The People's Party, also known as the "Populists", was a short-lived political party in the United States established in 1891 during the Populist movement (United States, 19th Century). It was most important in 1892-96, and then rapidly faded away. Based among poor, white cotton farmers in the South (especially North Carolina, Alabama, and Texas) and hard-pressed wheat farmers in the plains states (especially Kansas and Nebraska), it represented a radical crusading form of agrarianism and hostility to banks, railroads, and elites generally. It sometimes formed coalitions with labor unions, and in 1896 the Democrats endorsed their presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan. The terms "populist" and "populism" are commonly used for anti-elitist appeals in opposition to established interests and mainstream parties.
A People's Party grew out of agrarian unrest in response to low agricultural prices in the South and the trans-Mississippi West. The Farmers' Alliance, formed in Lampasas, Texas in 1876, promoted collective economic action by farmers and achieved widespread popularity in the South and Great Plains. The Farmers' Alliance ultimately did not achieve its wider economic goals of collective economic action against brokers, railroads, and merchants, and many in the movement agitated for changes in national policy. By the late 1880s, the Alliance had developed a political agenda that called for regulation and reform in national politics, most notably an opposition to the gold standard to counter the high deflation in agricultural prices in relation to other goods such as farm implements.
In 1886, a "People's Party" elected some members to the Wisconsin State Assembly and Wisconsin State Senate; but this was a labor party, and by the 1888 elections was using the Union Labor Party label.
In December 1888 the National Agricultural Wheel and the Southern Farmer’s Alliance met at Meridian, Mississippi. In that meeting they decided to consolidate the two parties pending ratification. This consolidation gave the organization a new name, the Farmers and Laborers’ Union of America, and by 1889 the merger had been ratified, although there were conflicts between “conservative” Alliance men and “political” Wheelers in Texas and Arkansas, which delayed the unification in these states until 1890 and 1891 respectively. The merger eventually united white Southern Alliance and Wheel members, but it would not include African American members of agricultural organizations.
During their move towards consolidation in 1889, the leaders of both Southern Farmers’ Alliance and the Agricultural Wheel organizations contacted Terence V. Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor. “This contact between leaders of the farmers’ movement and Powderly helped pave the way for a series of reform conferences held between December 1889 and July 1892 that resulted in the formation of the national People’s (or Populist) Party.”
The drive to create a new political party out of the movement arose from the belief that the two major parties Democrats and Republicans were controlled by bankers, landowners and elites hostile to the needs of the small farmer. The movement reached its peak in 1892 when the party held a convention chaired by Frances Willard (leader of the WCTU and a friend of Powderly's) in Omaha, Nebraska and nominated candidates for the national election.
The party's platform, commonly known as the Omaha Platform, called for the abolition of national banks, a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours and Government control of all railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. In the 1892 Presidential election, James B. Weaver received 1,027,329 votes. Weaver carried four states (Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada) and received electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota as well.
The party flourished most among farmers in the Southwest and Great Plains, as well as making significant gains in the South, where they faced an uphill battle given the firmly entrenched monopoly of the Democratic Party. Success was often obtained through electoral fusion, with the Democrats outside the South, but with alliances with the Republicans in Southern states like Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. For example, in the elections of 1894, a coalition of Populists and Republicans led by Populist Marion Butler swept state and local offices in North Carolina, and the coalition would go on to elect Republican Daniel Lindsay Russell as Governor in 1896.
The Populists followed the Prohibition Party in actively including women in their affairs. Some southern Populists, including Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, openly talked of the need for poor blacks and poor whites to set aside their racial differences in the name of shared economic self-interest. Regardless of these rhetoric appeals, however, racism did not evade the People's Party. Prominent Populist Party leaders such as Marion Butler, a United States Senator from North Carolina, at least partially demonstrated a dedication to the cause of white supremacy, and there appears to have been some support for this viewpoint among the rank-and-file of the party's membership. After 1900 Watson himself became an outspoken white supremacist and became the party's presidential nominee in 1904 and 1908, winning 117,000 and 29,000 votes.
By 1896, the Democratic Party took up many of the People's Party's causes at the national level, and the party began to fade from national prominence. In that year's presidential election, the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, who focused (as Populists rarely did) on the free silver issue as a solution to the economic depression and the maldistribution of power. One of the great orators of the day, Bryan generated enormous excitement among Democrats with his "Cross of Gold" speech, and appeared in the summer of 1896 to have a good chance of winning the election, if the Populists voted for him.
The Populists had the choice of endorsing Bryan or running their own candidate. After great infighting at their St. Louis convention they decided to endorse Bryan but with their own vice presidential nominee, Thomas E. Watson of Georgia. Watson was cautiously open to cooperation, but after the election would recant any hope he had in the possibility of cooperation as a viable tool. Bryan's strength was based on the traditional Democratic vote (minus the middle class and the Germans); he swept the old Populist strongholds in the west and South, and added the silverite states in the west, but did poorly in the industrial heartland. He lost to Republican William McKinley by a margin of 600,000 votes, and lost again in a rematch in 1900 by a larger margin.
