He was the Tom Paine of the free-silver movement, and Coin's Financial School was to the silver men of 1896 what Common Sense had been to the revolutionaries of 1776.
- Richard Hofstadter
William Hope "Coin" Harvey was a lawyer, businessman, publisher and entrepreneur most famous for writing Coin's Financial School, a short, fictionalized polemic in favor of bimetallism that briefly captured the imagination of the American public near the end of the 19th century, selling between 650,000 and one million copies. It could be said that Harvey is merely a footnote in history; an examplar of a short-lived form of fin de siécle populism. However, his writings are a potent manifestation of that particular form of politics Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed the paranoid style, and his life story is a surprisingly strange epic that reads almost like a more frugal version of Citizen Kane.
The Young Coin and Free Silver
Harvey was born in 1851 in Buffalo, Virginia. He was too young to enlist in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, but one of his older brothers was wounded under the general's command. After the war's end, Harvey began to study law and was admitted to the bar at 19. In 1876 he married Anna Halliday and seven years later became a production superintendent at a silver mine in Colorado, in the process becoming exposed to the increasingly popular and influential Free Silver movement. After several failed entrepreneurial ventures he returned to Colorado in 1893 and opened a publishing company devoted to the literature of free silver.
It is difficult today for many of us to historicize ourselves enough to understand the immense passion aroused by the issue of Free Silver. Although high schoolers are still taught about William Jennings Bryan's famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the issue of bimetallism seems distant and abstract to modern consciousness. But in a Senate debate regarding the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (which had increased the monthly amount of silver the government was to purchase), Senator Henry Moore Teller of Colorado delivered a filibuster in opposition to the Act's repeal that caused him break down in tears while describing the hardships faced by Colorado settlers, living far from the east coast and its gold standard orthodoxy. For partisans on both sides, the issue of Free Silver was as polarizing and defining as an issue like abortion is today. It was into this contentious and oppositional context that Harvey wrote and published Coin's Financial School.
Coin's Financial School
The book tells the charmingly illustrated story of "Coin", a young outsider economist who establishes a financial school at Chicago's Art Institute. In a series of six lectures about finance, the upstart bimetallist Coin is challenged by older economists including actual figures such as Philip D. Armour, Marshall Field, and Senator Shelby Cullom. But every challenge to Coin's ideas is demolished by the brilliant young financier. Coin promotes silver as "the dollar of our daddies", with the gold standard and the ideas of the goldbugs as a kind of perverse deviation: silver is lionized as the "metal of the people", with gold as the haughty metal of the east coast financial aristocracy, its status undeserved and unearned. For Harvey and for young Coin, metals weren't just inert matter but symbols, representative of the broader political struggles that characterized American modernity. Demonetization is portrayed as a vicious, sadistic crime perpetrated by foreign (read: English, and read: Rothschilds) bankers, which has "made tens of thousands of tramps....made thousands of suicides....brought tears to strong men's eyes, and hunger and pinching want to widows and orphans. A crime, because it is destroying the honest yeomanry of the land...it has brought this once great republic to the verge of ruin, where it is now in imminent danger of tottering to its fall."
The book's illustrations hammer home Harvey's argument with unrepentant moral force, portraying the United States as having fallen victim to "a financial system forced upon us by Europe." Richard Hofstadter describes a few of the images:
Gold smiles cruelly at the corpse of silver, assassinated by the pen; the West and the South, duped by the financial traps of the East, finally unite to overthrow the East; a cow feeding in the West is milked in New York (this was one of the most common of the Populist images); an octopus representing the Rothschilds, centered in England, and labeled "The Great English Devil Fish", grips the entire world in its tentacles; John Bull makes a brutal attack on the female figure of Liberty, while virtuous Silver, helpless in chains, looks on; the British lion is blown out of a cannon by the figure of Uncle Sam; a monstrously rapacious usurer sits clutching his bags of gold.
In his final lecture, Coin actually goes so far as to endorse a renewed war against England, in order to at last free the United States (and the world) from the shackles of the British monetary elite, who "dictate the money of the world, and thereby create world-wide misery." Coin's call to arms is fuelled by a conspiratorial fear that the policies of goldbugs will result not just in deprivation and misery for Colorado's silver miners, but the ultimate enslavement of the United States by its old colonial master: "What she failed to do with shot and shell in the eighteenth century, she is doing with the gold standard in the nineteenth century."
Though it contained a number of untenable arguments, illogical pronouncements, and a focus on some bizarrely irrelevant details, Coin's Financial School became a phenomenal success and was for a brief moment the book on everyone's lips. Hofstadter describes it as "at best a caricature of sophisticated bimetallist thought", but also notes that "on the moral side, the defenders of the gold standard often seem as dogmatically sealed within their own premises as the most wild-eyed silver men, and usually less generous in their social sympathies." But the arguments and contentions made in Coin's Financial School would seem absolutely sober, reasonable, and fair in comparison to the fanatically conspiratorial and outlandish fantasies of his next book, A Tale of Two Nations.
