Populist Party

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The Populist Party, formally the People's Party was a radical left coalition party that was important 1890-1896, at the end of the Gilded Age. It was a coalition of poor farmers in the cotton belt of the South and wheat belt of the Midwest, with considerable support among silver miners, coal miners, and some labor unions. It opposed banks and industry generally, called for government ownership of railroads, and demanded federal financial support to keep up farm prices. As a political movement it peaked in the 1892 presidential election, when its presidential candidate won one million votes and carried four states. Its candidates were badly defeated in 1894 by the resurgent Republicans. In 1896 the remnants endorsed the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan (who was never a Populist).

"Populism" more generally means a political movement highly hostile to elites and calling for power to the common people; it can be either conservative or liberal.


The Populist party grew out of an earlier farmers' organization called the Farmers Alliance. The party was a significant player in the 1892 Presidential election and adopted its Omaha Platform. In 1896, their platform was largely co-opted by the Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan, whom the Populist Party also nominated as their own candidate. The party continued to run candidates until the 1908 election but fared poorly in Presidential elections after 1896 although several governors, senators, and congressmen were elected on the Populist ticket during this time. The Populist governors of Colorado and Kansas had violent confrontations with their legislatures.

Populists formed coalitions with the minority Democrats in the Midwest, and minority Republicans in the South. These coalitions all collapsed after a 2 to 5 years.

After 1896, when Bryan swept most Populist voters in to the Democratic party, the Populist movement lost most of its strength. Small fragments survived until 1908, especially under the leadership of Tom Watson of Georgia, who used the party after 1900 to attack blacks and Catholics.

Religious themes

Most Protestant ministers rejected the Populists, and not a single prominent minister endorsed it. However Populist speakers and cartoonists often used Christian religious imagery, portraying the common man crucified by evil capitalists. One brutal August 1896 cartoon echoed Bryan's famous speech which denounced the Republicans for crucifying labor on a cross of gold. The Populists attacked as well the world's most famous Jewish banker (Rothschild was the leading banker in London).

The Populists frequently attacked Jews, especially Jewish bankers, using Anti-Semitism as a tool to attract voters.

Historians look at Populism

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 claim that some Populist ideas were adopted—but those were ideas the Populists had picked up from other parties, such as the direct election of Senators. Some historians see a close link between the Populists of the 1890s and the progressives of 1900-1912, but most of the leading progressives (expect Bryan) fiercely 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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

Frederick Jackson Turner and a succession of western historians depicted the Populist as responding to the closure of the frontier. Turner explained:

The Farmers' Alliance and the Populist demand for government ownership of the railroad is a phase of the same effort of the pioneer farmer, on his latest frontier. The proposals have taken increasing proportions in each region of Western Advance. Taken as a whole, Populism is a manifestation of the old pioneer ideals of the native American, with the added element of increasing readiness to utilize the national government to effect its ends.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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 in this model, with such leading progressives as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, George Norris and Woodrow Wilson had been vehement enemies of Populism, though William Jennings Bryan did cooperate with them and accepted the Populist nomination in 1896.[7]

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 the humiliation and brutality of separate-but-equal.[8]


The Populist Party name was also used by a small party which existed from 1984 to 1996, not connected to the original party, which ran as its Presidential candidates Bob Richards in 1984, David Duke in 1988, and Bo Gritz in 1992. That party dissolved in 1996 without nominating a candidate.

Modern Incarnations

Several modern parties are using the Populist name, st least two in the Midwest and two in California. The American Populist Party is more conservative than some of the others, advocating Constitutional government and what it calls classic liberalism, emphasizing Natural Rights and State sovereignty. The party members are an odd mix of liberals, libertarians, and fiscal conservatives who consider the economy to be their highest priority.


Most of these books are quite favorable to the Populists and hostile to capitalism

  • Clanton, Gene. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900 (1991).
  • Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party (1931). Stresses geographical environment that turned harsh and radicalized wheat farmers
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (1978) online edition
  • Hackney, Sheldon, ed. Populism: The Critical Issues (1971), excerpts from scholars
  • McMath, Robert C., Jr. American Populism: A Social History, 1877-1898. (1993). 245 pp. short survey excerpt and text search
  • Miller, Worth Robert. "A Centennial Historiography of American Populism." Kansas History 1993 16(1): 54-69. Issn: 0149-9114 online edition
  • Miller, Worth Robert. "Farmers and Third-Party Politics in Late Nineteenth Century America," in Charles W. Calhoun, ed. The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America (1995) online edition
  • Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision (2007) excerpt and text search

External links


  1. For a summary or how historians approach the topic see Worth Robert Miller, "A Centennial Historiography of American Populism." Kansas History 1993 16(1): 54-69.
  2. See Worth Robert Miller, "The Republican Tradition," in Miller, Oklahoma Populism: A History of the People's Party in the Oklahoma Territory (1987) online edition
  3. Gene Clanton, Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900 (1991) p, xv
  4. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, (1920) p. 148; online edition
  5. Martin Ridge, "Populism Revolt: John D. Hicks and The Populist Revolt," Reviews in American History 13 (March 1985): 142-54.
  6. C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938); Woodward, "Tom Watson and the Negro in Agrarian Politics," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Feb., 1938), pp. 14-33 in JSTOR
  7. Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955)
  8. Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (2007)