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article number 612
article date 11-22-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Poor Economics and Populist Unrest, 1890’s
by Arthur Schlesinger

From the 1941 book, Political and Social Growth of the American People, 1865-1940.

* * *

AS THE eighties wore on, rural life lagged ever farther behind the van of urban progress. The Economic Revolution, which rained benefits on the city, worked to the detriment of the countryside. From their urban ramparts, as has been seen, the captains of industry and masters of capital directed the course of economic conquest, heedless of how rural welfare might be affected.

Moreover, the husbandman reaped little or no advantage from the new mechanical inventions, such as the telephone, the electric light and the swifter means of transit.

To make matters worse, he secured a rapidly dwindling share in the increasing national wealth. Whereas in 1880 the value of farms just equaled that of urban real estate, ten years later city real estate had advanced to double the value of farm land. The difference was even greater if other forms of property were included.

A contemporary economist estimated that in 1890 the average wealth of rural families did not exceed $3250, while that of urban families surpassed $9000.

This disparity in worldly goods and economic progress was thrown into sharper relief by the many social opportunities which the city alone afforded. Not the least of these advantages was that of seeing and being with other people.

In contrast with the European grouping of farmers in villages with their fields lying round about, American farm homes were widely scattered with no more than four to the square mile under the homestead law of 1862. In the circumstances isolation and loneliness were the almost inescapable conditions of existence in the newer West, a fact that proved a special hardship for womenfolk and the younger generation.

They also lacked other benefits of the city—opportunities for choosing from among a variety of careers, for working shorter hours, for educational and cultural development, for amusement and recreation. Hamlin Garland called his fictional indictment of rural life ’Main-Travelled Roads’ because, as he said, the main road “is long and wearyful and has a dull town at one end and a home of toil at the other.”

Though many tillers of the soil continued to prefer their traditional occupation, the phenomenal migration from country to city suggests how greatly their neighbors and sons were affected by comparisons with a different manner of living. “The farm youth sees only the dazzling, gaudy side of city life,” lamented one student of conditions. “He sees not that for every success there are scores, nay hundreds, who sink into darkness and misery.”

This growing sense of rural inferiority, this deepening conviction that the husbandman was losing his ancient heritage of economic independence and equal opportunity, needed only specific bread-and-butter grievances to precipitate organized movements for farm relief. Such grievances the eighties provided in abundance. The return of prosperity in 1879 after six years of depression chiefly benefited the urban and industrial sections.

Because of the enormous expansion of Western agriculture and of stiffer competition in the world’s markets with the wheat-growing regions of Russia, Australia, Canada and the Argentine, crop prices fell disastrously during the decade. The farmer who received eighty cents a bushel for his wheat in the years 1882-1885 did well to get seventy-one cents in 1890. In Kansas at the latter date a bushel of corn sold for as little as ten cents and was commonly burned for fuel.

The farmer, toiling “from daybreak to back-break,” blamed his ills not on overproduction but on other circumstances: the undue profits of the middlemen, the high transportation charges imposed by the railroads, and the heavy interest rates that his creditors (mostly Easterners) exacted.

“There are three great crops raised in Nebraska,” wrote one embittered agricultural editor. “One is a crop of corn, one a crop of freight rates, and one a crop of interest. One is produced by farmers who by sweat and toil farm the land. The other two are produced by men who sit in their offices and behind their bank counters and farm the farmers.”

Political Cartoon: Bankers control the average business man.

As if the situation was not bad enough, an almost uninterrupted decade of drought, beginning in 1887 and attended by infestations of chinch bugs, destroyed the plantings of countless settlers who had taken up homesteads in the subhumid zone embracing the western halves of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

It seemed as though the hand of both man and Nature was raised against the husbandman. By 1890 mortgages averaged one for every two persons in Kansas and North Dakota, one for every three in Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota. In some counties ninety per cent or more of the land was saddled with debt.

Meanwhile, the Southern agriculturist complained of similar woes: low farm prices, high charges for what he bought, excessive transportation costs, heavy taxes, grinding debts. The market price of cotton, the principal staple, averaged less than nine cents a pound during the 1880’s as compared with eleven cents in the mid-seventies.

The crop-lien system, by which the farmer mortgaged his growing crop at high interest rates, enmeshed perhaps eighty or ninety per cent of the cotton growers, reducing them to a condition of “debt-peonage.”

