The American Civil War provided the opportunity for introducing a national monopoly currency. In 1879, having won the war and built up its gold reserves, the federal government finally felt able to back its dollars with gold. Immediately voices arose seeking to make money plural again. The People’s Party (better known as the Populists) found their support mainly in the South and West, among poor farmers. They flourished during the first age of financial capitalism, when New York was beginning to rival London as the world’s main money centre. They wanted the government to address the chronic cash shortage in some parts of the country by issuing more paper money and unlimited silver coins. The rising price of gold and a corresponding fall in agricultural prices squeezed America’s farming communities; but the main cities enjoyed a boom in international trade, splitting the country on class and regional lines. Blaming Eastern bankers and politicians, the Populists settled on a monetary policy of bimetallism (silver coins in addition to the gold-backed currency). Their champion was William Jennings Bryan, twice defeated as Democratic candidate for president in 1896 and 1900. Bryan famously told the East Coast establishment, “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold”.
Also in 1900, a journalist called Frank Baum published an allegory, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A tornado lifts Dorothy and her dog out of their Kansas home and deposits them in the East. Dorothy and her companions set out on the “yellow brick” road to Oz (referring to gold, as ingots and ounces), evoking an 1894 march by the unemployed demanding more money and work for the common people. On the way she picks up a scarecrow (farm worker), a tin man (factory worker) and a cowardly lion (William Jennings Bryan). The Emerald City (New York) is controlled by the Wizard of Oz (a contemporary plutocrat), who fools the Munchkins (the people of the city) into not seeing how he and the bankers manipulate the levers of power. After the Wizard is exposed for what he is, the tin man gets a bimetallic tool and Dorothy’s magical silver slippers take her back to Kansas.
By Keith Hart.