Article by George Sibley
Colorado History – November 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine
A NATION BROUGHT TO THE VERGE
Revisiting the Election of 1896
The election campaign of 1996 should have been more interesting than it has been so far — and it also should have been more about the way the economy is undermining our democratic principles.
With the growing transfer of wealth from workers to owners, with American industry abandoning America for the bottom-line advantages of Third World economies, with the gutting of environmental and public health regulations across the nation, with more children in poverty than ever, and with a sense of futility infusing most of our young people — it seems like we have some things to work out as an electorate.
The national quadrennial political roadshow is offering us choices, of course, sort of, uh… We’ve got a menu of abortion alternatives, and numerous proposals to re-reform the minuscule portion of the national budget that is welfare-related. We’ve heard promises to shift law enforcement from tougher to toughest, and dreams of bigger badder wars on drugs. Oh, yes, and we’ve all been apprised on which candidate would be a better father for us all.
But we are not hearing much intelligent debate on the political economy and its reform. Even worse, we are not demanding it. We seem conditioned to accept that inequity is just a fact of life, that those with far more than anyone can use actually deserve such bounty, and that those who are poor are lazy defectives who also deserve their lot.
This makes me long for an election like the one whose centennial our politicians are ignoring this year. The election of 1896 is worth exploring from a Central Colorado perspective because it was a revolution in which Colorado — especially the silver fields of central and southern Colorado — played a major, but ultimately confusing, role.
To understand that election, and thereby understand what’s wrong with the election of 1996, you have to distinguish between two political ideas: “democracy” and “plutocracy.” Lincoln probably gave us the best definition of democracy when he said “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In other words, in a democracy the people themselves decide, and thereafter modify, what processes and structures of governance will most equitably serve the needs and aspirations of all of the people.
A plutocracy, on the other hand, is “government of, by and for the wealthy.” In a plutocracy, wealth and property are protected and the needs and aspirations associated with wealth are given priority in matters of governance. A plutocracy is literally “the best government money can buy.”
In 1896, the American plutocracy, which is basically running uncontested this year, actually had to defend itself against the last real grassroots uprising of American democracy.
As is the case this year, a third party played a significant role, but it was not a third party like Ross Perot’s. No wealthy men financed the third party in 1896; it was instead the culmination of close to 30 years of grassroots efforts by “plain people” to regain some measure of control over their economic and political lives.
That didn’t happen; their party lost, and Democracy lost. Republican William McKinley carried the day over William Jennings Bryan, a candidate nominated by both the Democrats and the most successful third party in our history, the Populist “People’s Party.”
But in losing, Bryan got more votes than any previous winning candidate had ever received, and a message was sent. After Bryan’s near win, the financial needs of ordinary people received at least lip service — right up until the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” which was actually just the ascendance of a plutocratic counter-revolution.
At first blush, it seems incredible that a plutocratic political system could be confused with a democratic one, but it is a logical enough consequence in a society where wealth is a paramount cultural goal. If everyone wants to become rich, and if everyone believes that he or she can become rich, then it makes sense to let the rich rule. Plutocracy thus springs from two beliefs dear to the American mythology:
1) The rich are superior individuals who deserve what they have.
2) Anyone who exhibits the right moral qualities — pluck, initiative, creativity of the right sort, and an uncomplaining and positive attitude — can become rich. Conversely, anyone who is not rich can be assumed to not have practiced those qualities.
Of these two beliefs, the second is the most important in establishing and maintaining a plutocracy. As long as there is a prominent fantasy that anyone with a good attitude who works hard and has pluck (and maybe a little luck) will get rich, then the society has a crude but compelling organizing principle. The rich can generally arrange the government however they want, and the masses will go along, believing that pretty soon they will be rich, and helping to run things themselves.
Certainly that was the spirit in which people flocked to Colorado in the years during and following the Civil War. People weren’t coming in search of democratic equality; they wanted to exercise their freedom to get rich. And in the early years, as the mining districts opened up, from the Front Range, to Pike’s Peak, to Leadville, to the San Juans and Elk Mountains, the general ratio of one local success story to every thousand miners wasn’t that discouraging.