Everywhere in the South, land tended to gravitate into the hands of money lenders, loan companies and a few of the financially stronger farmers. In the nation as a whole the mortgage indebtedness of farm lands grew from $343 million in 1880 to $586 million in 1890.

As the decade of the eighties advanced, evidences of agrarian unrest multiplied. Farmers’ groups, variously called clubs, associations, unions, wheels and alliances, sprang up in the South and West to consider common grievances and propose remedies.

In this manner two great organizations developed in the cotton belt: the National Farmers’ Alliance, started in 1879, and the Agricultural Wheel three years later. In 1889 they joined to form a body with over a million members, known popularly as the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. Meanwhile a Northern Farmers’ Alliance, founded in 1880, rose to a dominant position among the agricultural associations of the trans-Mississippi West.

At first the organized farmers pinned their faith to nonpolitical measures. Taking a leaf from the experience of the Grangers, they tried to cultivate a pleasanter rural life through picnics, lodge meetings and other social gatherings of one sort or another. Like the Grangers, too, local groups launched cooperatives, setting up stores, cotton yards, grain elevators, creameries, insurance companies and the like.

But when these undertakings collapsed, as most of them did because of poor business direction or the cutthroat competition of regular merchants, the farmers began to seek legislative cures for their ills.

In various parts of the South new leaders “fresh from the soil,” like “Ben” Tillman in South Carolina and “Jim” Hogg in Texas, leaped into prominence. Rousing the rural masses against the leadership of the upper classes and the towns, they captured the Democratic party in their states.

In the strongly Republican commonwealths of the West the agrarian elements usually formed independent parties, sometimes through fusion with the Democrats. Such successes, however, promised only limited relief.

The ultimate goal was the control of Congress, for from the national government the agrarians hoped to secure their chief means of salvation: currency inflation, a graduated income tax and the public ownership of railroads.

Contemptuously termed “hayseed socialists” by Easterners, the farmers had no thought of overturning the capitalist system. Most of them owned land or expected to, and they aimed merely to insure better opportunities for themselves and their children. Like the urban wage-earners, they were capitalists on the make.


Of the several demands, the one for money inflation held first place. Although the greenback notion still lingered fondly in the minds of some, the circumstances of the time directed chief attention to “free silver.” Until 1873 the country had been on a bimetallic standard, that is, the government had stood ready to coin into dollars all the gold and silver that might be brought to the mint.

Congress in that year reorganized the monetary system and, among other things, omitted the standard silver dollar from the list of domestic coins. The act excited little attention at the moment. because, thanks to the scarcity of silver metal, the amount of bullion required for a silver dollar exceeded its legal value, and hence none had actually been in circulation for forty years.

But almost at once a change occurred. The law, which had been passed by default, gained an ugly repute as the “Crime of 1873,” and in the political discussions of the next quarter-century the demonetization of silver was ascribed to a sinister and corrupt plot of Big Business and Wall Street.

This shift of attitude was due partly to an enormous and unexpected leap in the world’s supply of silver ore as a result of the fabulous finds in the Far West. At about the same time several European governments, deciding to adopt the gold standard, melted their larger silver coins and thus further increased the available supply.*

* Germany demonetized silver in 1871, Denmark, Sweden and Norway in 1873, and in the latter year the Latin Union, composed of France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Greece, limited silver coinage.

With the nation wallowing in the depression of the seventies, agrarian spokesmen, abetted by labor groups in the industrial centers, demanded a return to free silver; in other words, a resumption of the unlimited coinage of the standard silver dollar as in the years before 1873. Holding that a shortage of circulating medium had caused their woes, they cited not only the “Crime of 1873,” but also the fact that the world’s annual production of gold was virtually stationary.

By enlarging the volume of money in use, the silverites believed the government would indirectly help them get higher prices for farm crops and better wages in industry, and make it easier for them to pay their debts. But they reckoned without the waxing strength of the Eastern business classes, which shrank from any measure that might diminish the purchasing power of their incomes and enable debtors to discharge their obligations in “cheap money.”

To the aid of the inflationists, however, came the small but energetic group of silver-mine owners, who saw the market price of the bullion content of the old dollar drop from $1.02 in 1872 to ninety-six cents in 1875, and to eighty-two in 1885, with the downward trend unchecked.

