Election years always stir up high emotions and strong opinions. Sometimes, the issues are perennial: the role of the press, how involved our country should be in international affairs, and other weighty matters. Other issues may be important during the year of the election, but fade from public view shortly afterward. An excellent example of the second type is the imbalance of value between silver and gold dollars; it’s not even a blip on the political landscape now, but it was a major plank in the Democratic party platform in 1896. This issue left its mark in a token known as the Bryan Dollar, named for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who supported the “Free Silver” position.
The late 19th century saw an imbalance in its precious metal dollar coins: both silver and gold coins had face value of a single dollar, but the gold in the dollar coin was worth nearly twice as much as the silver in the silver coin. The Bryan Dollars were created to illustrate this issue.
These items (not truly coins, but also not tokens) are much larger than a standard silver dollar of the time, and illustrated how large a silver dollar would need to be to equal the value of the gold in a gold dollar coin. Several varieties exist, but all serve the same purpose: to inform the public about the perceived lack of silver in America’s silver coinage.
The Bryan dollars were struck by silversmiths on the East Coast during the election years of 1896 and 1900. According to So-CalledDollars.com, “They were more dignified in tone than many contemporary pieces issued for the same purpose, as latter usually were struck in base metal and were most satirical of Bryan and his cause. These silver medals showed comparative size and ratio of a dollar struck at the then-current price of silver with what it would be like if free coinage were to rule. They are much more than mere political pieces as they bore direct reference to the silver controversy and, hence, to our national coinage.”
Some of these coins feature shapes on the reverse of the coin, like a small circle or a wagon wheel, to indicate the size of a standard government dollar coin in comparison to the size of a coin needed to equal the metal value of the gold dollar.
Other coins were soon struck to mimic and satirize the Bryan dollars, as well as the Free Silver position. Ronald Fern writes, “With respect to Satirical Bryan Money, Farran Zerbe states: ‘The Satirical class comprises those pieces of numerous variety in size material with derisive or humorous inscription or design. Most all are casts; a few were struck. Type metal, or some composition of lead and aluminum were the most commonly generally used materials, with iron, copper, tin and cardboard contributing a few varieties’. Thousands of such oversized coins were issued to ridicule the so-called Free Silver doctrine. Democrat candidate William Jennings Bryan and his supporters advocated the free coinage of silver and a new, bi-metal monetary standard in which silver was valued at a ratio of 16:1 to gold.”
Though the “Free Silver” system had many impassioned advocates, the country was already on a path to the credit system, and silver didn’t have enough time to challenge the existing single-metal gold standard. Bryan lost the election all three times he ran for the office of President.