The Coin Standard

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

In 1926 William Hope “Coin” Harvey began constructing a “pyramid” in the Arkansas Ozarks, with the intention of single-handedly preserving a record of the dying American civilization’s proudest creations in a concrete time capsule. Less than fifty years later, the remains of his monument—more of an obelisk than a pyramid—was eroding under the surface of a man-made lake. The remains of Harvey lie in a mausoleum nearby; they, too, would be drowned had they not been moved further up the bank of Beaver Lake by a local contractor at the behest of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The futility of Harvey’s final work echoes the fruitlessness of the project for which he was most known: bimetallism and the return of free silver, a monetary system based on silver as well as gold.

Harvey was many things: a lawyer, a businessman, a mine owner, a real estate developer. But at his core he was a political thinker whose pamphlets reached hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers during the late nineteenth-century fight over fiat currency. He was a visionary, a crank, a failure, a polemicist who thought of himself as a prophet. His commitment to a political ideology that a century later has fallen almost entirely out of public consciousness pulled him away from his responsibilities to his family and his business ventures; now he is all but unknown.

Born in Virginia in 1851, Harvey was practicing law in West Virginia by the age of twenty. He moved to Gallipolis, Ohio, a few years later and began a restless and elusive search for a home and purpose. He met his wife Anna there in 1875, and he spent their life together making clear that he did not consider her part of that home or purpose. The family moved to Cleveland, then Chicago, and back to Gallipolis before Harvey moved his wife and children to Colorado, where he would become the superintendent of production at a silver mine. It was the 1880s, and silver’s value was falling. The supply had exploded due to new silver mines in the American West, just as various European states—and the United States itself—had moved away from silver coinage in the previous decade. If this was the genesis of Harvey’s allegiance to free silver, it was a hard lesson indeed. Harvey turned from mining to real estate in the West, buying land, building houses, and promoting festivals with some success and at least one catastrophic failure before moving the family back to Chicago in 1893 with what he claimed “was then a considerable fortune.” It was here that his political career and the project for which he would be known for the rest of his life began in earnest.

Harvey founded a publishing company devoted to free silver in Chicago and was soon releasing his own works on the subject. In 1894 he wrote Coin’s Financial School, a compilation of lectures given by a fictional sixteen-year-old boy named Coin (a nickname by which Harvey thereafter was known) in favor of bimetallism and free silver. Harvey’s economic theories were self-taught, drawing on a major political movement that sprang up in part due to silver’s decline amid several economic panics. As pointed out by interlocutors at the time, they were also overly simplistic, which wasn’t necessarily a detraction for his many readers. His prose was clear and convincing, spelling out the complicated economic debates dominating political conversations of the time while naming and indicting the systems and people he saw as responsible for silver’s demonetization. The book sold at least 650,000 copies according to a conservative estimate from historian Richard Hofstadter, who dubbed Harvey “the Tom Paine of the free-silver movement.” The lifetime sales of Coin’s Financial School were probably closer to one million copies. It was hawked by newsboys on railroad trains, sold at cigar stores, and distributed by the National Silver Party and other pro-silver organizations. Its enormous impact and popularity was a reflection of the political climate of the age and the sentiments of a rural white farming class convinced that its interests were being trodden on by banking elites and businessmen—and that only government intervention could provide an answer.

Harvey was not humble about such success. An autobiography dictated to his son near the end of his life characterizes Coin’s Financial School as “the Bible’s only rival for big sales. Throughout the West and the South he was hailed as ‘Our Savior.’ His followers numbered millions.”

The Free Silver Movement sputtered out around the turn of the century, though for Harvey the cause of free silver and the economic oppression of the common man would be a lifelong passion. His idealism kept him out of mainstream politics after 1898, however.

. . . .

The fundamental problem Coin confronted—the existential query at the heart of economic discourse of the time—concerned the character of money. Who produces it, what is it based on, and who determines its value? The question of money gained salience for lower- and middle-class Americans after the Civil War, when the Greenback Party—a short-lived agrarian antimonopoly party—advocated against the gold standard and for a paper money system; the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century carried on the democratic, antimonopoly cause in rural farming communities around the country after the Greenbackers’ last electoral attempt in 1889. Harvey brought the Populist cause to the city, taking on—if only fictionally—the bankers, politicians, and newspapermen he believed to be conspiring against the poor, the producers, and the farmers. He was not alone: free silver was a truly popular movement. During the Civil War, the federal government had for the first time issued money backed not by gold but by government bonds. After the war, when the U.S. moved back to a metal standard, leading to deflation, Greenbackers pushed for unbacked currency to remain in circulation. Free silverites and bimetallists wanted the same sort of inflationary policies by including silver in the specie standard. For Americans outside city centers, concentration of wealth, capital, and political influence in the hands of banks and monopolies rang unfair, especially while farmers were trapped in a cycle of debt from which it seemed nearly impossible to emerge.

Harvey continued to develop and propagate his political philosophy through his publishing company, releasing other books of fictional Coin lectures on bimetallism, including 1895’s Coin’s Financial School Up to Date and at least one other book by another proponent of bimetallism. Another Harvey book, The Patriots of America, proposed the formation of a new fraternal order that would protect the United States from “foreign influences,” by which he mostly meant the British. In another Coin volume, titled Coin on Money, Trusts, and Imperialism, Harvey’s alter ego plays the democratic theorist as well as the free-silver advocate. “Individual selfishness crystallized into the laws of nations is the cause of the overthrow of republics, and is the mother of monarchies,” Coin argued. His primary villains were banks, bankers, and the nation of England, whose monetary policies he believed were bleeding the United States dry. Harvey envisioned a monetary system unbound from the supremacy of London, Chicago, and New York. Like many other Populists, he trafficked in anti-Semitism, implicitly and often explicitly in the cartoons that accompanied his books. His prejudice is especially apparent in his novel, A Tale of Two Nations, published the same year as Coin’s Financial School, which included a fictionalized version of the Rothschild family and a villain clearly coded as Jewish.

Link to the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly

PG has always been interested in the phenomenon of an individual or small group of people who become obsessed with a single idea and build the rest of the universe around it.