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Free Coinage of Silver*
S P E E C H
OF

HON W I L L I A M J. COOMBS,
OP

NEW

YORK,

IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES,
Wednesday, March 23,1892.

The House having under consideration tlie bill (H. R. 4426) for the free coinage of gold and silver, for the issue of coin notes, and for other purposes-

Mr. C O O M B S said:
Mr. SPEAKER: I speak to-day as a merchant, representing a
constituency composed in great part of merchants doing business in the largest commercial city in the country.
I, with others upon this floor, represent men whose enterprise
has extended American commerce, and the fame of her manufacturers to the uttermost parts of the globe, who have made
markets among all nations for American productions, and helped
g a t h e r in from foreign fields golden harvests for our people. I
come in their name to protest against the enactment of a law
w h i c h will throw our country and its commerce out of relation
with every other country in the world; to protest against a
sweeping enactment which will destroy the recognized standard
of value and increase the peril of e v e r y commercial operation at
home and abroad.
I do not remember to have heard during the discussion of this
question in the House any extended allusion to its bearing upon
our trade relations with the world. Gentlemen who have spoken
upon the question have in nearly every case confined themselves
to speaking of its effect upon ourselves alone, disassociated from
the world of commerce and finance beyond our borders.
W e can not, of course, expect by w h a t we do here to force the
outside world to follow us, unless it be for their interests to do so,
and unless there is v e r y good reason founded in self interest for
their doing it.
W h a t e v e r value we may by our fiat place upon apiece of silver
that we call a dollar will be its value only within our borders.
T h e whole outside world beyond the limits of our land will only
receive it at its true bullion value, whatever that value may be.
A t the dividing line the fiat portion of its value disappears.
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No nation in modern times has been able to impose its arbitrary
standard upon the world at large. Such standards as have been
tacitly agreed upon have been the result of generations of intercourse, and should not be changed without long and careful consideration. W e should not, and will not if we are wise, antagonize the strong tendency of the times towards a uniformity of
business laws, customs, and standard of value.
Many of the gentlemen who have spoken on this question have
condemned the legislation of 1873 as a conspiracy against silver.
I beg to differ with them, and to suggest that it was only a part
of the great general movement towards uniformity, of which I
have spoken, and to which our lawmakers wisely and almost unconsciously yielded in order to keep ourselves in a condition of
trade and financial sympathy with other nations.
T h e tendency of the times has for a generation been towards a
closer profit on transactions, and a consequent necessity for elimnating every item of risk that could be eliminated. Silver was
found to t e an unreliable standard on account of its constant
variation in price, and was consequently discarded.
T h e result of that action was that our relations with foreign
countries have been unembarrassed, and we have been able to
call upon them for assistance in our times of distress.
It is now proposed by the bill before the House to cut ourselves
loose from this unity of value and to start out upon an indeEendent course, for, as I said before, no man upon this floor can
ave the hardihood to suppose that we shall be able to coerce
the world to adopt our standard. Viewed in any light the step
would be a serious one to take, even if we proposed to issue our
coin upon the basis of the market value of the bullion, but when
confessedly this is not the case, when our coin is to be part bullion and part fiat value, the situation has a seriousness beyond
description when we consider the enormous and widespread interests involved. It should not be approached in a partisan spirit
or be embittered by sectional animosities, but claim our calmest
thought and most deliberate action.
Gentlemen upon this floor have expressed resentment at the
idea that we should be expected to conform qurselves in any way
to the customs or requirements of foreign nations. I can not
sympathize in this feeling; we are only one member of the great
family of nations, and can not, although we are strong and rich,
impose our will upon them. Neither can we afford to live independently of them. It is true that we have many things that
they want, but they also have many things that we need.
T h e question has been pressing itself upon my mind ever since
this matter has been before the people, how, providing this bill
becomes a law, we shall arrange to carry on our foreign business
with any reasonable degree of safety. It seems to me that in
order to cover the added risk it will be necessary to charge so
large a margin of profit that it will seriously interfere w i t h our
ability to compete with foreign manufacturers. In order to
illustrate, let us trace an operation.
If I sell an invoice of goods to a merchant in Brazil to be paid for
in sixty or ninety days I am obliged to charge it in gold, for he has
none of our silver dollars to send to me in payment, and if he
sells his coffee to us he sells it for gold. I purchase and pay for
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the goods at an enhanced price in silver. In order that my merchandise shall he charged on a gold basis I am obliged to make
a reduction equal to the difference in exchange on the day upon
which it is charged. B y the time that I get my gold back from