But the Colorado silver districts were tricky, unlike those in California, where much of the gold was in placer deposits that a single man or a small group could get to with fairly simple equipment and a lot of “sweat capital.” The gold and silver in Colorado deposits was still “in the rock.” Ore trapped in quartz and lode formations required increasingly deep mining with increasingly heavy and expensive equipment — and that meant serious capital investment, most of which had to be imported from New York and London via Denver.
In The Politics of Populism: Dissent in Colorado, James Wright observed that “the essential ingredients for the tremendous growth of the Colorado mining industry [in the 1880s] were applied science and capital,” and “the vast majority of the miners in the state were neither scientists nor capitalists.” The effect of this on the American dream, according to Wright, was devastating:
The myth of success and the prospector legend died in the 1880s. As the restless miners crisscrossed the continental divide, following the successive booms, from Leadville to Creede, the mining frontier of Colorado became history…. The first men on the ground might lay claim to a rich mine, which usually ended up the property of powerful Denver or eastern syndicates, while the latecomers would ultimately go to work as day laborers after the frustration of unsuccessful prospecting…. Wages [three dollars for a ten-hour day] changed little in the 1880s, and many mines tended to drop wages with downward fluctuations in the price of silver while refusing the converse of raising wages with increases in the market price of the metal….
If the Colorado mine laborers were the only ones beginning to suspect the deck was stacked against them, nothing would have come of it. But in every sector of American society after the Civil War, “plain people” were coming to the same conclusion.
Farmers across the nation were beginning to question a system that charged them what it wanted for the capital equipment necessary to grow food for the cities — then paid them what it wanted, through a distant commodities market, for their crops, irrespective of the farmers’ costs. That system always meant top dollar for equipment, and bottom dollar for crops. Farmers also began to understand that the outrageous rates the railroads charged them to ship their crops (they had to grow two bushels to pay for shipping one), were the way the railroad was able to pay dividends on stock that had been “watered” to about one-fourth its real investment value.
Those who left the farms for the cities quickly learned the odds were against an uncapitalized individual. Very few made the transition from wage worker to owner or investor. Yet farmers still fled to the cities, further eroding the tenuous farm community that had been Jefferson’s hope for a republican alternative to the industrial mass society.
Thus, farmers and laborers began to understand the distinction between the illusions of democracy and the realities of plutocracy. Obviously, neither the capitalists nor “the best government that money could buy” were going to do anything for “plain people” — because labor was just another cost to be minimized to insure returns on investments. Farmers and laborers began to organize to do what they could for themselves — together.
Abandoning the plutocratically-sanctioned mythology of “the rugged American individual,” farmers began to evolve what historian Lawrence Goodwyn called “a new language of cooperation.” They organized local cooperatives and cash stores for buying goods and marketing their crops. When the local plutocrats got the county commissioners and sheriff down on the co-ops, organized farmers began nominating and electing their own commissioners and state legislators.
By 1890, there were The Grangers, the Greenback Party, the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, the Labor Union Party, and a thousand local Farmers’ Alliance groups that had united in a National Farmers’ Alliance more than a million strong. Goodwyn, in his vivid but thoughtful history of the period, The Populist Moment, summarized the “revolutionary psychology” of this vast grassroots organization through the last quarter of the 19th century:
“Since the American Revolution, the `plain people’ of the country had imbibed the cultural teachings generated by the respectable elements of society…. They had, with few exceptions, demonstrated that they had learned good manners and had remained properly deferential to their betters…. But the [groups organizing across the nation were] exploring another path, one steeped in a new language of cooperation…. And — self-evidently — it was not grounded in deference.”
In the late 1880s, when several statewide coops had organized but needed access to credit, the National Farmers Alliance learned that the economy was not so apolitical as advertised. Those who controlled credit refused to make money by helping farmers regain control over their own debt.
So in February 1892, the Alliance organized an assembly of all the reform groups in St. Louis, for the purpose of considering creation of a national political party. By then, their only recourse appeared to be capturing control of the government, which controlled the money supply.
