Right at the end of Benjamin Harrison’s term, the US entered yet another economic depression. The Panic of 1893 sent American life into a tailspin, deepening the monetary debate. Free Silver threatened to tear apart both parties. Could gold supporters hold out?
The Last Four Years
Like most economic depressions, the Panic of 1893 had multiple causes. Changing international markets were partly to blame. The first signs of trouble in the US came in railroad and manufacturing industries. Ultimately, depressions were just a common part of the American economic system ever since Andrew Jackson destroyed the central banking system. The Federal Reserve was still a couple decades away. The Panic was worsened, however, by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, signed by President Harrison in 1890. Meant to appease silver supporters in the West, the bill committed the US to buying more silver for circulation. In practice, it depleted the nation’s gold supply.
As president, Harrison passed a lot of the bills Cleveland vetoed in his first term. When Cleveland (re)took office, he sought to undo that agenda again. I think this makes a good case against nonconsecutive presidencies. Whatever the cause of the Panic, Cleveland’s economic conservatism didn’t do him any favors. In short, he did not believe it was the government’s duty to help people in times of need. Instead, he only wanted to solve the crisis using monetary policy. As expected, Cleveland repealed the Silver Purchase Act. In order to resupply the government with gold, he instructed his Secretary of Treasury to sell government bonds to New York bankers. Unfortunately, this strategy made him appear to be in the pocket of Wall St, while the working class was suffering. Cleveland also believed strongly in reducing the tariff. Congress’ new tariff bill, however, had so many add-ons and exemptions that it wasn’t even close to the rates Cleveland wanted. He let it pass without his endorsement or signature.
The Panic of 1893 also resulted in social unrest. The most notable incident was the Pullman Strike in 1894. The strike started in Chicago against the Pullman Railroad Company. The American Railway Union, led by socialist activist Eugene V. Debs, protested low wages and high rent in the company town (where Pullman also owned all of the housing, utilities, and stores). The strike shutdown most rail lines west of Detroit. The federal government eventually intervened, ending with Cleveland’s mobilization of the Army. Violence ensued until the strikers finally dispersed.
While struggling to resolve the Panic, President Cleveland also had to deal with his own health. He developed a tumor on the roof of his mouth. Cleveland cashed in years of political honesty to have a secret surgery. Under the guise of a vacation, doctors removed the tumor on a yacht owned by Cleveland’s friend. Luckily, the sea was calm and there were no complications. Cleveland was eventually fitted with a prosthetic to correct his speech and adjust his mouth shape. Though the press was suspicious, Cleveland’s team was able to play if off as dental work. The truth was not revealed until decades later.
As with any national crisis, the Panic of 1893 mostly fueled the pre-existing assumptions of partisans. Economic conservatives, like Cleveland, saw it as a failure of silver and high tariffs. Silverites believed greedy bankers and the Gold Standard were to blame. Even though the depression started under Harrison, Democrats paid the price. In 1894, Republicans took back both houses of Congress.
Party Watch & The Candidates
In a complete rebuke of President Cleveland, the Democratic Party embraced Free Silver. Politicians from the West and South were now in control. Several candidates were considered at the convention, but the clear standout was William Jennings Bryan. Known as a strong orator, Bryan was one of the few Democrats from mostly-Republican Nebraska. Bryan wowed the convention with a lively speech, in which he warned that the US would be crucified on a “cross of gold” if it did not embrace silver. Religious imagery was part of his trademark style. The crowd went wild. Bryan was even carried around on the shoulders of supporters. At 36, he is still the youngest nominee by a major party. Democrats chose Arthur Sewall as Bryan’s running mate. Sewall was a shipbuilder from Maine with deep pockets that could help fund the campaign.
Gold Democrats were so angry about the overthrow of their party, they split off and formed the National Democratic Party. Since President Cleveland insisted that he would not accept any nomination, the National Democrats chose Illinois Senator John Palmer as their nominee, along with former Kentucky Governor Simon Bolivar Buckner as his running mate. Palmer and Buckner were 79 and 73 years old, respectively, making them the oldest combined ticket of all time. Needless to say, they did not inspire the same enthusiasm that Bryan did.
On the Republican side, former President Harrison also declined to run. Thankfully, America was spared from a Cleveland-Harrison-Cleveland-Harrison loop. Many Republicans wanted to avoid the silver issue all together and emphasize the tariff again, but gold supporters got their way. Their nominee was former ohio Governor William McKinley, who won on the first ballot. McKinley served in the Civil War under Major Rutherford B. Hayes, another future ohio governor and president. Hayes became a lifelong mentor to McKinley. As a Representative, McKinley was best known for sponsoring the aptly named McKinley Tariff, which raised the tariff to fulfill Harrison’s campaign promise. McKinley had actually supported silver in the past, but now that it was the most important issue, he was all-in for gold. Personally, he didn’t think the debate would last very long. McKinley’s running mate was New Jersey politician Garret Hobart, who offered a swing state and money for the campaign.
