Garfield and Cockran: Statesmen Who Mastered Money
Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. Part I was published April 17, 2013.
In 1871, at the age of 17, William Bourke Cockran (more widely known by his middle name) emigrated from Ireland to New York. But for that, he might have been President. First elected to Congress in 1886, he served eight mostly unconnected terms across nearly four decades, dying in office in 1923. Between terms, he ran a very successful law practice in New York City.
Cockran was a classical liberal scholar, an ardent free trade advocate, a civil liberties champion, and a confidant of the last Jeffersonian president, Grover Cleveland. He exerted enormous influence on a young Winston Churchill, who credited Cockran as his first political guru and role model (See this ReasonTV interview with author Michael McMenamin, co-author of Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and His American Mentor).
From the time of Garfield’s “Currency” speech in 1868 through the stormy 1890s, money issues were paramount in American political and economic debate. Congress restored gold convertibility to the paper greenbacks in 1875, only to succumb in later years to the agitation of inflationists. In 1878, it started requiring the Treasury to buy large quantities of silver and then push silver dollars and paper notes into circulation. By 1891, the Treasury was forced to buy almost the entire output of American silver mines, pay twice what it was worth, and then flood the economy with both depreciating silver and paper notes.
The climax of the struggle came on Saturday, August 26, 1893. Cockran rose to deliver the closing speech for the sound money forces.
The government’s promise to keep the dollar “as good as gold” was seriously undermined as the yellow metal left the country and silver poured into the Treasury. Investment capital from both foreign and domestic sources dried up, and in 1893, the country was gripped by a financial panic. A deep depression quickly followed. President Grover Cleveland called the Congress into a special session for the purpose of repealing the silver/paper nonsense, setting the stage for one of the most colorful debates ever seen in Washington (I’ve written about it here).
In anticipation of Cockran’s leadership of the repeal fight, the Times of Minneapolis opined, “The President’s views and purposes could have no more eloquent and powerful a champion on the floor of Congress than the distinguished Representative from New York.” They were right. During the two weeks of the battle in Washington’s sweltering heat, Cockran twisted more than a few arms as he scoured the halls for votes.
The climax of the struggle came on Saturday, August 26, 1893. Cockran rose to deliver the closing speech for the sound money forces. The galleries were jammed. Extra chairs were brought in to accommodate the dignitaries, including members of the President’s Cabinet and the justices of the Supreme Court.
Cockran biographer James McGurrin describes the speech, given with little more than a few notes, in these terms:
“The speech was one of the most eloquent and scholarly Cockran had ever delivered and was worthy to be placed in the category of Gladstone’s Budgets. Never before in the history of Congress was the dull and complicated subject of finance made so fascinating. One writer compared his review of the history of currency to ‘a chapter woven by Balzac,’ and continued, ‘Upon a background of shining elocutionary gossamer he threaded the gospel of Sound Money while an overcrowded House listened spellbound in wonder and admiration’ ... His familiarity with the writings of Mill, Locke, Hume and Adam Smith, which he quoted from memory with uncanny accuracy and made applicable to the various phases of the controversy, as well as his seemingly illimitable knowledge of the history of currency in every land and age, amazed his listeners.”
The speech was a jaw-dropping masterpiece at which any friend of honest finance today could marvel. Cockran packed more history of currency from both the United States and Britain into this one address than most members of Congress—then or now—have learned in their lifetimes. Here are only a few of the gems uttered by Cockran on that historic day:
I think it safe to assert that every commercial crisis can be traced to an unnecessary inflation of the currency, or to an improvident expansion of credit.
The kings [of England] had set the example of plundering the public by doing what my friend from Missouri [silverite Richard Bland] suggests we should do now; that is to say, debasing the coins of the country. Kings in all ages, rulers of all characters and in all countries had debased the coinage for their own profit. ...
Sir, the machinery of our trade is disordered because the Government is every day forcing a large quantity of paper into the channels of circulation. Our currency has been swelled far beyond the requirements of trade, and as a necessary consequence the good money, the buoyant circulating medium of international value, has left our shores, and we have been compelled to maintain our commerce with a paper money over which there hangs a cloud of suspicion, forcing us to do business in an atmosphere of doubt and distrust.
I have said, Mr. Speaker, that the history of all these panics shows either an unreasonable extension of the circulating medium or the extension of credit out of all proportion to the capital of the people. My friend from Maine seems to treat these recurring crises as something necessarily produced by the action of the human race in its march of progress. I do not believe it. I do not think the history of the world proves it. I think these commercial crises are like the great pestilences that sweep over the world. Ignorance attributes them to God; science knows they are the consequences of human folly. ... I have searched the history of this country and of Great Britain in vain to find a single panic that was caused by a scarcity of money. I speak within the limits of all authority when I say that the most pronounced cause of all crises has been the redundancy of money resulting from issues of paper by government itself, or by banks chartered by government.
When Cockran finished (the oration lasted more than Garfield’s, fifteen years before), the House roared with applause and congratulations. His speech had carried the day. When the vote to repeal the inflationary Sherman Act was called two days later, the sound money forces won by a margin of more than two to one. The Senate followed suit two months later.
Two years after Cockran’s death in 1923, a collection of his orations was published. Princeton University historian Robert McElroy, the editor, concluded the book’s introduction thusly:
“In almost every speech which he uttered, Mr. Cockran emphasized the fact that the greatest lessons taught by American history are lessons, not for Americans alone, but for all mankind; for all those whose aim is liberty and whose need is light. Therefore, it is appropriate that this volume be entitled, In the Name of Liberty.”
Is there a speaker in the House (or Senate) today who could give either Garfield or Cockran a run for his money? I leave it to the reader to decide, but in my view, America hasn’t seen the likes of those two men for a very long time.