9 July 1896. William Jennings Bryan, the young, free-silver proponent from Nebraska had just finished his vitriolic assault on the gold standard at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Illinois by raising the applause to a fever pitch with the following iconic line: “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, 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 upon a cross of gold.”
He was carried around the room on the shoulders of the cheering delegates, and two days later accepted the nomination to serve as the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. But not every Democrat rejoiced. While Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech has been labeled one of the most important political statements in American history, many in his own party thought Bryan had subverted “Democratic principles” by playing fast and loose with the facts and by pandering to the masses. A famous political cartoon in Judge Magazine depicted Bryan as a snake swallowing the Democratic Party whole.
In response, several prominent Democrats, including President Grover Cleveland, supported the creation of a splinter party in order to give Democrats an avenue to avoid voting Republican. Led by members from the Cleveland cabinet and the United States Congress, the group met in Indianapolis in September 1896 and selected John M. Palmer, a former Union general and United States Senator from Illinois, as its presidential nominee, and Simon B. Buckner, a former Confederate general and ex-governor of Kentucky, as its vice-presidential candidate. This event is now regarded as little more than a footnote in American political history, but modern Americans, particularly libertarians and paleo-conservatives, should take note of the party, its history, and its platform.
Politics since the 1850s had become a game of sectional division. The Republican Party was based on sectional animosity and when the Democratic Party split in 1860, some Northern Democrats uncomfortable with secession found a home with the Republicans until after the war. The Northern “Peace Democrats” stayed true to the traditional principles of the party: free trade, sound money, limited government, and Constitutional law, but they were outnumbered and marginalized in much of the North by the rabid Republican “reptiles” as one Democrat called them. It seems that those who favor limited government are always pushed to the back burner during times of “crisis.”
Reconstruction altered the American political landscape. Men who considered military Reconstruction an abomination defected in droves to the Democratic Party, and as the South regained its political footing, the Party reclaimed its national flavor. The stolen presidential election of 1876 illustrated that a strong Democratic candidate with national appeal could compete against the Yankee dominated Republican Party. Democrats celebrated victory in 1884 when former New York Governor Grover Cleveland defeated Maine Radical Republican James G. Blaine in a close, mud-slinging contest for president.
Democrats had regained power, but continued success appeared elusive. Cleveland lost in 1888 due to voter fraud but returned to the executive mansion in 1892; however, because of the Panic of 1893, the Party seemed to be losing favor among the American public, particularly in the South and West. Cleveland’s support for a sound money policy that maintained the gold standard and fiscal responsibility produced cracks in the party. Several Democrats began pushing for inflationary bimetallism and the free coinage of silver, and they found support among farmers and debtors theoretically hurt by the deflationary boom of the 1880s and 1890s. Never mind that the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 – authored by the “Old Icicle,” Republican John Sherman of Ohio, brother of General William T. Sherman – had caused a run on gold and a currency crisis. To them, silver seemed to be the inflationary tonic to their economic troubles. More money in circulation meant a better economy, right? Well, at least it meant potentially more votes.
Of course, the newly created National Democratic Party (NDP) responded with a resolute NO! The executive committee of the NDP published a “Campaign Text-Book” to provide facts and arguments and was “intended for writers – especially for editors; and for speakers – particularly those engaged in debate; and it is put in handy form that it may be carried in the pocket and easily consulted.” This little handbook is a treasure of information and a valuable window into the 1896 campaign and late-nineteenth-century politics.
The NDP emphasized that it was the only national party left. By continuing to insist on a protective tariff and illegal taxation, Republicans could not count on many votes in the South or West, and the Bryan silverites alienated Northern and Eastern sound money proponents. A platform that adhered to the gold standard and limited, Constitutional government would find support among all sections and people. This, coupled with the nomination of a “Union/Confederate” ticket showed that the NDP was willing to put sectional and class division aside for the good of the United States. Too bad not many listened.
