Free Silver and the Free Silver Movement

1873–1900

Free Silver was a policy that allowed for the unlimited production of silver coins by the United States Treasury. The policy was eliminated by the Coinage Act of 1873, which led to an outcry for its return, known as the Free Silver Movement, during the Gilded Age.

Free Silver Movement, Definition, Facts, APUSH, Political Cartoon

This 1896 political cartoon by Charles Jay Taylor criticizes the Free Silver Movement. It depicts a wagon labeled “Free Silver” filled with a group of “free silver” supporters identified as Tillman, Boies, Sheehan, Bland, Blackburn, Bryan, Sewall, Pattison, Sibley, Jones, Geo. Fred Williams, Peffer, [and] Altgeld; Tillman holds a pitchfork with a flag labeled “Repudiation” and Altgeld holds a burning torch. The wagon had been harnessed to a mule wearing a halter labeled “Democracy”; but has broken loose and is gathering speed as it rolls backward down a hill. Image Source: Library of Congress.

What was Free Silver?

Free Silver was a monetary policy that allowed the unlimited production of silver coins. The policy was eliminated in the early years of the political turmoil of the Gilded Age.

What was the Free Silver Movement?

The Free Silver Movement was an organized effort that advocated the unlimited coinage of silver in the late 19th Century, at the end of the Gilded Age. Advocates called for the government to mint an unlimited number of silver coins, as a way to ease the economic difficulties faced by Western farmers and others, primarily the silver mining industry. The concept of Free Silver played a significant role in the Presidential Election of 1896 and contributed to the United States adopting the Gold Standard.

Facts about Free Silver and the Free Silver Movement

Free Silver and Free Silver Movement Summary

These facts provide a summary overview of Free Silver and the Free Silver Movement, which played significant roles in the economy of the United States and the government’s economic policies during the Gilded Age.

Bimetallism — Gold and Silver

  • Bimetallism is a monetary policy that allows the unrestricted use of two metals — in this case, gold and silver.
  • Under this policy, one metal is typically valued higher than the other.

Bimetallism in the United States

  • The debate over Bimetallism started early in United States history.
  • In the early years, the U.S. operated on a “bimetallic standard,” using both gold and silver as currency.
  • However, the U.S. Treasury set the value of silver lower than the value of gold.
  • The value of gold, in relation to silver, was 16 to 1, so gold was more valuable.
  • A silver dollar was minted with 16 times more silver in it than a gold dollar.

Effects of Bimetallism on the United States

  • Under the Bimetallic System, U.S. currency was backed by gold and silver.
  • The buying power of the U.S. shifted based on the rise and fall of the market price of gold and silver, which made things complicated.

Higher Prices for Silver and Fewer Coins

  • A decrease in silver mining in the 1840s–1850s led to an increase in the value of silver because there was less silver available.
  • Because of the shortage, miners sold silver on the open market rather than to the U.S. Treasury.
  • Because of this, the Treasury coined less silver during the 1850s–1860s.

Hard Money and Soft Money

  • Gold and silver coins are typically called “Specie” or “Hard Money.”
  • A currency that is printed on paper is known as “Paper Money” or “Soft Money/”

Greenbacks

  • During the Civil War and the administration of President Abraham Lincoln, the government issued $450 million in paper money, known as Greenbacks.
  • Greenbacks were first issued in 1862.
  • Greenbacks were “Fiat Money” — government-issued currency that is not backed by a physical commodity, like gold or silver.
  • The use of Greenbacks led to a decrease in the use of hard money as currency.

Exchanging Greenbacks for Gold and Silver

  • Following the war, the government worked to reduce the amount of Greenbacks in circulation and increase the amount of hard money.
  • During the administration of President Andrew Johnson, the government implemented a policy that allowed people to exchange Greenbacks for hard money.
  • Because gold was more valuable than silver, most people wanted to exchange their Greenbacks for gold.
  • The preference for gold was not only in the U.S. but also worldwide, because many nations started shifting to the Gold Standard.

