Gilded Age


During a political speech issued by William Jennings Bryan who was a presidential nominee at the time in the U.S. elections, he uttered the words “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Important to note is that these words signified a long political struggle which had alienated both black and white farmers given that the government wanted to adopt a single monetary standard. Therefore, this led to the outbreak of the longest protest movement which later resulted in the Civil War in 1861. The primary reason behind this was because the U.S. Treasury had issued paper money which meant that American citizens would no longer convert their amounts into silver or gold. Moreover, during the Civil War, the paper money had traded at a discount compared to the gold coins.

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It was during the Gilded Age that the enforcement of the Coinage Act took place in 1873. The Civil War saw the implementation of the gold standard after a divisive era among American citizens owing to the monetary standard. The Democrats were the only individuals who openly supported the bimetallic monetary standard during the 1896 convention. William Jennings Bryan had the belief that despite losing control of the House and Senate in 1894, supporting of silver would bring together the disaffected Democrats and in turn assist him win the nomination and the presidency as well. However, before the convention, those in support of silver were ineffective compared to those supporting the gold standard. Hence, William had to reveal and alienation of the American farmers in a bid to gunner more support when it came to the outcome of the platform.

Populist Movement Between the 1870s and 1890s

The passing of the Coinage Act came in 1873 a few years after the Civil War. Therefore, the U.S. started using the gold standard as it would better trade with other countries already using a similar standard. However, some of the Americans referred to as the Silverites had the belief that the bi-metallic standard was the most appropriate for the country’s economic health. For this reason, the Bland-Allison Act came into enforcement in 1877 and subsequently the Sherman Silver Purchasing Act in 1890. Hence, there was the re-introduction of silver as one of the currencies in the United States. Initially, the farmers were among those left out in the prosperity and had to organize themselves given the success they had achieved. Their inability to have a major political party embrace their agenda meant that they had to field various candidates using different labels. It was in 1892 that the agrarians came together to form the People’s or Populist Party.

The debates on the appropriate monetary standard for use in the U.S. continued resulting in an economic panic in 1893 when the country entered an economic depression. The period between 1892 to 1898 was when the Populist Party received their results in the elections. At the 1896 Democratic Convention, William Jennings Bryan won the presidential nomination but on the silver inflation platform. Bryan lost to the hated William McKinley which meant the Democrats Party had swallowed the Populist. In particular, in 1898, the cotton prices fell below the costs incurred by production and the Populist candidates received the lowest number of votes than in the previous election. Therefore, it had come to the realization of farmers that the influence of the Populist movement had faded away.

The Populist Legacy and its Importance

Despite William Jennings Bryan losing, it had become apparent that the Democrats and Republicans had realized the only way to defeat third parties was through adopting their reforms. However, the Populist organizations embarked to join the Social Party headed by Eugene Debs who later had the largest influence in Oklahoma and other rural areas. Therefore, the reforms of the Populists reflected the ideals of the modern society that push for inclusivity and not a corporate mission. Important to note is that the Populist movement involved a vibrant and active citizenry who would channel political power in the right direction. Thus, they showed a good example of the power of mobilization making the upper class to initiate a counter attack challenge.

Most of the populist programs ended up as reform agendas of the Republican and Democratic parties. They include the federal income tax, direct election of senators, the Federal Reserve Bank, subsidizing farm marketing and credit, introducing a National Weather Service, expanding the agricultural education and research services, the Rural Free Delivery among others were all engineered by the Populists. Similarly, the term populist has in most instances referred to anti-elitism where the demos and protests held against political, cultural, and economic come into play. For this matter, the Progressive movement has continued to push for the causes and goals of the Populist movement. Hence, the movement left behind a great legacy that will have a significant influence and importance.