American Populism

Today we associate populism with politicians who appeal to an 'us versus them' feeling, the most famous modern example being Donald Trump. But in the 1890s populism had a very different meaning, associated with labour reform, land reform, and government intervention. 

American Populism American Populism

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Table of contents

    American Populism Timeline

    DateEvent
    1867The Grange formed as a social organisation for isolated farmers. It quickly became a political pressure group.
    1873Panic of 1873 led to economic crisis.
    1874Rise of the Greenback Party.
    1892Formation of the People's Party to protect farmer's interests. It was dominated by Southerners. Their presidential, James B. Weaver, won 8.5% of the vote.
    1893Economic recession.
    1896Loss of Democratic and Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan. This signalled the end of the People's Party.
    1910sProgressive Movement.

    American Populism History

    The Populist Movement in the 1890s represented the interest of farmers. It gave birth to the People's Party, the largest and most successful class-based political movement in American history. It acted as a third Party against the Democrats and Republicans. Despite its successes, the People's Party ended by 1896.

    The Rise of Populism in America

    Before the Populist Movement in the 1890s, there were a number of national agrarian organisations, which led to increased support for reform.

    In 1867, The Grange (meaning farmland) became the first of such organisations. Initially, farmers gathered to address the isolation of agrarian living, but what began as a social organisation quickly turned political. A primary problem that the farmers faced was the high rates charged by railroads to transport their crops to markets. Therefore, the Grange began lobbying to change this. They had some success and by 1874, several states had passed laws to establish maximum shipping rates.

    American Populism La Grange Image StudySmarterFig. 1 - Colorado River near La Grange, Texas

    Many more farmers joined the organisation due to the Panic of 1873, a financial crisis that led to lower wages, lower prices for agricultural products, and an increase in their overall debt. In 1873, Congress announced that all federal money must be backed by gold, which limited the national money supply, making it harder to pay off debts.

    This situation led to the rise of the Greenback Party in 1874, which campaigned on the basis of creating inflation in order to help with these debts, as well as forwarding the idea of an eight-hour workday. ‘Greenback’ referred to Greenback dollars: money that was not backed by gold, which had been printed during the American Civil War (1861–65).

    The reintroduction of greenbacks would have created the desired inflation. The Greenback Party ran candidates in the presidential elections of 1876, 1880, and 1884 without any success. Throughout the 1880s, however, Farmers’ Alliances emerged throughout the South and the Midwest and won some seats in legislatures.

    Inflation

    It refers to the decline of purchasing power of a given currency, which increases the general prices for goods and services.

    The catalyst for agrarian organisations to promote the condition of farmers was the politics of the Gilded Age (1870s to 1890s). The Gilded Age was marked by huge wealth but also huge inequality.

    Did you know? The American writer Mark Twain coined the term, "The Gilded Age," arguing the late nineteenth century was a period golden on the top but corrupt and rotten beneath the surface.

    The Gilded Age was characterised by rapid industrialisation and laissez-faire capitalism, where government intervention was minimal and the market was left to itself. This disadvantaged the agriculture industry massively. Mechanisation meant crop prices lowered, the railway industry was left to charge extortionate rates for shipping agricultural products, and high taxes on foreign goods meant that products farmers needed were incredibly expensive.

    Populism in America in 1890

    The People’s Party was formed in 1892 as a coalition of agrarian reformers and became a major political force throughout the 1890s. Popular in the South and the midwest, the organisation became an important third party in US politics. It sought to reduce the power of big businesses and increase that of farmers.

    The main aims of the People’s Party were:

    • More government regulation of farm prices

    • Regulation of railways

    • An eight-hour working day

    • Land reform

    • Graduated income tax

    • The silver standard

    • Political reform

    Many of these aims were taken from the Greenback Party, but there were notable additional demands. The introduction of graduated income tax would see the richest in society paying more tax and reducing the reliance of government income on tariffs. This tax would be used to fund public needs such as education and infrastructure. A key belief of populists was that ‘knowledge is power’ so as well as campaigning to fund education, they conducted campaigns to improve adult education.

    The silver standard was an important policy of the People’s Party. Coining silver as well as gold would increase the money supply and promote inflation, just as greenback dollars would have done. The idea of silver-backed money, however, was more popular as the money would be backed by something of value. World production of gold had decreased since 1865, yet silver remained readily available. Free silver, as it was called, became a popular policy of the People’s Party.

    In terms of political reform, the People’s Party pushed for direct election of senators, as well as the introduction of referenda, the secret ballot, a one-term limit for presidents, and recall: the ability for citizens to end an official’s term before it expired. This focus on more direct involvement with politics strongly influenced American Progressivism.