The task they faced was daunting because the Republican and Democratic parties were, in effect, still fighting the Civil War with a very aggressive “bloody-shirt” sectionalism. A Republican North and a Democratic South took their own sections for granted and used old animosities to compete in the expanding West.
L.L. Polk, a North Carolina Alliance man who wanted a third party, welcomed the various delegates with a challenge, “The time has arrived for the great West, the great South, and the great [Old] Northwest, to link their hands and hearts together and march to the ballot box and take possession of the government, restore it to the principles of our fathers, and run it in the interest of the people.” He emphasized that “not the war of twenty-five years ago … but the gigantic struggle of today between the classes and the masses … is the supreme incentive and object of this great political revolution.”
Strong stuff then (or now, for that matter), but the crusading high of the meeting came from Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota:
We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin…. The people are demoralized…. The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrate, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists…. The fruits of the toils of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented in the history of the world, while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty.
… We charge that the controlling influences dominating the old political parties have allowed the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to restrain or prevent them. They have agreed to ignore in the coming campaign every issue but one. They propose to drown the cries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, “watered stocks,” the demonetization of silver, and the oppression of usurers, may all be lost sight of….
Shades of 1996, when the “old political parties” want to similarly distract us with “sham battles” about family values and abortion.
The many streams of populist reform — if not revolution — created a new populist political party in St. Louis, the People’s Party. On July 4, 1892, the People’s Party convened in Omaha for a convention, and tried to transcend the politically debilitating Civil War sectionalism by nominating a former Union General, James B. Weaver, for president and a former Confederate General, James G. Field, for vice-president.
The Omaha platform, preambled by Donnelly’s oration, was a platform for radical economic reform. They wanted the railroads, communications systems (telegraph and telephone) and banks heavily regulated, and even nationalized. They advanced a plan for federal “sub-treasury” warehouses in every agricultural community, where farmers could store their crops until they got a reasonable price for them, and could borrow against crops with negotiable certificates of deposit from the government in the meantime. They wanted an increase in currency to $50 per capita (from under $25).
Of more interest to Coloradans in the mining districts, they also advocated a return to bimetallic money and the “free and unlimited coinage of silver.” It becomes necessary to discuss, for a moment, “money” — what it is, or might be, and why it matters who says what it is.
The “nature” of money, and its meaning and role in a society, was a constant and heated topic of debate from the end of the Civil War until today. The terms of the debate keep changing, but it still hasn’t ended. It simplifies things somewhat — maybe too much, maybe not — to say that this was, and is, a debate between creditors and debtors. In America, in the post-Civil War epoch, this meant that it was also a debate between East (where the creditors were) and West (where the debtors were), between owners and workers, and between consumers and farmers.
On the one side of the money issue were the “hard money” people, who believed that all money should either be made of or based on precious metal, which has long been accorded some mystical intrinsic value. The purists were the “gold bugs” who believed in a “gold standard.” They argued that every piece of paper money should be a “gold certificate,” promising that the paper could be exchanged for gold.
From Revolutionary days up to the Civil War, however, America had been on a “bimetallic standard,” issuing money that was backed by gold and silver. That’s not ideal by gold-bug standards, but acceptable.
On the other side were “soft money,” or “fiat money” people, called “greenbackers,” who believed that money was nothing more, nor less, than a social convention for facilitating the exchange of goods and services.
America’s “proto-greenbacker,” Edward Kellogg, a merchant who had lost big in the Panic of 1837 and thereafter devoted himself to the study of international finance, argued that “pebbles or any other material would answer the same purposes as gold and silver, if law could make them a legal tender for debt, and control the quantity.” The Greenbackers and subsequent “soft money” advocates argued that currency should not be arbitrarily tied to stores of metal, but should expand or contract with the population and the population’s willingness to put money to work.
The economics here is not really so difficult or subtle as economists make it out to be. Those to whom money is owed, creditors, tend to be “hard money” people who like a tight and limited currency. Those who owe money, debtors, tend to be “soft money” people who want or need an expansive, even inflating currency.
