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William Jennings Bryan and the Founding of the Fed

Posted By George Selgin On April 20, 2014 @ 8:33 am In Economic History,Money & Politics,The Fed & Central Banks | 31 Comments


If William Jennings Bryan is remembered at all these days, other than as the real-life model for "Matthew Harrison Brady"–the buffoonish Bible-quoting opponent of Darwinism portrayed by Fredric March in the movie version of "Inherit the Wind"– it is as the three-time populist presidential candidate whose campaign for a revival of bimetallism,  at the long-defunct ratio of 16:1, split the Democratic party in two, and whose "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention gave goose-bumps both to his audience and to Wall Street's plutocrats, albeit for very different reasons.

Bryan's plea for renewed coining of silver ultimately served only to assure William McKinley's victory, and to thereby pave the way for silver's official demonetization with the passage, in 1900, of the Gold Standard Act.  But though the fact is often overlooked, Bryan's influence upon the development of the United State's currency system went far beyond his failed effort to revive bimetallism.  For Bryan also played a crucial part in the paper currency reform movement that was to lead, thanks in no small way to his influence, to the passage of the Federal Reserve Act.

To appreciate Bryan's role, one must recall the circumstances that lead, during the last decades of the 19th century, to widespread pleas for the reform of the existing U.S. currency arrangement.   During the Civil War the Union, seeking to replenish its depleted coffers, passed the National Banking Acts.  Those acts provided for the establishment of federally (as opposed to state) chartered banks, subject to the requirement that any notes issued by the new banks be fully, or (at $110 nominal backing for every $100 of notes outstanding) more than fully, secured by U.S. government bonds.  

When the number of applications for national bank charters (and associated bond sales) proved disappointing, chiefly because state banks were not tempted to convert to them, the authorities responded by subjecting outstanding state bank notes to a 10% tax.  The prohibitive tax forced most state banks to either secure federal charters or go out of business altogether, with only a relatively small number managing to survive despite no longer being able to issue their own currency.  Thus by the war's end, or not long thereafter (for the implementation of the 10% tax was eventually delayed until August 1866), national banks had become the country's only suppliers of banknotes, which, together with U.S. Treasury notes ("greenbacks") also authorized during the war, made up the total stock of United States paper currency.

Because the stock of greenbacks was itself legislatively fixed, with the intention of eventually withdrawing them altogether, national banknotes were the only component of the paper currency stock that might conceivably expand, once a ceiling on their quantity was lifted in 1875, to accommodate either temporary or permanent growth in the demand for currency.  However, that capacity was undermined by the bond-security provision, which linked the total potential stock of national banknotes to the extent of the federal governments' indebtedness, and, particularly, to the outstanding quantity of those particular government bonds that had been deemed eligible for securing such notes.   Because the Treasury enjoyed surpluses for most of the years between 1879 (when gold payments were resumed) and 1893, and took advantage of them to reduce the federal debt, national banks, rather than finding it profitable to supply more currency as the nation grew, supplied less.   Total national banknote circulation, which stood at over $300 million around 1880, had fallen to less than half that amount a decade later. 

What's more, because acquiring and holding the necessary securities, with their increasingly high market prices and correspondingly low yields, was so costly, national banks were not at all inclined to acquire them just for the sake of providing for temporary spikes in the demand for currency, such as occurred every "crop moving" season.  Consequently every autumn witnessed some tightening in the money market, as farmers came to withdraw currency from rural banks, and those banks were compelled, by the high cost of bond collateral, to draw instead on their cash reserves.   Because national banking laws allowed country banks to reckon as part of their legal reserves deposits lodged with "reserve city" correspondents, while those bankers were  in turn allowed to treat their own correspondent balances in New York (the "central reserve city") as cash, Wall Street tended to bear the brunt of this tightening, which on several occasions, and most notoriously in 1893 and 1907, manifested itself in full-fledged financial panics.

The troubles stemming from our "inelastic" currency arrangements had a straightforward solution.  That solution was not, as so many monetary economists today assume (knowing as they do the solution that was actually settled upon, but lacking understanding of the  roots of the problem), a central bank.  It was simply to free national banks, and perhaps state banks as well, from the Civil-War era shackles that, owing to long-obsolete fiscal considerations, were preventing them from supplying notes on the same terms as those governing their ability to create demand deposits.   Once allowed to back their notes with their general assets, national banks could swap notes for deposits, either permanently or temporarily, without limit, thereby conserving both their own cash reserves and those of their city correspondents.   State banks, once freed from the obnoxious 10% tax, might do likewise.   Reform, in other words, was a simple matter of leaving bankers equally free to supply customers with either paper or ledger-entry promises, according to the customers' needs.

