The survival of the fittest, March 14, 1900. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.
“The Survival of the Fittest” represents the passage of the Gold Standard Act, referred to on the gold man’s sword as the “Sound Money Law of 1900.” The cartoon’s publication and President McKinley’s signing of the act both occurred on March 14, 1900. The act established gold as the only standard for redeeming paper money and ended any hopes of a return to bimetallism, a system that fixed the exchange rate between gold and silver and allowed both metals to be converted into legal tender by the government. A slogan for bimetallism, also known as free silver, is on the silver man’s broken sword; “16 to 1” was the proposed exchange rate between silver and gold, i.e. sixteen ounces of silver would be worth one ounce of gold.
Until the Civil War, the United States operated under bimetallism but switched to a fiat currency to cover the war’s massive expenses. A fiat currency is not backed by a physical commodity, such as gold and silver, and has simply been declared legal tender by the government. The United States has operated with a fiat currency since 1971. After the war, the country returned to a hard money standard but only with gold, thus demonetizing silver. The silver issue rose to national prominence after the financial panic of 1893. The Silverites answer to the subsequent depressions was a return to bimetallism. The coinage of silver would expand the money supply and produce inflation. Inflation would make it easier for debtors to pay their debts, as they would theoretically have more money. Silverites also believed in the quantity theory of money; that the amount of money in circulation determined the level of economic activity. Adding silver would expand the money supply, increase economic activity, and bring prosperity to more people. Gold advocates feared that silver would further depress the economy and believed the stable prices and exchange rates of the gold standard were the basis of a sound economy.
Bimetallism was a major issue in the 1896 presidential election. Both parties struggled with the silver question. Generally, Republicans supported the gold standard and Democrats supported bimetallism. However, there were also Silver Republicans and Gold Democrats. By this time the economic depression was waning and a drastic shift to bimetallism was losing its appeal. McKinley and the Republicans, flush with campaign contributions from gold-supporting business and financial interests, won a solid victory. After the election, the silver issue continued to fade as crop prices rose and agrarian debt decreased. Gold was also more widely available as implementation of new processing techniques allowed the extraction of gold from low grade ore and large gold deposits entered production in the Yukon and southern Africa. As represented in the cartoon, the silver issue was firmly defeated with the Gold Standard Act of 1900.
Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.
Skousen, Mark. Economics of a Pure Gold Standard. Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996. Print.
Williams, R H. Realigning America: Mckinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 2010. Print.