What Was Populism?
Populism was the first of America’s great economic uprisings, a roar of outrage from people in the lower half of the country’s social order. It was a quintessential mass movement, in which rank-and-file Americans came to think of the country’s inequitable system as a thing they might change by common effort. It was a glimpse of how citizens of a democracy, born with a faith in equality, can sometimes react when the brutal hierarchy of conventional arrangements is no longer tolerable to them.
Populism was also our country’s final serious third-party effort, the last one to stand a decent chance of breaking the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats. In the 1890s the two main parties were still basically regional organizations, relics of the Civil War; Populism transcended that system by making an appeal based on class solidarity, aiming to bring together farmers in the South and the West with factory workers in northern cities. “The interests of rural and civic labor are the same,” proclaimed the famous 1892 Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, and “their enemies are identical.” By which the Pops meant those who prospered while producing nothing: bankers, railroad barons, and commodity traders, along with their hirelings—corrupt politicians who served wealth instead of “the people.”
This was, of course, a time of unregulated corporate monopolies, of in-your-face corruption, and of crushing currency deflation—and it was also a time when everyone agreed that government’s role was to provide a framework conducive to business and otherwise to get out of the way. That was the formal ideal; the execution was slightly uglier, a matter of smoke and exploitation, bankruptcy and foreclosure, of cabinet seats for sale and entire state legislatures bought with free-ride railroad passes.
Against this backdrop came the Populist revolt. The rightful subject of the government’s ministrations, populism insisted, was not business at all but the People.
It all began in the 1880s when farmers started signing up by the thousands for a cooperative movement called the Farmers’ Alliance. America was still largely an agricultural nation, and in the places where Populism eventually took root farmers made up overwhelming majorities of the population.
They were not particularly affluent majorities, however. In the South, farmers tended to be desperately poor, borrowing against future crops to buy food and necessities. The merchants from whom they borrowed took pains to ensure not only that the farmers never got out of debt but that they took the merchants’ dictation on what to grow and how to grow it. What to grow always turned out to be cotton, and as the southern farmers produced crop after bumper crop of the stuff, the price only sank.
Farmers in the West, meanwhile, found themselves at the mercy of a different set of middlemen—local railroad monopolies and far-off commodity speculators. Like their brethren in the South, they worked and borrowed and grew and harvested; they watched as what they produced was sold in Chicago and New York for good prices; and yet what they themselves earned from their labors fell and fell and fell. In 1870, farmers received forty-three cents a bushel for corn; twenty years later in eastern Kansas it sold for ten cents a bushel, far less than what it cost to grow. Accounts from the period describe corn lying around on the ground with no takers; corn burned in stoves for heat.1
To such people the Farmer’s Alliance made a simple proposition: Let’s find out why we are being ruined, and then let’s get together and do something about it. Education was the first order of business, and the movement conceived of itself as a sort of “national university,” employing an army of traveling lecturers. Chapters of the movement ran lending libraries; radical rural newspapers (of which there were many) sold cheap books about agriculture and political reform.2
The movement also promised real results for farmers, by means of rural cooperatives and political pressure. And the Farmers’ Alliance spread like a wildfire. By the end of the 1880s it had millions of members, mainly in the South; the Colored Farmers’ Alliance (the southern Alliances were segregated) represented a million more; similar farm groups in the northern states brought additional millions into the radical fold. News reports marveled at the enormous audiences that would turn out to hear Alliance speakers—crowds of the size typically found at modern-day football games, gathering in a pasture somewhere. A novel published at the time describes the way American minds began to change:
People commenced to think who had never thought before, and people talked who had seldom spoken.… Little by little they commenced to theorize upon their condition. Despite the poverty of the country, the books of Henry George, [Edward] Bellamy, and other economic writers were bought to be read greedily; and nourished by the fascination of novelty and the zeal of enthusiasm, thoughts and theories sprouted like weeds after a May shower.… They discussed income tax and single tax; they talked of government ownership and the abolition of private property; fiat money, and the unity of labor; … and a thousand conflicting theories.3
At first, the political program of the Farmers’ Alliance focused on a handful of big issues: the regulation of railroads, federal loans to farmers, and currency reform of a kind that would help debtors. The Alliance developed positions on a whole host of other matters as well: it supported free trade, for example, and votes for women, and secret ballots on Election Day. Thanks to the movement’s vast numbers, conventional politicians in every farm state began to pay attention, promising to act on the farmers’ demands.