Brazil and sell it for silver to replace the silver that I paid to the
manufacturer—silver may have advanced—my profits are destroyed.
If ifcds so with me in selling my merchandise, will it not be
the same with the man who buys your wheat or cotton to sell it to
England? In order to keep my foreign customer I am obliged to
force down the price of the manufacturer, so that I may have
enough margin of profit to meet a larger margin of uncertainty.
W i l l not the man who buys your wheat or cotton or cattle require
the same?
Every added risk requires an added profit to meet it. Every
uncertainty in a transaction calls for increased margins of gain,
and that increased margin has to be paid by the producer. T h e
merchant can not afford to pay it and the consumer will not pay
it if the markets of the world are open to him.
The Mexican merchant, when he buys his goods from this country, pays for them in gold. In order to g e t his gold exchange to
send to us he is obliged often to pay as much as 30 per cent
premium on it, which he adds to the invoice as a part of the
cost of his merchandise. Sometimes he purchases the products of
his own country and sends them to be sold for his account in order to put his funds in New Y o r k to pay his indebtedness. H e
buys that produce for silver;, it almost invariably sells in New
Y o r k for less than its silver cost; if that loss is not more than 10
per cent or 20 per cent he is satisfied, because it saves him paying a 27-J or 30 per cent premium on his exchange.
Do you think that you will enjoy that-way of doing business?
Bo you think that it will have the effect of building up the foreign business of the country And increase the demand for bur
surplus productions; or do you not want to sell any surplus productions? W i t h our high-tariff friends on one side seeking to
discourage foreign purchases, and our silver friends on the other
side discouraging the sales of our productions abroad, we shall
certainly be in a very unenviable position.
The business operations in staples are to-day conducted on v e r y
low margins of profit, frequently as low as one-half or 1 per cent
seldom as h i g h as
In order to be able to do this, and do it with
-any degree of safety, the instrument used in its accomplishment
must be precise and not of uncertain action. In this case that instrument is money, and the money must have no uncertain value.
'the tendency of this law will be to antagonize this condition
of trade so favorable now to the producer and to the consumer, and
throw us back a generation or more in our race for commercial
supremacy. A measure which will accomplish this result can
not be in the interest of the country at large. Our best interests
are served by a policy which puts us into accord with the commercial system of the world at large, which keeps us well within
the great financial and commercial currents which sweep around
the world, distributing blessings to every country. W i t h i n them
is helpfulness, health, and prosperity. T h e y are the result of a
h i g h e r civilization, and we, the most advanced of the nations, can.
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not afford to go outside of them; of all nations we with our ever
increasing commerce should favor uniformity of action and uniformity of methods and mutually helpful policies.
W e have more to gain from them than any other nation. Our
mercantile energy has brought us recognition as a part of the
great scheme, and I most respectfully, but speaking for my constituency, most earnestly and solemnly protest against destructive action.
I also venture to say that the mandatory way in which this bill
is brought before the House is not the best way in which to secure the wisest action. One amendment only was permitted, and
that amendment was taken advantage of by the framers of t h e
bill. I ask you, gentlemen, was that wise? Is it not better, in
discussing a policy of such magnitude, to leave the field open
so as to enable the House to contribute its collective wisdom?
Amendments might be offered which would go far to ameliorate
the harsh conditions.
I also, gentlemen, protest against the bill as it now stands on
account of its dishonesty, and I take only the aims as expressed
by. some of its most ardent advocates as proof of my warrant for
using that harsh expression.
I have done business with every nation and every colony upon
the face of the earth. I have let my proof-glass down into t h e
commerce of every people, and I have found that the world
esteems honesty. A s proof of it I will state that doing business, as I have said, with every nation, I have found that in a
business extending over thirty-five years in which I have kept
records of it that my losses from dishonesty of creditors has not
equaled one-sixteenth of 1 per cent on the amount of my operar
tions.
So I say that the commercial ^ world holds honesty in h i g h
esteem, and what will it say when this great, rich nation at one
one blow seeks to scale down its indebtedness, the indebtedness
of its people, 30 per cent by the issue of coin bearing upon its
face an untrue statement as to its value, and decreeing that i t
shall be a legal tender for the payment of all debts, public and
private?
I regret that the short time allotted to me in which to speak
upon this important question has prevented me from alluding to
the enormous injury it will be to the country by the discrediting
of our public and private securities, which have heretofore found
favor in European markets, or to the injury to the laboring man
and men of fixed incomes whose expenses will be increased without adequate increase of income; but whatever may be the result
of this contest I shall feel that by word and act I have done all in
my power to avert the impending disaster,
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