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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Minor Parties and Unrest · Republican Measures and Results·»

The Sound Money Battle of 1896

Conservative Men Alarmed.—Men of conservative thought and leaning in both parties were by this time thoroughly disturbed. They looked upon the rise of Populism and the growth of labor disputes as the signs of a revolutionary spirit, indeed nothing short of a menace to American institutions and ideals. The income tax law of 1894, exclaimed the distinguished New York advocate, Joseph H. Choate, in an impassioned speech before the Supreme Court, “is communistic in its purposes and tendencies and is defended here upon principles as communistic, socialistic—what shall I call them—populistic as ever have been addressed to any political assembly in the world.” Mr. Justice Field in the name of the Court replied: “The present assault upon capital is but the beginning. It will be but the stepping stone to others larger and more sweeping till our political conditions will become a war of the poor against the rich.” In declaring the income tax unconstitutional, he believed that he was but averting greater evils lurking under its guise. As for free silver, nearly all conservative men were united in calling it a measure of confiscation and repudiation; an effort of the debtors to pay their obligations with money worth fifty cents on the dollar; the climax of villainies openly defended; a challenge to law, order, and honor.

The Republicans Come Out for the Gold Standard.—It was among the Republicans that this opinion was most widely shared and firmly held. It was they who picked up the gauge thrown down by the Populists, though a host of Democrats, like Cleveland and Hill of New York, also battled against the growing Populist defection in Democratic ranks. When the Republican national convention assembled in 1896, the die was soon cast; a declaration of opposition to free silver save by international agreement was carried by a vote of eight to one. The Republican party, to use the vigorous language of Mr. Lodge, arrayed itself against “not only that organized failure, the Democratic party, but all the wandering forces of political chaos and social disorder … in these bitter times when the forces of disorder are loose and the wreckers with their false lights gather at the shore to lure the ship of state upon the rocks.” Yet it is due to historic truth to state that McKinley, whom the Republicans nominated, had voted in Congress for the free coinage of silver, was widely known as a bimetallist, and was only with difficulty persuaded to accept the unequivocal indorsement of the gold standard which was pressed upon him by his counselors. Having accepted it, however, he proved to be a valiant champion, though his major interest was undoubtedly in the protective tariff. To him nothing was more reprehensible than attempts “to array class against class, ’the classes against the masses,' section against section, labor against capital, ’the poor against the rich,' or interest against interest.” Such was the language of his acceptance speech. The whole program of Populism he now viewed as a “sudden, dangerous, and revolutionary assault upon law and order.”

The Democratic Convention at Chicago.—Never, save at the great disruption on the eve of the Civil War, did a Democratic national convention display more feeling than at Chicago in 1896. From the opening prayer to the last motion before the house, every act, every speech, every scene, every resolution evoked passions and sowed dissensions. Departing from long party custom, it voted down in anger a proposal to praise the administration of the Democratic President, Cleveland. When the platform with its radical planks, including free silver, was reported, a veritable storm broke. Senator Hill, trembling with emotion, protested against the departure from old tests of Democratic allegiance; against principles that must drive out of the party men who had grown gray in its service; against revolutionary, unwise, and unprecedented steps in the history of the party. Senator Vilas of Wisconsin, in great fervor, avowed that there was no difference in principle between the free coinage of silver—“the confiscation of one-half of the credits of the nation for the benefit of debtors”—and communism itself—“a universal distribution of property.” In the triumph of that cause he saw the beginning of “the overthrow of all law, all justice, all security and repose in the social order.”

William J. Bryan in 1898
Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
William J. Bryan in 1898

The Crown of Thorns Speech.—The champions of free silver replied in strident tones. They accused the gold advocates of being the aggressors who had assailed the labor and the homes of the people. William Jennings Bryan, of Nebraska, voiced their sentiments in a memorable oration. He declared that their cause “was as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity.” He exclaimed that the contest was between the idle holders of idle capital and the toiling millions. Then he named those for whom he spoke—the wage-earner, the country lawyer, the small merchant, the farmer, and the miner. “The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the cross roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York. The farmer … is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go a thousand feet into the earth or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs … are as much business men as the few financial magnates who in a back room corner the money of the world.... It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Ours is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in defense of our homes, our families, and our posterity. We have petitioned and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them.... We shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, ’You shall not press upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.'”

