Monday, April 1, 2013
On the Birth of American Populism
On the Birth of American Populism: Toward the end of the nineteenth century, bimetallism (or the option to pay for goods in gold and silver) became a major political issue in the United States. In 1873, Congress passed the Fourth Coinage Act, which essentially did away with the silver option and pegged the U.S. dollar to the price of gold. This law heavily favored East Coast urban elites like bankers and had drastic consequences for many Midwestern farmers. After a series of severe droughts in the 1880s, which eroded the livelihoods of many farmers, noted populist writer Mary Elizabeth Lease stated "We need to raise less corn and more Hell!" And by the early 1890s, a Populist Party formed to advocate a bimetallist platform and compete with the Democratic Party for political influence in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the Populist movement's peak occurred during the 1896 presidential election when William Jennings Bryan delivered his famed "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In effect, Bryan was the fusion candidate of the Populist and Democratic parties who offered this scathing proposition to gold-toting Republicans: "Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."