William Jennings Bryan - Vol. 1

By Paolo E. Coletta | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6

Congressman: Currency Reform

I

DIVISION of sentiment over silver was at least a dozen years old before Bryan demanded equality for silver in his first congressional platform. The ratio between gold and silver in the world's commercial markets had refused to respect that of 15 to 1 established by the basic American law, of April 2, 1792, but changes in the American ratio had fitted commercial realities so well that the mint and market values had remained relatively constant, and in 1874 they were equal.

Bryan had grown to maturity during the paper phase of the war of finance that began with the Civil War and wracked the nation until the end of the nineteenth century. While at college, the greenback and resumption of specie payments questions had provided him topics for debate. At that time Western Democrats had generally favored the "rag baby" while Eastern Democrats and the Republicans had desired the deflation promised by resumption. The depression beginning in 1873 inflamed the farmers against the national banking system and against President Ulysses S. Grant, who vetoed the issue of additional greenbacks. With the failure of Western Democrats to repeal the Resumption Act of 1875 (elective 1879), popular interest in currency reform shifted largely to silver.

With the great silver strikes in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, silver production increased from $2,000,000 in 1861 to $40,000,000 in 1878. The bullion value of silver dropped from $1.03 in 1861 to $.93 in 1878, and the ratio of silver to gold from 15.5 to 1 to 17.12 to 1. When the miners took silver to the mint, however, they learned that a law of 1873 had demonetized it. Despite vociferous charges that silver was dropped from the coinage by fraud and collusion in which the British loomed large, impartial students of the act have been unable to reveal intention of deceit. The Congress had debated revision cursorily for two years, and the facts that silver was worth 3 per cent more than gold in 1873 and that gold was favored by those who desired a greater volume of money contributed to the ease with which silver was de

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