If, for example, you borrow a dollar from me, and the number of dollars in circulation per capita contracts by 10 percent before you pay me back, then the dollar you return will be worth about 10 percent more than it was when I loaned it to you. If on the other hand, the number of dollars in circulation per capita doubles before you pay it back, then the purchasing power of that dollar may be as little as half what it was when I loaned it.
Once they ceased to be “properly deferential to their betters” and started listening to Alliance lecturers, the farmers, industrial workers, miners, westerners and other “plain people” started to think “by, for and of” themselves and their kind. They saw what a political thing money really was, and how a government could, through what it did about the money supply, favor creditors or debtors, owners or producers.
They also realized that, at the end of the war in 1865, there had been $30 in circulation for every man, woman and child in America, but by 1889, there was only $23 in circulation per capita. And with billions of that concentrated in the fortunes of the Morgans, Carnegies, Goulds and others who were extremely rich, a lot of the $23 per capita was not really in general circulation but merely moved around in closed investment circles.
“Plain people” could no longer be convinced that this was a level playing field or an honest deck. They thought an increase in the money supply to $50 per capita might begin to set things right, without unduly pauperizing those who were already rich.
The trouble, and ultimately the confusion, over money began with financial decisions after the Civil War. The nation had departed from the bimetallic standard during the Civil War, financing the war with “fiat money” unbacked by gold or silver. After the war, the financiers who held the war debt wanted the currency firmed up, and lobbied Congress to put the nation on a pure gold standard. Even silver seemed too “soft” and expansive to the creditor class, due in part to the silver that was beginning to come out of Colorado and the West.
As befits governance in a plutocracy, the federal government quietly tried to do the will of those who, then as now, financed political careers. It attempted to demonetize silver and go to a gold standard. But this act contributed to a business-cycle recession, the Panic of 1873, and helped initiate the phenomenal wave of grassroots organizing already described.
In 1878, Congress passed a compromise act that required the Treasury to buy a certain amount of silver each month although “silver certificates” would not be issued against it, and the nation officially went on the gold standard in 1879.
The demonetization of silver hit Colorado, especially the silver belt in Central Colorado, very hard. Colorado had become the nation’s leading silver producer by the 1890s, supplying more than a third of the nation’s production. As a result, a lot of Coloradans who were opposed to the rest of populist ideology (including small and large businessmen, mine owners and investors), found themselves hit hard enough by the silver problem to rethink their traditional politics.
The uproar from the west for a return to bimetallism led to another compromise measure in 1890, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Although the gold standard was retained, the government, under President Benjamin Harrison, agreed to buy more silver, at a ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to an ounce of gold.
In the election of 1892, the populist People’s Party carried four states — enough to announce the arrival of a new set of somewhat organized ideas on the political scene. One of the states was Colorado, where the People’s Party swept almost everything. They elected a governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, attorney general, and superintendent of public instruction. The People’s governor was Davis Waite, a radical newspaper editor from Aspen.
Historians still go round about whether Colorado elected a populist government or just a pro-silver government. For one thing, the farmers of eastern Colorado did not give the People’s Party a majority but stayed with the “parties of the fathers.” In a C.U. thesis analyzing the 1892 election in Colorado county by county, Elizabeth Wegman-French showed that only the silver-mining counties in central and southern Colorado and the urbanizing Front Range counties gave a plurality to the Populists. She concludes that “populism in Colorado was an urban, industrial, metal mining phenomena that especially attracted immigrants and residents of declining municipalities.”
Since both the Republican and Democratic candidates at the national level in 1892 had declared for the gold standard, it seems probable that some Coloradans voted for the People’s Party as an economic vote against the gold standard rather than a vote for the political economy advocated by the People’s Party. Consider this excerpt from a Chaffee County paper that advertised its politics in its name — Buena Vista’s Colorado Democrat:
The Colorado Democrat now stands as out as the only paper in Chaffee County with grit enough to uphold the banner of free silver as against the gold bugs, Harrison [the Republican candidate for president] and Cleveland [the Democrat]…. The bread and butter of our people, our homes, our comforts, speaks stronger than the slogans of the politician.
