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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
the newly created National Democratic Party (NDP) responded with
a resolute NO! The executive committee of the NDP published a
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
[send him mail] received
his Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina
and is a History Professor at Chattahoochee Valley Community College
in Phenix City, Alabama. He is the author of the forthcoming Politically
Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, June, 2009).