That that is precisely what the banks would have done, had they been permitted, and that it could have worked, were far from being untested conjectures.  For proof one had only to look north.  For Canada's currency exhibited precisely the sort of elasticity that it's U.S. counterpart lacked, growing steadily while the stock of national bank notes shrank, and rising and falling with the coming and going of the harvest season.   How come?  Central banking had nothing to do with it.    Instead, Canada's paper currency stock, like the U.S. stock, consisted mainly of commercial banknotes.  The key difference was that Canadian banks, unlike the national banks, could issue notes based on  assets of their own choosing.

Canada's system differed as well in other crucial respects, though ones that did not bear so directly upon it's currency's elasticity.  Chief among these was the fact that Canadian banks were able to establish nationwide branch networks, and the fact that entry into the industry was very strictly limited.  Canadian banks therefore tended to be much larger, much more diversified, and much less prone to fail than their U.S. counterparts.  An important, though often overlooked, connection exists between banks' freedom  to issue notes and their ability to establish branch networks, in that the cost of keeping additional cash reserves is among the more important costs connected to the establishment of branches.  To the extent that banks are free to issue their own notes, the need for cash reserves, whether at branches or at the home office, is greatly reduced.  Consequently, the fact that Canada's banks enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom of note issue meant that they were also better able to exploit gains from branching.  Well developed branch networks, in turn, indirectly contributed to the elasticity of Canada's currency stock, by allowing for local clearings that substantially reduced the cost of mopping-up surplus notes.

That numerous attempts should have been made to reshape the U.S. system along Canadian lines, especially by allowing national (and perhaps also state) banks to issue "asset currency," but also by allowing for unlimited branching, shouldn't be surprising.  What is (or ought to be) surprising is the fact that none of these eminently sensible plans succeeded.  Instead, every one–including the Baltimore, Indianapolis Monetary Commission, Gage, Carlisle, and Fowler plans–was either voted down by Congress, or scuttled in committee.

I had long supposed that opposition to unit banking, from "Main Street" unit banks naturally, but also from "Wall Street" banks that profited from the correspondent business that unit banking brought, was responsible for the failure of these attempts.  But that explanation isn't entirely satisfactory, because at least some asset currency plans didn't call for branch banking.  Something else was to blame for the utter failure of the asset currency movement.  And that something else turns out to have been…William Jennings Bryan.  For if Bryan was a tireless champion of silver, he was no less unremitting in his violent opposition to any sort of bank-issued currency, and to asset currency especially.

As a Democratic congressman (1891-95), Bryan fought not only against opposition measures calling either for asset currency or for a repeal of the 10% tax on state bank notes, but also against those sponsored by the Cleveland administration itself. So far as he was concerned, state banking was just another name for "wildcat" banking; and the Constitution's clause declaring that "No state shall…emit bills of credit" meant that allowing banks of any sort to issue notes was tantamount to surrendering a sovereign power of Congress to private corporations.(1) When, in the wake of Panic of 1893, Cleveland again called for a repeal of 10% tax, Bryan

delivered an impassioned speech in which he blamed the "crime of demonetization" [of silver] for the deflation of agricultural prices following 1873 and asserted that the federal government alone should issue paper money.  He would make all government money legal tender and prohibit, as the New Deal did, the writing of contracts calling for payment in any particular kind of money.  Furthermore, he would retire national bank notes in favor of government money.(2)

Though beaten in the 1896 presidential election, and again in his 1900 bid, Bryan retained control of the progressive minority within the Democratic party, which he employed skillfully and effectively in "waging incessant war against asset currency"(3), especially by putting paid to attempts to include any sort of currency reform allowing for such currency in the Democratic platform. "If you said anything against Bryan," a representative of long standing recalled many years later, "you got knocked over, that is all."(3)

The Panic of 1907, far from causing Bryan to modify his blanket opposition to any relaxation of existing currency laws, only made his opposition to asset currency more resolute than ever, by convincing him that bankers would stoop to anything to retain control over the nation's money. Replying, in the midst of the panic, to "editorials in the city dailies, demanding an asset currency," Bryan claimed that "The big financiers have either brought on the present stringency to compel the government to authorize an asset currency or they have promptly taken advantage of the panic to urge the scheme which they have had in mind for years."(4) Democrats, Bryan continued, "are duty bound to…oppose asset currency in whatever form it may appear" as "a part of the plutocracy's plan to increase its hold upon the government":

The democrats should be on their guard and resist this concerted demand for an asset currency.  It would simply increase Wall Street's control over the nation's finances, and that control is tyrannical enough now.  Such elasticity as is necessary should be controlled by the government and not by the banks.(5)

As if not content to assail a good idea using bad arguments, Bryan went on to endorse a genuinely rotten alternative: nationwide deposit insurance:

What we need just now is not an emergency currency but greater security for depositors. …All bank depositors should be made to feel secure, and they could be made to feel secure by a guarantee fund raised by a small tax on deposits. What depositors feel sure of their money they will not care to withdraw it.(6)

During the 1908 presidential campaign, his third and last bid for the presidency, Bryan, in deference to the party's divided opinion on the subject, downplayed the currency question, but lost to Taft anyway. Four years later, however, he was instrumental in securing Wilson's nomination, which he favored in part because Wilson seemed to echo his own beliefs in declaring, in a 1911 speech, that "The greatest monopoly is the money monopoly." When further examined by Bryan, Wilson passed with flying colors by again stating that he would oppose any currency plan "which concentrates control in the hands of the banks"(7). Wilson was thus able to secure the democratic nomination, for which he thanked Bryan by making him his Secretary of State.

