The Rise of Populism
The People’s Party (or Populist Party, as it was widely known) was much younger than the Democratic and Republican Parties, which had been founded before the Civil War. Agricultural areas in the West and South had been hit by economic depression years before industrial areas. In the 1880s, as drought hit the wheat-growing areas of the Great Plains and prices for Southern cotton sunk to new lows, many tenant farmers fell into deep debt. This exacerbated long-held grievances against railroads, lenders, grain-elevator owners, and others with whom farmers did business. By the early 1890s, as the depression worsened, some industrial workers shared these farm families' views on labor andthe trusts.
In 1890 Populists won control of the Kansas state legislature, and Kansan William Peffer (right) became the party's first U.S. Senator. Peffer, with his long white beard, was a humorous figure to many Eastern journalists and politicians, who saw little evidence of Populism in their states and often treated the party as a joke. Nonetheless, Western and Southern Populists gained support rapidly. In 1892 the national party was officially founded through a merger of the Farmers' Alliance and the Knights of Labor. In that year the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, won over one million votes. Between 1892 and 1896, however, the party failed to make further gains, in part because of fraud, intimidation, and violence by Southern Democrats.
By 1896 the Populist organization was in even more turmoil than that of Democrats. Two main factions had appeared. One, the fusion Populists, sought to merge with the Democrats, using the threat of independent organization to force changes in the major party's platform. The Populist organization in Kansas had already "fused"—over the bitter protest of those who considered this a sell-out. Fusionists argued that the regionally based third party could never hold national power; the best strategy was to influence a major party that could.
The second faction, called "mid-roaders," suspected (with good reason) that Democratic leaders wanted to destroy the third-party threat; fusion, they argued, would play into this plot. These Populists advocated staying "in the middle of the road," between the two larger parties, and not merging with either. In practice, these Populists were not "in the middle," but more sweeping in their political goals than either of the major parties, while fusionists were more willing to compromise in hopes of winning powerful Democratic allies. Mid-roaders like Tom Watson (above, left) warned that "fusion means the Populist party will play Jonah, and they will play the whale."
Inside the People’s Party, mid-roaders sought to schedule the national convention before those of the Republicans and Democrats. They lost this fight, and fusionists selected a date after the major-party meetings, hoping that silver Democrats would win a dramatic victory in the Chicago convention. When this happened—with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan on a free-silver platform—mid-roaders found themselves in a difficult spot.
The Populist Convention in St. Louis, July 24-26, 1896
By the start of the convention, relations between mid-roaders and fusionists were tense; the latter were clearly in communication with Bryan's manager, James K. Jones of Arkansas. One of the most popular and eloquent mid-roaders, Tom Watson of Georgia, stayed home—either because he sensed disaster, or more likely because hoped mid-roaders would win control of the convention and nominate him for president. According to tradition (which McKinley followed and Bryan did not), presidential hopefuls did not appear at the party's convention, but waited modestly at home for news of their nomination.
The convention was a disaster for mid-roaders, as the convention endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee, making William Jennings Bryan the candidate of both the Democratic and Populist parties. When mid-roaders tried to stage a counter-rally, the lights in their meeting hall mysteriously went out—though they were burning brightly fifteen minutes after the group gave and went home.
Mid-roaders did defeat the nomination of Arthur Sewall, Democrats' vice-presidential choice, who was too conservative and anti-labor for the Populist convention to stomach. Instead, Populists chose Tom Watson of Georgia. Watson, editor of the People’s Party Paper, was a dedicated Populist who had endured abuse and death threats from some Democrats in his state who feared the People’s Party.
Watson accepted the nomination only because he believed a deal had been struck with Jones, in which Bryan would renounce Sewall, making "Bryan and Watson" both the Democratic and Populist ticket. Fusionist leaders had not obtained such a promise—or, if they had, they were betrayed afterward by their erstwhile Democratic allies.
