Favorite

Glenn Beck, meet Coin Harvey 

Tea-party madness proves that for every great national agitation, history provides generous lessons if not always solace.

For every great national agitation, history provides generous lessons if not always solace, and so it is with the tea-party madness.

If we can define the reactionary movement in Washington and in many statehouses, including our own, by its loudest and nuttiest pleaders, the tea-partiers, it has an almost perfect model in the free-silver delirium of the 1890s. Maybe we can draw some inspiration or hope from it.

The parallels are uncanny, and they offer the added delight of an Arkansas angle. The intellectual virtuoso of bimetallism—the Glenn Beck of the day—was William Hope "Coin" Harvey, who spent his most glorious and saddest years in Benton County, Ark. He constructed a magnificent temple of doom around a lagoon there, where people in the millennium could unearth his free-silver tracts and discover the folly of 20th century Americans. The federal government that Harvey hated and feared drowned the monument in 1962 under Beaver Lake after his bones were moved to higher ground.

The political sovereign of Coin's frenzied movement was William Jennings Bryan, who was not quite elected president three times, most famously at the height of the silver pandemonium in 1896. It remains to be seen who his heir in 2012 will be. Sarah Palin? Michelle Bachmann? Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? Mike Huckabee maybe?

The paranoid movements occur in moments of great economic distress: the depressions of 1873, 1893, 1929 and, finally, 2008. There have to be scapegoats, conspirators who are plotting to lead the country and civilization to ruin and have led it into its current plight.

In the 1873 and 1893 panics, the evil-doers were the goldbugs—New York and London bankers and other assorted conspirators who were keeping the money supply suppressed by keeping it tethered to gold.

The cry of the 1893 panic was the free coinage of silver. The solution to economic devastation was a bimetal monetary system. Coin Harvey popularized the insanity and gave Bryan his platform, forever celebrated by his Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic convention in 1896.

Harvey was born in West Virginia, where he got a grade-school education. He failed at one quixotic scheme after another, including silver mining in Colorado and a Mormon Mardi Gras in Utah before moving to Chicago in 1893 to set up a publishing company. There, in 1894, he wrote a little paperback book called Coin's Financial School. It was the single success of his life, selling millions and terrorizing the political and financial establishments.

The book's protagonist was a 10-year-old kid named Coin, who conducted a series of monetary lectures at the Chicago Art Institute, which was attended by the prominent bankers of the day and President McKinley's future secretary of the treasury. The little tapper in knee breeches (the book was illustrated with cartoons) lectured the financial titans on the monetary history of the world and the remedy of bimetallism. They tried to trap him but one by one he demolished them.

Coin's Financial School was entirely fictional history and was rife with monumental errors (he maintained as fact that all the gold in the world could be squeezed into a 22-foot cube) and dazzling irrelevancies. But it was the perfect tract for the time. Unemployment had hit 20 percent and farmers were starving. Millions were ready for the message—as Richard Hofstadter described it, the fierce logic of the one-idea mind, the firm assurance that complex social and economic issues can be unraveled to the last point and solved by the simplest of means. Today, the simple remedies are to cut rich people's taxes, stop government spending, punish immigrants, circulate more guns, scourge science and teach the Bible in the schools. Then everything else will take care of itself.

Before the election of 1896, President Grover Cleveland had a showdown with Coin's disciples. He called Congress into special session and repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act over cries of betrayal and treason from the people who had taken over his party. (The health-insurance reform act of its day perhaps?)

Coin moved the next year to Benton County, built a magnificent resort, which he called Monte Ne, erected a pyramid to reveal the nation's folly to a future civilization and continued his jeremiads against the infidels who were destroying America. He organized the Liberty Party in 1932 and ran for president, collecting the votes of 1,049 Arkansans.

In a severe drought, the tip of Coin's pyramid will still rise from Lake Beaver to remind us of his folly.

