Free silver was a major economic policy issue in late-19th-century America. Its advocates were in favor of an expansionary monetary policy featuring the unlimited coinage of silver into money on demand, as opposed to strict adherence to the more carefully fixed money supply implicit in the gold standard. Supporters of an important place for silver in a bimetallic money system making use of both silver and gold, called "Silverites", sought coinage of silver dollars at a fixed weight ratio of 16-to-1 against dollar coins made of gold. Because the actual price ratio of the two metals was substantially higher in favor of gold at the time, most economists warned that the less valuable silver coinage would drive the more valuable gold out of circulation.
While all agreed that an expanded money supply would inevitably raise prices, at issue was whether or not this inflationary tendency would be beneficial. The issue peaked from 1893 to 1896, when the economy was wracked by a severe depression—remembered as the Panic of 1893—characterized by falling prices (deflation), high unemployment in industrial areas, and severe distress for farmers. It is the 11th largest decline in U.S. stock market history.
The "free silver" debate pitted the pro-gold financial establishment of the Northeast, along with railroads, factories, and businessmen, who were creditors deriving benefit from deflation and repayment of loans with valuable gold dollars, against farmers who would benefit from higher prices for their crops and an easing of credit burdens. Free silver was especially popular among farmers in the Wheat Belt (the western Midwest) and the Cotton Belt (the Deep South), as well as silver miners in the West. It had little support among farmers in the Northeast and the Corn Belt (the eastern Midwest).
Free silver was the central issue for Democrats in the presidential elections of 1896 and 1900, under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan, famed for his Cross of Gold speech in favor of free silver. The Populists also endorsed Bryan and free silver in 1896, which marked the effective end of their independence. In major elections free silver was consistently defeated, and after 1896 the nation moved to the gold standard.
The debate over silver lasted from the passage of the Fourth Coinage Act in 1873, which demonetized silver and was called the "Crime of '73" by opponents, until 1913, when the Federal Reserve Act completely overhauled the U.S. monetary system.