If the government could again be induced to buy all the ore brought to the mint for coinage, they reasoned that the market price of the metal and the profits of silver production would rise in response to the unlimited demand.

The money question did not become an issue between the parties for many years. Within each party, however, it produced jangling discord, the members from the rural West and South generally opposing those from the moneyed East and the manufacturing sections of the Midwest.

The first trial of strength came in November, 1877, when a free-silver bill passed the House of Representatives with Western and Southern support. Its father was “Silver Dick” (Richard P.) Bland of Missouri, whose advocacy stemmed from his youthful experiences in the Western mining country as well as from sympathy with his debt-ridden farmer constituents.

Unwilling to go so far, the Senate at the instance of William B. Allison of Iowa altered the bill by directing the Treasury Department to buy only from two to four million dollars of silver bullion each month for coinage. President Hayes rejected the measure on the ground that, in the case of money borrowed earlier, it involved a virtual scaling down of debts and hence a breach of contract. But the bill was easily carried over his veto in February, 1878.

As a compromise settlement, the Bland-Allison act had the effect of allaying further agitation for several years, though both Arthur and Cleveland recommended its repeal. The least amount of bullion permitted by the statute was purchased and coined each month, adding about $31 million annually to the circulating medium.

Colorado silver mine.

Toward the end of the eighties the free-silver movement sprang to life again. The reasons were various. For one thing, the government, bent on reducing the surplus revenue, was actively engaged in retiring the war bonds; and since the volume of national bank notes varied with the amount of federal bonds, this course of action caused these notes to shrink from a total of $359 million 1882 to $186 million in 1890.

At the same time that this money was being taken out of circulation, the admission of six new plains and mountain states in 1889 and 1890 strengthened the hand of the silver forces, particularly in the Senate. Besides, the Farmers’ Alliances now loomed big on the national political horizon.

Party politicians were scarcely surprised when the fall elections of 1890 placed fifty-three “Alliance men” in Congress.

When the question of a new monetary law was taken up early in that year, it appeared that, contrary to their previous attitudes, the Senate now favored free silver while the House was opposed. The silverites in the House, however, finally forced the majority to make concessions by threatening to vote against the McKinley tariff bill, then in course of passage.

In July, 1890, the Sherman silver-purchase act went into effect. Though not providing for free silver, it required the Treasury Department to buy four and a half million ounces of bullion each month (nearly twice as much as had been coined before), and to issue in payment therefor treasury notes of full legal-tender character, redeemable in either gold or silver at the government’s option. William McKinley, who had cast his vote for Bland’s free-silver bill in 1877, supported the new law as the next best thing to unlimited coinage.


Unlike the Bland-Allison act, the new law failed to hush the outcry for free silver. Almost at once another downward plunge began in the prices of cotton, grain and livestock. An investigation made by the Department of Agriculture in 1893 showed that the cost of raising wheat and corn exceeded the prices received.

In the single year 1891 no less than eighteen thousand covered wagons crossed from Nebraska to the Iowa bank of the Missouri River in full flight before the scorpion-whips of affliction. Between 1889 and 1893 more than eleven thousand mortgages were foreclosed in Kansas alone. Meanwhile, despite the greater absorption of silver by the mint, the bullion value of the dollar fell from eighty-one cents in 1890 to sixty in 1893.

A wave of despair swept over the West and South. Hamlin Garland, who viewed the phenomenon at first hand, wrote many years later:

“As ten-cent corn and ten per cent interest were troubling Kansas, so six-cent cotton was inflaming Georgia—and both were frankly sympathetic with Montana and Colorado whose miners were suffering from a drop in the price of silver.”

The new spirit was exemplified by Mrs. Mary E. Lease of Kansas, who, exhorting the farmers to:

“. . . raise less corn and more hell,” shouted to huge audiences,

“The great common people of this country are slaves . . . . The West and South are bound and prostrate before the manufacturing East . . . Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags.”

The effect on conservative Easterners was reflected in the New York ’Evening Post’s’ caustic comment:

“We don’t want any more states until we can civilize Kansas.”

Flushed by their successes in the November elections of 1890, the Farmers’ Alliances laid plans to bring the urban wage-earners into the movement, and thereby enable the manual workers of the nation to present a united front.

Farmers’ Alliances grew in popularity.

In May, 1891, over fourteen hundred representatives of agrarian, labor and reform groups, meeting in Cincinnati, resolved to form the People’s party; and in July, 1892, a second convention, held in Omaha, made preparations for the presidential campaign.

The platform promised that the Populists would restore the government “to the hands of the plain people” and, to that end, pledged such measures as free silver, greenbacks, a graduated income tax, government ownership of railways and telegraphs, a shorter workday for urban laborers and the popular election of United States Senators.

When the platform was adopted, an onlooker reported that a tornado of cheers and yells “raged without cessation for thirty-four minutes, during which women shrieked and wept, men embraced and kissed . . . and leaped upon tables and chairs in the ecstasy of their delirium.”

James B. Weaver of Iowa, veteran inflationist, who had headed the Greenback ticket in 1880, was named for President, with James G. Field of Virginia as his running mate. In the ensuing election the new party amazed old-party leaders by polling twenty-two electoral votes, all in the plains and mountain states, and more than a million popular votes.

For the first time since the birth of the Republican party, a minor party won a place in the electoral college.

Nevertheless, as has been seen, Grover Cleveland, the Democratic nominee, easily captured the election on the tariff issue and, should economic conditions improve, it seemed likely that the political stream would subside once more into its usual channel.

But such did not prove to be the case. No sooner did the new President enter office than a disastrous panic crashed upon the country. The catastrophe was bred of a complication of causes. Overinvestment in railways and industrial combinations, including too many of a highly speculative character, was a prime factor.

Widespread depression in Europe since 1889, involving leading nations like Great Britain, Germany and France, aggravated the situation by causing a withdrawal of part of the gold which foreign capitalists had invested in American enterprises.

An added, if not decisive, influence was the growing fear of the business classes that the flood of silver inflation freed by the Sherman act would sweep the government off a gold basis and force a suspension of gold payments.

Though the Sherman law permitted the government to redeem the new treasury notes in either gold or silver, gold was a popular symbol of the nation’s financial integrity, and refusal to pay in the more precious metal would have destroyed public confidence.

Yet no provision had been made in the act for enlarging the gold reserve. Hence, the fund of $100 million established in 1875 to protect the value of the greenbacks, must now serve, in addition, to back up the treasury notes that were increasing at a rate of $50 million a year.*

* Greenbacks to the amount of nearly $347 million were in circulation. The 378 million silver dollars issued under the Bland-Allison act were not, by law, redeemable in gold.

Political Cartoon: An Eastern view of free silver. The caption reads: "A Perilous Situation. The Producers of the Country in Danger from Silver Demagogues and Populists."

Indeed, since the gold reserve was not held separate from other public funds, there was the further danger that, under pressure of need, the government might use some of it for current operating expenses. Such an emergency confronted Cleveland when he took office.

Because of lavish appropriations by Harrison’s outgoing Congress and the meager revenue produced by the McKinley tariff, the gold reserve within six weeks fell below the $100 million mark, greatly to the alarm of the business and financial classes.

People everywhere rushed to get their treasury notes and greenbacks redeemed in gold, while foreign investors redoubled their efforts to secure prompt settlement of their American accounts in the only metal used in international trade.

Even a sounder economic structure might not have withstood this shock to public confidence. As it was, a paralysis of terror gripped the business world. More than eight thou sand commercial concerns failed between April 1 and October 1, 1893, with liabilities of nearly $285 million. Many banks also toppled, particularly in the West and South, and a hundred and fifty-six railways went into receivership, including the Erie, the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific.

In the urban centers the problem of unemployment became acute, challenging all the resources of the new profession of social workers. The number of jobless was variously reckoned at from one million to four and a half million, the latter estimate being based upon trade-union figures.

As in 1873, private benevolence came to the aid of the needy, and many cities appropriated public funds both for direct relief and for emergency projects, such as the paving of streets and the building of sewers.

Meanwhile, the farmers sank deeper into the abyss of adversity, with wheat selling for but forty-nine cents a bushel in 1894.

. . . farmers sank deeper into the abyss of adversity, with wheat selling for but forty-nine cents a bushel . . .

Cleveland, viewing the situation in strictly monetary terms, resolved at all hazards to maintain the gold standard. A sound-money man by conviction, he was stiffened in his purpose by unremitting pressure from Wall Street. He set about to accomplish his aim through two courses of action.

In order to stop additional silver purchases and thus ease the strain upon the already overburdened gold reserve, he induced the House in August, 1893, to adopt a bill repealing the Sherman act.

