Populist Movement: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

American politics changed a lot between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the heart of this change was the Populist movement. We're going to explore the history of this movement, see where it came from, and how it impacted American politics.

The American Populist Movement

America today has two major political parties, but the presidential election of 2016 managed to reshape the platforms and agendas of both. People across the country were shocked by the political parties changing their minds. Well, this isn't the first time it's happened. Every once in a while, America's major political parties shift their agendas. This also happened back in the late 19th century, when the rise of a new political challenger forced some major changes in the political status quo. That challenger was the People's Party, or as they also called themselves, the Populists.

Rise of the Populists

After the drastic amount of power held by the federal government in the aftermath of the Civil War, Americans in the late 1870s began demanding a less-centralized government that basically stayed out of their lives. At the same time, new inventions and opportunities led to America's second industrial revolution. With no government regulation of the economy, massive monopolies dominated American society. The rich ruled the nation, and did so in their own best interests, leading to worker discontent, labor riots, and rampant poverty amongst the working class.

One group, in particular, was badly neglected in this era of urbanization and industrialization: American farmers. Rich industrialists forced small farmers out of business. Banks charged exorbitant interest rates on rural loans and the economic depression of 1873 forced many farmers into poverty.

The breaking point came in the 1880s when prices for wheat, corn, and cotton all hit historic lows. Discontented farmers began organizing and demanding a stronger political voice, founding a coalition called the Farmers' Alliance. While not yet a formal political party, these emerging Populists called for massive government reforms, including a renewed level of government regulation of the free market to keep monopolies in check. Members of the Farmers' Alliance started winning seats in local elections, then county elections, and then state elections across the Midwest. In 1890, William Peffer became the first Populist to be elected to the U.S. Congress as a senator for Kansas. The movement was on the rise.

The Omaha Platform

In 1892, the Farmers' Alliance allied with the nation's most influential labor union, the Knights of Labor, to officially found the People's Party and submit a candidate for the presidential election of that year. At their first national convention, held in Omaha, Nebraska, members of the new party came together to select their candidate and to formally draft their party platform. That agenda, known as the Omaha Platform, demanded a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, a national 8-hour workday, the abolition of national banks, government granaries that let farmers control the availability of their products, and federal nationalization of railroads, telegraphs, and telephones.

To fulfill this platform, the Populists selected James B. Weaver as their presidential candidate. While Weaver did not win the election, he did receive over a million votes, far more than anyone in urban America had expected.

A Populist campaign poster from 1892
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1892-1896

The 1892 election bolstered the People's Party, showing the nation that Populist candidates could be taken seriously. The Populists spent the next four years recruiting, and built up a national support base. Part of this was due to their inclusive attitudes. Black farmers in the South, subject to strict Jim Crow laws of segregation, were actively included in membership and leadership. Women, who still didn't have the right to vote, also became key members of the party and were embraced by the organization. Additionally, the United States fell into another major economic recession in 1893, pushing the disillusioned urban working class into the People's Party.

Populist leader Mary Elizabeth Lease traveled the country telling supporters to raise less corn and more hell
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The Election of 1896

The People's Party became so popular that the Democrats began to take notice. They were looking for a way to break the status quo with Republicans, each of who controlled about 50% of the federal government, and thought this could tip the scale in their favor. So, Democrats began embracing several Populist issues, including a new one: the unlimited coinage of silver to fight the gold standard and end the recession. To bring this message to the people, they selected William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate.

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