By the time of Wilson's election, former advocates of asset currency had for some years given up any hope of achieving their preferred reforms, and had instead turned their attention to the alternative of establishing a "central reserve" bank, charged with supplying currency to supplement, and perhaps replace, the limited quantities forthcoming from the national banks. But here again they encountered opposition from progressives, including Bryan, who was no less opposed to reforms that smacked of European-style (or, for that matter, Bank of the United States-style) central banking than he had been to asset currency itself. The Aldrich plan, ostensibly the fruit of the National Monetary Commission's extensive deliberations, but really a scheme secretly cobbled together by Aldrich and his banker friends at Jekyll Island, was (according to Paolo Coletta) "particularly anathema to Bryan…because it called for a single, privately controlled central bank located in New York."(8) Bryan also believed–correctly–that "big financiers" were behind Aldrich's "scheme."(9)

Though he also wished to steer clear of a European-type central bank Wilson thought the Aldrich plan "about sixty or seventy per cent correct," and so had Carter Glass come up with an alternative that differed chiefly in proposing numerous regional reserve banks governed by a Federal Reserve Board. But because the proposed Board was mainly to consist of bankers, and so left them in charge of the nation's currency, Glass's plan also dissatisfied Bryan, who "was exceedingly disturbed at those provisions of the [bill] contemplating currency in the form of bank notes rather than greenbacks" (10), and who, as the most prominent member of Wilson's cabinet, was capable of killing Glass's bill, just as he'd killed previous asset currency measures. When Robert Owen, an old associate who was now chairman of Senate Banking and Currency Committee, drafted an alternative calling instead for new Treasury issues to replace existing national banknotes, Bryan naturally preferred it, placing the Glass plan, which was already encountering stiff opposition from bankers, in still greater jeopardy.

Yet Wilson managed, by means of some very clever politicking, to rescue Glass's Federal Reserve plan. To scare the bankers into supporting it he had William McAdoo, his Treasury Secretary, offer (to Glass's considerable dismay) a "compromise" that would have replaced banknotes, not with redeemable Treasury notes (as contemplated by Owen's plan), but with legal-tender notes resembling the Civil War-era greenbacks.(11) To win Bryan over, he had Glass revise his bill by making Federal Reserve Notes obligations "of the United States" as well as of the Federal Reserve banks themselves, and by excluding banker representation from the Federal Reserve Board.(12) When Glass's bill, having made it through the House Banking Committee, was attacked by Bryanite Democrats at the party caucus, Glass stunned and silenced them by brandishing Bryan's letter calling for his supporters "to stand by the president and assist him in securing the passage of this bill at the earliest possible moment" (13). Thanks to Bryan's support, the Federal Reserve Act became law just two days shy of Christmas, 1913.

And so it happened that, through his unrelenting efforts over the course of more than two decades, William Jennings Bryan, the most stalwart enemy of both private currency and currency monopoly since Andrew Jackson, helped to create a currency monopoly far more powerful than any that Jackson could ever have envisaged, and far more capable of gratifying Wall Street, at the expense of the rest of the nation, than Wall Street alone, left perfectly free from government controls, could ever have devised.

(1) Paolo E. Coletta, "William Jennings Bryan and Currency and Banking Reform," Nebraska History 45 (1964), p. 33.

(2) Ibid., p. 35.

(3) Gerald D. Dunne, A Christmas Present for the President, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, p. 9.

(4) William Jennings Bryan, "The Asset Currency Scheme," The Commoner 7 (43) (November 8, 1907).

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid. Besides overlooking the moral hazard problem, Bryan's argument neglects the fact, crucial to a proper appreciation of the advantage of asset currency, that bank customers often wish to convert deposits into currency for reasons, like paying itinerant workers, having nothing to do with doubts concerning the safety of bank deposits.

(7) Colette, p. 41

(8) Ibid., p. 42.

(9) James Neal Primm, A Foregone Conclusion: The Founding of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, St. Louis: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 2001.

(10) Dunne, p. 11.

(11) Ibid., p. 13.

(12) Glass went along with this plan only owing to his understanding, the correctness of which Wilson readily affirmed, that the supposed obligation "would be a mere pretense," the government's obligation being "so remote that that it could never be discerned" (Colette, pp. 48-9).

(13) Dunne, p. 19.

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