Upon discovering this when the convention was over, Watson refused to campaign for Bryan, denouncing the deceit. At the same time, he refused to step down in favor of Sewall. Watson and other mid-roaders argued that their party's platform was substantially different from the Democrats' Chicago platform, even if the latter represented a substantial shift for that party. Watson and others focused on issues rather than individuals, hoping to rescue the third party from the 1896 debacle and revive it another year.
Fusionist Populists campaigned enthusiastically for Bryan; many Republicans and Gold Democrats depicted "Populists" and "Silver Democrats" as a united opposition, though this was far from the case. Some mid-road Populists, like the Kansas orator Mary Lease, (left) reluctantly campaigned for Bryan while calling attention to Populists' broader goals.
Compared with silver Democrats, Populists advocated more sweeping federal intervention to offset the economic depression, curtail corporate abuses, and prevent poverty among farming and working-class families. They made a stronger statement than the major parties in support of Cuban independence and raised other issues—such as statehood for Territories and the District of Columbia—that Republicans and Democrats did not address. The platform was, however, less radical than the state-level platforms of Western Populist organizations, some of which had called for woman suffrage.
Because the presidential campaign hinged on the currency issue, this plank (which Populists had held since the early 1890s, and now shared with the Democrats) received most attention and debate.
The End of Populism—or Not?
In the national campaign, Populists served mostly as a symbol for Republicans, who warned that the silver Democrats had allied themselves with ignorant "hayseeds" and "anarchists." Bryan virtually ignored the People’s Party, even though he was its nominee. While the nomination of Bryan had destroyed the hopes of mid-roaders, Bryan's defeat demoralized the fusionists, leaving the whole party in shambles. As Watson had predicted, fusion on the "free silver" issue de-railed the rest of Populists' agenda and killed the party's hopes for national power. While Populists continued to hold power in a few Western states, the party vanished from the larger electoral map.
Nonetheless, Populist ideas survived into the new century. Progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt resurrected many Populist planks and re-cast them in new forms as he tentatively expanded federal regulations of business corporations. The Progressive Party, which Roosevelt headed in the "Bull Moose campaign" of 1912, also echoed many People’s Party concerns. By constitutional amendment, direct election of U.S. Senators became law in 1912. Other Populist planks—particularly those calling for aid to farmers and employment on public works in time of depression—became reality during the 1930s, under the New Deal administrations of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt.
I say it fearlessly, and it can not be denied, that reforms for which the masses have been clamoring for years—whether it be silver or labor or income tax or popular rights or resistance to government by injuction—had never been written, and might never have been written, into a Democratic platform, until the Populist party, 1,800,000 strong, thundered in the ears of Democratic leaders the announcement that a mighty multitude demanded these reforms. —John Temple Graves (Democrat), Atlanta Constitution, 27 August 1896
The burning question of today is, shall we fuse with the democrats? Shall all the reform elements of this country drop every other reform issue, except free coinage of gold and silver, join hands with the free silver democrats and fight the common enemy—plutocratic republicanism?
If the democrats would do half of the "fusing," I for one would say yes. But do the democrats offer the reformers one single concession? I fail to see it as yet.
... We forced them into making free coinage the issue; shall we then drop all other reform issues and run to meet them with open arms? Shall the outraged girl, who forces her seducer to marry her at the point of a revolver, drop her mother, sisters and brothers at his command, in order to make the marriage perfect and happy?
... No, my brother; the democratic party can not swallow me down unless it swallows all the populist reform issues. There are too many horrors fresh in my memory—too many scenes of poverty and want, at which a democratic administration turned a deaf ear.
