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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Follow the Yellow Brick Road - The Wizard of Oz and 1890's Monetary Policy

There are many people who interpret L. Frank Baum's fairy tale "The Wizard of Oz" as a Political Allegory based upon the politics of the 1890s. The most popular of these interpretations comes from a high school history teacher in upstate New York named Henry Littlefield, he surmised that Mr. Baum was very active in politics and the book was published, in 1900 not more than four years after Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan delivered his "Cross of gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which supported the Democratic party's push to take the U.S. dollar off of the "gold standard" and place it on a "silver standard".

The United States had a bimetallic standard (Gold and Silver) until the Congress instituted the "Fourth Coinage Act of 1873." The Act embraced the gold standard and demonetized silver. Western mining interests and others who wanted silver in circulation years later labeled this measure the "Crime of '73". Gold became the only metallic standard in the United States, hence putting the United States 'de facto' onto the gold standard. The U.S. did not actually adopt the gold standard 'de jure' until the year 1900.

In the early half of the 20th century, Bryan's speech was considered to be one of the greatest political speeches in U.S. history. It was believed that inflation would result from from a change to the silver standard (because silver was a more abundant metal allowing more dollars to be printed) and thus make it easier for farmers and other debtors to pay off their debts by increasing their income. It would also reverse the deflation which the U.S. experienced from 1873-1896.

"Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

The Yellow Brick Road represents the "Gold Standard." As is the case today, the banking interests centered around New York City, who believed it was in the United States' best interest to remain on the Gold standard, and in the book (not the movie) Dorothy wears silver slippers and they represent the silver standard advocated by William Jennings Bryan.

Dorothy is a simple country girl who lives on an impoverished farm. She represents the American people and their values -- honest and kindhearted. It is also suggested that she may represent Mary Elizabeth Lease, known as the Kansas Tornado. Lease became involved in the Populist Party, drumming up support for their cause. She believed that big business had made the people of America into "wage slaves", declaring, "Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master." Although she is widely believed to have exhorted Kansas farmers to "raise less corn and more hell", she later said that the admonition had been invented by reporters. Lease decided to let the quote stand because she thought "it was a right good bit of advice."

The moral of the story, which is in the movie, the good witch tells Dorothy after the balloon leaves Oz, is that all along Dorothy had the power to go home, just as the solutions to America's problems lie in the ability of Americans to show faith in themselves and their abilities.

Toto, small and seemingly going unnoticed, reveals the Wizard for the fraud he is. He is thought to be another representation of average American people. Toto is probably a reference to the Prohibition Party, Toto being short for teetotaler. The Prohibition Party generally supported the free silver movement.

Uncle Henry: In the late 1800's, there was a famous farmer who was the editor of a leading farm magazine. His name was Henry Cantwell Wallace, and everyone called him Uncle Henry.

Cyclone: The tornado is thought to represent political upheaval, or the free silver movement. During the time period in which this story was written, farmers were suffering from federal deflation; they were receiving less money for their goods, and their debt was getting larger. They wanted the value of a dollar to have a fixed ratio of both silver and gold. Some politicians were behind this movement while others were not.

Munchkins: The munchkins were little people who represented the common folk. They were ordinary citizens of the United States. And in the same breath, the Lollipop Guild is said to represent child labor.

Silver Slippers: In the book, the slippers that appear on Dorothy's feet are silver, rather than ruby. Silver relates to the monetary political issues. Farmers wanted the value of a dollar to have a fixed ratio of both gold and silver.

The Wicked Witch of the East, President Grover Cleveland, represents Eastern Big Business interests. Cleveland led the fight for the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which had provided for the limited coinage of silver. Dorothy's house falls on the Wicked Witch of the East, leaving only the witch's silver shoes. The Depression of 1893 was believed to be caused by the tight money supply resulting from a lack of available gold supplies. This depression lingered through Cleveland's second term. As the 1896 election approached, eastern pro-gold-standard Democrats wished Cleveland to run for a third term, but he declined.

The Wicked Witch of the West represents William McKinley from Ohio (the west), who defeated Bryan to become President succeeding Cleveland. McKinley was against silver because he viewed it as a debased currency and overseas markets used gold, so he believed that it would harm foreign trade. The Gold Standard Act of the United States was passed in 1900 (ratified on March 14) and established gold as the only standard for redeeming paper money, stopping bimetallism (which had allowed silver in exchange for gold). It was signed by President William McKinley.

Good Witches of the North and South: The Good Witch of the North is thought to represent the workers of the north, whereas the Good Witch of the South is thought to represent the farmers of the south. This contrasts the wicked industrialists of the east and the railroad moguls of the west. The South was sympathetic to free-silver (the entire South voted for Bryan in 1896) so it's fitting that the south has a good witch.

The Scarecrow represents the plight of the American farmer at the turn of the 20th century. From 1879 to the end of the century a constant agitation for the expansion of the money stock (inflation) raged in the USA. Political parties were founded whose sole purpose was to make, by one means or another, the total money supply rise. Some favored the issue of paper money (Fiat currency)and some the return to the Bimetallic Standard. Farmers were the most cruelly struck of all by the deflation. In rural areas, wholesale prices of agricultural commodities fell at a rate of about 3% a year. This deflation meant that farmers who were deeply indebted saw the real value of their debts increase every year. Farmers were thus powerful backers of Bryan and the inflationist cause. While the Scarecrow complained that he didn't have a brain, he ended up being the most clever problem solver (resourceful) of the four travelers.

