Paul Krugman’s latest column in his campaign for inflation turns out to be an endorsement of none other than William Jennings Bryan. He was the Nebraska Democrat who ran for president in 1896 on a campaign for the free coinage of silver, meaning for inflation. The Republicans put up William McKinley, who ran from his front porch a campaign for the gold standard and honest money. Mr. Krugman explains McKinley’s landslide by saying that “the elite mobilized en masse” in the election with the highest campaign spending, as a percent of GDP, in history, and worries whether the wealthy are “similarly mobilized against easy-money policies today.”
Mr. Krugman neglects to mention one feature of 1896. It was not only the campaign that demonstrated that the people were not so easy to convince of the virtues of inflation. It also showed that Americans weren’t going to succumb to a campaign that blamed their troubles on the Jews. Early in his campaign for inflation, William Jennings Bryan had gone onto the floor of Congress and read into the record Shylock’s bond. America, he asserted, could not afford “to put ourselves in the hands of the Rothschilds.” He went on to demand that the Treasury “shall be administered on behalf of the American people and not on behalf of the Rothschilds and other foreign bankers.”
Bryan’s campaign was a repudiation of the faction of the Democrats, led by Grover Cleveland, that stood for honest money. The “Cassandra of the Plains,” Mary Lease, had condemned Cleveland as the “agent of Jewish bankers and British gold.” Bryan won the nomination with his vow, “you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” The delegates were so transported that they didn’t react until he’d left the stage. Then suddenly the hall erupted with a ovation of whoops and cheers. Some of the Democratic delegates, The New York Sun reported, screamed “Down with gold! Down with the hook-nosed Shylocks of Wall Street! Down with the Christ-killing gold bugs.”
It’s not our purpose here to suggest that Mr. Krugman is an anti-Semite; he is not. It is our purpose to suggest he’s playing with fire. And that a credible columnist writing about Bryan would be more forthcoming about what 1896 was all about. Late in the campaign Bryan would deny that he, himself, was an anti-Semite. But the famed German anti-Semite at the time, Hermann Ahlwardt, campaigned for Bryan in New York. (When he feared for his life, the police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt, mocked him by assigning him a retinue of bodyguards, all of them Jewish.) Ahlwardt backed Bryan in his newspaper, Der Anti-Semit.
Mr. Krugman’s own paper, the New York Times, was appalled by Bryan. It noted that the Democrats in New York state “have always been for sound money.” It called the platform put up for Bryan “a radical departure from Democratic doctrines” and Bryan’s ticket one that “stands for Populism, not Democracy.” It chastised the state party for getting behind the Bryan ticket with a “platform of repudiation and dishonor.” So it endorsed John Palmer of a pro-gold faction called the National Democratic Party.
The Sun was among those that backed McKinley. His was one of the remarkable campaigns in all of American history, run from his front porch. He pressed the case for sound money, backed by gold, and warned of the consequences of repudiation. He won handily, and by the end of his first term, he’d won passage of the Gold Standard Act of 1900, which defined a dollar as a a 20.67th of an ounce of gold, ending a century long debate over whether gold or silver was the more logical specie.
McKinley defeated Bryan again in the election of 1900. By then, Mr. Krugman’s paper had swung into the McKinley camp. “No one will deny,” it said, “that Mr. Bryan and his party were all wrong four years ago.” It added: “We believe that the mere effect of the election of Mr. Bryan, representing the absurd and worn-out errors of finance which he does represent, would be in itself a disaster of a very serious nature.” That’s what the New York Times, at its apogee, thought of the ideas for which William Jennings Krugman is plumping today.