The People’s Party, better known as the Populists, had put up a respectable fight in 1892. This time, they were torn between endorsing William Jennings Bryan or submitting their own nominee. As silver’s loudest supporter, Bryan offered a chance to accomplish their main policy goal. Others insisted that the Populist message was about far more than just silver. In the end, they chose to back Bryan. To remain separate from the Democrats, however, they nominated their own vice president, former Georgia Representative Thomas Watson.
The silver vs gold debate became a symbol of larger social divides in the recovering economy. It was also seen as a fight between farmers against industrialists, debtors against creditors, and the underprivileged against the privileged.
Bryan used his skill at public speaking to his advantage. Although it was still somewhat taboo for a candidate to campaign for himself, Bryan went on an aggressive speaking tour of the nation. He traveled over 18,000 miles by train and gave over 600 speeches, often 10-20 per day! He had a knack for tying all issues back to silver. To him, silver meant democracy, and gold meant Wall St. He argued that gold supporters only wanted to make the rich richer.
Ironically, Bryan’s campaign tour became an attraction for pickpockets. Bryan’s large crowds made easy targets, but his speech gave them an additional advantage. Bryan had a habit of asking the crowd to raise their gold and silver coins in the air to prove that both metals were equally common. Unfortunately, this exercise invited theft. The issue became so severe that the campaign had to employ Plinkerton security agents.
McKinley recognized that he couldn’t out-tour Byran. Any attempt to match Bryan’s style would only make him look like a copy-cat. Bryan would always seem more in-tune with the common man. Instead, McKinley relied on the good ol’ fashioned front porch campaign. Organizers sent thousands of would-be supporters to McKinley’s home in ohio to hear his speeches. The campaign also sent hundreds of speakers to travel the country on his behalf, including New York politician Theodore Roosevelt. The mastermind behind the Republican strategy was McKinley’s friend and political ally, Mark Hanna. Luckily, Hanna had a huge sum of money to work with. Eastern bankers and businessmen were panicking over the thought of a Bryan presidency. Hanna used their fears to raise over three million dollars. The funds bought an infinite supply of flyers, buttons, and other campaign material.
Wizard of Oz Pause!
One common interpretation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is as a Free Silver allegory. Plains-state native Dorothy travels along a golden road with a farmer, an industrialist, and a cowardly lion (possibly Williams Jennings Bryan, for being all-talk and no action). The wizard could be seen as Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, or Mark Hanna. In the original book, Dorothy’s slippers were not ruby, but silver. And the most common unit of weight for gold and silver? Ounces, or… Oz.
Congratulations to Utah for being the newest Western state to join the Union!
The geographical divide was clear. McKinley carried the Northeast, Midwest, and Far West. Bryan won the South, the Plains, and the Mountain states. There was also an economic divide. McKinley won upper classes and urban laborers. Bryan voters were mostly poor farmers.
William McKinley won, becoming the 25th president! The two Williams won a similar amount of states (23-22), but McKinley’s were more populous. The electoral college was a blowout, 271-176. The popular vote showed a closer, but still decisive race, with McKinley winning by about 600,000 votes.
McKinley was yet another Republican from the Midwest, although he broke the facial hair trend. He was the last president to serve in the Civil War.
What Did It Say About America?
Silver was really popular! …in not-so-populous states. Beating the establishment is hard, and a lot of money was given to McKinley to maintain the Gold Standard. But Bryan had ignited a new type of voter, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
Both Bryan and McKinley set new standards for campaigning. Bryan had a national tour and a hostility towards the rich. McKinley had a stockpile of money and made a direct pitch to big-business. Prior to this election, Democrats still kept some urban states like New York competitive. With the divide over silver, and Bryan’s subsequent loss, the Democrats were almost completely wiped out of the Northeast. The factions created in this election forever changed the course of both parties and kicked off the 4th Party System.
Was It The Right Decision?
I’m typically not very supportive of business interests in politics, but yeah, this was probably the right decision. Bryan made a great pitch! But I remain unconvinced that Free Silver would have been the right choice. It’s too bad that the Populists’ vision was reduced to that single issue. They had a chance to become the next major party, but would ultimately get absorbed by the Democrats. By Inauguration Day, the Panic was reaching its natural end and the Republicans were positioned to be the party of prosperity. Luckily, a true Progressive was waiting in the wings.