• Few things are harder for contemporary Americans to understand about the 1890s than the grand debate over monetary policy. Many people have heard the phrase “Free Silver,” few people know what it means. Goldbugs? Silverites? Monometallism versus Bimetallism? Eyes glaze over — it means nothing to anyone.
After all, today the American monetary system is based on nothing other than the amorphous “full faith and credit of the government of the United States” — yet it works, because people believe in it and continue to accept currency for the payment of debts and as a mechanism for the conveyance of goods. Even an obvious Ponzi scheme backed by the full faith and credit of no government — Bitcoin — manages to hold its value. So what was the big problem?
In actuality, few issues were so important during the late 1880s and the 1890s. Sectional rivalries and class interests came to a head, pitting the established, moneyed East against Midwestern and Southern farmers cramped for credit, as well as Western mining interests. A depression racked the nation, pushing millions out of work and a legion of tramps on the road. With recession following recession capped by the 1893 collapse, something clearly was fundamentally wrong with the American economic system. The debate raged.
The United States was a relatively young country during the period of the First Volume of Debs (1877-1896) — barely 100 years old. Previous experience with unbacked paper money here during the American Revolution and abroad during the French Revolution which followed was fairly fresh and not good: hyperinflation and economic disarray. Paper money had made its brief return during the Civil War and the result was more or less the same: inflation in the North, hyperinflation in the South. The need for a “sound” basis of a historically-accepted physical commodity back of each dollar — gold or silver — was accepted as axiomatic by economists of the era.
It was a tangled situation. As Debs notes in his September 1893 piece “The Money Question,” the de facto monetary system of the United States from the passage of the Coinage Act in 1792 until 1873, when the silver dollar was largely demonetized, was primarily based on gold — EVD juxtaposes the grand total of 8 million silver dollars minted cumulatively over that time against $900 million in gold coins of all denominations. I haven’t checked his math, but it is a pretty impressive statement.
In brief: during the Civil War the Union funded itself through the sale of securities, which were purchased with inflated money but which the wealthy holders sought to redeem in gold. Similarly, those who lent money sought to be repaid in gold — inflation being very bad for lenders and good for borrowers, who could receive high value money today to be redeemed with low value money tomorrow.
However, there simply was not enough money to go around to keep the nation running. The years from 1873 until 1896 were marked by one recession (“panic”) after another, capped by the catastrophic economic collapse of 1893, which was the biggest single hit to the American economy until the Great Depression of the 1930s. (What year was the Pullman Strike again? 1894. No coincidence.)
“Free Silver” was the idea that silver dollars should be produced in essentially unlimited quantities, with full value for payment of all debts, public and private. An agent of a mining company could roll up on the mint with a wagon-load of freshly mined silver, have it assayed, and receive in return real live paper money exchangeable for the silver dollars that were to be coined from that silver. Thus a great deal more currency would be put into circulation, the financial contraction and tightening of trade and credit ended, and the economic ship of state would sail smoothly again. Obviously, the mine owners and miners of the West were one very vocal interest group in favor of this system. It is also not accidental that there were mints in operation in San Francisco — the leading city of the West and mecca of the California gold rush of 1849 — and Carson City, Nevada — regional capital of the silver mining industry. (See the CC mintmark on the photos of those two coins above? That’s what that means).
The devil was in the details. To use both gold and silver in mass quantities, simultaneously, meant that a fixed ratio had to be determined between these metals. The problem was, they were in flux, with silver’s value generally falling over time relative to gold. Silver interests sought to prop up the price by maintaining an artificially high ratio of silver-to-gold, 16-to-1 being their magic number, a proposition which economists universally believed would drive the more valuable gold and gold-backed paper money from the economy as people hoarded the yellow metal and traded in bastardized silver. They even had a name for this frequently observed phenomenon: Gresham’s Law.
