The Revolt of the Debtor
I. The Republicans Return Under Harrison
- New president Benjamin Harrison was inaugurated on a rainy March 4th of 1889.
- He was brusque and abrupt, but also honest and earnest.
- After four years out of the White House, the Republicans were eager to return to power, especially those seeking political rewards.
- James G. Blaine became the Secretary of State.
- Theodore Roosevelt was named to the Civil Service Commission.
- However, the Republicans had troubles, for they only had three more members than was necessary for a quorum, and Democrats could simply not answer to the roll and easily keep Congress from working.
- The new Speaker of the House, Thomas B. Reed, was a large, tall man, a tremendous debater, and very critical and quick man.
- To solve the problem of reaching a quorum in Congress, Reed counted the Democrats who were present yet didn’t answer to the roll call, and after three days of such chaos, he finally prevailed, opening the 51st, or “Billion Dollar” Congress—one that legislated many expensive projects.
II. Political Gravy for All
- Harrison, a former Civil War general, appointed a Civil War amputee as commissioner of pensions, and that man practically used up the federal surplus to give out pensions.
- The Pension Act of 1890 gave pensions to Union Civil War veterans who had served at least 90 days in the army and could not do manual labor now.
- Thus, from 1891 to 1895, the bill for pensions rose from $81 million to $135 million.
- This gained the Republican support of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), whose members were grateful to the GOP (Grand Old Party) for its handouts.
- The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890, was a pioneering yet weak law that tried to break up the new corporations and monopolies that existed.
- The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 appealed to those who had hated the old Bland-Allison Law of 1878 because it allowed the Treasury to buy 4.5 million ounces of silver monthly and pay for it in notes redeemable in silver or gold.
- The McKinley Tariff Bill of 1890 boosted rates up to 48.4%—the highest level yet.
- The farmers lost the most from this tariff, as tin peddlers in the Midwest dishonestly cited rising prices due to Republicans; as a result, in the election of 1890, Democratic seats in the House rose to 235, while Republicans only had 88 representatives.
- Nine members of the Farmers’ Alliance, an organization of southern and western farmers, were also elected to the House of Representatives.
- Thus, 1890 was an important year in several unrelated ways…
- Pension Act for veterans.
- Sherman Anti-Trust Act against big-business.
- Sherman Silver Purchase Act for farmers and debtors.
- McKinley Tariff for big business and the East.
- Battle of Wounded Knee finalized the Indian Wars.
- U.S. government proclaimed the western frontier gone.
- Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History convinced many of the need to strengthen the U.S. navy.
III. The Populist Challenge of 1892
- In 1892, the Democrats nominated conservative Grover Cleveland while Republicans went with unpopular Harrison, but the splash was made by a new third party: the People’s Party (AKA, the Populist Party).
- The Populists, made up mainly of the Farmers’ Alliance (and other groups), demanded (1) free and unlimited coinage of silver at a ratio of sixteen to one, (2) a graduated income tax, and (3) government ownership of the telephone, telegraph, and railroads—all to combat injustice.
- They also wanted (4) direct elections of U.S. Senators, (5) a one-term limit on the presidency, and (6) the use of the initiative and referendum to allow citizens to propose and review legislation—all in the true spirit of Democracy.
- A rash of strikes in the summer of ’92 also brought concerns that disgruntled workers would join the Populist Party.
- At Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Works near Pittsburgh, a strike resulted in violence that killed ten and wounded sixty, and the eventually saw the calling of U.S. troops to break the strike and its union backer.
- Silver miners striking in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene District also saw their strike broken.
- Impressively, the Populist party did get over a million votes and 22 electoral votes, but these came all from the Midwest (farmer country).
- The South was unwilling to support the Populists because of race: one million Black farmers in the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance, along with other Blacks, were targets of Populist outreach.
- Populist leaders like Georgia’s Tom Watson reached out to the Black community, but racist Whites stunted Populist support in the South.