A Tale of Two Nations
Published only three months after Coin's Financial School in 1894, A Tale of Two Nations is a wildly, absurdly epic saga of the attempted subversion and enslavement of the United States by an insidious British banking elite. A very thinly-disguised Rothschild dubbed Baron Rothe develops a plot to impoverish and enslave America though the demonetizing of silver. To this end he enlists an American senator, John Arnold, and his nephew Victor Rogasner, who says "I am here to destroy the United States—Cornwallis could not have done more." After the successful demonetization in 1873, the story skips ahead to the present, with Rogasner fighting for the heart of Senator Arnold's ward, Grace Vivian, with a silverite senator from Nebraska, John Melwyn (a thinly-disguised William Jennings Bryan). Rogasner attempts to blackmail Arnold and buy Grace's hand, but in the end justice (read: silver) prevails, with Melwyn and Grace marrying and Rogasner slinking back to London with his tail between his legs.
In his characterization of the villainous English financiers, which is heavy-handed almost to the point of being comical, Harvey sounds a distinct tone of anti-Semitism. (During Rogasner's proposal to Grace, Harvey writes, "The man's eyes blazed with the fire of his race in the old days, the fire that came when David gazed upon Bathsheba, or when the eyes of Jacob first rested on Rachel at the well.") This is not an uncommon theme in the literature of money cranks. When Harvey republished Coin's Financial School under the title Coin's Financial School Up to Date in 1895, he offered an embarassingly racist defense, calling the Jews "the brightest race of people that inhabit the earth, and they treat each other with the greatest fairness as a rule....You should not be prejudiced against any race as a race....Among Jews, many became money changers; it seems natural with them, probably on account of their excessive shrewdness. They see that it has advantages not possessed by any other business."
The Later Years: Monte Ne and the Collapse of Civilization
In the late 1800s, Harvey set upon a new idea: the creation of a kind of political fraternal order, to be called the Patriots of America (with a women's branch to be named the Daughters of the Republic). The proposed secrecy of the organization (somewhat reminiscent of Freemasonry
, an older scarecrow of American popular consciousness) worried contemporaries like Bryan, who Harvey campaigned tirelessly for. In 1899 he published what seemed to be his final book, Coin on Money, Trusts, and Imperialism
. Harvey's Manicheanism was on full display here, positing that the world was divided between the humane and the selfish, with imperialism (which had become a pressing issue following the Spanish-American War
and the United States' acquisiton of Spain's former colonies) as a manifestation of greed: "A selfish force having despoiled its own people, seeks other people whom it may despoil." In a bravura example of the paranoid style, Coin indicts President McKinley
for treason, complete with a "secret alliance" between the government and the eternally villainous England.
At the turn of the century, Harvey suddenly bought 325 acres of land in the Ozarks area of Silver Springs which he renamed Monte Ne
, hoping to open a summer resort. Pouring capital into the project, Harvey's dreams were derailed by a series of misfortunes: a fire gutted his Silver Springs homestead, and his son Halliday was killed in a railroad accident. Harvey subsequently made an ill-advised bid for a seat in Congress (rejected by the local community) and crusaded for the good-roads movement, but in 1915 he returned to the area where he'd known the greatest success: publishing. His book The Remedy
suggested a system of moral education that could train children for a future in the Manichean struggle against evil, and his Common Sense, or The Clot on the Brain of the Body Politic
waged war against Andrew Jackson
's old nemesis (in a new guise), the Federal Reserve
. Coming full circle, Harvey became entranced by the story of early Christian martyrdom in Rome—with their literal crucifixion being mirrored by the figurative crucifixion of usury (and that of the Colorado miners on the "Cross of Gold"). Harvey fused The Remedy
's moral education and the parable of Coin with Paul's School of Statesmanship
In 1920, Harvey set upon yet another fanciful dream, described by Hofstadter: "He would build in Monte Ne, at the site of his resort, a great Pyramid, in which he would leave copies of his own books and a variety of artifacts representative of the twentieth-century civilization that he was sure would go to ruin." This was to ensure that in the post-apocalyptic future, men would be able to construct the society Harvey dreamed of: free of usury, imperialism, and monometallic oppression. The project was ultimately abandoned, but its partially-constructed foyer became a tourist attraction of sorts, where visitors were able to enjoy Harvey's speeches and purchase his books. By mid-decade he considered founding a new political party, and in 1932 Harvey ran for president and garnered 800 votes without running a campaign. In 1935 he even managed to denounce Roosevelt for his cautious silver policy. He died a year later.
William H. "Coin" Harvey was a lot of things: paranoid, frequently irrational, over-ambitious, shrill, and anti-Semitic. But, in spite of it all, he also manifested that particular kind of defiant, endearing American spirit which made up the best aspects of Populism: compassionate, engaged, and believing that the world could be made better through sheer force of will.
Hofstadter, Richard. "Free Silver and the Mind of 'Coin' Harvey." The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.