The result of a move to bimetallism (simultaneous use of gold and silver to back the national currency) would be calamitous, moneyed Eastern interests were sure: inflation at home and the collapse of international trade abroad, since virtually every country in the world was on the gold standard and it was in that medium that international deals were made. Indeed, gold standard supporters starting with President Grover Cleveland were certain that uncertainty over the economic future caused by Congressional meddling in the monetary system was precisely the cause of the collapse of 1893.
Things got hot between “gold bugs” and “silverites,” with both the major parties factionally divided on the issue and the new People’s Party making hay in the South, Midwest, and West on the matter of monetary reform.
Debs? He was a silver guy, of course. In fact, I bumped into a comment he made to a newspaper in which he stated he was in favor of paper money — sacrilege! Gene Debs was funny like that.
Oh, by the way, the big moneyed Eastern bankers and their political friends won the day. Capitalism is funny like that.
• I spent the better part of one of my four research days this week making a really nice scan of an article of Paolo Colleta’s “Greenbackers, Goldbugs, and Silverites: Currency Reform and Politics, 1860-1897.” It’s arguably too pretty as scans from books go — it took me three full hours to polish it up — but when I spend the time scanning something, I try to make sure it’s work well done about something of lasting importance. I feel that this article qualifies.
Coletta’s piece was first published by Syracuse University Press in Wayne Morgan’s 1963 collection, The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal. It turns out that the publication date is important. Copyright of books published in the United States between the years 1923 and 1963 had to be physically renewed in the 28th year, otherwise those works would lapse into the public domain — and that book wasn’t. My hope is that making the scan easily available on Archive.org, with appropriate in-links from Wikipedia, will be helpful to people trying to figure out the ins and outs of 19th Century monetary policy, as I was.
Here’s THE LINK to the full Coletta piece if you happen to be interested.
• I spent some time this week working on one of the behind-the-scenes tools that I frequently use without comment, my timeline of Debs’s activities. I prowl through the newspapers year by year at Newspapers.com, making use of their excellent search engine to find mentions of Debs. If he makes a speech, I try to make a note of the when and where and to whom and about what of the event. It is a surprisingly useful thing to have when dating reprints of his speeches that appeared from time to time in the Appeal to Reason and other publications.
Here’s a snippet:
- March 31, 1896. Los Angeles speech at Hazard’s Pavillion. Lights up the Los Angeles Times.
- April 10, 1896. Speaks to 2,000 striking garment workers in Chicago, introduced by Rev. W.H. Carwardine. Speaks again in evening at the Erie Street Methodist Episcopal Church and a third time later at night to striking workers.
- April 15. University of Chicago faculty association deems Debs a “dangerous element” and prohibits the school’s oratorical society from continuing with their invitation to him to speak at some date in the next term. This reversed by school president Harper within a week.
- April 24, 1896. Visits saloon of Oscar Neebe of Haymarket fame and spends an hour talking with him.
- May 1, 1896. Takes special train from Terre Haute to St. Louis to address a crowd anticipated to hit the 10,000 mark.
- May 14, 1896. Macon, GA, touring the South for the ARU. Arrives pm and speaks at night.
- May 16. Arrives Columbus, GA.
- May 17. Speaks Columbus, GA.
- May 17, 1896. Chicago Labor Congress passes resolution endorsing Debs for President of the United States.
- May 18. Arrives Birmingham, AL.
- May 19. Speaks Birmingham, AL at Lakeview Park.
- May 20. Speaks to 600 miners for two hours at Blocton, AL.
And so on and so forth… The chronology — which currently stands at nearly 4,000 words and is constantly growing — has already proved itself quite useful to me for what I do, but I doubt if much or any of it makes print in the book; consequently, any hours I have spent on the “Debs Timeline” feel a lot like goofing off. And I goofed off this week, let there be no mistake.
Then again, given the range of other potential activities, diddling away a couple dozen hours on a timeline isn’t the worst thing I could be doing with my afternoons. And I did discover two new short Debs interviews and three terse telegrams because I was playing with the Debs Timeline this week, so there’s that positive benefit as well.