Is that just a pro-silver stand, or also a stand for the populist goal of empowering the people? How is it different from the populist farmers of the south or midwest demanding that the government protect their crop prices by regulating commodities brokers and railroads? Wegman-French suggests that “it seems reasonable to view the movement as a grassroots movement, which reflected the interests of each region” that embraced it.
The depth of commitment to populism in Colorado, however, can perhaps be more accurately measured in its response to the populist government it elected. There can be no doubt that Governor Waite was committed to the whole populist agenda. With a strong heart but a heavy and occasionally clumsy hand, he set about changing the course of American history immediately — and immediately got himself crosswise with almost all elements of the status quo. During his term, the legislature became the first in the nation to vote in women’s suffrage — an achievement that came back to haunt him in his reelection effort in 1894 when Republican entrepreneurs in the Denver flesh trade organized their girls to vote against him.
When the miners struck against a wage decrease in Cripple Creek in 1893, Waite became the first governor in American history to send in the militia to protect the workers, an act that alienated him from capital in the state. His assaults on popular and lucrative forms of corruption in the Denver area gained him no new friends and lost him some marginal ones. As is often the case with righteous and vigorous reformers in American politics, “nothing fails like success.”
It also did not help that President Cleveland repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, totally collapsing an already silver-glutted market when the government stopped buying. Nobody felt the subsequent Panic of 1893 worse than Colorado, and while that was not Waite’s fault, he was in office when it happened. His defeat in the 1894 election — with even populist papers like the Chaffee County Record failing to support him — foreshadowed the future of populism.
But the money issue only grew more central, and Colorado’s contribution to a growing obfuscation on that issue may have been the state’s major contribution to the politics of the day. And the resulting turmoil was undoubtedly a gift to the Republicans and the plutocracy.
The purest of the populists wanted the money supply to expand in ways that reflected changes in the population and the population’s economic energy, and they believed that could only happen if money were uncoupled from any metallic standards.
The “sub-treasury” warehouse plan advocated in the Populists’ 1892 Omaha Platform, with its negotiable certificates of deposits for farmers, would have required a government that was siding with the “plain people” against the moneyed people, by abetting a potentially inflationary currency — a real pipe dream. In a sense, it would have replaced the “metallic standard” for money with a “food standard. Maybe that wasn’t a bad idea for anyone who, like King Midas, had tried to survive on a diet of metal, but it was hardly a shoo-in at the polls. Compared to the purists’ plank, the “free and unlimited coinage of silver” was a pretty moderate, even conservative, idea.
Meanwhile, however, in the realm of realpolitik “the free and unlimited coinage of silver” would have expanded (and inflated) the money supply significantly, and advocating it expanded the appeal of the People’s Party in the West — since the other two parties refused to reject the gold standard.
Therefore, as the 1896 election approached with most of the 1892 gains erased in the 1894 election, the People’s Party had to decide whether it was “better to be right or to be president” and go for what they could realistically get.
The editor of the Salida Mail, a Republican paper, stated the dilemma for them:
The populists will in all probability try to capture the new silver party or any other movement in favor of free silver. If they do the cause for another four years is lost. If populists want free silver they must unload their isms and agree to work for bi-metalism solely. Republicans and democrats cannot be expected to swallow a peck of bitter pills in order to reach the sugar coated one…. Do they love silver less or party more? This is the test; will they meet it or will they do the very thing for which they have been crying down others, stick to the party first, last and all come what may?… Will some editor from among the populist ranks care to take a stand?
John Hollenbeck of the Arkansas Valley’s populist paper, the Chaffee County Record, answered, but his answer seems to reflect the downhome confusion between populist ideals and political realities:
Loyal citizens, read, study and reflect. What say you — shall we have a continuation of gold bug rule, or declare ourselves true and loyal Americans and standing upon the constitution of the United States as a platform of principles insist upon the free and unlimited coinage of gold and silver at the ratio of 16 to 1…. the day, the hour has come when the people must lay aside their prejudices, their party subservience and unite as one man to restore the great principles established and administered by their fathers, by Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson and Lincoln, which is a government for all the people based upon the one common basis of liberty, equality and justice…. Loyal citizens of Chaffee County waste no more time, but be up and doing for your country. Get together at once and make your arrangements for sending a full delegation to the silver convention to be held in Denver on June 25….
