The Political Crisis of the 1890s
|Digital History ID 3127|
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 money supply.
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 alone.
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 democracy.
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."