The effects of fusion with the Democrats were disastrous to the Party in the South. The Populist/Republican alliance which had governed North Carolina, the only state in which it had any success, fell apart. By 1898, the Democrats used a violently racist campaign to defeat the North Carolina Populists and GOP and in 1900 the Democrats ushered in disfranchisement.
Populism never recovered from the failure of 1896. For example, Tennessee’s Populist Party was demoralized by a diminishing membership, and puzzled and split by the dilemma of whether to fight the state-level enemy (the Democrats) or the national foe (the Republicans and Wall Street). By 1900 the People’s Party of Tennessee was a shadow of what it once was
In 1900, while many Populist voters supported Bryan again, the weakened party nominated a separate ticket of Wharton Barker and Ignatius L. Donnelly, and disbanded afterwards. Populist activists either retired from politics, joined a major party, or followed Eugene Debs into his new Socialist Party.
Since the 1890s historians have vigorously debated the nature of Populism; most scholars have been liberals who admired the Populists for their attacks on banks and railroads. Some historians see a close link between the Populists of the 1890s and the progressives of 1900-1912, but most of the leading progressives (except Bryan himself) fiercely opposed Populism. Thus Theodore Roosevelt, George W. Norris, Robert LaFollette, William Allen White and Woodrow Wilson strongly opposed Populism. It is debated whether any Populist ideas made their way into the Democratic party during the New Deal era. The New Deal farm programs were designed by experts (like Henry Wallace) who had nothing to do with Populism.
Some historians see the populists as forward-looking liberal reformers. Others view them as reactionaries trying to recapture an idyllic and utopian past. For some they are radicals out to restructure American life, and for others they are economically hard-pressed agrarians seeking government relief. Much recent scholarship emphasizes Populism's debt to early American republicanism. Clanton (1991) stresses that Populism was "the last significant expression of an old radical tradition that derived from Enlightenment sources that had been filtered through a political tradition that bore the distinct imprint of Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Lincolnian democracy." This tradition emphasized human rights over the cash nexus of the Gilded Age's dominant ideology.
Frederick Jackson Turner and a succession of western historians depicted the Populist as responding to the closure of the frontier. Turner explained:
The most influential Turner student of Populism was John D. Hicks, who emphasized economic pragmatism over ideals, presenting Populism as interest group politics, with have-nots demanding their fair share of America's wealth which was being leeched off by nonproductive speculators. Hicks emphasized the drought that ruined so many Kansas farmers, but also pointed to financial manipulations, deflation in prices caused by the gold standard, high interest rates, mortgage foreclosures, and high railroad rates. Corruption accounted for such outrages and Populists presented popular control of government as the solution, a point that later students of republicanism emphasized.
In the 1930s C. Vann Woodward stressed the southern base, seeing the possibility of a black-and-white coalition of poor against the overbearing rich. Georgia politician Tom Watson served as Woodward's hero. In the 1950s, however, scholars such as Richard Hofstadter portrayed the Populist movement as an irrational response of backward-looking farmers to the challenges of modernity. He discounted third party links to Progressivism and argued that Populists were provincial, conspiracy-minded, and had a tendency toward scapegoatism that manifested itself as nativism, anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, and Anglophobia. The antithesis of anti-modern Populism was modernizing Progressivism according to Hofstadter's model, with such leading progressives as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, George Norris and Woodrow Wilson pointed as having been vehement enemies of Populism, though William Jennings Bryan did cooperate with them and accepted the Populist nomination in 1896.
Michael Kazin's The Populist Persuasion (1995) argued that Populism reflected a rhetorical style that manifested itself in spokesmen like Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s and Governor George Wallace in the 1960s.
Postel (2007) rejects the notion that the Populists were traditionalistic and anti-modern. Quite the reverse, he argued, the Populists aggressively sought self-consciously progressive goals. They sought diffusion of scientific and technical knowledge, formed highly centralized organizations, launched large-scale incorporated businesses, and pressed for an array of state-centered reforms. Hundreds of thousands of women committed to Populism seeking a more modern life, education, and employment in schools and offices. A large section of the labor movement looked to Populism for answers, forging a political coalition with farmers that gave impetus to the regulatory state. Progress, however, was also menacing and inhumane, Postel notes. White Populists, embraced social-Darwinist notions of racial improvement, Chinese exclusion and separate-but-equal.
Approximately forty-five members of the party served in the U.S. Congress between 1891 and 1902. These included six United States Senators:
The following were Populist members of the U.S. House of Representatives:
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