By Chris Graham
Greenback America Guest Curator
On the BackStory podcast, the History Guys offered a “short take” on the election results. In searching through historical antecedents for the movement that propelled Donald Trump, Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh considered George Wallace and Huey Long, but I think they found the best analogy in the Populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s. The Populists felt, according to Ayers, that
“the system was rigged, it’s rigged in favor of the East, it’s rigged in favor of gold, and it’s leaving out the majority of Americans, and the people who ‘made America great,’ the farmers, the people who built this country…”
We intend the Greenback America exhibit to end with the Populists for several reasons. First, the Populist movement was the culmination of a political age that began during the Civil War with the passage of legal tender acts, in which money and access to credit was front-and-center in national campaigns. (This ended when Congress created the Federal Reserve.) Populists from the Midwest and the South battled Washington and Wall Street over the amount, and type, of money in the economy as the keys to economic equality in a turbulent economy.
Second, we want to emphasize that this is not a triumphant story. Greenbacks and the new national system of banks did, indeed, enable Union victory in the Civil War, industrialization after it, and a more democratic access to money. At the same time the new systems were imperfect and the greenback economy left out, or excluded, people and entire regions in ways that offer insights into contemporary economic and racial inequalities.
The Greenback America project aims to go beyond historical storytelling and will attempt to make meaningful connections between anxiety around money and inequality that persists in this story from the beginning to now.