—"A Man Without a Soul," The Coming Nation, June 27, 1896
The Populist gathering of this year lacked the drill and distinction and wealth of the Republican convention held the month before in the same building. It had not the ebullient aggressiveness of the revolutionary Democratic assembly at Chicago, nor the brilliant drivers who rode the storm there. Every one commented on the number of gray heads—heads many of them grown white in previous independent party movements. The delegates were poor men.... Cases are well known of delegates who walked because too poor to pay their railroad fare. It was one day discovered that certain members of one of the most important delegations were actually suffering for food. They had no regular sleeping place, having had to save what money they had for their nickel meals at the lunch counter. —Henry Demorest Lloyd, Review of Reviews, September 1896
The old plutocratic politicians have been out-generaled by the flank move of the People’s party. They invaded our field, stole our leader, set him up on a platform they builded from materials they likewise purloined from us for the occasion. The artful dodge of securing the nomination of a TRUE Populist Vice-President will force the designers against the people's rights, who had cunningly secured the nomination of a banker and railroad magnate, in the new Democracy, to the wall—Wall street where they belong. —Vineland (NJ) Independent, in Public Opinion, 13 August 1896
The nomination of Thomas E. Watson for the vice presidency by the Populists complicates the situation in an unfortunate degree. It may be believed that the middle-of-the-road division, which has been opposed to Bryan, is highly pleased at the turn of affairs. . . . At this writing it is impossible to tell what turn matters may take. —Rocky Mountain News, 25 July 1896
Don't ask me after all my service with the People’s party to kill it now. I am going to stand by it till it dies, and I want no man to say that I was the man who stabbed it to the heart.... No; Sewall has got to come down. He brings no votes to Bryan. He drives votes away from Bryan. —Tom Watson in Kansas City Times, from C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel
Mr. Watson really ought to be the first man on the ticket, with Mr. Bryan second; for he is much the superior in boldness, in thorough-going acceptance of his principles according to their logical conclusions, and in sincerity of faith.... Mr. Watson belongs to that school of southern Populists who honestly believe that the respectable and commonplace people who own banks, railroads, dry goods stores, factories, and the like, are persons of mental and social attributes that unpleasantly distinguish Heliogabalus, Nero, Caligula, and other worthies of later Rome.... If he got the chance he would lash the nation with a whip of scorpions, while Bryan would be content with the torture or ordinary thongs. —Theodore Roosevelt, Review of Reviews
The Populist platform is almost too absurd to merit serious discussion.
—The Detroit Tribune, in Public Opinion, 6 August 1896
Populists at St. Louis, Review of Reviews, September 1896
People’s Party Platform, Adopted at St. Louis, July 24, 1896
The People’s party, assembled in National Convention, reaffirms its allegiance to the principles declared by the founders of the Republic, and also to the fundamental principles of just government as enunciated in the platform of the party in 1892. We recognize that, through the connivance of the present and preceding Administrations, the country has reached a crisis in its national life as predicted in our declaration four years ago, and that prompt and patriotic action is the supreme duty of the hour. We realize that, while we have political independence, our financial and industrial independence is yet to be attained by restoring to our country the constitutional control and exercise of the functions necessary to a people's government, which functions have been basely surrendered by our public servant to corporate monopolies. The influence of European money changers has been more potent in shaping legislation than the voice of the American people. Executive power and patronage have been used to corrupt our Legislatures and defeat the will of the people, and plutocracy has thereby been enthroned upon the ruins of Democracy. To restore the Government intended by the fathers and for the welfare and prosperity of this and future generations, we demand the establishment of an economic and financial system which shall make us masters of our own affairs and independent of European control by the adoption of the following:
Declaration of Principles.
FIRST. We demand a national money, safe and sound, issued by the General Government only, without the intervention of banks of issue, to be a full legal tender for all debts, public and private; a just, equitable, and efficient means of distribution direct to the people and through the lawful disbursements of the Government.
SECOND. We demand the free and unrestricted coinage of silver and gold at the present ratio of 16 to 1, without waiting for the consent of foreign nations.
THIRD. We demand the volume of circulating medium be speedily increased to an amount sufficient to meet the demands of the business and population and to restore the just level of prices of labor and production.
FOURTH. We denounce the sale of bonds and the increase of the public interest-bearing debt made by the present Administration as unnecessary and without authority of law, and demand that no more bonds be issued except by specific act of Congress.
FIFTH. We demand such legislation as will prevent the demonetization of the lawful money of the United States by private contract.
SIXTH. We demand that the Government, in payment of its obligations, shall use its option as to the kind of lawful money in which they are to be paid, and we denounce the present and preceding Administrations for surrendering this option to the holders of Government obligations.
