A lot of people today complain about the two major parties. It isn’t the first time there have been these kinds of complaints about Democrats and Republicans. In 1892, 125 years ago, some Nevadans tried to do something about it.
Nevada was in the middle of what would be a twenty-year depression. Most of the state’s mines had gone dry. Ranching couldn’t make up the difference. The state’s population was declining. Nevadans believed the Crime of ’73 was the main cause. In 1873, Congress had voted to demonetize silver. Congress had passed a law for the federal government to buy up some silver, but Nevadans believed it wasn’t nearly enough. They and other westerners began forming clubs to advocate for silver.
Miners weren’t the only unhappy ones at the time. Farmers were especially upset. Many went into debt to retool or expand their farms to compete in the market. They wanted the government to help them. They wanted more regulations on railroads—even government ownership of them. That would make it easier for them to get their goods to market. They also wanted the government to print more money, inflate the currency, and thus help them pay their debts. Farmers began creating organizations to speak on their behalf.
In 1892, it all came together. On April 10, Nevada’s first silver club gathered in what one newspaper called the “most earnest and intelligent meeting that ever assembled in Winnemucca.” The club’s chair was George Nixon—editor of Winnemucca’s newspaper, The Silver State, and a businessman. That week, about 800 people in Eureka formed a silver club under the leadership of Thomas Wren, an attorney and a former congressman. Carson City followed, with leaders who included John Edward Jones, the state surveyor general, as well as the lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretary of state.
The problem was, the two national parties preferred gold currency, not silver or paper, and were under eastern control. Republicans renominated President Benjamin Harrison. Democrats chose former President Grover Cleveland, who won the popular vote four years before but lost the electoral vote to Harrison. Farmers and miners weren’t satisfied.
The result was the creation of the Silver Party, and its merger with the People’s Party or Populists. Silverites endorsed the People’s Party candidate, James Weaver, and its Omaha platform. That platform included government ownership of railroads and an expanded currency.
That’s where things got interesting. The Populists went along with expanding that currency through silver. The Silverites said they backed the Populists. But it was a bit tricky. That year, Nevadans would choose legislators who would, in turn, elect a U.S. senator. The incumbent was William Morris Stewart, a longtime advocate of silver—remonetizing it, protecting it, and generally doing anything to defend it. But he also felt the same way about railroads. His campaign manager was Charles C. Wallace, a lobbyist for the Central Pacific Railroad. They didn’t exactly agree with government railroad ownership.
In the end, the Silverites supported Weaver, who got about eight and a half percent of the national popular vote and 22 of the 444 electoral votes. Cleveland won easily. So did Stewart and the Silver ticket. Nevadans would keep voting Silver for the next decade, but, there would be no national silver party. Rather, their elected officials would work with Democrats or Republicans who were willing to ally with them. The two-party system seemed entrenched in the 1890s. So it seems today.