A little more than a century ago, a grassroots political movement
arose among small farmers in the country's wheat, corn, and cotton
fields to fight banks, big corporations, railroads, and other
"monied interests." The movement burned brightly from
1889 to 1896, before fading out. Nevertheless, this movement fundamentally
changed American politics.
The Populist movement grew out of earlier movements that had
emerged among southern and western farmers, such as the Grangers,
the Greenbackers, and the Northern, Southern, and Colored Farmers
Alliances. As early as the 1870s, some farmers had begun to demand
lower railroad rates. They also argued that business and the wealthy--and
not land--should bear the burden of taxation.
Populists were especially concerned about the high cost of
money. Farmers required capital to purchase agricultural equipment
and land. They needed credit to buy supplies and to store their
crops in grain elevators and warehouses. At the time, loans for
the supplies to raise a crop ranged from 40 percent to 345 percent
a year. The Populists asked why there was no more money in circulation
in the United States in 1890 than in 1865, when the economy was
far smaller, and why New York bankers controlled the nation's
After nearly two decades of falling crop prices, and angered
by the unresponsiveness of two political parties they regarded
as corrupt, dirt farmers rebelled. In 1891, a Kansas lawyer named
David Overmeyer called these rebels Populists. They formed a third
national political party and rallied behind leaders like Mary
Lease, who said that farmers should raise more hell and less corn.
The Populists spread their message from 150 newspapers in Kansas
Populist leaders called on the people to rise up, seize the
reins of government, and tame the power of the wealthy and privileged.
Populist orators venerated farmers and laborers as the true producers
of wealth and reviled blood-sucking plutocrats. Tom Watson of
Georgia accused the Democrats of sacrificing "the liberty
and prosperity of the country...to Plutocratic greed," and
the Republicans of doing the wishes of "monopolists, gamblers,
gigantic corporations, bondholders, [and] bankers. The Populists
accused big business of corrupting democracy and said that businessmen
had little concern for the average American "except as raw
material served up for the twin gods of production and profit."
The Populists blamed a protective tariff raised prices by keeping
affordable foreign goods out of the country.
The party's platform endorsed labor unions, decried long work
hours, and championed the graduated income tax as a way to redistribute
wealth from business to farmers and laborers. The party also called
for an end to court injunctions against labor unions. "The
fruits of the toil of millions," the Party declared in 1892,
"are boldly stolen to build up the fortunes for a few, unprecedented
in the history of mankind." The Populists also called for
a secret ballot; women's suffrage; an eight-hour workday, direct
election of U.S. Senators and the President and Vice President;
and initiative and recall to make the political system more responsive
to the people.
The party put aside moral issues like prohibition in order
to focus on economic issues. "The issue," said one Populist,
"is not whether a man shall be permitted to drink but whether
he shall have a home to go home to, drunk or sober." A significant
number of Populists were also willing to overcome racial divisions.
As one leader put it, "The problem is poverty, not race."
In the 1892 presidential election, Populist candidate James
Weaver of Iowa received a million votes and 22 electoral votes.
Five Populist Senators and ten Representatives were elected, along
with three governors, and 1,500 state and county officials.
The Populists embraced government regulation to get out from
the domination of unregulated big business. The platform demanded
government ownership of railroads, natural resources, and telephone
and telegraph systems. Even more radically, some Populists called
for a coalition of poor white and poor black farmers.
Populism had an unsavory side. The Populists had a tendency
toward paranoia and overblown rhetoric. They considered Wall Street
an enemy. Many Populists were hostile toward foreigners and saw
sinister plots against liberty and opportunity. The party's 1892
platform described "a vast conspiracy against mankind has
been organized on two continents and is rapidly taking possession
of the world." After their crusade failed, the embittered
Georgia Populist Tom Watson denounced Jews, Catholics, and African
Americans with the same heated rhetoric he once reserved for "plutocrats."
But in the early 20th century, many of the Populist proposals
would be enacted into law, including the secret ballot; women's
suffrage; the initiative, referendum, and recall; a Federal Reserve
System; farm cooperatives, government warehouses; railroad regulation;
and conservation of public lands.
The Populists also provided the inspiration for later grassroots
movements, including the Anti-Saloon League, which helped make
Prohibition a part of the Constitution; and the Congress of Industrial
Organizations (CIO), which persuaded millions of auto workers,
stevedores, and steel workers to unionize with its call for industrial
Populist rhetoric still plays an important role in contemporary
American politics. Politicians speak the language of populism
whenever they defend ordinary people against entrenched elites
and a government dominated by special interests. During the 1930s,
Franklin Roosevelt hailed "the forgotten man" and railed
against "economic royalists" and in 1992 Bill Clinton
ran for the presidency by pledging to "put people first."
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