The Coinage Act and the Panic of 1873

  • In 1873, the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress demonetized silver dollars through the Coinage Act (1873).
  • This move followed the lead of many European nations.
  • That same year, Europe suffered an economic downturn, which affected the U.S., causing the Panic of 1873.
  • The Panic of 1873 triggered the “First Great Depression,” which lasted until 1877, but lingered as part of a period known as the “Long Depression.”
  • It took Congress three years to pass the bill, due to its controversial nature, and the effects it would have on Free Silver Policy.
  • The Coinage Act was intended to simplify the financial system by eliminating silver and going away from the Bimetallic System.
  • Silver coins that were in circulation were still usable, but new ones were not made.

The Crime of ‘73

  • After the Coinage Act was enacted, western miners discovered new silver deposits.
  • The market was flooded with silver, dramatically reducing its value.
  • As the U.S. suffered from the economic downturn, owners of Greenbacks wanted to be able to trade their paper money for silver coins, but they were not being minted due to the Coinage Act.
  • Critics of the Coinage Act referred to it as the “Crime of ‘73.”

Free Silver Policy and the Crime of ‘73

  • Before the passage of the Coinage Act, people could take gold or silver to the U.S. Mint and have it pressed into coins that were legal — or “legal tender.”
  • The ability to convert as much silver as needed to money was called the “Free Silver Policy.”
  • The Coinage Act ended the Free Silver Policy, which had been very popular in the United States.
  • However, gold could still be converted to legal tender coins.

Silverites and the Beginning of the Free Silver Movement

  • American farmers believed the amount of currency in circulation influenced the market prices for their crops.
  • They believed that if there were more silver coins in circulation, it would inflate the market prices, allowing them to make more money, which could be used to pay off old debts.
  • Silver-mine operators also supported the coinage of silver, hoping for increased government purchases of their product.
  • Advocates of the unlimited coinage of silver were known as “Silverites.”
  • Silverites supported Free Silver and Bimetallism and used the slogan, “16 to 1.”

The Bland-Allison Act (1878) Returns Silver Dollars

  • Missouri Representative Richard Bland led the way toward remonetizing silver, and was known as “Silver Dick.”
  • In the Senate, William B. Allison of Iowa led the way.
  • Congress enacted the Bland-Allison Act in 1878. 
  • President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode the veto.
  • The bill required the government to buy $2-4 million worth of silver each month and use it to make silver dollars.
  • Silver had to be purchased at market rates, not at a rate that was tied to the value of gold.
  • The Bland-Allison Act fell short in satisfying the demand for unlimited silver coinage.

President Hayes Stalls the Coinage of Silver

  • The Hayes Administration responded by purchasing the least amount of silver possible.
  • Hayes was influenced by bankers and industrialists who supported the Gold Standard.
Rutherford B Hayes, 19th President
President Rutherford B. Hayes. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The Free Silver Movement Grows

Various groups called for the government to “Free Silver” and allow the unlimited coinage of silver, including:

  1. National Farmers’ Alliance
  2. Populist Party
  3. Industrial Unions

Support for Free Silver in the West

  • By 1890, western farmers and companies that mined silver were pushing for Free Silver.
  • The additions of new states, including Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota, increased pressure on the government from Western interests.

Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890)

  • In 1890, Congress enacted the Sherman Silver Purchase Act to address the demands of silver advocates.
  • The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was part of a compromise:
    • Republicans supported the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.
    • Democrats supported the Tariff of 1890, also known as the “McKinley Tariff.”
  • Per the act, the Treasury would purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver each month at market rates.
  • The Treasury would issue notes that could be redeemed in either gold or silver.

The Price of Silver Drops

  • The amount of silver the Treasury planned to buy was essentially the same as what the mines were outputting each month.
  • The increase in the silver supply drove the value of silver down because it reduced scarcity.
  • Mining operations responded by cutting wages, which led to labor unrest.

Shrinking Gold Reserves

Two things led to a decrease in the amount of gold held in the nation’s Gold Reserve and played an important role in how President Grover Cleveland responded to the Panic of 1893

  1. As silver decreased in value, owners of the silver certificates cashed them in for gold, instead of silver.
  2. The 51st Congress and President Benjamin Harrison increased federal spending and set a budget of $1 billion which was aimed at internal improvements, expansion of the U.S. Navy, and provided subsidies for steamship companies. The 51st Congress is also known as the “Billion Dollar Congress.”

Panic of 1893

  • The financial collapse of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company contributed to an economic downturn.
  • The situation was worsened by a drought that affected the production of crops in the South and the West.
  • President Grover Cleveland and many members of Congress believed the downturn was part of the natural economic cycle.

Repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act

  • President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was concerned about the Gold Reserves and believed the Sherman Act was partially responsible for the Panic of 1893.
  • A few weeks after President Cleveland was sworn in, the Gold Reserves fell under $100 million, weakening trust in the nation’s financial stability.
  • Cleveland called Congress into a special session.
  • Republicans were joined by enough Democrats and the Sherman Act was repealed.
  • However, the move failed to help ease the economic downturn, especially in the West and South.
  • Democrats and Free Silver advocates were upset with Cleveland.

President Cleveland’s Bond Deal

  • President Grover Cleveland took measures to boost the Gold Reserves.
  • The government sold bonds at discounted rates to wealthy investors, including J.P. Morgan.
  • The Gold Reserves were boosted and trust in the government was restored.
  • President Cleveland’s deal with Morgan and others angered groups within the Democratic Party that supported the interests of farmers, which created a divide in the party.
Grover Cleveland, Portrait
President Grover Cleveland. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Populist Party and Free Silver

  • The depression that followed the Panic of 1893 and President Cleveland’s policies boosted the growing Populist Movement.
  • Between 1893 and 1896, the Free Silver movement gained significant traction. 
  • Many Democrats aligned with the Populist Party on the Free Silver issue.

Free Silver and the Presidential Election of 1896

  • Free Silver was an important issue during the 1896 Presidential Election.
  • The debate over gold and silver is sometimes called the “Battle of the Standards.”
  • The Democratic Party supported Free Silver and nominated William Jennings Bryant as its candidate for President. 
  • The Populist Party also endorsed Bryan.

Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech

  • During the Democratic National Convention, William Jennings Bryan delivered a speech in favor of Free Silver.
  • Bryan criticized the Gold Standard and warned its advocates that they “…shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”
  • Because of this phrase, it is known as the “Cross of Gold Speech.”
  • The speech propelled him to the nomination.

Free Silver and Gold Bugs

  • Supporters of the gold standard were often referred to as “Gold Bugs.”
  • Gold Bugs argued against Free Silver, on the grounds it harmed the working class.
  • The Republican Party supported the Gold Standard.
  • The party nominated William McKinley for President in 1896.

The Silver Party and the Silver Republican Party

The debate over Free Silver led to the development of new political parties:

  1. Republican Silver Party — an offshoot of the Republican Party, which was supported by western mining interests. The party supported William Jennings Bryan for President. This party lasted from 1896 to 1901.
  2. Silver Party — Founded in 1892, the Silver Party was organized in the West and held some influence in Nevada. The party was aligned with the Populist Party and was eventually absorbed into the Democratic Party, ending in 1911.

William McKinley and the Gold Standard

  • William McKinley won the 1896 Presidential Election.
  • The economy rebounded under the gold standard by 1896.
  • The Gold Standard Act of 1900 established the gold dollar as the official American standard of value.
  • The U.S. remained on the Gold Standard until 1971, during the administration of President Richard Nixon.
William McKinley, 1897, Portrait, Benziger
William McKinley. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Free Silver Movement APUSH

Use the following links and videos to study the Free Silver Movement, the Presidency of Grover Cleveland, and the Gilded Age for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Free Silver Movement Definition

The Free Silver Movement was a political movement in the United States that advocated for the unrestricted coinage of silver at a fixed ratio to gold. Proponents of free silver, primarily farmers and silver miners, believed that increasing the money supply through the unlimited coinage of silver would ease economic hardships, particularly for debtors, by causing inflation and lowering the value of money. The movement gained momentum in the 1890s, leading to the formation of the Populist Party, which adopted Free Silver as part of its platform. The Free Silver Movement ultimately failed and the United States adopted the Gold Standard in 1900.

Free Silver Movement APUSH Units

The Free Silver Movement is part of the following:

Free Silver Movement Lesson Plans and Resources

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Free Silver and the Free Silver Movement
  • Date 1873–1900
  • Author
  • Keywords Free Silver, Free Silver Movement, Coinage Act of 1873, Panic of 1873, Bimetallism, Greenbacks, Crime of '73, Silverites, Gold Bugs, Bland-Allison Act, Sherman Silver Purchase Act, William Jennings Bryan, Cross of Gold Speech, William McKinley, Gold Standard
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 15, 2024

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