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Populism, Paranoia, and the Politics of Free Silver

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 April 2011

Samuel DeCanio*
Affiliation:
Yale University

Abstract

This essay defends the Populists against charges that they espoused an irrationally conspiratorial view of American history. Focusing on monetary policy, and the free silver issue in particular, I argue that the Populists correctly suspected that bankers conspired to demonetize silver and demonstrate that William Ralston, president of The Bank of California, secretly bribed Treasury Department bureaucrats and used Western congressmen to pass the Coinage Act of 1873. Ralston's involvement in silver's demonetization has important ramifications for our understanding of the free silver movement. Some of the congressmen who helped Ralston demonetize silver paradoxically went on to lead the free silver movement, blaming Eastern financiers for the measure they helped pass, and created organizations such as the American Bimetallic League and the American Bimetallic Party, organizations that popularized the ideas subsequently adopted by the Populists and William Jennings Bryan. As some leaders of the free silver movement were deeply involved in silver's demonetization, this period exhibited levels of duplicity that have been unrecognized until now.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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