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An Election, You Say? The Most Relevant Precedent May Be 120 Years Old

Presidential Election Déjà Vu, 1896 Edition.
Republican William McKinley (left, from his own campaign poster) and Democrat William Jennings Bryan (right, in a critical Judge magazine cover). Both images found at Wikimedia Commons: McKinley’s poster and Judge‘s cover on “Cross of Gold.”.

It’s like déjà vu—from 120 years ago. In this last week before the 2016 election, let’s take a look back to 1896. This way, as you listen to sound bites about jobs, banks, industrialism, and trade in the next few days, you’ll know that we’ve been here before.

The poster from a play about the Panic of 1893 called the "War of Wealth." Courtesy of [the Library of Congress].
The poster from a play about the Panic of 1893 called the “War of Wealth.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Back then we did not call economic downturns “recessions” or “depressions”; we called them “panics,” which has a refreshing honesty to it. The Panic of 1893 was a “war of wealth,” a pivotal event in a period known as the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain. Like today, the late nineteenth century was a time of growing divide between rich and poor—contrast the tenements of South Boston to the “cottages” of Newport. It was a global trend. Some economists have pointed out that we are in a new Gilded Age now, as modern wealth disparity approaches nineteenth century levels.

Gray's new trunk railway map of the United States, Dom. of Canada and portion of Mexico.
How railways tied the American economy together in 1898. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

And like now, the Panic of 1893 was tied up in the new interconnectedness of the American economy—only they were talking about railroads and the telegraph, not Uber and the Internet. But, as is the case today, people were not sure what this would mean for the “old economy.” In the 1890s agriculture suffered, much like industry has in the last thirty years.

Advertisement for foreclosed farms in 1896 and the Packard Plant in 2014.
A comparison of 1893 and 1983 structural change, with farms dying to pave the way for industrialism in 1890s (see ad in The Worthington Advance), and then those same factories dying in the 1980s, as photographed by Ben Wojdyla.

Banks, if they were lucky enough to survive the 1893 Panic, foreclosed on farms in the South, Midwest, and West. Our recent mortgage-crisis-fueled recession was countered by the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates to essentially zero, which they did by flooding our system with money. “Expansionary monetary policy” is pretty standard fare in economic textbooks these days, but this theory did not exist in 1893. And, by the way, neither did the Federal Reserve. But that did not make money supply any less of an issue. In fact, it made it more of one. Coinage was the election issue of the day in 1896 and 1900. You voted for a president based upon what you wanted to happen to the money supply. It was such an important topic of conversation that it even found a place in children’s literature.

1900 poster advertising L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz, courtesy of [Wikimedia Commons].
1900 poster advertising L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Follow the yellow brick road!” In the original text version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s slippers are silver. Silver eases Dorothy’s way along the “road of yellow bricks,” a metaphor for the gold standard. In other words, author L. Frank Baum showed that both precious metals, silver and gold, should be used for coinage in the United States, not just gold. This would expand the money supply, lower interest rates, and cause inflation—all policies that would help indebted farmers who were being crucified on a “cross of gold,” in the words of William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate for president in both elections. Eastern industry opposed bimetallism because both owners and low-wage laborers stood to lose from inflation. This conflict—the rural heartland versus the East Coast elite—is a refrain you’ve heard before. In fact, the electoral maps of 1896 and 1900 predict the red-state-blue-state divide of today. In between then and now, the electoral maps bounced all around between Democrats and Republicans, but we have come full circle to the same structural change of the early 1900s.

At bottom, a comparison of electoral maps from 1896 [Wikimedia Commons]) and 2000-2012 [Wikipedia]). At top, the campaign trail of William Jennings Bryan [The First Battle]).
At bottom, a comparison of electoral maps from 1896 (Wikimedia Commons) and 2000-2012 (Wikipedia). At top, the campaign trail of William Jennings Bryan, from The First Battle.

Maybe the most important innovation Bryan brought to his candidacy, though, was his campaign itself. Bryan emerged out of the ashes of a Democratic Party he torched himself with populist and inflammatory rhetoric. He carried his message in person on a campaign tour through the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states that lasted until two days before the election. Behaving in a way that most politicians and establishment figures considered “undignified,” Bryan went to the voters instead of waiting for them to come to his front porch—literally—and wait for a chance glimpse of him, which was Republican William McKinley’s strategy. (Some would say it was also Hillary Clinton’s strategy, given her comparatively restrained public speaking schedule in recent months).

On left, Bryan speaks to a crowd in Wellsville, Ohio, courtesy of his own memoir [The First Battle]. On right, McKinley on his front porch only 50 miles away in Canton, Ohio [Remarkable Ohio].
On left, Bryan speaks to a crowd in Wellsville, Ohio, courtesy of his own memoir, The First Battle. On right, McKinley on his front porch only 50 miles away in Canton, Ohio, courtesy of Remarkable Ohio.