The upper chamber was in a more recalcitrant mood. Utilizing their opportunity of unlimited debate, the silver Senators indulged in filibustering tactics. On one occasion William V. Allen, the Nebraska Populist, held the floor for fourteen hours. Another persistent opponent was Henry M. Teller, a Colorado Republican.

Finally, however, the President by applying the whip of patronage worked his will; and on the first day of November the repeal bill became law.

As a second move, Cleveland proposed to borrow gold faster than it was drained from the treasury for redemption. In this way he hoped to avoid a suspension of gold payments.

Unhappily paper currency presented for redemption had to be paid out again to defray the government’s running expenses and this money the recipients promptly exchanged for gold. Under the operation of what the President called “an endless chain,” the gold fund dwindled from $95 million at the end of June, 1893, to $65 million a year later.

Congress, inspired in part by silver arguments, refused to authorize bond issues to maintain the reserve. Nevertheless Cleveland, discovering authority in an earlier statute, twice sold $50 million worth of bonds to the public during 1894. Only temporary improvement resulted, however, for the bonds were bought, in large part, with gold that had been drawn out of the treasury by the presentation of paper currency.

In the quest for more substantial relief, the administration in February, 1895, arranged with J. Pierpont Morgan and a financial syndicate for a loan of $65 million worth of gold in return for government bonds. The special condition was affixed that at least half the metal be procured from abroad, and that the bankers exert their influence to protect the gold reserve against further depletion.

As a result, the strain on the government relaxed for the next four or five months, though the Populists and radical Democrats, embittered against capitalistic greed, charged Cleveland with allowing the Wall Street group to make an excessive profit on the transaction.

The peak of the financial crisis was now passed. Normal conditions, however, did not return until the next year, when they were assisted by a fourth bond sale—this time directly to the public—of $100 million in January, 1896, and also by a widespread improvement of business.


When the bill repealing the Sherman law passed the House, “Silver Dick” Bland proclaimed that the struggle had but begun, and that it would end only in the establishment of free coinage. The events of the next few years made this prediction seem anything but an idle boast.

Conditions continued to grow worse. In the late summer of 1894 torrid winds blew over the Midwestern corn belt, ravaging the fields and reducing the crop to a quarter of the previous year. As the farmers were plunged deeper into despair, more urban workers lost their jobs or suffered disastrous cuts in pay.

Among the several million unemployed, the social contagion spread rapidly. The labor outbreak centering in the Pullman strike was but the most portentous of such disturbances.

In the hope of mitigating their lot, organized bands of the jobless began a march on Washington. Through the issue of fiat money or otherwise, they wanted Congress to inaugurate a system of general work relief involving the extension of good roads and the construction of public buildings and municipal improvements.

These “petitions in boots” moved slowly across the country, afoot and on horseback, sometimes stealing trains for faster transit. They came from many points of the compass—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Chicago, as well as from towns along the way and places in New England.

The “army” led by “General” Jacob S. Coxey of Massillon, Ohio, though by no means the largest, excited the most attention. After losing many of their number about twelve hundred men straggled into Washing to from May to July, 1894. There they were able to accomplish nothing.

Although their central idea was to be taken over by the New Deal during the Great Depression follow in 1929, at this earlier time Senators roundly denounced federal work relief as “socialism and populism and paternalism run riot.”

Coxey himself was arrested on the technical charge of trespassing on the Capitol grounds, and his foot-sore comrades, facing starvation and harassed by the police, presently scattered for parts unknown.

The failure of the movement, however, did not heal the conditions that had given it rise.

Coxey’s Commonweal Army.

The public’s suspicion of the overweening power of Big Business increased as a result of the Senate’s betrayal of President Cleveland’s tariff policy in the Wilson-Gorman act and the popular attitude seemed further confirmed by the Supreme Court’s annulment of the income tax in 1895.

The income tax annulment decision provoked the greatest outburst of wrath against that tribunal since the Dred Scott decision. As Mr. Justice Harlan, a member of the court, recalled many years later:

“There was everywhere, among the people generally, a deep feeling of unrest. The Nation had been rid of human slavery . . . but the conviction was universal that the country was in real .danger from another kind of slavery, . . . the slavery that would result from aggregations of capital in the hands of a few.”

