The Lion of Free Silver
Depression kept deepening, big banks continued to scoop up bankrupt farms and businesses. In 1896, a champion emerged in the political landscape to challenge the 30 year golden choke on the wider economy.
The lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz represents William Jennings Bryan, who entered Congress in 1890 and began his career as the Lion of the Free Silver Movement. There’s no doubt about what Bryan was saying, and his words even exist in recorded sound.
William Jennings Bryan
In 1896 at the Democratic convention in Chicago, at the tender political age of 36, Bryan made one of the most famous of American political orations, his Crown of Thorns, Cross of Gold speech. From nowhere, the speech made him the Democratic presidential candidate, and made the presidential campaign about the issue of more silver money, in a hotly fought contest with William McKinley, a Republican gold bug.
In this speech, Bryan made reference to the American monetary history we’ve tried to make a quick sketch of here. He said:
What we need is an Andrew Jackson, to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth. We say, in our platform, that we believe that the right to coin money and issue money is a function of government. We believe it. We believe it is a part of sovereignty. Those who are opposed to this proposition tell us the issue of paper money is a function of the bank, and that the government ought to go out of the banking business. I stand with Jefferson rather than with them, and tell them, as he did, that the issue of money is a function of the government, and that the banks should go out of the governing business.
Indeed, the banks should not be in the governing business. Bryan slams into the 30 year gold money era which had half-starved a lot of the country:
They will search the pages of history in vain to find a single instance where the common people of any land have ever declared themselves in favour of the gold standard. They can find where the holders of fixed investments have declared for a gold standard but not for the masses have. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. We will answer the demand for a gold standard by saying to them, “you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify Mankind upon a cross of gold.
Eisenhower later adapted these lines and made it a cross of iron in his Chance for Peace speech.
It was a bitter election, as American politics have long been bitter. Bryan’s words were resonant in the cash-starved American countryside. As might be expected, huge amounts of money were behind McKinley’s campaign, five times what Bryan could muster. Factory workers were warned that if Bryan won, all the factories would close and everyone would be out of work.
Bryan went on the road, made four lengthy speeches a day for four months right across America. In the event, he lost to McKinley by a close margin, something else that isn’t new in America.
So that’s where we were, that in the last years of Henry George’s life, he had been supporting the presidential bid of William Jennings Bryan, and from there we couldn’t help but go back in time somewhat to fill in the background to Bryan’s campaign, the century of contesting what money is and who issues it; and necessarily back further, briefly to 1545, as far back as 1100, for the roots of these arguments.
Henry George died in 1897, campaigning again to be Mayor of New York. We’re back on the original schedule for this note, about the world’s progress since it didn’t follow the way George had described, and Jefferson and Franklin and many others who saw how a just society would work.
A year after Henry George died, Pope Leo XIII, to whom George had written in 1891 explaining how his proposals differed from the Socialism that Pope Leo had denounced, was saying things like this:
On the one side there is the party which holds the power because it holds the wealth; which has in its grasp all labor and all trade; which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purpose all the sources of supply, and which is powerfully represented in the councils of State itself. On the other side there is the needy and powerless multitude, sore and suffering . . .
. . . The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man.
Pope Leo XIII, 1898
The full text is here.
The quote certainly suggests that Henry George’s communication had some influence. Indeed, anyone who makes a serious consideration of the questions as George illuminated them will understand, and either embrace and rejoice or make urgent plans to subvert.