Populists Advocate Easy Money

Populists advocate easy money Never before in American politics had there been anything like the, Populist fever that swept 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 Populist Senators and Representatives to Congress. Encouraged by this success, the Populists drew up a progressive platform demanding extensive reforms, including a graduated income tax, a national system of loans for farmers, government ownership of railroads, an eight-hour day for labor, and an increase 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, but although their presidential candidate polled more than a million votes, the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, was elected. Four years later, the dynamic PopuIists fused nearly everywhere with the Democratic Party, persuaded the new Democratic leaders to make a major political issue of the money question.

The United States, from its beginning, 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. At the time this caused little concern, for silver metal was scarce. In fact, no silver dollars had been in circulation for 40 years. The situation changed precipitously when new silver deposits were discovered in the mountain states of the west, and the simultaneous demonetization of silver by several European countries loosed a tremendous silver supply.

Since the country was experiencing an economic slowdown, 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. Convinced that their troubles stemmed from a shortage of money in circulation, these groups argued that enlarging the volume of money in use would indirectly raise prices for farm products and increase wages in industry, thus allowing debts to be paid. More conservative groups, on the other hand, believing that such a policy would be financially disastrous, insisted that inflation, once begun, could not be stopped, and that the government itself would be forced into bankruptcy. Only the gold standard, they said, offered stability.

The Silverites - Democrats and Populists together - found a leader in William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, their candidate for President in the 1896 election. But his party was weak and his opponents strong. William McKinley won the election by more than half-a-million votes. All the same, Bryan's campaign was to become legendary, and except for their monetary policies, most of the ideas of the Populists and the agrarian Democrats were later written into law. Significantly too, this campaign bore striking witness to the solidarity the Union had achieved since the Civil War. Though the farmers' grievances were no less real than those of the slaveholders, there was no talk now of nullification or of secession.