In the circumstances the battle over free silver took on the semblance of a holy war, arraying the West and South against the East, the debtor class against the creditor class, the countryside against the city. As a writer in the ’Arena’ magazine put it:

. . . [the real meaning of the contest] . . . “lies far deeper than any question of one metal or two for a monetary base. It is a question of entrusting Federal power to men in hearty sympathy with the great common people or to men in sympathy with Wall Street.”

The growing enthusiasm for unlimited coinage displayed many of the elements of a mighty religious revival, and in 1894 appeared the Bible of the new faith—a cheaply printed, paper-bound book entitled ’Coin’s Financial School’, written by William H. Harvey.

This little volume, enlivened with caricatures and addressed to the simplest understanding, set forth cogently the main silver arguments, and skillfully played upon the prejudices of the poor against the rich. Attaining a sale in 1895 of more than a hundred thousand copies a month, it made numberless converts.

In ten thousand schoolhouses throughout the West and the South the people assembled to debate the absorbing question—not only the politician and the farmer, but the small merchant and the workingman, the preacher and the schoolteacher.

Organized labor rallied to the cause, the American Federation of Labor warmly indorsing free silver.

The old parties were badly frightened, but knew not what to do. In their state conventions before the autumn elections of 1894, the platforms of both Republicans and Democrats varied from ambiguous generalities to forthright declarations for unlimited coinage.

A significant demonstration among Western Democrats took place in June at Omaha where, under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, a mammoth convention demanded the immediate adoption of free silver. Handicapped by Cleveland’s unpopularity, the Democrats suffered severe losses at the polls.

The Republicans were the chief gainers, but the Populists elected six Senators and increased their popular vote over that of 1892 by nearly half.

On the heels of the election the silver Democrats redoubled their exertions to cast off Eastern control. During 1895 numerous conferences were held, organizations formed, speeches made, pamphlets circulated. When the national convention assembled at Chicago on July 7, 1896, triumph was assured.

The platform acclaimed:
• free silver as the question “paramount to all others,”
• assailed the income-tax decision and,
• denounced federal interference in labor conflicts. (In an allusion to President Cleveland’s action in the Pullman strike.)

President Cleveland sent federal troops to Cleveland when the American Railway Union struck the Pullman Company.

The presentation of the platform precipitated one of the most exciting debates ever held in a party convention. Senator David B. Hill of New York stanchly championed the cause of gold and the East, ending his address with an appeal not “to drive old Democrats out of the party who have grown gray in the service, to make room for a lot of Republicans and Populists, and political nondescripts.”

After other speakers had entered the lists, the debate reached a dramatic climax in the concluding address of William Jennings Bryan. Speaking with a full-toned, richly modulated eloquence unmatched in his generation, Bryan presented the free-coinage question as “a cause as holy as the cause of humanity.”

Turning to those who opposed the silver plank, he thundered:

“You tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

His closing defiance to the gold adherents brought the vast audience in a frenzy to its feet:

“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

The “Boy Orator of the Platte”—he was thirty-six at the time—had made himself the man of the hour. Without strength before the convention met, he won the nomination on the fifth ballot, the second place going to Arthur Sewall, a Maine banker who shared Bryan’s financial views.

Most of the Eastern delegates abstained from voting.

When the Republicans convened at St. Louis on June 16, their ranks were divided among advocates of the gold standard, those who preferred the customary policy of evasion, and a resolute minority from the Far West bent upon a free-silver plank.

William McKinley of Ohio, known to the public chiefly as an ardent protectionist, was the leading candidate, thanks to the tireless endeavors of his friend Marcus A. Hanna. The latter, a Cleveland capitalist, had long been active in state politics as a means of furthering his interests in mines, banking and street railways, but later he became enamored of the political game for its own sake.

Hanna’s efforts and money had facilitated McKinley’s election as governor in 1891, and when two years later McKinley became involved in heavy financial obligations, Hanna joined with Carnegie, Frick and others in supplying the hundred and thirty thousand dollars that saved him from bankruptcy. In preparing the way for his fellow Ohioan’s presidential nomination, Hanna spent not less than a hundred thousand dollar in a campaign of publicity and personal canvass among the delegates.

The question of a monetary standard involved serious difficulties for McKinley. An advocate of free silver as recently as 1890, he began to shift ground in his gubernatorial campaign the next year by asserting that the Sherman silver-purchase act was preferable to unlimited coinage.