The handbook characterized a true Democrat as one who believed “in the ability of every individual, unassisted, if unfettered by law, to achieve his own happiness, and, therefore, that to every citizen there should be secured the right and opportunity peaceably to pursue whatever course of conduct he would, provided such conduct deprived no other individual of the equal freedom of the same right and opportunity.” In short, true Democrats believed in “Individual Liberty” and “disbelieved in the ability of government, through paternal legislation or supervision, to increase the happiness of the nation.” To that end, the party proclaimed it was “opposed to paternalism and all class legislation.” This, of course, is part of the American political tradition, a tradition that has been co-opted by the left in an attempt to portray “equality” and “justice for all” through government aid as the foundation of the United States. The NDP could see the writing on the wall in 1896. Anyone with a brain could. Free silver was just the start.
Buckner connected the dots in his acceptance speech. He insisted “that for every one hundred cents’ worth of work done by the laborer he shall receive one hundred cents” and called for “the commerce of the world shall be brought to our ports in free ships, untaxed for the benefit of any special interest in this country.” Buckner declared that the free-silver platform championed by Bryan and adopted by the Democrats at Chicago was a ruse and a trap. They were not and could not be called traditional Democrats. Rather, they were a ship flying the false colors of Republican “protection and fiatism and Populistic communism, repudiation, and anarchism…” in the hope that they would lull the unsuspecting American public into their clutches and then bury them “in the chasm which they dig for the prosperity of the country.” Gold, fiscal responsibility, and individual liberty were the only hallmarks of good government.
Most Americans forget or were never told that the Republican Party passed the first income tax in American history and that it used “greenbacks” to inflate the money supply during the War for Southern Independence in order to pay for the military conquest of the South. Republicans supported the fusion of government, finance, and industry, i.e. state capitalism, and central banking. The NDP correctly illustrated that the Republican Party was still the party of taxes in 1896. (It still is; they just don’t tell you that.) The Republican candidate for president in that year, William McKinley, authored the bill that provided for the highest protective tariff in American history, the McKinley Tariff of 1890. This taxed imported goods at a rate of forty-six percent, a rate that certainly prohibited free commerce and in part led to the Panic of 1893.
The Republicans did support the gold standard, and they used that to their advantage in 1896 by running with the issue during the election. Many “gold Democrats” supported McKinley because of that one issue in both 1896 and 1900 and only defected in 1904 when Alton Parker was nominated by the Democrats on a sound money platform. The “gold Democrats” were finally smothered by the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, the man who at one time backed the NDP only to become one of the most ardent centralizers in American history.
The creation of the NDP was a last gasp effort to save the founding principles of the United States. No major party has adhered to them since. They tallied weak numbers during the 1896 election (less than 1 percent of the total popular vote) and only finished ahead of the Prohibition Party candidate by seven thousand votes. The Party posted fairly good numbers in the Northeast, and in Delaware and Alabama, but not enough to swing any of those states. These small numbers have led to the conclusion that they were irrelevant dinosaurs of the late-nineteenth century. Not so fast.
The NDP proved that there were still men of importance who favored limited government, state’s rights, fiscal responsibility, and the individual, and though few of them voted for the Palmer/Buckner ticket, sound money and limited government remained important political issues until Franklin Roosevelt pulled the United States off a hard money policy in 1934 and usurped legislative powers through the New Deal. Excessive federal spending on both wars and social engineering programs ultimately led the United States to abandon sound money entirely under Richard Nixon. That, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story, but it doesn’t have to be.
Americans are beginning to relearn the benefits of a sound money policy, and the principles of the NDP have not disappeared from the American polity. The Party “text-book” could still be used today as a general handbook of limited government and sound money. Most of the book is dedicated to a defense of the gold standard and a “myth busting” attack on free silver proponents and inflationary zealots. In one particularly interesting section, the NDP illustrates how falling agricultural prices had nothing to do with the gold standard and how an inflated money supply would neither raise wholesale prices nor bring prosperity. As production and efficiency increase, prices will naturally decrease relative to the value of the dollar. Inflation would not solve that economic reality. Note the comic flyer inserted as evidence:
As the NDP stated, “What the working man wants is a dollar whose purchasing power either remains unchanged or increases.” Keynesian economics and the FED won’t provide a stable and powerful dollar – 100 cents for every 100 cents of work. Only limited government and gold can do that. Americans may not have the NDP or “gold Democrats,” but we have their handbook, freedom of speech, and the Internet, the only items needed to disseminate the truth. The pendulum may finally be swinging back the other way.