- The Blacks were the real losers in the Election of 1892, for upon seeing that African-Americans were trying to show their political power, Southern Whites passed literacy tests (few Blacks could read), poll taxes (few Blacks had money to spare on voting), and the infamous “grandfather clause,” which stated that no Black could vote unless his forbear had voted in 1860 (none of course had).
- Severe Jim Crow laws (segregation) were also passed in many Southern states, and it would not be for another half century until Blacks finally became a political force.
- Even Tom Watson became a racist himself following 1892, and after 1896, the Populist party lapsed into vile racism and Black disfranchisement.
IV. “Old Grover” Cleveland Again
- Grover Cleveland won, but no sooner than he had stepped into the presidency did the Depression of 1893 break out. It was the first such panic in the new urban and industrial age, and it caused much outrage and hardships. This completed the almost predictable, every-20-year cycle of panics during the 1800s (panics occurred during 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893).
- About 8,000 American business houses collapsed in six months, and dozens of railroad lines went into the hands of receivers.
- This time, Cleveland had a deficit and a problem, for the Treasury had to issue gold for the notes that it had paid in the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and according to law, those notes had to be reissued, thus causing a steady drain on gold in the Treasury—the level alarmingly dropped below $100 million at one point.
- Meanwhile, Grover Cleveland had developed a malignant growth under the roof of his mouth, and it had to be secretly removed in a surgery that took place aboard his private yacht; had he died, Adlai E. Stevenson, a “soft money” (paper money) man, would have caused massive chaos with inflation.
- Also, 33 year-old William Jennings Bryan was advocating “free silver,” and gaining support for his beliefs, but an angry Cleveland used his executive power to break the filibuster in the Senate—thus alienating the silver-supporting Democrats.
V. Gold Shortages and Job Shortages
- Finally, the U.S. repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, but this only partially stopped the problem of dwindling U.S. gold reserves, and by 1894, the gold reserves sank to only $41 million!
- The U.S. was in danger of going off the gold standard, sinking into financial turmoil, and ruining its international trade.
- Finally, President Cleveland turned to J.P. Morgan, the “banker’s banker,” who agreed to have Wall Street loan the government $65 million in gold, obtain half of the gold from abroad, and take the needed steps to dam up the leaky Treasury.
- This caused an outrage, for silverites saw only corruption and evil in Cleveland’s dealings with the “evil ‘Jupiter’” Morgan.
- Meanwhile, the unemployed, led by men like “General” Jacob S. Coxey, a wealthy Ohio quarry owner, demonstrated for much-needed help.
- He and his “Commonweal Army” or “Coxey’s Army” marched to Washington D.C., but upon reaching there, he and his “lieutenants” were arrested for walking on the grass, while the other people accounted for lots of disorder and pillage.
VI. Cleveland Crushes the Pullman Strike
- In Chicago, the infamous Pullman Strike, led by American Railway Union leader Eugene V. Debs, was a violent flare-up, but just one of the many that occurred.
- The Pullman Palace Car Company was hit hard by the depression and had been forced to cut wages about one-third.
- In the opinion of Illinois governor John Peter Atgeld, who’d pardoned the Haymarket Riot anarchists the year before, the riot was serious but not out of hand.
- However, Attorney General Richard Olney felt that the strikers were interfering with U.S. mail delivery to Chicago, and he ordered federal troops to crush the strike…leading to controversy.
- Labor unions began to think that employers and even the U.S. government were out to shut the unions down, and they were infuriated.
VII. Democratic Tariff Tinkering
- The Democrats took to revising the existing tariff into one that would follow their campaign promises by providing moderate protection and adequate revenue.
- This new bill even included a tax of 2% on $4,000+ per year incomes.
- However, upon reaching the Senate, the opposition of big business forced the Wilson-Gorman Bill to be amended 630 times, including a scandalous insertion of $20 million a year to itself by the sugar trust.
- Thus, this bill fell quite short of providing a low tariff, though it was lowered down to 41.3% on dutiable goods.
- In 1895, though, the Supreme Court struck down the graduated income tax portion—the most popular one—of the Wilson-Gorman Bill.
- As a result of the unpopular tariff, the Democrats lost a LOT of seats in the House in 1894, and the Republicans regained control.
