Daily Record: The Assembly Herald and the economics of free silver

On July 25, 1893, an editorial in the Chautauqua Assembly Herald reported that the Institution would offer a number of economic lectures in that season, showing “how earnestly we are devoting ourselves to these questions.”

There would be two important “courses,” one by Richard T. Ely, “one of the foremost writers and lecturers of the day on social and economic questions,” and a second by Professor W.A. Scott.

In addition to these two courses would be a number of “single lectures in the same line, by other leaders in economic thought, the list including representatives of workingmen and their organizations.”

Ely’s course on distribution of wealth was already underway and attracting a large audience.

“It shows how deep is popular interest in the subject, how eager thinking people are to gain knowledge from able and unbiased teachers, all of which augurs well for the final equitable settlement of many questions when they shall come to the final test — when discussion shall ripen into law,” the Herald reported.

As part of the ripening, a debate was announced on July 29. The debate format had been engaged before at Chautauqua, inaugurated some years earlier on the topic of women’s suffrage. Later, Washington Gladden and George Gunton debated the economic value of trusts.

On July 29, it would be the question of silver coinage. It was a hot topic, so pressing that for the first time in years, both houses of Congress had been called into an extra session.

Regarding the question, there was much difference of opinion.

“The warfare has raged around this question more or less furiously since 1873, a period of 20 years. It is a question of tremendous importance, and yet it is not, strictly speaking, a question of partisan politics, for advocates and opponents of the free coinage of silver, in the ration of 16 to 1 of gold, are found in all political parties,” the Herald reported.

The editorial urged readers and listeners to keep an open mind. The men scheduled for the debate were among the best-qualified to give the facts and theories and demands of either side.

“Let us hear them, with a resolve to divest ourselves of all preconceived prejudices, as befits every American citizen, or every one who hopes to become a citizen, and endeavor to profit by what we hear,” it read.

An even-tempered request, but the tone would not remain long.

An editorial in the next issue of the Assembly Herald, July 31, indicated the debate had not gone well. For starters, one of the debaters, Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada, “one of the foremost advocates of free coinage in the United States Senate,” canceled unexpectedly, sending in his place I.E. Dean of Honeoye Falls, New York, a representative of the National Encampment of Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union.

The editor was burned.

“For Senator Stewart’s failure to come, for his failure to let the Assembly know he would not come, and for the coming of Mr. Dean, therefore, the Assembly authorities, who have an enviable record for keeping faith with the public, are not in any sense responsible,” he wrote.

It turned out not even to be a debate. The Honorable Michael D. Harter, a member of Congress from Ohio, and a Democrat, smeared Dean. “It was a rout.”

The Herald reported that “Mr. Dean is so far from being equipped to debate the question that it is simply astonishing that he should have had the assurance to inflict himself upon the audience which had come to hear a master. It would have been far better had the free coinage been not represented at all.”

Harter, on the other hand, was “concise and vigorous, fair and courteous, able, thoughtful, eloquent and comprehensive,” the Herald reported.

The transcript of the debate appears on Page 5 of the July 31 newspaper. It is titled “THE SILVER DEBATE,” followed by the caption, “Congressman Harter Turned the Light on the Fallacious Arguments of ‘Farmer’ Dean, who Constituted Himself a Substitute for U.S. Senator Stewart. A One-Sided Debate.”

There was a large audience in the Amphitheater at half past 2 p.m. Each speaker would be given one hour to speak, then 15 minutes each for follow-up, and by some unarticulated arrangement, Dean would get a final five minutes. William Thomas of Meadville, Pennsylvania, acted as timekeeper. The question was read, and Dean introduced as the speaker in support of the affirmative side of the question: “ ‘Resolved, That the free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold in the ration of 16 to 1 should be restored.’ ”

The article continued to say that Dean explained the “non-arrival” of Senator Stewart and then “proceeded to elucidate the silver question very largely from the standpoint of a Populist,” — straight, fair and square enough reporting, but then added — “introducing into his remarks the notions of a system of political economy antiquated by many years if not centuries, and long since extinct.”

The Populist argument included the propositions that the economy was growing and there was not sufficient gold to continue to support the paper dollars needed to continue growing. An increased money supply would raise inflation and in doing so, soften the burden on those — at this time farmers — who were in debt. And the increase in the use of silver would help Western states where silver was mined.

Free silver became associated with unions, ordinary Americans as opposed to bankers, and inflation. Dean concluded his hour by saying, “The question is whether we will do business with a certain amount of money when we might just as well have double as much.”

It was Harter’s turn. The amount of money is not so important as what a country does with it. Over time, different materials have been used as money, but metals such as silver and gold proved most convenient. Silver was once a good option.

“Later, gold was found to be better for intelligent nations,” Harter said. “Today, the only nations which have free and unlimited coinage of silver are those like Mexico and China.”

Harter and other “gold bugs” were associated with the financial establishment of the Northeast, railroads, factories and businessmen. And they won the day at Chautauqua and in the 1896 and 1900 presidential elections.

The reporter for the Chautauqua Assembly Herald closed the article with this paragraph: “When Mr. Harter concluded, Mr. Dean advanced to the front of the platform with five minutes at his command in which to reply to his opponent. Mr. Dean must have forgotten the question in debate for he burst forth in a torrent of words, the burden of his speech being a plea for a grander and higher civilization. He failed to reply to Mr. Harter’s keen invective, only impugning some valuable statistics which Mr. Harter had presented. Mr. Dean’s closing remarks were very much like Artemus Ward’s Mormon lecture. They contained a great many things that had nothing in particular to do with the subject.”