• I also donated my monthly Subbotnik to Wikipedia this week, turning a pile of crap biography of Pennsylvania populist politician Joseph C. Sibley (1850-1926) into a more reasonable effort befitting a five term Member of Congress. Sibley, who looked uncannily like Gene Debs’s beloved little brother and personal secretary Theodore, was a leading advocate of Free Silver during the 1890s economic debate and delivered a very high quality oration to Congress on the topic. It is a work that is downright Debsian, if I may say so…
I discovered Sibley through Debs, who quoted a poem that Sibley either wrote himself or cited in the aforementioned Congressional address. Debs adored making use of poetry in his journalism and speeches, and what he wrote, I must footnote. Thus we arrive at Sibley and my Wikipedia task is found…
Here is the poem cited by Debs, by the way — the one either written by Sibley (who definitely did write poetry, mind you) or quoted by Sibley (his use is the earliest I found):
• Just one Debs-related book acquisition this week. Bouck White’s The Call of the Carpenter, published by Doubleday, Page & Co. early in 1912, is a landmark of the Christian socialism movement and seems to have been at least warmly received — if not regarded as deeply influential — by Gene Debs. While I expected a novel or a novelized biography from the radical divine, White actually delivers a bit more than than, opening with a provocative, not to say inflammatory, essay ascribing the malaise of the late 19th Century church with its conscious alignment with the forces of money and power.
White takes first, failing steps towards social history, attempting to explain the relationship between the central Roman Empire and local authority in the peripheries and the daily life of working people in the Near East during Christ’s era. Jesus is portrayed as a skilled craftsman, called “The Carpenter” throughout, and is made into a defender of the poor against external state power.
I think the book probably sold pretty well in its day — there are quite a few used copies on the market and the average price for the title is low. Moreover, it has been scanned a whole bunch of times as well, so feel free to download a copy for free if you want to give it a look. Use THIS LINK.
The book arrived late in the week and I haven’t had a chance to do more than give it a cursory glance. I will probably read it closely when we’re putting together volume 3, as I know that Debs both read the book when it came out and was influenced by it. It was, after all, another statement of his own view of the “radical historical Jesus.”
• “Industrial Peace” — March 1893 article — 835 words
• “The Interstate Commerce Commission” — March 1893 article — 1,440 words
• “Standing Armies” — March 1893 article — 1,110 words
• “Carnegie” — April 1893 article — 1,275 words
• “Coming Events” — April 1893 article — 850 words
• “Congress, Pinkertons, and Organized Labor” — April 1893 article — 1,250 words
• “The Hawaiian, or Sandwich Islands” — April 1893 article — 700 words
• “Law, Lawmakers, and Politics” — April 1893 article — 1,250 words
• “Labor Deliberation” — May 1893 article — 910 words
• “Anti-Poverty” — June 1893 article — 1,100 words
• “Labor and Legislation” — June 1893 article — 1,210 words
• “A Railway Party in Politics” — July 1893 article — 1,680 words
• “Russianizing the United States” — July 1893 article — 850 words
• “The Chicago Anarchists” — Aug. 1893 article — 1,765 words
• “The Pulpit and Socialism” — Sept. 1893 article — 1,950 words
• “The Money Question” — Sept. 1893 article — 2,425 words
• “Business Depression and Legislation” — Oct. 1893 article — 2,310 words
• “Defenseless Wage Earners” — Oct. 1893 article — 1,485 words
• “Labor, Capital, and Distribution of Property” — Nov. 1893 article — 2,415 words
• “Ready for Another Fight: Statement to the Associated Press” — April 1896 — 290 words
• “Statement Declining Nomination for President” — May 1896 statement — 185 words
• “Gold, Silver, and National Banks” — June 1896 interview — 870 words
….Word count = 529,715 words in the can + 28,165 this week = 557,880 words
• 3 more Saturdays to go until the July 1 target for the end of output of editable text. There are still 55 article pdfs remaining to be processed (or rejected at second reading).
As always, the above material is either now up or will be up within the next week or so at the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive on MIA, curated by David Walters.