- Discontent debtors were turning to free silver as a cure-all, as such pamphlets as Coin’s Financial School, written by William Hope Harvey, influenced many toward the free silver cause.
VIII. McKinley: Hanna’s Fair-Haired Boy
- The leading Republican candidate in 1896 was William McKinley, a respectable and friendly former Civil War major who had served many years in Congress representing his native Ohio.
- McKinley was the making of another Ohioan, Marcus Alonzo Hanna, who financially and politically supported the candidate through his political years.
- McKinley was a conservative in business, preferring to leaves things alone, and his platform was for the gold standard, even though he personally was not.
- His platform also called for a gold-silver bimetallism—provided that all the other nations in the world did the same, which was not bound to happen.
IX. Bryan: Silverite Messiah
- The Democrats were in disarray and unable to come up with a candidate, until William Jennings Bryan, the “Boy Orator of the Platte,” came to their rescue.
- At the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Bryan delivered a movingly passionate speech in favor of free silver. In this “Cross of Gold Speech” he created a sensation and won the nomination for the Democratic ticket the next day.
- The Democratic ticket called for unlimited coinage of silver with the ratio of 16 silver ounces worth as much as one ounce of gold.
- Democrats who would not stand for this left the party.
- Some Democrats charged that they’d stolen the Populist ideas, and during the Election of 1896, it was essentially the “Demo-Pop” party.
X. Hanna Leads the “Gold Bugs”
- Hanna thought that he could make the tariff the heart of the campaign issue, but Bryan turned the tables, making silver the key issue.
- Free silver seemed to be a religion, with Bryan the “savior” of all free silverites.
- Essentially, Bryan was cutting in half the value of people’s earnings and savings with his free silver idea, and this worried the eastern conservatives.
- With the public afraid of Bryan’s radical ideas, Hanna campaigned vigorously and amassed a sizeable amount of money for the Republicans to use in the election.
- As a result, many Democrats accused Hanna of “buying” the election, since the Democrats only had $1 million for their campaign, as opposed to the Republican $16 million.
XI. Appealing to the Pocketbook Vote
- Hanna launched a full-force attack against free silver, sending many speakers out onto the stump to appeal to the public in person, but few people could really understand what all the hoopla was about, and even they disagreed.
- It was largely a lot of shouting and a little of thinking.
- A sharp rise in wheat prices near the end of the campaign quelled much of the farmers’ anger against the Republicans, and most people voted for McKinley due to fear of Bryan and his “dangerous, crazy, radical ideas.”
XII. Class Conflict: Plowholders versus Bondholders
- McKinley won decisively, getting 271 electoral votes, mostly from the populous East and upper Midwest, as opposed to Bryan’s 176, mostly from the South and the West.
- This election was perhaps the most important since the elections involving Abraham Lincoln, for it was the first to seemingly pit the privileged against the underprivileged, and it resulted in a victory for big business and big cities.
- Thus, the Election of 1896 could be called the “gold vs. silver” election. And, put to the vote, it was clear then that Americans were going with gold.
- Also in the election, the Middle Class preserved their comfortable way of life while the Republicans seized control of the White House of 16 more years.
XIII. Republican Standpattism Enthroned
- When McKinley took office in 1897, he was calm and conservative, working well with his party and avoiding major confrontations.
- The Dingley Tariff Bill was passed to replace the Wilson-Gorman law and raise more revenue, raising the tariff level to whopping 46.5 percent.
XIV. Inflation without Silver
- Just as McKinley came to power, prosperity was returning as the Depression of 1893 was running its course, and the Republicans took credit for this event.
- The Gold Standard Act was not passed until 1900, when many silverites had left Congress, but it provided that paper currency was to be redeemable in full, in gold.
- A stable expansion of currency was clearly desired in America, since money was tight at the time, but free silver was a poor method of obtaining growing the quantity of money in circulation.
- Even though silver was done, inflation did occur finally when new gold was discovered in Alaska, Canada, and South Africa, and when science perfected a cheap cyanide process for extracting gold from low-grade ore.