GREENWICH, N.Y. — This coming Tuesday is Election Day and Americans of all walks of life will be heading to the polls to cast their votes. With politics on many peoples’ minds, let’s look back at the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party. This political party was founded by farmers in the late 19th century. Although it was short-lived, it had a long ranging impact beyond its own lifespan.
The late 19th century in American history is referred to as the Gilded Age. A time characterized by tremendous growth and expansion in industry, population, and technological advancement, but also great corruption and wealth inequality with business tycoons controlling various aspects of the country. After the Civil War, agriculture in the U.S. increased dramatically. Between 1860 and 1890 farmland increased to 421 million working acres with populations growing in the Midwest, West, and parts of the South to work these lands. Technological advances also helped production increase.1
However, farmers faced hardships during this time from several fronts. Overproduction created low commodity prices lessening farmers’ income. Many farmers took out loans to purchase land or equipment. With low crop prices and high interest rates charged by banks, many farmers were having difficulty paying off their debts. Drought hit parts of the country meaning farmers had poor yields coupled with low prices. There were also troubles with the railroads, as their monopolistic practices at this time led them to charge exorbitant fees to ship commodities. Railroad companies also often owned grain elevators that farmers used charging high prices to store grain in them.2
With many farmers going bankrupt or facing poverty, the Farmers’ Alliance was formed to help combat these issues. The Farmers’ Alliance was made up of several regional groups. They worked to help farmers through measures such as cooperatives, government regulation, and currency reform. By 1890 the group boasted 1.2 million members and was effectively lobbying at the state and national levels. From this group the People’s Party emerged.3
The People’s Party officially formed in 1891 in Kansas and was comprised of mostly unhappy farmers who owned small to middle sized farms. Populists felt the government and country were controlled by banks and large, rich businesses. A well-known Populist activist Mary Elizabeth Lease famously said, “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.”4
Populists sought sweeping changes that would limit the influence of these groups and address the issues farmers and laborers faced. Populists lobbied for greater government intervention in the economy to regulate businesses, in particular railroads. They sought the formation of a subtreasury system in which farmers could store grain in government warehouses and get low-rate loans to buy seed and equipment, using the grain as collateral to bypass the railroad-owned grain elevators. Another main point was the coinage of silver, a major issue in the Gilded Age. Currency was based on the gold standard, by adding silver into circulation it would create inflation driving up prices which farmers hoped would give them better crop prices and help them in paying debts.5
Industrial workers joined the People’s Party too, many of whom were a part of major labor organizations such as the Knights of Labor. This added other labor issues to their agenda like the recognition of labor unions and an eight-hour workday. Other civic and social issues were a part of their platform too like the direct election of senators, a graduated income tax, and women’s suffrage.6
In 1892 the People’s Party, comprised of the unlikely alliance of rural farmers and urban industrial laborers, went national holding a National Convention and nominating James B. Weaver as candidate for president. Weaver finished a distant third, but captured 8% of the vote and won five states in the Electoral College solidifying the People’s Party as a legitimate third party.7
The People’s Party saw success in the early 1890s, particularly at the state level. Populist governors were elected in several states and the Populist party came to control the state legislatures in Kansas, Nebraska, and North Carolina. The People’s Party soon made it to Washington, D.C. when Populist Congressmembers were elected from Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and California.8
However, discord within the party caused problems. The party struggled with racial issues as Southern constituents were unwilling or had difficulty allowing black farmers into the party. Other parts of the party had problems with the influx of Jewish and Chinese immigrants coming to the U.S. during this time causing dissension as well.9
By the late 1890s the Democratic party had taken on some of the Populist’s platform. During the 1896 presidential election there arose two factions within the People’s Party. The first were called “fusionists” who sought to merge with the Democrats in hopes of gaining more influence. The second group were called “mid-roaders” and did not want to merge as they feared they would be absorbed by the Democrats and lose their identity.10
The fusionists ended up winning out and it proved costly. The party nominated Democrat William Jennings Bryan as their candidate that year. While Bryan was well known and very charismatic, he lost mainly because of the issue of silver. Inflation would have hurt the industrial workers, so this portion of the base ended up voting for other candidates. Also, the economy had improved by the 1896 election, so there was less desire to change to the coinage of silver. The Populists were left fractured following the election.11 The People’s party continued into the early 20th century holding influence at the state level, however they were severely weakened and eventually disbanded in 1908.
Although the People’s Party lasted little more than a decade it left a legacy that still exists today. Many pieces of the Populist platform were eventually implemented in the early 20th century in what was known as the Progressive Era. The establishment of the Federal Reserve brought about government control of currency. Civic matters like the direct election of senators and graduated income tax were eventually implemented via constitutional amendment. Greater restraint of railroads and other big business eventually did happen with anti-trust laws in the 1910s. Farming agencies that helped subsidize farm credit and marketing were later formed due to needs brought up by Populists. Also, many of the issues that the labor side of the party sought came about in the early 20th century as well as things like the eight-hour work day and 40-hour work week are standard today. Other services like the National Weather Service the agriculture research and education extensions trace their roots to the Populist movement.12
1 Charles Postel, “American Populism, 1876-1896,” Northern Illinois University Digital Library, accessed November 3, 2022, https://digital.lib.niu.edu/illinois/gildedage/populism.
2 HISTORY, “What is Populism?,” YouTube, January 8, 2029, 1:22, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uA1GBzXzr4&t=258s.
3 Charles Postel, “American Populism, 1876-1896,” Northern Illinois University Digital Library, accessed November 3, 2022, https://digital.lib.niu.edu/illinois/gildedage/populism.
6 HISTORY, “What is Populism?,” YouTube, January 8, 2029, 2:17, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uA1GBzXzr4&t=258s.
7 Ibid, 2:40.
9 HISTORY, “What is Populism?,” YouTube, January 8, 2029, 2:50, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uA1GBzXzr4&t=258s.
12 Charles Postel, “American Populism, 1876-1896,” Northern Illinois University Digital Library, accessed November 3, 2022, https://digital.lib.niu.edu/illinois/gildedage/populism.