“The Crime of ’73” is a nickname for the Fourth Coinage Act of 1873, given by opponents who saw the planned restriction of specie as an attack against farmers and debtors. The fiscal panic that occurred in that year was seen by critics of the law as the result of a “gold conspiracy” of creditors and gold mining operations to control the economy at the expense of average Americans. The law combined with other financial issues of the time, such as the Crédit Mobilier scandal, in convincing many that the government was corrupt. A grassroots campaign to change the system developed into the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century. The phrase “Crime of ’73” became popular during the three decades following the passage of the act when silver mining operators cooperated with farmers in creating new national political parties whose goals included reversing the deflationary trend by returning to bimetallism (gold and silver) and including paper money.
The Panic of 1873, which led to widespread layoffs and foreclosures in the United States, was blamed by many on the Coinage Act of 1873. During the panic, the major banking firm of Jay Cooke failed, almost one-quarter of the nation's 364 railroads went bankrupt along with almost 20,000 other businesses, and unemployment ran close to 15 percent. The depression cost the Republicans votes in Congress and was one of the contributing causes of the railroad strike of 1877.
Initially silver miners became the most outspoken opponents of the Coinage Act of 1873. Demanding “free silver,” these “Silverites” attacked the Coinage Act of 1873 and called for bimetallism., Through their efforts they managed to get Richard Bland and William Allison to sponsor the Bland-Allison Act in 1878, which established the coinage of silver to gold at a ratio of 16 to 1. Bland's ties to silver mining earned him the nicknames “Silver Dick” and “the Great Commoner.” In 1896 he competed with William Jennings Bryan for the Democratic nomination before supporting Bryan's candidacy against the Republicans.
At the same time, farmers seeking easier credit and cheaper money joined together to form the Independent (National) Party. Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1874, the party's strong interest in currency reform and paper currency led to it being known as the Greenback Party. The Party had a strong following in the Midwest among farmers who feared foreclosure. Greenbackers had close connections with the Grange movement, which already organized farmers on the issue of railroad regulation. With this base the party nominated Peter Cooper, a wealthy American businessman who had become a champion of civil rights for African and Native Americans. As early as 1873 Cooper spoke out against the deflationary policies of the Republican Party and supported paper money. The Greenback Party tried to nominate Newton Booth, a senator from California, as vice president, but Booth, preferring to stay in the Senate, declined the nomination and was replaced by prohibitionist lecturer Samuel F. Cary. The party did not perform well in the election, garnering only clusters of votes, mainly in the West, with a popular vote tally of 75,937. At its height in 1878, the Greenback Party had elected 13 congressmen. By 1882, they were only able to elect 3 congressmen and worked toward merging with the Democrats.
Racial divisions encouraged some Populists to consider merging with the Republicans or Democrats. This discussion led the Populists to nominate William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats’ nominee for president in 1896. Bryan had been an outspoken supporter of bimetallism and at the Democratic Convention gave his famous “Cross of Gold” speech that attacked the Crime of ’73. Many Populists felt Bryan gave them their best chance of winning the White House, but they did not want to become a part of the Democratic Party. At the People's Party Convention in St. Louis, they nominated one of their own for vice president, Thomas Watson, and supported a large slate of congressional candidates. The silver issue played a large role in the 1896 election partially because of Grover Cleveland's successful efforts to repeal the Bland-Allison and Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, even causing some Republicans to split from their own party on the issue, forming a “Silver” Republican Party. Bryan lost the election to William McKinley, but Populists held 5 senate seats and won 22 seats in the House. Other “Silver” and “Republican Silver” candidates also won.
Michael L. Faubion
See also: Banking System of the Late Nineteenth Century ; Bland, Richard P. (1835–1899) ; Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Crédit Mobilier Scandal ; “Cross of Gold” Speech (1896) ; Depression of 1873 ; Donnelly, Ignatius (1831–1901) ; Drought ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Greenback Party ; People's Party ; Prohibition (1919–1933) ; Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890) ; Silver Republicans
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