Reading that a hundred years later, how is one to decide whether silver was the issue, or just a symbol for something deeper — a yearning for equity and opportunity that has always been an American undercurrent?
The summer of 1896 was one of the most interesting political seasons in American history. The Republicans convened in June and nominated William McKinley, a confirmed “gold bug.” When the Republicans put a gold plank in their platform, Colorado’s Senator Henry Teller led a Western walk-out of “Silver Republicans” from the convention.
The Democrats met in July, with the expectation that Richard “Silver Dick” Bland, a silver man from Missouri, would be nominated. But a handsome young Nebraska politician, 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan, took the convention by storm during debate on the silver plank. Speaking against the gold standard and the way it contracted the currency for the benefit of wealthy creditors in an expanding population, Bryan colorfully characterized the gold bugs as “a Nebraska farmer” who, after loaning a neighbor a hundred-pound hog, demanded to be paid back with a two-hundred-pound hog:
…even though he contended that he was only demanding one hog — just the number he loaned. The poor man who takes property by force is called a thief, but the creditor who can by legislation make a debtor pay a dollar twice as large as he borrowed is praised as the friend of a sound currency.
He mapped out the conflict in the election:
On the one side stand the corporate interests of the nation, moneyed institutions, aggregations of wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant, compassionless. They demand special legislation, favors, privileges, and immunities…. On the other side stand the unnumbered throng which gave a name to the Democratic party and for which it has assumed to speak. Work-worn and dust-begrimed, they make their sad appeal….
But now the people were rising up and uniting under the banner of silver:
We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them…. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation … we will answer their 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 on a cross of gold!
Standing back with his arms outspread in cruciform, Bryan not only captured the Democratic nomination in that moment but effectively captured the essence, if not the substance, of the populist rhetoric. He also captured a lot of the “Silver Republicans” like Teller back home in Colorado. Paul Smith, editor of the once-Republican Salida Mail, reported his conversion:
The democratic party now stands on the ground upon which Abraham Lincoln and his followers stood. Therefore do we pledge our undivided support to Bryan and [his V.P. candidate Arthur] Sewall…. The platform on which we stand is, “bimetallism, sixteen to one, prosperity to all the people, and no isms.”
Convening in St. Louis a couple weeks later, the People’s Party found itself split between old-line populists (mostly southerners) who knew that, over the long term, bimetallic money was as much the problem as monometallic, and “fusionists” (mostly westerners). Fusionists wanted to join with the Democrats on the assumption that it would be “better to be president than to be right.”
The fusionists eventually carried the day in an extremely emotional convention. The Populists nominated Bryan, but insisted upon their own nominee for vice-president, thereby giving Bryan two vice-presidential candidates. Smith of the Salida Mail described the convention for the folks back in the Arkansas valley:
The greatest convention ever held by the peoples party completed its labors in St. Louis Saturday evening by placing in nomination W. J. Bryan, the democratic nominee, for president and Thomas L. Watson, ex-Congressman of Georgia for vice-president.
The scenes attendant upon the convention were of the wildest disorder and some fistic encounters occurred. The western and northern delegates were mainly for the endorsement of the democratic nominees and for temporarily abandoning all ideas of the party except the financial one…. The southern contingent, however, held stubbornly to the middle-of-the-road and finally only so far compromised as to nominate the ticket above mentioned….
The populist platform practically coincides with the democratic on the financial question, the tariff, the income tax and some other important points. The sub-treasury scheme of the Omaha platform is omitted…. Though in many ways extreme, it is quite conservative from a populist point of view….
John Hollenbeck, of the populist Chaffee County Record, tried to put a positive face on it:
The outcome of the St. Louis convention was a sore disappointment … [but] the western populists are all right. Their party organization will remain intact and they are, and will continue to be the reform party even if they are compelled to work through some other.
