In 1964, an essay by Frank Littlefield called "The Wizard of Oz: A Parable of Populism" appeared in American Quarterly. It initially caused little stir, but over the years it’s been repeated and has created a widespread belief that the book is a political allegory. Littlefield noted that Dorothy’s magic slippers were silver in the novel, and he began to map the political meaning to the various characters. The Tin Woodsman is the Eastern industrial laborer; the scarecrow the Midwestern farmer; the companions travelling on the Yellow Brick Road are Coxey’s Army. The Cowardly Lion, Littlefield wrote, represented William Jennings Bryan, the "Great Commoner", and The Wizard of Oz is an allegory about the magical benefits of monetary reform. Post-Civil War America was on the gold standard. A ten dollar bill could be taken to the mint and exchanged for $10 worth of gold at an exchange rate fixed by law. That meant that the American money supply was limited by the amount of gold held by the mint, however, which amounted to was deflationary money policy; gold wasn’t getting added to the mint’s supply, so money wasn’t getting printed to replace what was leaving circulation. This was excellent for holders of debt, as the money they were owed became worth more and more. As agricultural prices crashed in the late 1880s, Midwestern farmers formed groups like the Farmers’ Alliance and became monetary radicals, supporting a move to paper money that was not convertable into precious metals. This would be an inflationary measure, making their debts less onerous; in 1880 and 1884, the Greenback Party ran a candidate for President.
Rather than wanting America to move to paper money, miners in the Rockies wanted to move to a silver standard. Silver had been demonitized in 1873, causing a huge financial crash. A silver standard would have benefitted mining states by producing a constant demand for silver. It also would have been inflationary, as there were more sources of silver being discovered than there were sources of gold, so there would have been more money sloshing around the American economy. There was common cause here, and after the Greenback Party failed to make a political impact, the Free Silver and Greenback factions joined forces in the Populist Party. Their ideas made their way into mainstream political discourse, and in 1896 the 36-year-old junior Congressman from Nebraska made history and propelled himself to the brink of the Presidency by giving a fiery sermon on the evils of the gold standard.
Today, it seems quaint and curious, like a religious war over Big-Endianism (although that argument deadly serious for some), but Bryan’s cross of gold speech made his political name. It roused the crowd attending the 1896 Democratic National Convention to a fever pitch, catapulted the three-term Nebraska Congressman to national attention, won him the Presidential nomination, and remained the best speech in the "Boy Orator of the Platte"’s lifetime of speeches. The industrial Northeast was staunchly behind the gold standard, however. Bryan’s speech had anticipated this early red-blue divide:
You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.
In the 1896 campaign, Bryan did reasonably in the popular vote, but was beaten soundly in the electoral college. McKinley, the Republican who beat him, saw an economic recovery in his first term; the apocalyptic rhetoric about maintaining the gold standard seemed more laughable as time went on. America’s farms did not go bankrupt, and having lost in 1896, Bryan went on to be thrashed again in 1900 and still again in 1904. Under Teddy Roosevelt, the Republicans went on to adopt much of the Progressive’s platform of solid Midwestern Protestant reform: cleaner government, regulation of industry, prohibition, women’s suffrage, and an end to child labor. Monetary reform was quietly forgotten; it wouldn’t become an issue again for another two decades.
Bryan died in 1925, having earned himself one last entry in in the history books after taking the stand for the anti-Darwin side of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Bryan was a passionate fundamentalist (although not totally comfortable with the law under which Scopes was tried), and was savaged on the stand by Clarence Darrow. Bryan got a final, posthumous thrashing in H.L. Mencken’s scathing obituary. Today, thanks to Littlefield, L. Frank Baum, the Midwestern salesman and editor who wrote The Wizard of Oz, is cited as an example of Populism rising up against the gold standard. Scholars are doubtful (1, 2). In 1896, when Bryan gave the "cross of gold speech" and surged towards the White House, Frank Baum published the following verse in his newspaper:
When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
There’ll be a jollification
Throughout our happy nation
And contentment everywhere!
Great will be our satisfaction
When the "honest money" faction
Seats McKinley in the chair!
We will gain the world’s respect
When it knows our coin’s “correct”
And McKinley’s in the chair!
Some people can’t win a break.