Rare Coins and Politics – Part 2

“You shall not crucify mankind on a Cross of Gold!”

Those were the words of William Jennings Bryan at the Democratic Convention in 1896, and a crowd of 20,000 delegates and party supporters cheered him on. The presidential candidate was only 36 years old at the time, but the speech vaulted him to the forefront of the party and won him the nomination. As famous as the speech is even today, there is still some confusion over what the controversy of “Free Silver” was all about.

Under Grover Cleveland the federal gold reserves had fallen to nearly zero, and J. P. Morgan was called in to bail out the government, which backed its paper money with these nearly non-existent gold reserves. Morgan made a gigantic profit from the government bonds he received in payment, and the public perceived that Cleveland was in cahoots with the devil himself.

With Cleveland politically dead, Bryan took the opportunity to push the Populist platform that proposed equal footing for silver as a currency reserve. The noted historian Kenneth C. Davis, in his book Don’t Know Much About History, explains it this way: “’Free Silver’ became the new Populist rallying cry, a demand to return America to a standard using both silver and gold coins.” As superb an historian as Davis is, he doesn’t have the facts quite right on this one.

Gold and silver coins already had equal footing in 1896, but only gold was being used for reserves, and the intrinsic value of the gold coins was greater than that of its silver counterparts. The silver interests (mine owners, etc.) wanted to make silver coins bigger, for one thing, and anyone who has seen some the so-called “Bryan money” from that era can attest to the oversized coinage that was proposed. Secondly, if silver became 50% of the national reserves then demand and prices would soar.

“Free Silver” was the solution to the country’s economic woes, or so it was thought, and Bryan and the Democrats/Populists nearly rode the wave into the White House before losing to Republican William McKinley.

Bryan’s brilliant verbal skills carried him to two more nominations, both unsuccessful. Today he is perhaps best remembered as the prosecuting attorney in the famous “Monkey Trial,” when a Tennessee schoolteacher named John Thomas Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in the public schools. Bryan won an empty victory in that trial, and died soon afterwards.

Did you know that the beloved Mercury dime is actually a symbol of fascism? Wait, don’t throw away your beautiful set until all the facts are in! We live in a world of change, and nothing changes as fast as the American language. On the reverse of the Mercury dime there is a fasces, which is a bundle of rods bound around an ax. In Roman times, it was a symbol of authority, and it made a wonderful representation of America’s power when it was introduced on our coinage in 1916.

To quote once again from Kenneth Davis: “When Benito Mussolini adopted the term [fascism], he used it quite proudly. In 1925, Mussolini installed himself as head of a single party-state he called fascismo. While most of Europe disarmed [after the First World War], Mussolini rearmed Italy during the twenties. Mussolini saw military adventurism as the means to keep the Italian people loyal, and Italy embarked on wars in Africa and in support of General Francisco Franco’s Spanish rebels.”

From Roman times until the early 20th century the root word “fasces” and its derivatives shared a positive connotation. Mussolini changed that forever, and today the word “fascist” carries a strongly derogatory meaning.

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