But Smith at the Mail — now a Democrat but no lover of the People’s Party — was less sanguine as the election approached:
It actually seems that the populist party has committed suicide…. In conversation with leading populists here it may be learned that almost to a man they express themselves as dissatisfied with the action of the convention and declare that their vote will be cast for Bryan and Sewall.
So, saddled with two vice-presidential candidates, the fusion “boy orator of the Platte” hit the trains and traveled some 18,000 miles taking the silver crusade to the nation, while William McKinley sat on his porch receiving visitors in Canton, Ohio, and let his brilliant Republican chairman Mark Hanna orchestrate the most powerful and pervasive campaign money could buy at that time — $3.5 million worth, to the $300,000 Bryan was able to raise. Hanna more or less invented the modern media blitz with that campaign, although he only had print media to use. He used it, along with a lot of strong ward organization in the urban northeast, to spread fear of the collapse of industry and the total loss of jobs, should the fusion party win.
Money, and allegedly the most widespread incidences of urban-ward ballot-box stuffing and tombstone-voting in any national election, carried the day. Bryan got a million more votes than any previous winning candidate, and won all the states south of the Mason-Dixon line and all but five states west of the Mississippi. But McKinley won the entire Northeast and Old Northwest Territory, where the population was still concentrated, getting 60% of the electoral college and 51 percent of the popular vote.
It was effectively the end of Populism — at least under that rubric. They continued to run candidates in local and state elections, with occasional success, but the People’s Party was no longer a factor in national politics.
So was it all a “striving after the wind”? In It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own, a thorough and readable “New History of the American West,” historian Richard White argues that it was not.
The Populists did inject demands for sweeping economic reform and popular participation into national politics, and they articulated a new, if often hazy and fleeting, vision of a cooperative western society. Farmers [and mine workers, I would add] declared their unwillingness to leave politics to a village elite, currency to bankers, and economics to businessmen. The Populist response to hardship was profoundly democratic. Populists were unwillingly to select passively between choices presented them by others; they formulated choices of their own.
And miners and other industrial workers brought together under the Populist banner continued to organize. Farmers continued to build cooperatives and create a common voice, By the mid-20th century, the “plain people” had established — perhaps tenuously, it now seems — democratic beachheads in the plutocracy. The railroads were regulated; unions were legitimized. Huge bureaucracies came into being on behalf of workers, farmers, and the poor. The United States began to go off the gold standard in 1934, and completely “de-metallized” the dollar in 1971. Although the Populists have disappeared, the challenge they launched against the plutocracy has been carried on with some success.
It’s only today, when watching the current election, that one might wonder if it was all for naught. In the wake of Reaganomics, the all-out assault on labor unions, the successful demonizing of the poor, the NAFTA and GATT treaties, and the measurable decline in middle-class standards of living, the American plutocracy seems stronger than it ever was. Plutocrats are free to go wherever they want in the world to escape the meddling of reformers trying to establish environmental sanity and economic justice. The Federal Reserve has replaced the gold standard as a way of keeping the money supply tight the way creditors like it.
But best of all from the plutocratic perspective, most Americans seem to have reembraced those beliefs necessary for blurring the distinction between democracy and plutocracy. Cooperative organizations like unions are “totally uncool” to most Americans today. Cultural alienation is once more celebrated as “individualism,” and “lifestyles of the rich and famous” is the cultural dream again. Most people seem to believe that if you aren’t rich yet, it’s probably your own fault. And television, the most powerful indoctrinating media in history, trivializes the human condition and reinforces the plutocratic agenda.
Now, in 1996, can we even comprehend the election of 1896? As Lawrence Goodwyn notes, “political life in America has once more returned to normal levels of resignation”:
— it becomes quite difficult for people to grasp the scope of popular hopes that were alive in an earlier time when democratic expectations were larger than those people permit themselves to have today…. In a society in which sophisticated deference masks private resignation, the democratic dreams of the Populists have been difficult for twentieth-century people to even imagine.
George Sibley, a former ski patrolman, sawmill operator, and forest-fire fighter, is currently an academic odd-jobber at Western State College in Gunnison.