    Did you know? In terms of inclusion, women played a large role in the People’s Party. They organised meetings and gave speeches, and the Populists in turn supported women’s suffrage.

    The Party was mainly focused on economic issues and did not engage in the racial tensions of Jim Crow. They focused on shared issues, and in order to maintain support, they assured white civilians that they were not aiming to foster racial equality.

    The People’s Party is to date the most successful class-based political movement in American history. Although the key members were farm groups, it also appealed to currency and tax reformers, activists, and other industrial workers.

    American Populism Politics

    In 1892, the People’s Party chose James B Weaver as their presidential candidate and they had some considerable victories. Weaver won 8.5% of the popular vote, which was a substantial amount for a third party. Despite winning 22 electoral votes, support for the People’s Party was limited to the deep South, and it lacked wider appeal.

    The 1892 election was, however, important in bringing the Populist platform to the national discussion. In 1893, another recession hit, which led to a rise in unemployment. This, in turn, led to increased interest in Populist ideas against the limited government intervention that characterised the Gilded Age.

    American Populist Presidents

    In 1896, William Jennings Bryan was the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. He also defended the Populist platform, which won him the People’s Party nomination as well.

    Bryan had been elected to Congress in Nebraska in 1890 as a Democrat and became well-known for his public speaking. In 1896, he gave a speech at the Democratic convention in support of the silver standard, which greatly influenced his nomination for president. His reputation as a defender of farmers earnt him the name of ‘Great Commoner’.

    In the 1896 election, Bryan lost to the Republican candidate William McKinley, which effectively ended the Populist Movement. McKinley's victory was in no small part due to the actions of industrialist Marc Hanna, who was determined to see a Republican victory.

    Did you know? Whilst Bryan conducted a thorough campaign involving up to thirty speeches per day, Hanna used his wealth and power to conduct a smear campaign against him. He capitalised on popular fears of free silver.

    Whilst inflation would help farmers, it could be detrimental to the interests of factory workers. In this sense, therefore, the election was not Democratic versus Republican but country versus city. In 1896, the economy was also doing better than it had been previously so the support base of the Populist Party was further limited.

    Populist Movement Importance

    The popularity of the People’s Party was short-lived and by 1900, membership had substantially fallen with many activists having joined one of the two major parties. However, the 1896 defeat did not signal the end of populism.

    Many policies were enacted by the progressives of the 1910s, including income tax and direct election of senators. The Progressive Moment also embraced many of the populist goals such as anti-trust legislation, a greater role for the federal government, and stronger support for agricultural and industrial workers. Demands for direct democracy policies were also achieved in many states through the introduction of referenda and other initiatives.

    William Jennings Bryan continued to pursue a populist agenda, remaining involved in politics as well as creating his own newspaper, The Commoner. He became the Secretary of State for President Woodrow Wilson in 1912 but resigned as he rejected involvement in the war in Europe. Bryan devoted the rest of his life to promoting women’s suffrage and the prohibition of alcohol.

    American Populism - Key takeaways

    • The American Populist Movement was coordinated by agrarian reformers to protest the hardships farmers were encountering.
    • Farmers wanted to create inflation to make it easier to pay back their debts.
    • The People’s Party saw considerable victories in the 1892 presidential election but when William Jennings Bryan lost the 1896 election, the Populist Movement effectively ended. Most of its members joined one of the two main parties.
    • The progressivism of the 1910s saw the fulfilment of many of the populist aims, with greater government regulation, anti-trust legislation, and more direct democracy policies.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - Colorado River near La Grange, Texas (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colorado_river_at_la_grange.jpg) by Larry D. Moore (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Nv8200pa) Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about American Populism

    What is American populism?

    American populism refers to the Populist Movement in the late nineteenth century which represented the interests of farmers.

    What is another word for populist?

    There is not an alternative word to populist, but related terms include reformer and egalitarian.

    Why did populism rise in America? 

    The American Populist Movement rose in response to the laissez-faire capitalism that had dominated American policy. The populists, made up mainly of debt-ridden farmers, wished for government intervention to lift them out of poverty. 

    Why did the populist party fail?

    The populist party failed for two reasons. Firstly, its ideas were absorbed first by Democrats and later by the Progressive Movement. Secondly, it failed due to Republican smear campaigns which used popular fears to make populist economic ideas unpopular. 

    When the populism movement start in America?

    The populist movement began officially in the 1890s. However, before this there were many organisations such as The Grange that supported similar farming and economic reforms. 

    How did populism rise?

    The increasing inequality of the Gilded Age (1870s - 1890s) left many in debt. This economic hardship, especially in the South and midwest, led to the rise of populism.

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