The Tin Man represents the plight of industrial labor, mechanized and dehumanized by a heartless industrial revolution. In the book we learn that he was once flesh and blood but was cursed. As he worked, his ax would take flight and cut off part of his body. A tinsmith would replace the missing part, and the Tin Woodman could work as well as before. Eventually there was nothing left but tin. For all his increased power to work, the Tin Woodman is unhappy for he had lost his heart. For Hugh Rockoff he represents the Populist and Marxist idea of the alienation of the industrial worker. He once was an independent artisan but is now just a cog in a giant machine. He joined the unemployed of the 1890’s, victim of the eastern goldbugs who didn’t want to increase the money supply by adding silver. He was rusted and immobile, which is a feeling that many factory workers had when businesses began shutting down because of a nation-wide depression. After losing their jobs, they felt helpless.

The Cowardly Lion - William Jennings Bryan. During the 1896 Presidential campaign that followed the Cross of Gold speech at the Democrat convention, his supporters accused him of backing off and he was looked at as too cowardly to lead the charge for a Silver Standard. He was seen as having a loud roar, but no bite, and no power. It is the cowardly blustering lion Bryan who is looking for the courage to defend the poor dumb farmer and mechanized tin man without a heart, but they all are led down the Yellow Brick Road to the land of Oz where the American dream is offered by false prophets that hide behind curtains with pretense of magic and sorcery and yet, in the end all roads lead to Kansas, where one can find happiness with the comfort of home and family.

Flying Monkeys: Flying monkeys were used in political cartoons to poke fun at politicians. While this may be the case, another speculation is that the flying monkeys represent Native Americans. When Dorothy and the gang meet up with the monkeys she is told, "Once we were a free people, living happily in the forest, flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody master...This was many ears ago before Oz came out of the clouds to rule over this land." This seems to relate well with Native Americans who were pushed off of their land by migrating eastern Americans.

Emerald City and Emerald Palace: The Emerald City represents Washington D.C. and the Emerald Palace represents the White House.

Wizard: The Wizard of Oz is thought to be Mark Hanna, McKinley's campaign manager, and the chairman of the Republican party. McKinley didn't campaign in the sense that we know it. He ran a "front-porch" campaign, where he stayed at his home in Canton, Ohio and received visitors and the press. The campaign was well-orchestrated by Chairman of the Republican party, Mark Hanna. Hanna arranged for the visitors and prepared their questions and McKinley's responses. Hanna was likened in the pages of the New York Journal to a puppet-master and ventriloquist who pulled McKinley's strings and made the dummy talk. He's the money bags. He's the guy with the money that's really manipulating the political system and keeping the country on the gold standard. In the original story, each of the characters, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man saw the Wizard differently. This shows a cynicism in politics for the way politicians change face for different people.

Satirical cartoon of Mark Hanna during 1896:

Proposed meanings
Oz: Gold is measured in ounces--oz for short--Oz.

The party follows the yellow brick road up to the Emerald City - They follow the gold standard up to Washington DC.

The Deadly Poppy Field, where the Cowardly Lion (Bryan) fell asleep and could not move forward, was the anti-imperialism that threatened to make Bryapoppyn forget the main issue of silver (note the Oriental connotation of poppies and opium). As noted before, the economy improved and silver ceased being the hot issue after the 1896 election. Populists were afraid that Bryan would abandon the silver issue and, in an effort to broaden his (and the party's) appeal, focus more on imperialism and the business trusts which dominated many industries. The Populists considered this an act of pure cowardice and wanted Bryan to fight for silver in 1900 as strongly as he had in 1896.

The enslavement of the yellow Winkies was "a not very well disguised reference to McKinley's decision to deny immediate independence to the Philippines" after the Spanish-American War.

In the Emerald Palace they enter 7 passages and climb 3 flights of stairs - In the White House they see 7 and 3 : 73. This represents the "Crime of '73." The Coinage act laid out above. It eliminated the coinage of silver and that proved to Populists the collusion between congress and bankers.

The Tin Woodsman is given "a new ax with a handle made of gold and a blade polished so that it glistens like burnished silver and a silver oilcan inlaid with gold and precious stones to oil himself " - The bimetallic standard will ensure the industrial worker that he won't be unemployed again

Really the portrait of the Great and Powerful OZ is not all that flattering - The Wizard is able to fool the people into thinking he is great and powerful, but is revealed to be an ordinary man. He solves the problems of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion by little more than psychology: bran (brain food) and pins for the brain (the pins being sharp wit); a fake heart for the Tin Man, and green liquid courage (Liquor) for the Lion. He can't really help Dorothy except by promising to take her with him in his hot air balloon. Apparently, Mark Hanna had transformed himself from a behind the scenes players into the sinister politician the populists hated. And the populists believed his transformation and promises were full of hot air.

Dorothy can go back to Kansas by "kicking the heels of her silver shoes together three times". - The power to solve her problems (by adding silver to the money stock) was there all the time.

When Dorothy returns to Kansas she finds that her silver shoes are missing: the silver issue was disappearing from the scene. In 1900, the US officially returned to the gold standard with the passing of The Gold Standard Act.

It is known that Baum voted Democrat and was sympathetic to the free-silver issue and had lived in South Dakota where he saw first hand the plight of the farmers.

Continue to:
Follow the Yellow Brick Road (part 2) - How it relates to today

The News Hour - Precious Metals
The Crime of 1873
The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a "Parable on Populism"
The University of New Orleans Project Oz
The Wizard of Oz as a Monetary Allegory - Hugh Rockoff

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