For every great national agitation, history provides generous lessons if not always solace, and so it is with the tea-party madness.
If we can define the reactionary movement in Washington and in many statehouses, including our own, by its loudest and nuttiest pleaders, the tea-partiers, it has an almost perfect model in the free-silver delirium of the 1890s. Maybe we can draw some inspiration or hope from it.
The parallels are uncanny, and they offer the added delight of an Arkansas angle. The intellectual virtuoso of bimetallism—the Glenn Beck of the day—was William Hope "Coin" Harvey, who spent his most glorious and saddest years in Benton County, Ark. He constructed a magnificent temple of doom around a lagoon there, where people in the millennium could unearth his free-silver tracts and discover the folly of 20th century Americans. The federal government that Harvey hated and feared drowned the monument in 1962 under Beaver Lake after his bones were moved to higher ground.
The political sovereign of Coin's frenzied movement was William Jennings Bryan, who was not quite elected president three times, most famously at the height of the silver pandemonium in 1896. It remains to be seen who his heir in 2012 will be. Sarah Palin? Michelle Bachmann? Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? Mike Huckabee maybe?
The paranoid movements occur in moments of great economic distress: the depressions of 1873, 1893, 1929 and, finally, 2008. There have to be scapegoats, conspirators who are plotting to lead the country and civilization to ruin and have led it into its current plight.
In the 1873 and 1893 panics, the evil-doers were the goldbugs—New York and London bankers and other assorted conspirators who were keeping the money supply suppressed by keeping it tethered to gold.
The cry of the 1893 panic was the free coinage of silver. The solution to economic devastation was a bimetal monetary system. Coin Harvey popularized the insanity and gave Bryan his platform, forever celebrated by his Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic convention in 1896.
Harvey was born in West Virginia, where he got a grade-school education. He failed at one quixotic scheme after another, including silver mining in Colorado and a Mormon Mardi Gras in Utah before moving to Chicago in 1893 to set up a publishing company. There, in 1894, he wrote a little paperback book called Coin's Financial School. It was the single success of his life, selling millions and terrorizing the political and financial establishments.
The book's protagonist was a 10-year-old kid named Coin, who conducted a series of monetary lectures at the Chicago Art Institute, which was attended by the prominent bankers of the day and President McKinley's future secretary of the treasury. The little tapper in knee breeches (the book was illustrated with cartoons) lectured the financial titans on the monetary history of the world and the remedy of bimetallism. They tried to trap him but one by one he demolished them.
Coin's Financial School was entirely fictional history and was rife with monumental errors (he maintained as fact that all the gold in the world could be squeezed into a 22-foot cube) and dazzling irrelevancies. But it was the perfect tract for the time. Unemployment had hit 20 percent and farmers were starving. Millions were ready for the message—as Richard Hofstadter described it, the fierce logic of the one-idea mind, the firm assurance that complex social and economic issues can be unraveled to the last point and solved by the simplest of means. Today, the simple remedies are to cut rich people's taxes, stop government spending, punish immigrants, circulate more guns, scourge science and teach the Bible in the schools. Then everything else will take care of itself.
Before the election of 1896, President Grover Cleveland had a showdown with Coin's disciples. He called Congress into special session and repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act over cries of betrayal and treason from the people who had taken over his party. (The health-insurance reform act of its day perhaps?)
Coin moved the next year to Benton County, built a magnificent resort, which he called Monte Ne, erected a pyramid to reveal the nation's folly to a future civilization and continued his jeremiads against the infidels who were destroying America. He organized the Liberty Party in 1932 and ran for president, collecting the votes of 1,049 Arkansans.
In a severe drought, the tip of Coin's pyramid will still rise from Lake Beaver to remind us of his folly.
Oh, a lesson. In the silver pandemonium and with previous and subsequent economic crises, things got much better without the nutty panaceas, and the movement died or became irrelevant. We're on that path.