Partly because of his earlier record, partly because of his conciliatory temperament, and partly because of his fear that a gold pronouncement would “divide the party at the Mississippi River,” he wanted the convention to straddle the issue and focus all attention on the tariff. Hanna, sinking the businessman in the politician, assented to the scheme, but not so the powerful leaders from the industrial regions, who made a gold declaration the price of their support.

The outcome of many secret conferences between the factions was a shrewdly devised plank, which read in part:

“We are . . . opposed to the free coinage of silver except by international agreement which we pledge ourselves to promote, and until such agreement can be obtained the existing gold standard must be preserved.”

Taken literally, the platform declared for international free silver, but since international conferences in 1878, 1881 and 1892 had demonstrated the unwillingness of European countries to depart from the gold standard, the plank was rightly construed by the silverites as a repudiation of free coinage.

Thirty-four delegates, with Senator Teller of Colorado at their head, withdrew from the convention in protest.

In the completed platform the money plank occupied an inconspicuous place in the middle, the first nine paragraphs being devoted to disparaging the Democrats and praising the protective system. McKinley was named on the first ballot, with Garret A. Hobart of New Jersey as his running mate.

The decision of the major parties led to a disruption of party loyalties comparable only to the effect of the slavery issue on the voters of 1860. A convention of old-school Democrats, acting with Cleveland’s approval, reaffirmed the gold standard, and put up General John M. Palmer of Illinois and Simon B. Buckner of Kentucky as their candidates.

Had the Republican platform been less emphatic on the tariff question, McKinley might have received their support. The Republican irreconcilables, calling themselves the National Silver party, indorsed Bryan and Sewall.

The Democratic National Convention at the Chicago Coliseum. William Jennings Bryan was nominated for President.

As was to be expected, the People’s party also backed Bryan, though for Vice-President they nominated one of their own group in preference to the Maine capitalist.

Even the Prohibitionists were affected by the all-absorbing issue, and broke into two parties with different platforms and candidates.

The contest was unique and sensational to the end. Fearful of further defections from their ranks, Republican orators at first avoided the money question, placing all stress upon “Bill McKinley and the McKinley Bill.”

But it was Bryan who set the pace for the campaign when he undertook a remarkable stumping tour of eighteen thousand miles, addressing nearly five million people in twenty-nine states in fourteen weeks, and everywhere preaching free silver and the doctrine of discontent.

Gompers and other leaders of organized labor exerted themselves on his behalf.

Of no little influence were Homer Davenport’s cartoons in Hearst’s ’New York Journal’, which showed Hanna, an ogre-like figure checkered with dollar signs, leading the child McKinley by a string.

For campaign funds the Democrats leaned heavily upon the silver-mine owners, somewhat over a half-million dollars being subscribed in all.

To checkmate the efforts of the opposition, Hanna as head of the Republican national committee collected from the great banking and business interests an election fund of unknown amount, probably about four million dollars. The Standard Oil group alone contributed two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

With this money Hanna conducted a vast campaign of popular education. A small army was organized to address rallies, send out literature in ten different languages, and distribute campaign buttons. Of the more than five hundred posters that were prepared, the most popular was a lithograph picturing McKinley as “The Advance Agent of Prosperity.”

Most, though not all, of the leading economists and financiers opposed Bryan on the money question, and the president of the National Education Association declared against him. The country also witnessed the singular spectacle of all the members of Cleveland’s cabinet repudiating their party’s nominee.

McKinley remained quietly at home, delivering from his front porch in Canton, Ohio, dignified addresses to visiting delegations.

As the campaign drew to a close, the excitement of the country became intense. Manufacturers made contracts contingent upon McKinley’s election, and wage-earners were told that the factories would close in the event of Democratic success.

By such newspapers as the ’New York Tribune’ Bryan was reviled as a “demagogue,” an “anarchist” and a “madman.” One Republican spellbinder, commending the designation “Boy Orator of the Platte,” asserted that that river was “six inches deep and six miles wide at the mouth.”

Even so sober an organ as the New York ’Evening Post’ characterized the contest as one between “the great civilizing forces of the republic” and “the still surviving barbarism bred by slavery in the South and the reckless spirit of adventure in the mining camps of the West.”

Fortunately for the Republicans, crop failures in Russia, the Argentine and elsewhere lifted the price of wheat at Chicago from fifty-three cents a bushel in August to ninety-four in the week of the election, and thus greatly eased the farmers’ distress.


