Election in Silver and Gold

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					                ELECTION IN SILVER AND GOLD
   A century ago this fall (1996), voters were at one another’s throats in one of the
                            hardest-fought campaigns ever
                            BY BERNARD A. WEISBERGER

                             I brag and chant ofBryan, 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 herocandidate, 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
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 denning question of
the hour was how to rally a stricken economy. A massive depression beginning in May of
1893 had shattered the justbegun 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 189Os perceived the matter in life-anddeath
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 goldonly 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 189Os 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 McKmley, 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.
The Populists, who had done very well in state and congressional elections in 1892 and
1894, were primarily a Farm Belt coalition. They embraced free silver but also had a much
more far-reaching program for taming corporations and democratizing the industrial order;
it included the direct election of senators, rural credit systems, and public ownership of
railroads among other highly radical ideas for the 189Os. In their July 1896 convention the
Populists had to choose between naming their own candidate to run on this wider agenda or
getting an actual chance of having a friend in the White House by endorsing Bryan. He
himself, while sympathetic to many Populist ideas, would fight hard only for silver, the
cause that had made his reputation since he embraced it as a congressman from Nebraska.
He had won the nomination mainly through a stem-winding and unforgettable oration
climaxing with the thundering admonition to Cleveland Democrats: “You shall not crucify
mankind upon a cross of gold.” After heated debate the People’s party delegates chose
“fusion” with Bryan over independence. Ultimately the merger worked to their
disadvantage and his.
That was because Bryan could thereafter be easily tarred both with Populist “extremism”
and the ignorance and inexperience of youth. In 1896 he was just thirty-six years old, and
he had been in diapers when McKinley was advancing from private to major on bloody
fields. Actually, there were personal similarities between the two, both small-town
Midwesterners (Bryan was raised in Illinois), good family men, devout churchgoers and
faithful to the belief that success in life was largely self-made by the exercise of will and
virtue. But these parallels were obscured by the storms of a canvass in which multitudes of
family farmers who considered themselves the moral backbone of the Republic were
fighting a rear-guard action against being marginalized, and legions of other Americans
likewise buffeted and bewildered by a changing economic order were terrified of
unfamiliar initiatives. The ordinary billingsgate of politics turned into the language of class
The Populists had always received a poor press in the big cities; one newspaper described
the delegates to their convention as “anarchists, howlers, tramps, highwaymen,
burglars…men with unkempt and matted hair.” One clergyman said that the Democratic
platform “was made in Hell,” while Harper’s Weekly warned that beyond Bryan’s “feeble
and ignorant presentation of his money heresy” lay “the deep abyss of socialism.” John
Hay, a future Secretary of State, described Bryan as “a halfbaked glib little briefless jack-
leg lawyer…promising the millennium to everybody with a hole in his pants and
destruction to everybody with a clean shirt.” Hay’s friend, young Theodore Roosevelt, the
police commissioner of New York City, supposedly told a New York editor that “the
sentiment now animating a large proportion of our people [could] only be suppressed…by
taking ten or a dozen of their leaders out, standing…them against a wall, and shooting them
dead.” (Roosevelt later denied the words; the editor stood by his version.)
Not all the vehemence was on the Republican side. Pro-Bryan cartoonists drew caricatures
of McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, as a bloated plutocrat wearing a vest
patterned in dollar signs—ignoring the fact that wealthy silver miners and their heirs, like
William Randolph Hearst, were among Bryan’s backers. In fact, Hanna did raise much
more cash—some $3.3 million, a huge sum in 1896—from worried businessmen than did
the Democrats. And businessmen had especially persuasive tactics; persistent stories of
factories that hung out placards announcing that they would be shut down after election day
if Bryan won seem to have some historical foundation. As Lindsay recalled it later, “the
whole Atlantic coast/Seemed a giant spiders’ nest.”
Bryan could not offset these disadvantages with his own incredible outpouring of energy.
He barnstormed the nation by rail, speaking to perhaps five million people in twenty-seven
states as he journeyed some eighteen thousand miles. But the results on the night of
November 3 were crushing. McKinley won 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 176. The popular
vote was closer—some 7 million to 6.5 million—but no matter that, the election had really
made a difference. The people had voiced their clear preference, if not for gold, at least for
the industrial status quo and what McKinley called “the Full Dinner Pail.” In a sense they
had voted in the twentieth century.
Vachel Lindsay never forgave them. His 1919 verses cruelly lampooned McKinley as “the
man without an angle or a tangle,” Mark Hanna’s “slave, his echo, his suit of clothes.”
Even “boy Bryan,” the “gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun” in 1896, had by
then become fat and old and a consistent but outdated defender of an “old-time” religion
that contested not only evolution but much of the open-mindedness that characterized
modern thought. That may be why, though Bryan still had six years to live, Lindsay wrote
that he, too, had “gone to join the shadows…where the kings and the slaves and the
troubadours rest.”

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