Populism refers to the Populist Party (also known as The People's Party), an organization of farmers that started in the 1860s. They were angry because there was little support for the aims of farmers within the two traditional political parties. It seemed that there were groups looking out for the rights of all citizens, except for the farmers. The Populist Party set out to change that.

The party nominated James B. Weaver of Iowa, to run as president in their first serious political race, and James G. Field of Virginia to run as vice president (both former Civil War Generals). Though the Democratic leader Grover Cleveland was elected, the Populists came in a strong third. They had the support of over one million, and ended up with 22 electoral votes.

I'll be going through and fixing this up, adding to it, etc. Populism is an interesting topic, in my opinion. :)

American Populism

The Farmers Alliance

The populist movement first came into being in small communities far from any cities or centers of political or cultural activity. During the summer of 1890 farm families in the agrarian South and West gathered in their respective areas to discuss their problems. At these gatherings, agrarian families listened to the speeches of recruiters from the “National Farmers’ Alliance.” The Farmers’ Alliance grew at an astounding speed.

During the late 1800’s discontent among the agrarian population was becoming a worldwide issue. With the advent of advanced forms of transportation and communication the farmers were suddenly hurled into a far larger market that they no longer were in control of. Due to the increased opportunity for competition, prices of crops began to drop. However, this same phenomenon affected other products as well and, although farmers were making less profit quantitatively, their actual purchasing power (or qualitative profit) was increasing. Farmers expressed grievances about the cost of shipping their goods, however during this period the price of shipping actually decreased. All of these things, however, were still detrimental to the agrarian community because, up until this point, they had not required the services of the railroad to ship crops, and they had not been in need of as many manufactured goods to support their farms.

All of this can be deceiving. While general economic trends were more positive than anything else, the situation of farming communities varied widely from location to location. In fact, no nationwide patters could be clearly defined. In reality there was a more pressing issue that lead to the ascension of the populist movement: Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, farmers were having the distinct feeling that their situation was becoming worse. It is said that reality is perception, and this is certainly true in any social science because people do not react to their environment, they react to their perception of their environment. The farmers perceived doomsday. In the 1870’s and 80’s there was a growing social trend favoring cities and industry. Farmers’ children were leaving their homes and family businesses to make it big in the city. Literature was published during this time describing the drab and meaningless existence of farm life.

During this time multitudes of farmers' organizations were changing and merging with each other. Two major organizations emerged, both calling themselves the Farmers’ Alliance: The Northwestern Alliance in Mississippi and the West, and the Southern Alliance (however, the geographical coverage of these two organizations is not highly clear-cut). The Southern Alliance was started in Texas in 1875 and began absorbing other agrarian societies after 1886. The primary concerns of this society were residual systems from the old Civil War South. The sharecropping system, crop-liens, and overworked land ranked at the top of their lists. The Northwestern Alliance was similar to the Southern alliance, but differed on policies of the Southern alliance such as secrecy, and segregated organizations for Blacks. In 1889 the Southern alliance took on the “National Farmers’ Alliance” title and absorbed the greater part of the Northwestern alliance. The Alliance then formed its own political party due to a disapproval of both the Republican and Democratic parties. The first Peoples’ Party was formed in 1890. The party’s demands were for a federal farmers reserve (the sub-treasury) that would allow crops to be temporarily sold to the government, which would then hold them until the most opportune selling time presented itself, then distribute the profits back to the farmers. They also demanded, and much more within reason, the free coinage of both gold and silver, an abolition on tariffs, a federal income tax, the direct election of senators, and railroad regulation. During the elections of 1890 the fledgling people’s party gained thirty-eight supporters in congress.

The Sub-Treasury

The sub-treasury was a system devised by the populists to combat what they perceived to be a bad market for their products. It would allow farmers to store their crops in government warehouses and then take out a government loan for up to 80% of the market price of said goods. The loan would come to term upon the sale of the crops, which could be held until ideal market conditions presented themselves. This is an ingenious idea, except that it is basically asking for government aid for farmers and therefore it was slightly harder to gain acceptance at the national level than it was to convince their neighbors that it was a good idea.

The Federal Income Tax

Why would a farmer who is struggling to keep their home ask for a new tax? Well, boys and girls, is it simple. How does the government make money? Collecting taxes. How did the government make their money at this time? Property taxes. Who had the most money? Factory owners and businessmen did. Who had the most land? Farmers. Who paid the most money? Farmers. Is this fair?.

The Election of 1892

After the 1890 elections the populists formed the political party that gave them their name, the new People’s party was also known as the Populist Party. Up until this time the Populists had been participating with the Democratic Party to avoid splitting the white vote by forming a new party, and thus neutering the White’s Supremacy. The new party was formed because the Populists were not content with the false support provided to them by their democratic congressmen. The Democrats played off of the popularity of the populist movement, but rarely followed through on their campaign promises. The new Populist Party gained over one million votes in the election of 1892 and gained 22 electoral votes. Populist governors were installed in Kansas and North Dakota, and ten congressmen, five senators, and approximately fifteen hundred state legislators were installed. The populists never ran a more successful election, but the Democrats, through coercion, fraud, and manipulation, suppressed the populists’ following during the election of 1892.

Push for Equality

There was one unintended side effect of the populist movement. In the South, where racism was most rampant, there were certain populist politicians who saw a definite similarity of condition between white and black farmers. Both were in the same bad situation. Blacks and Whites served together on populist election committees, spoke from the same platforms, and even served on the same juries. It was unheard of for a black to be called for jury duty at this time. In 1892 a black populist was threatened with a lynching. Two thousand white populist farmers gathered in the area and protected him. Some of these farmers rode all night to get there. The populist sheared across race lines in many ways.

Then there was The Panic of 1893.

Primary Source: "America Past and Present" by Divine, and Lecture from Mr. Gruver's American History Class.

Pop"u*lism (?), n. (U. S. Politics)

The political doctrines advocated by the People's Party.


© Webster 1913.

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