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Set in November 1896, the case describes the views of the two leading candidates for US president, William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley, along with those of three other figures: J. P. Morgan, Mary Elizabeth Lease, and Eugene Debs. The task for the student is to assess the role of money and financial crises in the evolving political landscape—these five people reflect policy positions across the political spectrum. The main controversy in the case is whether only gold, or both gold and silver, should back the dollar, an issue that has been simmering for about a quarter-century and that is resolved in the election of 1896.
(1) Consider the meaning and economic implications of currency standards based on gold compared to bimetallism (i.e., a standard based on gold and silver, pegged at a fixed exchange rate between the two metals). (2) Explore the causes and consequences of financial crises. (3) Review the civic reaction to the crises of the 1890s, as reflected in labor violence, criticism by protest groups, and the rise of political movements, especially the Populist Party and parties started by farmers, laborers, and silver interests. (4) Elicit comparisons of the monetary dilemmas of the 1890s with those of the early 21st century.