By Bryan’s own account, he traveled nearly 18,000 miles and made nearly 600 speeches—about 20-30 a day, with Sundays off—and spoke to around 5,000,000 Americans, more than a third of the number who would cast a vote come November. Bryan wrote:

Friday was one of the long days. In order that the reader may know how much work can be crowded into one campaign day, I will mention the places at which speeches were made between breakfast and bedtime: Muskegon, Holland, Fennville, Bangor, Hartford, Watervliet, Benton Harbor, Niles, Dowagiac, Decatur, Lawrence, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Marshall, Albion, Jackson (two speeches), Leslie, Mason, and Lansing (six speeches); total for the day, 25. It was near midnight when the last one was finished.

Partly because of the silverite policy, which not all Democrats had supported, and partly because of this populist campaign style, a rival National Democratic Party (Gold Democrats) was founded, with its own nominating convention in Indianapolis. They put forward a former Union general and a former Confederate general on their ticket, but by the end of the campaign these men actually began to turn votes toward their Republican rival. At his last stop in Warrensbury, Missouri, presidential nominee John Palmer said: “I promise you, my fellow Democrats, I will not consider it any very great fault if you decide next Tuesday to cast your ballot for William McKinley.” To some, this might feel like a certain third-party ticket of two former Republican governors—also from opposite sides of the country—who recently said that among the two-party candidates, they hoped people did not vote for Trump. Some saw this as a pseudo-endowment of Hillary Clinton, though the Libertarian Party quickly denied it.

1896 Judge cartoon shows William Jennings Bryan and his Populism as a snake swallowing up the mule representing the Democratic party, his own. Courtesy of [Wikimedia Commons].
An 1896 Judge cartoon shows William Jennings Bryan and his Populism as a snake swallowing up the mule representing his own Democratic party. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There is more that ties 1986 to 2016, including the similarities seen between William Jennings Bryan and Donald Trump. Bryan spoke in a rhetorical style that elitist politicians snubbed but his audience loved. In March, Daniel Klinghard wrote:

…like Bryan, [Trump] does have a long history of drawing audiences in the private sphere, an ear for the common tongue and an ability to paint complex problems in blindingly simple terms. Like Bryan, Trump is happy to play to paranoid impulses and vague conspiracies….Like Trump, Bryan appealed to what he deemed to be common sense and warned his listeners that anyone preaching moderation only intended to keep the common man in the dark.

Unlike the 1896 election, though, the institutional candidate, Hillary Clinton, has her own problems hounding her, such as the recently discovered emails on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s computer. It is a scandal that not even William McKinley’s shadowy political advisor, Mark Hanna, could have engineered. Buckle up, folks. It’s going to be a wild few days.

Introducing Jennifer Hallock

The “Approach to the Bridge of Spain in New Town, Manila,” taken in 1899 and found at the Library of Congress here. Notice the American, the only one wearing a dark shirt in the tropics.

In French, the word histoire can mean either a chronicle of the past or a fresh fictional tale. As a historical romance author, I love that flexibility. No matter whether I am writing sexy novels or telling the truth of the Philippine-American War, I embrace the story behind the events.

Oh, maybe I should introduce myself? My name is Jennifer Hallock, and I am the author of Sugar Sun series—steamy books “for those who love their romance with a little more plot” (Carla de Guzman for Evangeline has invited me to join her in posting on this spectacular blog. I’m thrilled to be here, and I cannot wait to show you my unusual little corner of the Edwardian Era.

G. W. Peter’s illustration, “An Evening Concert on the Luneta,” which was published in Harper’s Weekly as the centerfold on 25 November 1899. I color-corrected a high resolution image to bring out the American soldiers on the right side.

My day job for the last twenty years has been teaching history to intelligent, discriminating teenagers. (Yes, such a beast exists, I am happy to report!) Like any good teacher, I strive to keep my presentation lively, informative, and seasoned with humor. Sometimes that humor shows up in the shape of snark, but so it goes. Thanks to the indulgence of my employer, I am lucky enough to teach one of the few courses in the United States—at any level—devoted to American colonial rule in the Philippines.

Did you know that the Edwardian Era was also known as the age of New Imperialism? It began with the Scramble for Africa in 1884-1885 and continued through the Scramble for the Pacific in the early 1900s. For Americans this meant Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa, Midway Island, and a little adventurism in China during the 1900 Boxer War.

I first got hooked on this topic while I worked in the Philippines. Many Americans (including my own family) did not know where I was heading, let alone that I would be living in a former U.S. colony. Ignorance is their loss: the Philippines is a great place with wonderful people. I wish I still lived there.

Stay tuned for more! And if you cannot wait—like, you literally need to know about the nonsense that Americans were getting up to in 1901 Manila—check out my novella, Hotel Oriente. It has politics, scandal, a misunderstood White Elephant, and stolen bacon. What else could you want?