Bryan Nominated.—In all the history of national conventions never had an orator so completely swayed a multitude; not even Yancey in his memorable plea in the Charleston convention of 1860 when, with grave and moving eloquence, he espoused the Southern cause against the impending fates. The delegates, after cheering Mr. Bryan until they could cheer no more, tore the standards from the floor and gathered around the Nebraska delegation to renew the deafening applause. The platform as reported was carried by a vote of two to one and the young orator from the West, hailed as America’s Tiberius Gracchus, was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President. The South and West had triumphed over the East. The division was sectional, admittedly sectional—the old combination of power which Calhoun had so anxiously labored to build up a century earlier. The Gold Democrats were repudiated in terms which were clear to all. A few, unable to endure the thought of voting the Republican ticket, held a convention at Indianapolis where, with the sanction of Cleveland, they nominated candidates of their own and endorsed the gold standard in a forlorn hope.

The Democratic Platform.—It was to the call from Chicago that the Democrats gave heed and the Republicans made answer. The platform on which Mr. Bryan stood, unlike most party manifestoes, was explicit in its language and its appeal. It denounced the practice of allowing national banks to issue notes intended to circulate as money on the ground that it was “in derogation of the Constitution,” recalling Jackson’s famous attack on the Bank in 1832. It declared that tariff duties should be laid “for the purpose of revenue”—Calhoun’s doctrine. In demanding the free coinage of silver, it recurred to the practice abandoned in 1873. The income tax came next on the program. The platform alleged that the law of 1894, passed by a Democratic Congress, was “in strict pursuance of the uniform decisions of the Supreme Court for nearly a hundred years,” and then hinted that the decision annulling the law might be reversed by the same body “as it may hereafter be constituted.”

The appeal to labor voiced by Mr. Bryan in his “crown of thorns” speech was reinforced in the platform. “As labor creates the wealth of the country,” ran one plank, “we demand the passage of such laws as may be necessary to protect it in all its rights.” Referring to the recent Pullman strike, the passions of which had not yet died away, the platform denounced “arbitrary interference by federal authorities in local affairs as a violation of the Constitution of the United States and a crime against free institutions.” A special objection was lodged against “government by injunction as a new and highly dangerous form of oppression by which federal judges, in contempt of the laws of states and rights of citizens, become at once legislators, judges, and executioners.” The remedy advanced was a federal law assuring trial by jury in all cases of contempt in labor disputes. Having made this declaration of faith, the Democrats, with Mr. Bryan at the head, raised their standard of battle.

The Heated Campaign.—The campaign which ensued outrivaled in the range of its educational activities and the bitterness of its tone all other political conflicts in American history, not excepting the fateful struggle of 1860. Immense sums of money were contributed to the funds of both parties. Railway, banking, and other corporations gave generously to the Republicans; the silver miners, less lavishly but with the same anxiety, supported the Democrats. The country was flooded with pamphlets, posters, and handbills. Every public forum, from the great auditoriums of the cities to the “red schoolhouses” on the countryside, was occupied by the opposing forces.

Mr. Bryan took the stump himself, visiting all parts of the country in special trains and addressing literally millions of people in the open air. Mr. McKinley chose the older and more formal plan. He received delegations at his home in Canton and discussed the issues of the campaign from his front porch, leaving to an army of well-organized orators the task of reaching the people in their home towns. Parades, processions, and monster demonstrations filled the land with politics. Whole states were polled in advance by the Republicans and the doubtful voters personally visited by men equipped with arguments and literature. Manufacturers, frightened at the possibility of disordered public credit, announced that they would close their doors if the Democrats won the election. Men were dismissed from public and private places on account of their political views, one eminent college president being forced out for advocating free silver. The language employed by impassioned and embittered speakers on both sides roused the public to a state of frenzy, once more showing the lengths to which men could go in personal and political abuse.

The Republican Victory.—The verdict of the nation was decisive. McKinley received 271 of the 447 electoral votes, and 7,111,000 popular votes as against Bryan’s 6,509,000. The congressional elections were equally positive although, on account of the composition of the Senate, the “hold-over” Democrats and Populists still enjoyed a power out of proportion to their strength as measured at the polls. Even as it was, the Republicans got full control of both houses—a dominion of the entire government which they were to hold for fourteen years—until the second half of Mr. Taft’s administration, when they lost possession of the House of Representatives. The yoke of indecision was broken. The party of sound finance and protective tariffs set out upon its lease of power with untroubled assurance.

«·The Minor Parties and Unrest · Republican Measures and Results·»