The outcome was decisive. McKinley received 51 per cent of the popular ballots (7,112,000 votes) to less than 47 per cent (6,733,000) for his opponent, the largest majority since Grant’s victory over Greeley. His preponderance in the electoral college was far greater: 271 to 176.

In general, the industrial and older grain-growing states supported McKinley as against the cotton, prairie and silver-mining states.

As was to be expected, Bryan polled a considerably smaller proportion of the votes of the cities than he did of the rural sections; and, for the first time, the Republicans carried New York City.*

* In commenting on the outcome, E. L. Godkin declared in the ’Nation’ that "the cities having the largest population and the largest percentages of foreign-born citizens cast the heaviest majorities in support of sound money and social order.” He made no allowance, however, for the effect of employers’ coercion and of the manipulation of election returns in producing this result.

The farmers’ attempt to beat back the new urban and industrial civilization had turned to rout. Yet the future was to disclose that the campaign marked the entry of novel and dynamic social forces into American political life.


The new President went into office with both branches of Congress safely Republican. A man of quiet dignity, with deep-set eyes under a Websterian brow, McKinley brought to public affairs qualities that sharply set him off from his Democratic predecessor: affability, tact, patience and a desire to keep in step with his party. To further his friend Hanna’s ambitions, he appointed Senator John Sherman to the office of Secretary of State, so that Hanna might succeed to the vacant seat.

Advanced years and mental impairment presently caused Sherman to be replaced with William R. Day, another Ohioan; and the latter in turn retired in August, 1898, to make way for John Hay, also of Ohio, a much abler man than either of the others.

In spite of an apparently clear popular verdict against silver, McKinley chose to interpret his victory as primarily a mandate for tariff protection. The fact was that the party remained divided notwithstanding the united front displayed at the election.

Therefore it seemed to McKinley and his advisers the part of wisdom to let well enough alone in regard to the money question. However, in deference to the platform pledge, an official commission was dispatched to France and Great Britain in 1897 to explore the possibility of establishing free silver by international agreement. The anticipated refusal of Great Britain, followed presently by the distracting effects of the Spanish-American War, eased the path for the gold advocates.

Other events also worked in their behalf. An enormous increase occurred in the gold supply as a result of the cyanide process of extracting the metal from low-content ores and the discovery of fresh deposits in Alaska, Australia and South Africa. The world’s annual production, which had averaged between five and six million ounces from 1860 to 1890, reached nearly eleven and a half million in 1897 and twenty-two million in 1910.

Paper currency also grew in volume, thanks to the purchase by national banks of the new government bonds issued during the war with Spain and to a liberalization of the national banking act. With all reasonable fear of the scarcity of money removed, the argument for silver inflation collapsed.

Meanwhile, prosperity returned to the farm, and some of the psychological drawbacks of rural life were lessened. A recurrence of foreign crop failures in 1897 sent the price of American wheat even higher than in the preceding season.

The value of grain exports increased by no less than $122 million.

As the farmers recovered a sense of material wellbeing,
• the introduction of free mail delivery at their homes,
• the spread of mutual telephone companies in rural communities after the expiration of the basic Bell patents in 1893,
• the advent of interurban electric railways and
• the extension of the good-roads movement
brought to the countryside advantages which earlier had belonged only to the city.*

* Begun in 1896, rural-free. delivery routes lengthened from 1800 miles in 1897 to nearly 29,000 miles in 1900 and 950,000 miles in 1916.

The introduction of free mail delivery at famer’s homes increased their sense of material wellbeing.

These new conveniences of living—a mere earnest of what the future held in store—helped to dispel some of the loneliness of existence and appease the feeling of rural inferiority.

Emboldened by these favoring circumstances, Congress in March, 1900, adopted the gold-standard act. The statute declared other forms of money redeemable in gold on demand, and enlarged the gold redemption fund to $150 million.

In order to avoid the difficulties that had vexed the Cleveland administration, the law made the gold reserve a separate and distinct fund, not to be drawn upon to meet current deficiencies in the revenue, and it provided further that, when paper notes were offered for redemption, they should not he paid out again except for gold.

Thus the war of the standards closed, leaving the next generation to solve certain knotty problems arising from other imperfections of the circulating medium, notably its inelastic character.

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