Populists advocate easy money
There had never before in American politics been anything like the Populist fever which swent the prairies and cotton lands. After a hard day in the fields, farmers hitched up their buggies and, with their wives and children, jogged off to the meeting house and applauded the impassioned oratory of their leaders. The elections of 1890 swept the new party into power in a dozen southern and western states and sent a score of Senators and Representatives to Congress. En- couraged by this success, the Populists drew up a progressive platform demanding extensive reforms, including an income tax, a national system of loans for farmers, government own- ership of railroads, an eight-hour day for labor, and an in- crease in the supply of currency by the free and unlimited coinage of silver.
In the election of 1892, the Populists showed impressive strength in the west and south. Their presidential candidate polled more than a million votes. However, the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, was elected. Four years later, the dynamic Populists were fused nearly everywhere with the Democratic Party. Influenced by the Populists, the new Democratic leaders prepared to make a major political issue of the monev question.
The United States, from the country's founding, had been on a bimetallic standard, that is, the government stood ready to coin into dollars all the gold and silver that might be brought to the mint. In 1873, Congress reorganized the monetary system and, among other things, omitted the standard silver dollar from the list of authorized domestic coins. The act excited little attention at the time for silver metal was scarce. Indeed no silver dollars had actually been in circulation for forty years. This situation changed precipitously. New silver mines were discovered in the mountain states of the west. At the same time, several European countries demonetized silver. Suddenly, a tremendous supply of silver was available.
During this period, the country was experiencing hard times. Convinced that their troubles stemmed from a shortage of money in circulation, agrarian spokesmen in the west and south, supported by labor groups in the eastern industrial centers, demanded a return to the unlimited coinage of silver. Enlarging the volume of money in use they believed would indirectly result in higher prices for farm crops and better wages in industry. It was also argued that debts could be more readily paid off. Conservatives on the other hand were convinced that such a policy would be financially disastrous. Inflation, once begun, could not be stopped, and the government itself would be forced into bankruptcy. Only the gold standard, they asserted, offered stability.
The Silverites-Democrats and old Populists togetherfound a leader in William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, their candidate for President in the 1896 election. Spectacular in appearance and a magnetic orator, he captured the devotion of millions. But his party was divided, and his opponents were strong. In only one respect did the Democrats have a clear advantage and that was in Bryan himself. But he was not enough, and William McKinley won the election by more than half a million votes. Bryan's campaign, nevertheless, was to become legendary, and except for their monetary policies most of the ideas of the Populists and the agrarian Democrats have subsequently been written into legislation.
This campaign bore striking testimony to the solidity which the Union had achieved since the Civil War. Though the farmers' grievances were no less real than had been those of the slaveholders, there was no talk of nullification or of secession. This national unity was made clearly manifest in the conflict with Spain that burst upon the country in 1898. The Spanish government had learned nothing from the revolt of her major colonies in the western hemisphere earlier in the century. Unchanged, she continued her despotic rule of the little island of Cuba, where trade with the United States was now flourishing. In 1895, the Cubans' kindling wrath burst forth into a war for independence. The course of the uprising was watched in the United States with growing concern, for America had traditional interest in Latin-American struggles for independence. Resolved not to be stampeded into war, President Cleveland put forth every effort to preserve neutrality. However, three years later, during the McKinley administration, the United States warship Maine was destroyed while lying peacefully at anchor in Havana harbor and 260 men were killed. An outburst of patriotic fervor resulted. For a time McKinley sought to preserve the peace, but within a few months, believing further delay futile, he recommended armed intervention.