Learn about one of the largest third-party movements in U.S. history: the 19th-century, rural-based Populist Party – its platform, aims, and beliefs.
Test your understanding with a quiz.
What Was the Populist Party?
Have you ever felt as if the system is rigged against you? That you work hard and do everything you are supposed to do, but can’t get ahead due to an unfair situation? Would you be willing to join those with similar experiences, organize, and launch a political challenge in order to better your life?These were the conditions that faced American farmers in the decades after the Civil War, when the United States rapidly shifted from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Farmers faced significant challenges selling their crops on a global market, gaining access to affordable credit, and dealing with chronic debt.In response, farmers in the South and West formed a third party to address their collective challenges and seek broader political representation. In the 1890s, they created one of the largest third parties in American history, the Populist Party, or People’s Party, to challenge the status quo and better the situations of rural families across the country.
Goals of the Populists
The central belief of the Populists was producerism. This simply meant that producers (farmers) deserved a fair return for their labor.
In other words, the farmer should get enough profit from the sale of crops to pay for the cost of production, as well as money to live and feed his family.For Populists, whether a wheat farmer on the Great Plains, a cotton grower in the South, or a tobacco farmer in North Carolina, the biggest threat to receiving a fair return for labor was monopolies. This meant three things for the farmer.First, various middlemen monopolized the ability of a farmer to get his crop to market. The farmer had to pay exorbitant rates to railroads and middlemen at various stages to sell his produce, thus keeping the farmer from a fair return for his labor and goods.Second, Populists believed that banks monopolized access to credit. Capital (money) was scarce in rural areas, and banks were few.
Thus, banks charged very high interest rates for loans that farmers needed for their operations. Populists sought a more flexible currency; in other words, more money in circulation.Third, by the 1890s, Populists came to believe that the U.
S. political system was monopolized by two parties – the Democratic Party and the Republican Party – which did not represent the interests of farmers and did not work to address the problems of agriculture in an industrial age.
The Birth of the Populist Party
So, what did they do about it? They organized. Populism stemmed from a voluntary organization in the 1880s called the Farmers’ Alliance.
Hundreds of thousands came together in the alliance and formed cooperatives to market their goods. By 1889, the Farmers’ Alliance was a national organization with over one million members.Under the leadership of Texan Charles Macune, the alliance promoted a key idea, one that would serve as a centerpiece of the Populist Party’s national platform: the subtreasury plan. Under this plan, the federal government would build warehouses (subtreasuries) to store farmers’ corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops. This would allow the farmer to sell when prices were highest. The government would give the farmer payment in advance, at low interest rates, to be repaid when the crops were sold. Thus, the subtreasury plan was designed to alleviate the farmers’ biggest problems: lack of money; paying numerous middlemen; and glutting the market at harvest time, which depressed prices.
Neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties took the subtreasury idea seriously, and it failed in Congress. A famous Populist female orator from Kansas, Mary Lease, proclaimed, ‘Farmers should raise less corn and more hell!’ Thus, the Farmers Alliance served as the seedbed for the formation of a national third party, the Populist Party, in 1891.
The Rise and Fall of the Populist Party
In 1892, the Populists participated in the presidential and congressional elections.
Their political platform, called the ‘Omaha Platform,’ named for the city where they held their nominating convention, called for the enactment of the subtreasury plan, the coinage of silver, and a graduated income tax, all of which were designed to increase the money supply. Populists also campaigned on having the federal government own and operate railroads and other public utilities, because they believed this would break up monopolies.The Populist message resonated in rural areas, and the party’s presidential nominee, Union Civil War veteran James B. Weaver, won five Western states and earned twenty-two electoral votes. The party’s fortunes seemed promising.
But then, the worst economic depression to date hit the U.S. in 1893.
The idea of free silver, or coining silver to increase the money supply, became very popular and swept the country. The cry for ‘free silver’ began to supersede the Omaha Platform and the Populists’ additional calls for reform.In 1896, the Democratic Party nominated for president William Jennings Bryan on the platform of free silver. The Populists nominated Bryan as their candidate, as well. When Bryan lost the presidential race to the Republicans, Populism began to disappear as a national political force. Populism did not appeal to the large voting bloc of urban workers.
Why Is Populism Important?
If the Populists never won the vote, why are they important? Well, the farmers’ party represented a powerful response to the major changes of industrialization.
Most importantly, the Populists were ahead of their time.The reforms they championed became law within a generation: the subtreasury plan was enacted as the Warehouse Act in 1916, the income tax was inaugurated in 1913, and the Populist idea that the federal government could play an equalizing role in industrial capitalism became the foundation of the major reform movement of the 20th century: Progressivism.
After the Civil War, an industrial economy dominated, and the U.S. farmers in the South and West faced new challenges and hardships. In the 1870s and 1880s, they formed voluntary organizations to remedy issues of debt, marketing, and lack of credit. Through the Farmers’ Alliance, they advocated the ‘subtreasury plan,’ which aimed to address these issues, and eventually they formed the People’s or Populist Party in the early 1890s.
After a solid showing in the 1892 elections, there was a severe economic depression and a panacea of ‘free silver’ that swept the country, effectively ending the Populist challenge. Though the party had little lasting success in the political realm, the ideas born with it influenced reformers of the 20th century.
When you complete the video, feel free to set out to achieve these objectives:
- State the beliefs of the Populist Party
- Discuss the goals of Populists
- Highlight the origins of the Populist Party
- Analyze its rise and fall
- Recognize the importance of Populism