippi congressman wrote that “a little free silver book called Coin’s Financial School is being sold on every railroad train by the newsboys and at every cigar store. … It is being read by everybody.”
Something of the emotions fomented by the silver issue is apparent in the near-hysterical rebuttals to the book (one typical counter pamphlet was called Coin’s Financial Fool ), but in the face of being labeled a traitor and a madman, Harvey kept his replies balanced and affable and won more and more converts.
Everything seemed to be going his way until William Jennings Bryan and free silver went down to defeat in November of 1896. Coin Harvey (he was now known by his professor’s name, and would be for the rest of his life) stuck by his guns, but his hour had passed. When he realized the time had gone when issues of national finance were charged enough to bring strangers to blows in hotel lobbies, Harvey dropped his proselytizing for a while. He moved to Arkansas and bought a tract of land in the Ozarks, which he first christened Silver Springs and then, perhaps weary of silver, Monte Ne. There he established a resort, built a railroad spur, and organized a bank. Bryan came to speak, and Harvey had a fair success for a few seasons. But then things began to go downhill, and in 1914, after paying off every depositor, he closed his bank.
For a few years he threw all his furious prophet’s energy into laying out highways for the state, and then, in 1924, in hopes of rekindling his old success, he brought out Paul’s School of Statesmanship , which, he promised, “discloses the most important discovery relating to civilization and the human race that has ever been made in all the history of the world.” People didn’t listen.
Six years later he published a last work, which he called, with the serene simplicity of the zealot, The Book . Again, nobody paid heed, but Harvey didn’t care. He had plans. The Book was to be included along with Paul’s School of Statesmanship in a pyramid 40 feet square at its base and 130 feet high, which would be built at Monte Ne of Portland cement strong enough to last a million years. When the slow dust of centuries had brought the ground level up to the very top, people would see there a plaque: “When this can be read, go below and find the cause of the death of a former civilization.”
He actually began work on this great monument but gave up when he found he would have to raise one hundred thousand dollars. He did, however, complete what he called the foyer, a strange scattering of stone and concrete hummocks.
In 1932, as his dire forecasts of national financial collapse at last seemed on the verge of coming true, he ran for President on the “Liberty party” ticket. He got eight hundred votes.
He lived until 1937, fully four decades after his moment of national prominence. But even at the end, he wasn’t totally forgotten. His “foyer” became something of a tourist attraction. More and more visitors drove up to Monte Ne, wandered through the broken jumble of masonry, and paid a small admission fee to a slender, clear-eyed old man who liked to lecture them about financial reform.