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Good as gold (1892-1896)

Grover Cleveland recaptured the White House in the 1892 election, but his second term was wrecked by economic depression. Perhaps 20 percent of the industrial labor force was unemployed during the winter of 1893-94. Problems did not melt away with the coming of spring. Farmers also suffered greatly, as commodity prices decreased and foreclosures soared. Politicians made appeals to inflate the currency by having the federal government abandon the gold standard, adopt an inflationary "bimetal" silver and gold standard, and then decree that silver was worth almost twice as much as it had been. This would make farm debts, payable in gold, decrease in real value.

Cleveland did not want government fiat to create economic winners or losers. He argued that abandonment of the gold standard would impair confidence in the currency and further disrupt business. Above all, however, for Cleveland a contract was a contract: Those who borrowed money were morally bound to pay it back in real value, and those who saved it should reap benefits. In 1894 he vetoed a bill that would have expanded silver coinage and led to "the cheapening of the dollar."

The battle intensified in 1895 as Cleveland attacked critics of the gold standard, insisting that inflation would injure "the poor, as they reckon the loss in their scanty support, and the laborer or workingman, as he sees the money he has received for his toil shrink and shrivel in his hand when he tenders it for the necessities to supply the humble home." Pro-inflation leaders shot back with personal attacks. Senator "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman in January, 1896, called Cleveland a "besotted tyrant" who was "self-idolatrous ... an arrogant and obstinate ruler." Tillman promised to stick his pitchfork into Cleveland's "fat ribs."

Support for Cleveland within the Democratic Party plummeted, as proponents of quick fixes gained popularity. The Democrats endorsed a silver standard and looked to inflate the size of the federal government. One of their leaders, the silver-tongued silver advocate William Jennings Bryan, excited the 20,000 people who gathered in Chicago for the 1896 Democratic convention. His penetrating voice reached throughout the hall, without the aid of a microphone. The excitement was greatest when Bryan, calling "the moneyed interests" latter-day Pontius Pilates, employed strong Christian symbolism: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Awed journalists searched their minds for glowing descriptive expressions. Mark Sullivan described how Bryan's speech "brought tears to the eyes of men and caused women in the gallery to become hysterical." Charles Warren described what happened after the speech: "There was a pause. Then occurred a wild and hysterical uprising; waves of deafening cheers and yells swept from end to end of the building and back again, unceasing in their tumult." Harry Peck also wrote of "tumult like that of a great sea thundering against the dikes. Twenty thousand men and women went mad with the irresistible enthusiasm." One senator simply said, "Glorious."

Bryan, whom Cleveland termed a "demagogue and insolent crusader," received the nomination. He was crushed in the general election by the Republican candidate, William McKinley.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.