Studies in American Political Development

Research Article

Populism, Paranoia, and the Politics of Free Silver

Samuel DeCanioa1 c1

a1 Yale University


This essay defends the Populists against charges that they espoused an irrationally conspiratorial view of American history. Focusing on monetary policy, and the free silver issue in particular, I argue that the Populists correctly suspected that bankers conspired to demonetize silver and demonstrate that William Ralston, president of The Bank of California, secretly bribed Treasury Department bureaucrats and used Western congressmen to pass the Coinage Act of 1873. Ralston's involvement in silver's demonetization has important ramifications for our understanding of the free silver movement. Some of the congressmen who helped Ralston demonetize silver paradoxically went on to lead the free silver movement, blaming Eastern financiers for the measure they helped pass, and created organizations such as the American Bimetallic League and the American Bimetallic Party, organizations that popularized the ideas subsequently adopted by the Populists and William Jennings Bryan. As some leaders of the free silver movement were deeply involved in silver's demonetization, this period exhibited levels of duplicity that have been unrecognized until now.

(Online publication April 07 2011)

Thanks to John Bullock, Greg Caldeira, Daniel Carpenter, Seth Center, Stephen DeCanio, Dennis Drabelle, Mark Fenster, Jeffrey Friedman, Jonathan Ladd, Morgan Marietta, Nuno Monteiro, Hans Noel, Stephen Skowronek, Corwin D. Smidt, and David Stebenne for helpful comments and suggestions. A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Special thanks to two anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions.