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The Rise of Populism in America

Times were tough on the American farm in the 1890s. Crop prices fell as production rose. Credit was hard to get and interest rates were high. Many of the rural areas’ best and brightest had taken off to seek their fortunes in the cities.

These hard times triggered a political movement called Populism. Populists sought higher crop prices and lower interest rates. They wanted a system where farmers could deposit crops in storage facilities and use them as collateral for low-interest government loans.

They also wanted more money put into circulation and more silver coins made. The idea was that more money in circulation would raise prices, while their mortgage payments would stay the same. But it was also risky.

Money based on the amount of gold reserves the country had was more stable than money based on silver, because the amount of silver reserves was increasing and therefore could “cheapen” the value of money as the price of silver dropped.

Republicans generally opposed the Populist ideas, while Democrats generally lined up with the Populists. The Democrats nominated 36-year-old Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan as their 1896 presidential candidate.

Bryan, an outstanding orator, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic convention in favor of “free silver,” by exclaiming “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” But Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley anyway, in large part because McKinley’s supporters raised and spent $3 million on his campaign.

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