But somehow the politicians never delivered. The power of business over the state legislatures always turned out to be too great to overcome. The same thing on a larger scale was obviously true of Congress in Washington, D.C. And while the politicians triangulated, the farmers’ position worsened.
Something profound had taken place, however. The farmers—men and women of society’s commonest rank—had figured out that being exploited was not the natural order of things. So members of the Farmers’ Alliance began taking matters into their own hands. In Kansas and a few other western states they went into politics directly, styling themselves as the People’s Party, a new organization with a new agenda. In the fall of 1890 they challenged and in places overthrew the dominant local Republicans, turning out old-school senators and representatives and replacing them with leaders from their own movement.
Over the next few years, the party organized itself nationally, and at their gathering in Omaha in the summer of 1892 they formally announced their program to the world. By this time the Knights of Labor and a number of other unions were on board, along with most of the reform-minded farm groups of the era, and so the People’s Party declared itself to be “the first great labor conference of the United States and of the world,” bringing together “the producers of the nation” from both the country and the city. They denounced “capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts,” and they declared that “the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.” In that heyday of American inequality, that golden age of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, the Populists alone saw things clearly:
The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.4
In 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, a Civil War general from Iowa named James B. Weaver, won 22 electoral votes, and by following a strategy of “fusion” or coordination with local Democrats, the party managed to elect governors in several western states ordinarily controlled by the Republicans. In the South, where the dominant group was the conservative “Bourbon” Democrats, the Populist revolt met with disaster. The party of white supremacy casually cheated the Pops out of victories that should have been theirs. The only southern state where the third party prevailed was North Carolina, where fusion with the local Republicans brought Populism into power in the middle of the decade. To this subject we shall return anon.
* * *
SOCIAL CLASS WAS essential to how the Populists understood their situation, and they talked often about what they called “the producing class.” But the phrase they favored above all others when speaking of the toilers was “the people.” As in: “We the People.” As in: “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” That was the struggle as they saw it: the “plain people” versus the power.
It is common to cast Populism as the end of something, as the farmer’s last political stand or the terminus of nineteenth-century radicalism. With a slightly wider focus, the arrival of Populism looks a lot more like the shock of the new. “A new way of looking at things,” in the words of historian Lawrence Goodwyn; “a mass expression of a new political vision.”5 This was the first movement in American politics that demanded far-reaching government intervention in the economy in order to benefit working people, and contemporaneous accounts of the movement often describe its arrival as a sort of epiphany, a “Pentecost of politics,” a moment of sudden, mass enlightenment. Consider this description of a gathering of Texas Populists:
For a whole week they literally lived and breathed Reform: by day and by night they sang of Populism, they prayed for Populism, they read Populist literature and discussed Populist principles with their brethren in the faith, and they heard Populist orators loose their destructive thunderbolts in the name of the People’s Party.6
In truth, that vision was manifesting all over the world in those days. The Pops won the support of a significant chunk of the emerging American labor movement, and in some places the People’s Party was basically a labor party. As such, Populism was part of a great wave of working-class political movements then rising up in the industrialized countries. The British Labour Party was founded at about the same time, and Populists on occasion looked to it for inspiration. The Australian Labor Party, for its part, actually considered adopting the name “People’s Party” in homage to what then looked like a powerful new force in the United States.7
Like these other groups, the Pops concentrated their efforts on economic issues and the closely related matter of electoral reform. By and large, they stayed away from the culture-war issues of the day. This surprises the modern-day student of the movement: the Populists may have had a churchly way of speaking, but for the most part they refrained from denouncing ordinary people for their bad values. Questions like prohibition, for example, threatened to break the Populist coalition apart and therefore had to be avoided despite the distaste of many Pops for liquor and saloons. With their singular focus on economics, they regarded many of the controversies of the day as traps or distractions.
Populist rhetoric oscillated between passionate denunciations of injustice and methodical, even boring exegeses on complicated economic problems. “Starvation stalks abroad amid an overproduction of food,” roared a typical Populist j’accuse of 1891; within a few sentences, however, it had gone from hot to cold, calling on readers to
calmly and dispassionately examine the facts which we are prepared to submit in support of our claims.… [I]f the facts and arguments we present can be refuted we neither ask nor expect your support.
These were peculiarly math-minded reformers. Look over introductions to the reform cause like the 1895 pamphlet What Is Populism?, and you will find a detailed, plank-by-plank exposition of the party’s economic program: its demands for a government-controlled currency, for government control of the railroads, for rooting out political corruption … and precious little else.8
Many of Populism’s causes are familiar to us today: the regulation of monopolies, the income tax, the initiative and referendum, the direct election of senators,* and so on. They are familiar because they have largely been achieved.
One item on the list of Populist grievances requires a lengthier explanation today, however. For many Americans of the late nineteenth century, currency deflation was the single greatest issue facing the nation. At that time, the worth of the dollar was fixed to the value of gold: the “gold standard.” As a result, the amount of dollars in circulation could not increase unless the government’s reserves of gold—a scarce metal—increased as well.
One consequence of the gold standard was painful, constant deflation. Since the population and the economy were both growing explosively, and since the number of dollars in circulation could not grow with them, dollars became scarcer every year and constantly increased in value. If you were a banker, this was a fantastic situation. If you were a debtor—and farmers were debtors—the gold standard was dreadful. It meant you had to repay what you had borrowed using dollars that were now far more valuable than they had been when you took out your loan. Debt of this kind was not something you paid off easily; it was a condition in which you struggled all your days, a form of servitude, almost.
“Fiat currency” was the hard-core Populists’ proposal for solving this problem. It would have authorized the government simply to print the nation’s medium of exchange however it chose and then to establish its value by administrative pronouncement, without any reference to precious metals. (This is the system we have today, incidentally.) The other remedy Populists embraced was “free silver”: simply replacing the limited reserves of gold with a more plentiful supply of silver. Since silver was being mined all the time in America, the money in circulation under a silver standard would stand a better chance of keeping up with the economy’s growth.
“Free silver” proceeded to catch the imagination of certain classes of Americans in a way that is difficult to understand today. Silver became the object of a sort of crusade in the 1890s, a symbol that made everything fit together. Silver would not only solve the problem of deflation, people thought; it would humanize capitalism. Silver would bring back fairness. Silver represented democratic virtue and workerist authenticity. Gold, meanwhile, came to stand for aristocratic privilege and deathly inequality. As the silver craze swept America, the Populists saw their fortunes ascend with it—ascend so rapidly that eventually free silver came to crowd out everything else the party stood for.
* * *
IN 1893 THE national economy went into one of its periodic recessions—this time it was sharp and painful. Banks and businesses failed all over America and especially in the West. Unemployment came close to 20 percent, with millions thrown out of work. Homeless people roamed the country. There were of course no federal programs in place for relief or stimulus or recovery; the crisis response of the Grover Cleveland administration in Washington consisted of an aggressive campaign of … buying gold.
The plight of the unemployed was of little concern to the country’s economic authorities. But the confidence of bankers and investors was a different matter: such people had to be assuaged. They had to be convinced of the government’s unswerving devotion to economic orthodoxy, meaning the gold standard. And this the Democrat Cleveland set out to do. To stave off a panicked run on the nation’s gold supply, he stockpiled gold and then he stockpiled more gold. He made deals with bankers, keeping them happy with guaranteed profits, so that they wouldn’t withdraw that precious yellow stuff. He worked hard to restore their confidence. Above all, he stockpiled that gold.