Oh, a lesson. In the silver pandemonium and with previous and subsequent economic crises, things got much better without the nutty panaceas, and the movement died or became irrelevant. We're on that path.

Favorite

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

More by Ernest Dumas

  • Fake economics

    Fake news is a new phenomenon in the world of politics and policy, but hokey economic scholarship has been around as long as Form 1040 and is about as reliable as the news hoaxes that enlivened the presidential campaign.
    • Dec 1, 2016
  • China in charge

    Let's turn to foreign affairs to see how we might calm the flood of anxieties over the coming Donald Trump presidency.
    • Nov 24, 2016
  • A little hope

    It may not be nearly as bad as you expect.
    • Nov 17, 2016
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Religion as excuse upends Constitution

    Tirades over religious liberty since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages nationwide have awakened the ghost of James Madison, the author of the constitutional doctrine on the matter, and it isn't happy that his effort to protect religious inquiry in America is being corrupted.
    • Jul 9, 2015
  • Guns, God and gays

    Many more mass shootings like the one last week in Roseburg, Ore., will stain the future and no law will pass that might reduce the carnage. That is not a prediction but a fact of life that is immune even to Hillary Clinton.
    • Oct 8, 2015
  • AEC dumps ALEC

    No matter which side of the battle over global warming you're on, that was blockbuster news last week. No, not the signing of the climate-change treaty that commits all of Earth's 195 nations to lowering their greenhouse-gas emissions and slowing the heating of the planet, but American Electric Power's announcement that it would no longer underwrite efforts to block renewable energy or federal smokestack controls in the United States.
    • Dec 17, 2015

Most Shared

  • Department of Arkansas Heritage archeologist resigns

    Bob Scoggin, 50, the Department of Arkansas Heritage archeologist whose job it was to review the work of agencies, including DAH and the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, for possible impacts on historic properties, resigned from the agency on Monday. Multiple sources say Scoggin, whom they describe as an "exemplary" employee who the week before had completed an archeological project on DAH property, was told he would be fired if he did not resign.
  • Labor department director inappropriately expensed out-of-state trips, audit finds

    Jones was "Minority Outreach Coordinator" for Hutchinson's 2014 gubernatorial campaign. The governor first named him as policy director before placing him over the labor department instead in Jan. 2015, soon after taking office.
  • Lawsuit filed against ADC officials, prison chaplain convicted of sexual assault at McPherson

    A former inmate who claims she was sexually assaulted over 70 times by former McPherson Womens' Unit chaplain Kenneth Dewitt has filed a federal lawsuit against Dewitt, several staff members at the prison, and officials with the Arkansas Department of Corrections, including former director Ray Hobbs.
  • Rapert compares Bill Clinton to Orval Faubus

    Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway)  was on "Capitol View" on KARK, Channel 4, this morning, and among other things that will likely inspire you to yell at your computer screen, he said he expects someone in the legislature to file a bill to do ... something about changing the name of the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.

Latest in Ernest Dumas

  • Fake economics

    Fake news is a new phenomenon in the world of politics and policy, but hokey economic scholarship has been around as long as Form 1040 and is about as reliable as the news hoaxes that enlivened the presidential campaign.
    • Dec 1, 2016
  • China in charge

    Let's turn to foreign affairs to see how we might calm the flood of anxieties over the coming Donald Trump presidency.
    • Nov 24, 2016
  • A little hope

    It may not be nearly as bad as you expect.
    • Nov 17, 2016
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

Arkansas remembers Pearl Harbor

Arkansas remembers Pearl Harbor

Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned

Event Calendar

« »

December

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Worth it

    • And loyal, to a fault.

    • on December 6, 2016
  • Re: Worth it

    • Alas, Gene's memory ain't what it used to be. He wrote a column some time…

    • on December 5, 2016
  • Re: Forget identity politics

    • Hillarys 'Stronger Together' nonsense failed because she failed to make it a reality. As Gene…

    • on December 5, 2016
 

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation