The People's Party (also known as the Populist Party or the Populists) was a left-wing, agrarianism political party in the United States. The Populist Party emerged in the early 1890s as an important force in the Southern United States and the Western United States, but the party collapsed after it nominated Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 United States presidential election. A rump faction of the party continued to operate into the first decade of the 20th century, but never matched the popularity of the party in the early 1890s.
The roots of the Populist Party lay in Farmers' Alliance, an agrarian movement that promoted collective economic action by farmers, as well as the Greenback Party, an earlier third party that had advocated for fiat money. The success of Farmers' Alliance candidates in the 1890 United States elections, along with the conservatism of both major parties, encouraged leaders of the Farmers' Alliance to establish a full-fledged third party prior to the 1892 United States elections. The Ocala Demands laid out the Populist platform, calling for collective bargaining, federal regulation of railroad rates, an expansionary monetary policy, and a Sub-Treasury Plan that required the establishment of federally-controlled warehouses to aid farmers. Other Populist-endorsed measures included bimetallism, a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, a shorter workweek, and the establishment of a postal savings system. These measures were collectively designed to curb the influence of corporate and financial interests and empower small farmers and laborers.
In the 1892 presidential election, the Populist ticket of James B. Weaver and James G. Field won 8.5 percent of the national popular vote and carried four Western states, becoming the first third party since the end of the American Civil War to win electoral votes. Despite the support of labor organizers like Eugene V. Debs and Terence V. Powderly, the party largely failed to win the vote of urban laborers in the Midwest and the Northeast. Over the next four years, the party continued to run state and federal candidates, building up powerful organizations in several Southern and Western states. Prior to the 1896 presidential election, the Populists became increasingly polarized between "fusionists," who wanted to nominate a joint presidential ticket with the Democratic Party, and "mid-roaders," who favored the continuation of the Populists as an independent third party. After the 1896 Democratic National Convention nominated Bryan, a prominent bimetallist, the Populists nominated Bryan but rejected the Democratic vice presidential nominee in favor of party leader Thomas E. Watson. In the 1896 election, Bryan won much of the South and West, but was defeated by Republican William McKinley.
After the 1896 presidential election, the Populist Party suffered a nationwide collapse. The party nominated presidential candidates in the three presidential elections following 1896, but none of those candidates came close to matching Weaver's performance in the 1892 election. Former Populist voters joined the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and the Socialist Party, but other than Debs and Bryan, few politicians associated with the Populists retained national prominence. Historians see the Populists as a reaction to the power of corporate interests in the Gilded Age, but they debate the degree to which the Populists were anti-modern and nativist. Scholars also continue to debate the influence of the Populists on later organizations and movements such as the progressives of the early 20th century, New Deal liberals, and right-wing Republicans like Joseph McCarthy. In the United States, the term "populist" was originally associated with the Populist Party and related left-wing movements, but in the 1950s it began to take on a more generic meaning that describes any anti-establishment movement regardless of its position on the left–right political spectrum.
Angered by these developments, some farmers and other groups began calling for the government to permanently adopt fiat currency. These advocates of "soft money" were influenced by economist Edward Kellogg and Alexander Campbell, both of whom advocated for fiat money issued by a central bank.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 13–14 During the difficult economic conditions of the Panic of 1873, advocates of soft money formed the Greenback Party.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 16–18 Greenback nominee James B. Weaver won over three percent of the vote in the 1880 presidential election, but the Greenback Party was unable to build a durable base of support, and it collapsed in the 1880s.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 18–19 Many former Greenback Party supporters joined the Union Labor Party, but it also failed to win widespread support.
Though soft money forces were able to win some support in the West, launching a third party proved difficult in the rest of the country. The United States was deeply polarized by the sectional politics of the post-Civil War era; most Northerners remained firmly attached to the Republican Party, while most Southerners identified with the Democratic Party.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 18–19 Despite fierce partisan rivalries, the two major parties were both closely allied with business interests and supported largely similar economic policies, including the gold standard.
Macune and other Farmer's Alliance leaders helped organize a December 1889 convention in St. Louis; the convention met with the goal of forming a confederation of the major farm and labor organizations.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 91–92 Though a full merger was not achieved, the Farmer's Alliance and the Knights of Labor jointly endorsed the St. Louis Platform, which included many of the long-standing demands of the Farmer's Alliance. The Platform added a call for Macune's "Sub-Treasury Plan," under which the federal government would establish warehouses in agricultural counties; farmers would be allowed to store their crops in these warehouses and borrow up to 80 percent of the value of their crops.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 107–110, 113 The movement began to expand into the Northeast and the Great Lakes region, while Macune led the establishment of the National Reform Press Association, a network of newspapers sympathetic to the Farmer's Alliance.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 116–117
The February 1892 Farmer's Alliance convention was attended by current and former members of the Greenback Party, Prohibition Party, Anti-Monopoly Party, Labor Reform Party, Union Labor Party, United Labor Party, Workingmen Party, and dozens of other minor parties. Delivering the final speech of the convention, Ignatius L. Donnelly, stated, "We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. ... We seek to restore the government of the republic to the hands of the 'plain people' with whom it originated. Our doors are open to all points of the compass. ... The interests of rural and urban labor are the same; their enemies are identical."Kazin (1995), pp. 27–29 Following Donnelly's speech, delegates agreed to establish the People's Party and hold a presidential nominating convention on July 4 in Omaha, Nebraska.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 167–168, 171 Journalists covering the fledgling party began referring to it as the "Populist Party," and that term quickly became widely popular.
The Populists appealed most strongly to voters in the South, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains.Holmes (1990), p. 37 In the Rocky Mountains, Populist voters were motivated by support for free silver (bimetallism), opposition to the power of railroads, and clashes with large landowners over water rights.Holmes (1990), pp. 30–31 In the South and the Great Plains, Populists had a broad appeal among farmers, but they had relatively little support in cities and towns. Businessmen and, to a lesser extent, skilled craftsmen were appalled by the perceived radicalism of Populist proposals. Even in rural areas, many voters resisted casting aside their long-standing partisan allegiances.Holmes (1990), pp. 35–38, 46 Turner concludes that Populism appealed most strongly to economically distressed farmers who were isolated from urban centers.Turner (1980), pp. 358, 364–367
One of the central goals of the Populist Party was the creation of a coalition between farmers in the South and West and urban laborers in the Midwest and Northeast. In the latter regions, the Populists received the support of trade union officials like Knights of Labor leader Terrence Powderly and railroad organizer Eugene V. Debs, as well as influential author Edward Bellamy's Nationalist Clubs. However, the Populists lacked compelling campaign planks that appealed specifically to urban laborers, and the party was largely unable to mobilize support in urban areas. Corporate leaders had largely been successful in preventing labor from organizing politically and economically, and union membership did not rival that of the Farmer's Alliance. Some unions, including the fledgling American Federation of Labor, refused to endorse any political party.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 174–179 Populists were also largely unable to win the support of farmers in the Northeast and the more developed parts of the Midwest.Holmes (1990), pp. 38–39
In the 1892 presidential election, Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland, a strong supporter of the gold standard, defeated incumbent Republican President Benjamin Harrison.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 200–201 Weaver won over one million votes, carried Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada, and received electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota. Weaver was the first third party candidate since the Civil War to win electoral votes, while Field was first Southern candidate to win electoral votes since the 1872 election. The Populists performed strongly in the West, but many party leaders were disappointed by election outcomes in parts of the South and the entire Great Lakes Region.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 186–187, 199–200
The 1894 elections were a massive defeat for the Democratic Party throughout the country, and a mixed result for Populists. The party performed poorly in the West and Midwest, where Republicans dominated, but they won elections in Alabama and other states. In the aftermath of the elections, some party leaders, particularly those outside of the South, became convinced of the need to fuse with Democrats and adopt bimetallism as the party's key issue. Herman Taubeneck, the chairman of the Populist Party, declared that the party should abandon the Omaha Platform and "unite the reform forces of the nation" behind bimetallism.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 227–229 Meanwhile, leading Democrats increasingly distanced themselves from President Cleveland's gold standard policies in the aftermath of the party's disastrous performance in the 1894 elections.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 238–239
The Populists became increasingly polarized between moderate "fusionists" like Taubeneck and radical "mid-roaders" (named for their desire to take a middle road between Democrats and Republicans) like Tom Watson.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 230–231 Fusionists believed that the perceived radicalism of the Omaha Platform limited the party's appeal, whereas a platform based on free silver would resonate with a wide array of groups.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 233–234 The mid-roaders believed that free silver did not represent serious economic reform, and they continued to call for government ownership of railroads, major changes to the financial system, and resistance to the influence of large corporations.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 234–235 One Texas Populist wrote that free silver would "leave undisturbed all the conditions which give rise to the undue concentration of wealth. The so-called silver party may prove a veritable Trojan Horse if we are not careful."Goodwyn (1978), pp. 249–250 In an attempt to get the party to repudiate the Omaha Platform in favor of free silver, Taubeneck called a party convention in December 1894. Rather than repudiating the Omaha Platform, the convention expanded it to include a call for the municipal ownership of public utilities.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 241–242
The 1896 Republican National Convention nominated William McKinley, who defended the gold standard. Meeting later in the year, the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan for president after Bryan's Cross of Gold speech galvanized the party behind free silver. For vice president, the party nominated conservative shipping magnate Arthur Sewall.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 254–256 When the Populist convention met, fusionists proposed that the Populists nominate the Democratic ticket, while mid-roaders organized to defeat fusionist efforts. As Sewall was objectionable to many within the party, the mid-roaders successfully moved a motion to nominate the vice president first. Despite a telegram from Bryan indicating that he would not accept the Populist nomination if the party did not also nominate Sewall, the convention chose Tom Watson as the party's vice presidential nominee. The convention also reaffirmed the major planks of the 1892 platform and added support for initiatives and referendums.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 256–259
When the convention's presidential ballot began, it was still unclear whether Bryan would be nominated for president and whether Bryan would accept the nomination if offered. Mid-roaders put forward their own candidate, obscure newspaper editor S. F. Norton, but Norton was unable to win the support of many delegates. After a long and contentious series of roll call votes, Bryan won the Populist presidential nomination, taking 1042 votes to Norton's 321 votes.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 259–262 Despite his earlier proclamation, Bryan accepted the Populist nomination. After the convention, Marion Butler, the newly-elected party chairman, ran the Populist campaign on a tiny budget. Watson, ostensibly Bryan's running mate, campaigned on a platform of "Straight Populism" and frequently attacked Sewall as an agent for "the banks and railroads." He delivered several speeches in Texas and the Midwest before returning to his home in Georgia for the remainder of the election.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 274–278
Bryan's strength was based on the traditional Democratic vote (minus the middle class and German Catholics); 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 McKinley by a margin of 600,000 votes. Historians believe this was partly attributable to the tactics Bryan used; he had aggressively "run" for president, while traditional candidates would use "front porch campaigns." R. Hal Williams, Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 (2010) Bryan also faced a massive financial and organizational disadvantage.Goodwyn (1978), pp. 279–200
In North Carolina, the state Democratic-party orchestrated propaganda campaign in newspapers across the state, and created a brutal and violent white supremacy election campaign to defeat the North Carolina Populists and GOP, the Fusionist revolt in North Carolina collapsed in 1898, and white Democrats returned to power. The gravity of the crisis was underscored by a major race riot in Wilmington, in 1898, two days after the election. Knowing they had just retaken control of the state legislature, the Democrats were confident they could not be overcome. They attacked and overcame the Fusionists; mobs roamed the black neighborhoods, shooting, killing, burning buildings, and making a special target of the black newspaper.Andrea Meryl Kirshenbaum, "'The Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina': Gender, White Supremacy, and the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898," Southern Cultures 4#3 (1998) pp. 6-30 online There were no further insurgencies in any Southern states involving a successful black coalition at the state level. By 1900, the gains of the populist-Republican coalition were reversed, and the Democrats ushered in disfranchisement:Eric Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872-1901 (1981) practically all blacks lost their vote, and the Populist-Republican alliance fell apart.
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 the Socialist Party.
In 1904, the party was re-organized, and Thomas E. Watson was their nominee for president in 1904 and in 1908, after which the party disbanded again.
In A Preface to Politics, published in 1913, Walter Lippmann wrote, "As I write, a convention of the Populist Party has just taken place. Eight delegates attended the meeting, which was held in a parlor."Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, New York and London: Mitchell Kennerley, 1913, p. 275. This may record the last gasp of the party organization.
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.Martin Ridge, "Populism Revolt: John D. Hicks and The Populist Revolt," Reviews in American History 13 (March 1985): 142-54.
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.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
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. Though Hofstadter wrote that the Populists were the "first modern political movement of practical importance in the United States to insist that the federal government had some responsibility for the common weal," he criticized the movement as anti-Semitic, conspiracy-minded, nativist, and grievance-based. The antithesis of anti-modern Populism was modernizing Progressivism according to Hofstadter's model, with such leading progressives as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette Sr., 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.Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955)
Goodwyn (1976) and Postel (2007) reject the notion that the Populists were traditionalistic and anti-modern. Quite the reverse, they argue, the Populists aggressively sought self-consciously progressive goals. Goodwyn criticizes Hofstadter's reliance on secondary sources to characterize the Populists, working instead with the material generated by the Populists themselves. Goodwyn determined that the farmers' cooperatives gave rise to a Populist culture, and their efforts to free farmers from lien merchants revealed to them the political structure of the economy, which propelled them into politics. The Populists 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.Postel (2007)
Long after the dissolution of the Populist Party, other third parties, including a People's Party founded in 1971 and a Populist Party founded in 1984, took on similar names. These parties were not directly related to the Populist Party.
James B. Weaver
James G. Field
|The ticket won 5 states; its best showing was Nevada where it received 66.8% of the vote.|
William Jennings Bryan
Thomas E. Watson
|The Populists nominated Bryan, the Democratic nominee, but nominated Watson for Vice President instead of Democratic nominee Arthur Sewall. Bryan and Sewall received an additional 6,286,469 (45.1%) and 149 electoral votes. Bryan's best showing was Mississippi, where he received 91.0% of the vote.|
Ignatius L. Donnelly
|The ticket's best result was Texas, where it received 5.0% of the vote.|
Thomas E. Watson
|The ticket's best result was Georgia, where it received 17.3%.|
Thomas E. Watson
|The ticket's best result was Georgia, where it received 12.6%.|
|+Seats in Congress|
The following were Populist members of the U.S. House of Representatives:
52nd United States Congress
53rd United States Congress
54th United States Congress
55th United States Congress
56th United States Congress
57th United States Congress
Party publications and materials