Before long, outrage was no longer confined to farm country; all over America working people were learning what the Populists had figured out a few years previously. In the summer of 1894, a local strike at the Pullman passenger-car plant in Chicago blew up into a vast national conflagration. In solidarity with the workers at Pullman, the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, refused to handle trains with Pullman cars attached. Rail traffic throughout the country quickly came to a standstill. President Cleveland took a break from stockpiling gold to order the U.S. Army into Chicago; his Justice Department tossed Debs in jail for obstructing the mail.
An even more spectacular event occurred that same year when one Jacob Coxey, a Populist from Ohio, conceived of the idea of “a petition in boots”—an army of unemployed men that would march to Washington, D.C., to make plain the miserable economic conditions in the hinterlands. From all over the country, jobless people joined up with Coxey’s Army and, several weeks and a few borrowed train rides later, they arrived in the nation’s capital: the first-ever mass protest march on Washington. Their demand was that the government hire unemployed people to build roads and other infrastructure, paying for it with deficit spending. Respectable Washingtonians laughed at the cockeyed suggestion and at the dirty tramps who supported it: what a bunch of cranks! D.C. police tossed Coxey in jail for walking on the Capitol lawn.
The Populists seemed perfectly positioned to take advantage of these dreadful developments. They were, after all, the self-proclaimed party of working people and economic grievance. They loudly deplored the methods used by the Cleveland administration to smash the Pullman strike in the streets of Chicago, and after the strike was over the Pops embraced Eugene Debs as their newest hero.9
Meanwhile, as the hard times deepened and the Democratic administration did its grotesque favors for the banking community, the mania for silver grew and grew. Both of the old parties remained committed to the gold standard, leaving only the Populists standing outside this tidy consensus of the orthodox and the comfortable. Never before had the reformers’ charge that the two parties ignored the real issues seemed more obvious, more self-evident. Populism was going to ride the silver escalator to the top. Reform was on the march; Populism was unstoppable.
Then something crazy happened. As the recession deepened, the Democratic Party began to turn against its sitting president, the banker-coddling Grover Cleveland. When the Democrats gathered for their convention in Chicago in the summer of 1896, pandemonium broke loose. Not only did the party denounce its own president, but it declared its intention to toss the gold standard itself overboard. Then they nominated for the presidency the virtually unknown William Jennings Bryan, a thirty-six-year-old free-silver advocate from Nebraska who talked as much like a Populist as did anyone from the Cornhusker state.
Eastern respectability reeled as it beheld one of the country’s two traditional parties apparently captured by radicalism. The actual radicals in the People’s Party, meanwhile, reckoned with the very different problem of seeing a powerful rival swipe the idea upon which they had strategically placed all their hopes. Meeting right after the shocking Democratic convention, the Populists felt they had little choice but to throw in their lot with Bryan. Fusion had been a successful strategy for the party at the state level, and now Populist leaders hoped to follow it into the executive branch in Washington.
The gamble was a painful one for certain Populists, however. Not only did it mean selling out their far-reaching reform program for a single-issue crusade, but many among the party’s southern and black contingents had risked their lives to make a stand against the Democratic Party. For them to come crawling back because their colleagues wanted to endorse Bryan was a humiliating prospect.10
Still, the wager was done. The crusade was launched. It was free silver against the gold standard, with Populists and Democrats standing more or less united to defeat the plutocracy. When Bryan proceeded to lose to Republican William McKinley, Populism fell mortally wounded.
The People’s Party struggled on for a few more years, but after the catastrophe of the 1896 election its fate was sealed. The party immediately broke into squabbling factions. Its conventions, scheduled for large auditoriums, were attended by embarrassingly small crowds. At length the economy recovered, even for farmers. Agricultural prices rose and, thanks to various technological advances, the global production of gold increased enormously, finally erasing the problems of deflation.
Meanwhile, the two big parties slowly came around to the Populist innovations. Populist voters gradually made their way back to their previous partisan homes, while a chunk of the leadership joined the Socialist Party. By the first few years of the twentieth century, the third party’s grievances and its evangelical style seemed dated and easy to forget.
Copyright © 2020 by Thomas Frank
Afterword copyright © 2021 by Thomas Frank
Copyright © 1936 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, renewed 1981 by Carl Sandburg