CHAPTER XV. MONETARY AND FINANCIAL PROBLEMS

The critical monetary and financial situation during Cleveland's second administration is understandable only in the light of a series of acts which were passed between 1878 and 1893. It will be remembered that in the former year the Bland-Allison act had provided for the purchase and coinage of two million to four million dollars' worth of silver bullion per month, and that the force behind the measure had been found chiefly among westerners who wished to see the volume of the currency increased and among mine owners who were producing silver.

The passage of the law did not end all opposition to the greater use of silver, nor did it solve all our monetary difficulties. In the first place, the United States sent delegates to an International Monetary Conference in Paris, in conformity with one of the provisions of the Bland-Allison act, to discuss a project for the utilization of silver through an agreement among the commercial nations of the world. No tangible results were obtained, however, so that it was plain that for the time, at least, the United States would be alone in its attempt to bring about the greater use of the white metal. In the meantime the law was put into operation, and the secretary of the treasury exercised his option by purchasing the minimum amount, two million dollars' worth of bullion. It was impossible to keep the coins in circulation, however, mainly because of their weight, and the policy was therefore adopted of storing part of the silver in the government vaults and issuing paper "silver certificates" in its place. As these were of small denominations and circulated on a par with gold, no immediate difficulty was experienced in making them part of the currency supply of the country.

The currency question, nevertheless, remained as complicated as ever and the differences of opinion upon it as diverse as before. The market price of silver steadily declined through the eighties and the bullion value of the metal in a dollar sank from ninety-three cents in 1878 to less than seventy-one cents in 1889. Both Republican and Democratic secretaries of the treasury gave warning that the inflow of silver into the currency supply was too great. President Arthur urged the repeal of the Bland-Allison act in his first annual message; President Cleveland again and again reiterated the same advice, warning Congress of the danger that silver would be substituted for gold. The argument of the opponents of silver could hardly be stated in more concise or complete terms. As soon as the supply of currency became too great, he asserted, the unnecessary portion would go out of circulation;[1] it was the experience of nations that the more desirable coin - gold, in this case - would be hoarded by banks and speculators; it would then become apparent that the bullion value of the gold dollar was greater than that of the silver dollar and the two coins would part company; those who, in such a contingency, could get gold dollars would demand a premium for them, while the laboring man, unable to demand gold, would find his silver dollar sadly shrunken in value.

Although the coinage of silver in the twelve years during which the Bland-Allison act was in force amounted to $378,000,000, the danger that Cleveland's prophecy would come to pass was lessened by several facts. The country was, in the first place, passing through a period of industrial expansion that required an enlarged circulating medium; the revenues of the government were exceeding expenditures, and part of the surplus was being stored in the vaults in Washington; and the volume of the national bank notes shrank more than $158,000,000 between 1880 and 1890. Falling prices for agricultural products continued to keep western discontent alive and far from being convinced by Cleveland's warnings, western conventions and representatives in Congress continued to urge legislation to increase the amount of silver to be coined, and free-coinage bills were constantly introduced and frequently near passage. Manifestly the demand that something more be done for silver was not at an end.

Although agitation over the use of silver currency resulted in no further important legislation for the time being, the general financial situation was complicated by a series of important acts. During the eighties the federal revenues mounted to an unprecedented height and as expenses did not increase proportionately, a surplus of large and finally of embarrassing and dangerous size appeared.