free silver

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free silver,

in U.S. history, term designating the political movement for the unlimited coinage of silver.

Origins of the Movement

Free silver became a popular issue soon after the Panic of 1873, and it was a major issue in the next quarter century. The hard times of 1873–78 stimulated advocacy of cheap money, and the Greenback partyGreenback party,
in U.S. history, political organization formed in the years 1874–76 to promote currency expansion. The members were principally farmers of the West and the South; stricken by the Panic of 1873, they saw salvation in an inflated currency that would wipe out
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 nominated presidential candidates several times and flourished in local elections, especially in 1876 and 1878. The market price of silver fell rapidly after 1873, because of American and European demonetization of silver and because of increases in mine production. Inflationists failed to secure paper-money expansion and turned to silver, believing its free coinage would serve their purpose as well as greenbacks so long as a silver dollar was worth intrinsically less than a gold dollar. Silver-mining interests also wanted silver coinage to aid their business.

Political Ferment and Legislative Compromise

The demands for unlimited silver coinage led to the passage (1878) of a compromise measure, the Bland-Allison ActBland-Allison Act,
1878, passed by the U.S. Congress to provide for freer coinage of silver. The original bill offered by Representative Richard P. Bland incorporated the demands of the Western radicals for free and unlimited coinage of silver.
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, over President Hayes's veto. The act provided for definitely limited coinage at a ratio of 16 to 1 with gold, but its provisions were insufficient to halt the decline of silver prices, or to increase the circulation of money. Meanwhile, sectional lines over money were becoming sharply drawn. The financial interests in the East favored sound money and the gold standard. The indebted agrarian classes of the South and West demanded inflation, to ease debt burdens in the face of falling prices of farm products. Their demands were reinforced by Western silver-mining interests.

As the prosperity of the early 1880s vanished, demands arose again for free silver. By 1890 the political strength of the silver advocates, especially in the West, was so great that the Sherman Silver Purchase ActSherman Silver Purchase Act,
1890, passed by the U.S. Congress to supplant the Bland-Allison Act of 1878. It not only required the U.S. government to purchase nearly twice as much silver as before, but also added substantially to the amount of money already in circulation.
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, another compromise, was passed, to replace the Bland-Allison Act and to provide for increased government purchases of silver. The West's discontent was further emphasized by the rise of the Populist partyPopulist party,
in U.S. history, political party formed primarily to express the agrarian protest of the late 19th cent. In some states the party was known as the People's party.
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, with demands including free silver. The silver advocates were no longer content with compromise measures and were displeased by the 1892 presidential candidacy of Grover Cleveland, a supporter of the gold standard. Many silver Democrats deserted Cleveland to support James B. Weaver, the Populist candidate. This coalition of silverites and Populists was able to gain control of half a dozen Western states.

Advocates of free silver were enraged when the Panic of 1893 brought repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. By the middle of his second term, Cleveland's Western and Southern opponents had captured the Democratic party. Publication of Coin's Financial School, by William Hope HarveyHarvey, William Hope,
1851–1936, American writer on economics, called Coin Harvey, b. Buffalo, Putnam co., W.Va. He studied at Marshall College, practiced law, and interested himself in monetary problems.
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 (1894), made many converts to free silver by presenting the complicated money question in easily understood terms.

Decline of the Movement

In 1896 free silver became the major issue of a presidential campaign when William Jennings BryanBryan, William Jennings
, 1860–1925, American political leader, b. Salem, Ill. Although the nation consistently rejected him for the presidency, it eventually adopted many of the reforms he urged—the graduated federal income tax, popular election of senators, woman
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 made it the chief plank of his platform. McKinley's victory over Bryan then and again in 1900, coupled with increased gold supplies and returning prosperity, minimized free silver as a political issue. Yet the silver bloc, partly inspired by Nevada silver interests, continued to be active and secured legislation mandating heavy U.S. Treasury purchases of silver under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The decreasing supply of silver in the 1960s led the U.S. Treasury to end its use in coins and to sell its surplus stock of silver in 1970.


See A. B. Hepburn, History of Coinage and Currency in the United States (1924, repr. 1967); D. R. Dewey, Financial History of the United States (12th ed. 1934, repr. 1968); M. Leech, In the Days of McKinley (1959).

References in periodicals archive ?
10) Cleveland had for a time won the fight over free silver and helped to restore confidence in the American monetary system.
Using the facts and insights derived from a day-to-day study of the way in which five major newspapers covered the meeting of the Democrats in Chicago in July 1896, Bensel takes the reader into the deliberations that resulted in the nomination of William Jennings Bryan for president as the candidate of free silver.
They also included Storey, who denounced Free Silver to an audience of fellow Cleveland Democrats as a scam "organized and promoted by men directly interested in the promotion of that metal.
Mail readers returning their registration form this week will receive a free Silver Anniversary pin badge to mark the celebrations.
In the same race Adrian McCarthy picked up a one-day ban for careless riding aboard Free Silver, who finished third.
Sixteen-year-old biathlete Samantha Cook picked up lifetime bests and two medals - 800m free silver and 400m free bronze.
com/teach for free Silver Jewelry Clay lesson plans, discount online ordering and a catalog or circle No.
The new brochure from Portland celebrates the company's 25th anniversary with some real bargains free silver travel insurance, pounds 25 deposit, Premium seating on short haul flights from pounds 25 and discounts on online bookings.
By the late 1800s, bimetallism had become the political weathervane of the time, with the Free Silver movement gaining strength in the later Nineteenth Century.
Coming from a senator representing South Carolina, Tillman's intemperate remarks on secession and section offered opponents of bimetallism an opportunity to attack free silver as both financially unsound and as a new threat to national unity.
Yet Judis and Teixeira's premise is correct: A party organized around industrial workers is as out of place in the 21st century as one organized around free silver.
By presenting the free silver discussion and the formation of the Federal Reserve as potential solutions to then current economic situations, the students are introduced to economics as a means to solve problems.