The Free Silver Campaign of 1896 and its Influence on African-American Voters

By The American Numismatic Society

In the latest issue of the ANS Magazine, Helena Kagan wrote an admirable article that articulated the nuances of the Free Silver campaign led by Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, during the Presidential race of 1896. Republicans, with William McKinley as their candidate, were in favor of keeping the gold standard as the sole basis for our nation’s currency. This group of monometallists was dubbed the “St. Louis platform.” Democrats on the other hand were for the free coinage of silver, allowing silver and gold to circulate together at a rate of 16:1—polymetallists known as the “Chicago platform.” Notably, as Kagan concludes, Bryan and the Free Silver campaign was not a mere blip in United States politics that was gone by the next election cycle, but one that had initiated a shift of progressive ideals towards the Democratic Party that culminated with President Franklin D. Roosevelt—who often receives credit for this turn. In fact, Kagan notes that much of the New Deal had incorporated much of the Democratic platform of 1896 and the basic motives for Bryan are now fully implemented into the national monetary system. While the United States uses neither gold nor silver coinage, the fiat currency now in circulation largely encapsulates the spirit of the Free Silver campaign.

In the 1890s, there was, perhaps, no other group of people where this shift was more apparent than with African-American voters. Despite being largely disenfranchised and driven from the political process in much of the United States, various African-American leaders voiced their opinion on the topic of the currency standards of the United States. A number of these leaders backed the Democrats on the free coinage of silver, even going as far as throwing their entire support behind the Democratic Party and against the Party of Lincoln, supporting the same Democrats who were the most active in keeping African-Americans voters from participating in the political processes. In May of 1895, for instance, the Daily Public Ledger commented that “the Democratic Party is always for something free. It has advocated free whisky and Free-trade, and of course it must next declare for free silver. The only thing which the Democrats did not want free was the Negro.”[1]

In his Advice to the Colored Voters of the United States (1896), John Duker, African-American author and proprietor argued two main reasons of why the usage of silver alongside gold would be beneficial to the economy, and why this would not reduce the national currency to “commercial demoralization,” as many monometallists had predicted. The first is that the usage of silver “will give this country the full benefit of its product of the white metal, which is more than one half of the output of the world.”[2] Under the gold standard, the Treasury Department clearly did not use silver to maximum capabilities. The millions of ounces of silver that the federal government was required to purchase—as stipulated in the Bland-Allison Act of 1878—were coined into silver dollars and placed into Treasury vaults, where they remained until the 1950s and 1960s, only to be melted or sold for face value. Duker also stated that the usage of silver would also “increase the circulation medium, or foster business enterprises and increase wages.”[3] With a bimetallic system, more money could circulate, which would result in more business, better wages, and an overall more efficient economy.

Figure 1. George E. Taylor, African-American journalist and politician, helped sway the decisions of voters towards the Free Silver campaign.

George Edwin Taylor (1857–1925), African-American journalist and politician, took the same stance, but related the issue to class struggles (fig. 1). In Why We Should Favor the Chicago Platform, Taylor stated “that the laboring classes enjoy some of the society of silver money, is a truth, and that the gold barons have cunningly garnered away the gold in such a manner as to actually hold the government upon her knees.” While asking rhetorical questions, Taylor used many words that his target audience could relate to. He asks, “Can you, my fellow Negro, reason out any objections that you should make to the remonetization, or the liberation of silver? Can you answer to your own satisfaction, ‘Why should gold be king and silver slave?’ Are you afraid that silver will drive from your pocket book the gold that you now possess?”[4] By using such words as “liberation” and “slave,” Taylor relates the struggle of silver to that of African-American identity. In 1904, Taylor became the first African-American to official run for President of the United States, under the National Negro Liberty Party.

This shift of support from Republican issues to those of the Democratic Party may not have roused the entire African-American community, but it was also not isolated to these two men. Several African-American organizations were created to attract others to this cause. On October 6, 1896, The Morning Times from Washington, D.C. stated that “a number of colored free silver Democrats met at the Interstate Democratic headquarters last evening. An organization was effected to be known as the Negro Free Silver League.” Not surprisingly, the elected vice chairman of the organization was none other than John Duker.[5] In addition to national Free Silver organizations for African-Americans, there were also more localized efforts. For instance, by late August of 1896, Topeka, Kansas had three distinct organizations for the cause. J. R. Lyttle, organizer of the Free Silver Negro League of Topeka, noted that “this fight is not so much a party fight, as it is one for Americanism.” The first meeting, held at 615 North Kansas Avenue, comprised of only eighteen members, who elected Alfred Kuykendall as President, B. Elder as Vice President, and P. Gibson as Secretary (fig. 2).[6]

Figure 2. Alfred Kuykendall was elected President of the Free Silver Negro League of Topeka in 1896—one of many local organizations that championed the cause.

Amongst white Americans, there was some pushback in the political shift by African-Americans. For instance, the Staunton Spectator reported that “Gold bug Democrats have found a new excuse for quitting the party. The last one is because the negroes are going for free silver.”[7] Other accounts focused on racist stereotypes of African-Americans to demean their political actions and ideologies. The Evening Times of Washington, D.C., for example, reported that when M. Hoke Smith—at the time, the United States Secretary of the Interior—was in Georgia, he asked an African-American voter whether or not he was for Free Silver, the man “scratched his woolly head and said: ‘Wal, Mars’ Smif, I did favor free silber, suah’s you’s b’n, leetle while ago. But since you’s been in de State, Mars’ Smif, de ‘taters am a-growin’ and de ‘possum getting’ plenty. An’ I tell you what ‘tis, Mars’ Smif, gib dis here niggah plenty ‘possum and ‘taters, and’ yum, yum! Get up, chile an’ sing halluyah! I doan’ want no free silber. ‘Possum an’ ‘taters an’ free gol am good nuff fer me.’”[8]

The Free Silver campaign resulted in hundreds of different of types of tokens and medals struck for the cause—many others against. Several of these were highlighted in Kagan’s ANS Magazine article. Perhaps one of the most glaring difference between Free Silver organizations led by white Americans and those founded by African-American is the lack of numismatic material. Despite the hundreds of tokens and medals, none were issued by any of the latter groups. The Free Silver campaign ended up failing. Although Bryan lost the election, it laid the groundwork for future shifts in the US political system. At the time, the issue aroused enough people to actually initiate a shift in African-American support towards the Democratic Party—something that was unheard of before the New Deal of the 1930s.

[1] Daily Public Ledger (Maysville, KY), May 14, 1895: 2.

[2] Duker, 11.

[3] Duker, 11.

[4] Taylor, 7–8.

[5] The Morning Times, October 6, 1896.

[6] “Another Free Silver Club: J. R. Lyttle Organizes a Third Colored Club of 18 Members,” The Topeka State Journal, August 26, 1896: 1.

[7] Staunton Spectator (Staunton, VA), July 15, 1896: 2.

[8] “Sent from Washington,” The Evening Times (Washington, D.C.), August 16, 1895: 4.