The 1911 National Insurance Act


stamp licking

While watching the second episode of Dr. Pamela Cox’s BBC documentary, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, I was struck by yet another instance of similarity between today and the Edwardian era.

I blogged a bit about Lloyd George and his controversial “People’s Budget“, and the push for national insurance was a part of the Liberal Party (and Lloyd George)’s social reforms of the 1910s.

George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England covers this particular point of the Liberal Party’s history, and in a nutshell, these outrageous reforms–to the establishment at least–inadvertently caused the gradual erosion of their elector base in favor of the Labour Party.

The result of this hard move to the Left was disastrous on Society. After the particularly humiliating struggle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords in 1910 (the Lords were virtually stripped of their power the following year), many aristocrats found social bipartisanship quite difficult (I believe Winston Churchill was considered a traitor to his class).

But I digress. Dr. Cox’s focus is, as seen in the title, on the history of the servant class. The changes created by Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act had enormous ramifications. By the mid-Edwardian era, the working classes had mobilized: trades unions, Labour Party candidates, societies, etc.

In short, the legislature of the Victorians, which fought for mandatory education for the poor and working class, created a politically mobile underclass who now demanded better wages and conditions, and a greater say in Britain’s political voice. No longer could both major parties ignore or appease the working class and the poor, and the gradual enfranchisement of more and more men meant their needs and desires had to be met or they would take their votes elsewhere (which they did–the aforementioned Labour Party).

The National Insurance Act, gave “the British working classes the first contributory system of insurance against illness and unemployment.” All workers between the age of sixteen and seventy had to join the health scheme, where each worker put in four pence a week, their employer three pence, and the government two pence.

Not only was sick leave now assured (during which one would be paid “10 shillings a week for the first 13 weeks and 5 shillings a week for the next 13 weeks”), but free medical care and unemployment benefits. Unemployment worked rather the same as insurance: “The worker gave 2.5 pence/week when employed, the employer 2.5 pence, and the taxpayer 3 pence. After one week of unemployment, the worker would be eligible of receiving 7 shillings/week for up to 15 weeks in a year.” Two years after the act was passed, “2.3 million were insured under the scheme for unemployment benefit and almost 15 million insured for sickness benefit.”

In 1912, an American magazine discussed the act:

The British National Insurance Act, which provides for sick benefits, medical attendance, hospital treatment and relief for consumptives in sanitariums, went into effect last Monday. It covers all persons engaged in manual labor between the ages of 16 and 70, and all employes, with certain exceptions, earning less than $800 a year. Among those exempt are employes of the government, railroad employes and school teachers, who are entitled to superannuation, municipal employes and certain persons employed casually.

The premium rate for male employes is 14 cents a week, which must be paid by the employer. He is, however, allowed to deduct eight cents of the amount from the workman’s wages. The benefits are a sickness benefit of $2.40 per week for 26 weeks beginning on the fourth day of sickness; a disablement benefit of $1.20 a week afterward, if the employe is still incapable of work; medical treatment or, in lieu, monetary compensation and sanitarium treatment for consumptives. For working women the rate is 12 cents per week, the employer being allowed to deduct 6 cents from the wages, and the sickness benefit is $1.80 per week and disability benefit $1.40 per week. A maternity benefit of $7.20 is also paid unless the husband is insured. The government contributes to the fund 4 cents per employe per week.

For domestic servants the employer is required to pay 6 cents per week, that is to say, the employer must keep a book in which he must paste stamps to that amount every week, on penalty of $50 for each two cent stamp missing. Employers object to this insurance of domestic servants that they will practically pay the insurance under the “stamp licking act.” The stamps are special health insurance stamps. Every employe must have a card to which the necessary stamps are to be affixed. Such are the main provisions of the law except that to receive its full benefits employes must insure in some approved friendly society.

The act is already causing trouble. Certain classes of casual employes come under its provisions. In such cases the first employer affixes the stamps, and this has led in the case of dock laborers to the establishment of a clearing house for employers who thus pro rate among themselves the cost of the insurance. The laborers object to register under the clearing house plan, and this week 12,000 went on strike in Liverpool and Birkenhead rather than register. The act is not popular, especially as it is believed to be only a part of a program Lloyd-George, the chancellor of the exchequer, has mapped out.

It was unsurprising that the servant-employing class was not happy with this act, and Dr. Cox showed a number of political cartoons and postcards mocking the potential fall-out of the national insurance, ranging from scheming men gaming the system, to mistresses now being obliged to wait upon their own servants when ill.

The Turning of the Worm

Lloyd George Insurance Act

Post Office

So as you can see, this act created a complete social upheaval for the Edwardians that occurred well before WWI.

1911 National Insurance Act
National Insurance Act 1911
The People’s Insurance by David Lloyd George
Timeline – Trades Unions Congress History Online