SEVENTH. We demand a graduated income tax to the end that aggregated wealth shall bear its just proportion of taxation, and we regard the recent decision of the Supreme Court relative to the Income Tax law as a misinterpretation of the Constitution and an invasion of the rightful powers of Congress over the subject of taxation.
EIGHTH. We demand that postal savings banks be established by the Government for the safe deposit of the savings of the people and to facilitate exchange.
FIRST. Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the Government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people and on a non-partisan basis, to the end that all may be accorded the same treatment in transportation and that the tyranny and political power now exercised by the great railroad corporations, which result in the impairment if not the destruction of the political rights and personal liberties of the citizen, may be destroyed. Such ownership is to be accomplished gradually, in a manner consistent with sound public policy.
SECOND. The interest of the United States in the public highways built with public moneys and the proceeds of extensive grants of land to the Pacific Railroads should never be alienated, mortgaged, or sold, but guarded and protected for the general welfare as provided by the laws organizing such railroads. The foreclosure of existing liens of the United States on these roads should at once follow default in the payment thereof by the debtor companies; and at the foreclosure sales of said roads the Government shall purchase the same if it becomes necessary to protect its interests therein, or if they can be purchased at a reasonable price; and the Government shall operate said railroads as public highways for the benefit of the whole people and not in the interest of the few under suitable provisions for protection of life and property, giving to all transportation interests equal privileges and equal rates for fares and freights.
THIRD. We denounce the present infamous schemes for refuding these debts, and demand that the laws now applicable thereto be executed and administered according to their interest and spirit.
The telegraphic, like the Post-office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the Government in the interest of the people.
FIRST. True policy demands that the National and State legislation shall be such as will ultimately enable every prudent and industrious citizen to secure a home, and, therefore, the land should not be monopolized for speculative purposes. All lands now held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs, should by lawful means be reclaimed by the Government and held for natural settlers only, and private land monopoly as well as alien ownership should be prohibited.
SECOND. We condemn the frauds by which the land grant Pacific Railroad Companies have, through the connivance of the Interior Department, robbed multitudes of actual bona fide settlers of their homes and miners of their claims, and we demand legislation by Congress which will enforce the exception of mineral land from such grants after as well as before the patent.
THIRD. We demand that bona fide settlers on all public lands be granted free homes, as provided in the National Homestead law, and that no exception be made in the case of Indian reservations when opened for settlement, and that all lands not now patented come under this demand.
We favor a system of direct legislation, through the initiative and referendum, under proper constitutional safeguards.
FIRST. We demand the election of President, Vice-President, and United States Senators by a direct vote of the people.
SECOND. We tender to the patriotic people of the country our deepest sympathies in their heroic struggle for political freedom and independence, and we believe the time has come when the United States, the great Republic of the world, should recognize that Cuba is and of right ought to be a free and independent State.
THIRD. We favor home rule in the Territories and the District of Columbia, and the early admission of the Territories as States.
FOURTH. All public salaries should be made to correspond to the price of labor and its products.
FIFTH. In times of great industrial depression idle labor should be employed on public works as far as practicable.
SIXTH. The arbitrary course of the courts in assuming to imprison citizens for indirect contempt, and ruling them by injunction, should be prevented by proper legislation.
SEVENTH. We favor just pensions for our disabled Union soldiers.
EIGHTH. Believing that the elective franchise and an untrammelled ballot are essential to government of, for, and by the people, the People’s party condemn the wholesale system of disfrachisement adopted in some of the States as unrepublican and undemocratic, and we declare it to be the duty of the several State Legislatures to take such action as will secure a full, free and fair ballot and honest count.
NINTH. While the foregoing propositions constitute the platform upon which our party stands, and for the vindication of which its organization will be maintained, we recognize that the great and pressing issue of the pending campaign, upon which the present election will turn, is the financial question, and upon this great and specific issue between the parties we cordially invite the aid and co-operation of all organizations and citizens agreeing with us upon this vital question.
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press
Major events of the campaign,
in cartoon and story. (Click date)