free silver, in U.S. history, term designating the political movement for the unlimited coinage of silver.
Origins of the Movement
Free silver became a popular issue soon after the Panic of 1873, and it was a major issue in the next quarter century. The hard times of 1873–78 stimulated advocacy of cheap money, and the Greenback party nominated presidential candidates several times and flourished in local elections, especially in 1876 and 1878. The market price of silver fell rapidly after 1873, because of American and European demonetization of silver and because of increases in mine production. Inflationists failed to secure paper-money expansion and turned to silver, believing its free coinage would serve their purpose as well as greenbacks so long as a silver dollar was worth intrinsically less than a gold dollar. Silver-mining interests also wanted silver coinage to aid their business.
Political Ferment and Legislative Compromise
The demands for unlimited silver coinage led to the passage (1878) of a compromise measure, the Bland-Allison Act, over President Hayes's veto. The act provided for definitely limited coinage at a ratio of 16 to 1 with gold, but its provisions were insufficient to halt the decline of silver prices, or to increase the circulation of money. Meanwhile, sectional lines over money were becoming sharply drawn. The financial interests in the East favored sound money and the gold standard. The indebted agrarian classes of the South and West demanded inflation, to ease debt burdens in the face of falling prices of farm products. Their demands were reinforced by Western silver-mining interests.
As the prosperity of the early 1880s vanished, demands arose again for free silver. By 1890 the political strength of the silver advocates, especially in the West, was so great that the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, another compromise, was passed, to replace the Bland-Allison Act and to provide for increased government purchases of silver. The West's discontent was further emphasized by the rise of the Populist party, with demands including free silver. The silver advocates were no longer content with compromise measures and were displeased by the 1892 presidential candidacy of Grover Cleveland, a supporter of the gold standard. Many silver Democrats deserted Cleveland to support James B. Weaver, the Populist candidate. This coalition of silverites and Populists was able to gain control of half a dozen Western states.
Advocates of free silver were enraged when the Panic of 1893 brought repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. By the middle of his second term, Cleveland's Western and Southern opponents had captured the Democratic party. Publication of Coin's Financial School, by William Hope Harvey (1894), made many converts to free silver by presenting the complicated money question in easily understood terms.
Decline of the Movement
In 1896 free silver became the major issue of a presidential campaign when William Jennings Bryan made it the chief plank of his platform. McKinley's victory over Bryan then and again in 1900, coupled with increased gold supplies and returning prosperity, minimized free silver as a political issue. Yet the silver bloc, partly inspired by Nevada silver interests, continued to be active and secured legislation mandating heavy U.S. Treasury purchases of silver under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The decreasing supply of silver in the 1960s led the U.S. Treasury to end its use in coins and to sell its surplus stock of silver in 1970.
See A. B. Hepburn, History of Coinage and Currency in the United States (1924, repr. 1967); D. R. Dewey, Financial History of the United States (12th ed. 1934, repr. 1968); M. Leech, In the Days of McKinley (1959).