American Populism, 1876-1896

by Charles Postel, San Francisco State University

In the early 1890s, a coalition of farmers, laborers, and middle class activists founded an independent political party named the People's Party, also known as the Populist Party. This party was the product of a broad social movement that emerged in response to wrenching changes in the American economy and society.

Populist Origins - The Farmers' Alliance

The People's Party had roots in the organization of the nation's farmers. Following the Civil War, American agriculture expanded rapidly into new terrain, opening new cotton lands in the South, and new acreage for wheat and other grains across the Great Plains and beyond. From 1860 to 1890, farmers opened up 421 million new acres to the plow, more than doubling the acreage of America's farms, and the number of people working the land nearly tripled. The pace of agricultural expansion would not keep up with the speed of industrial growth and, as with industry, farming went through cycles of boom and bust. Nonetheless, the hungry markets in the urban Northeast and Europe promised good opportunities in American agriculture. Farmers, however, were soon caught in the double bind of falling farm prices and heavy debt payments on their land and farm machinery. Farmers responded by building large-scale organizations to strengthen their hand in marketing farm goods, and in lobbying government for more favorable terms of credit and trade.

More than any other organization, the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union laid the foundations of the Populist movement. Often referred to as simply the Farmers' Alliance, the organization began in the midst of a speculative land boom on the central Texas plains during the 1870s and early 1880s. Originally, it had worked to attract new settlers, to bring in new railroad lines, and to boost the value of farmland. But as the land boom turned to bust, the Farmers' Alliance sought to rescue distressed farmers through marketing cooperatives, government regulation, and currency reform. In doing so, it drew from the previous experience of the Patrons of Husbandry (the Grange), as well as the legacy of the Greenback-labor movement and the Knights of Labor.

Charles MacuneUnlike previous rural associations, however, the Farmers' Alliance sought to organize from a strictly “business standpoint.” The architect of this policy was Dr. Charles Macune (at left), a Texas physician who believed that the cause of rural poverty lay in the farmers' lack of organization. His message was that farmers had to employ the same professional and business methods that other commercial interests employed to gain political influence and bargaining strength in the national economy. As the national president of the Farmers' Alliance Macune's message resonated in rural districts across much of the country. By 1890, the Farmers' Alliance claimed 1.2 million members in twenty-seven states. Farmers' Alliance leaders such as Macune, Leonidas Polk of North Carolina, William Peffer of Kansas, and Marion Cannon of California, were prominent rural citizens, whereas most of the rank-and-file members were small landholding and poor farmers. What they shared in common was a vision of rural improvement.

Dr. Macune and the Farmers' Alliance unfolded a series of bold plans. This included large-scale cooperative enterprises, such as the Texas Farmers' Alliance Exchange, an effort to pool the entire Texas cotton crop, eliminate the middlemen, and gain direct access to New York, London, and other trading centers. The Alliance also pioneered efforts at building an effective farm lobby in politics. The Farmers' Alliance worked with state legislatures, and Macune himself moved to Washington, D.C., where he set up an office to direct the national lobbying efforts of the organization. The most innovative legislative proposal of the Farmers' Alliance was known as the “subtreasury,” a federal system of warehousing crops and farm credits.

Besides the Farmers' Alliance, several other organizations had similar names or similar purposes. The reform editor Milton George led the Chicago-based National Farmers' Alliance, also known as the Northwestern or Northern Famers' Alliance, with a following across the upper Midwest. Based in downstate Illinois, Herman Taubeneck's Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association also organized in several Midwestern states. In the South, African Americans organized the Colored Farmers' Alliance. In Dr. Macune's vision, farmers' organizations, as with the other modern business enterprise of the day, should be strictly segregated by race, and accordingly the Farmers' Alliance only allowed white members. The Colored Farmers' Alliance had a white president and other officers, and despite having several hundred thousand members, suffered from a poverty of resources.

Never in history had rural Americans been so organized or so determined to improve their position within the commercial and social order. Officially, the Farmers' Alliance and similar groups were non-partisan and worked for reform through the existing parties. But when that policy failed, by the early 1890s many farm reformers took the fateful step of building an independent, third party movement. The Populist Party rose on the shoulders of the Farmers' Alliance and the organized power of American farmers.

The Populist Education Campaign

In today's political language, the term populism is applied to the politics of rage instead of reason, of the gut instead of the head, invoking images of pitchforks and torches brandished by an angry mob. But such images have little relation to historical Populism. At the ground level, Populism was first and foremost a grass-roots movement of rural education. The Farmers' Alliance adopted the Enlightenment watchword “Knowledge Is Power.” And in that spirit Populism built up a remarkable intellectual enterprise that brought hundreds of thousands of men and women into classrooms, lectures, and seminars. The People's Party was known as a “reading party” and a “writing and talking party.” Through their schooling in the Populist movement, as the historian C. Vann Woodward put it, men and women at the lower rungs of society began “to think as well as to throb.”

The Populists believed that education was the most effective means for closing the gap between poverty in the rural districts and middle-class prosperity in the towns. Education would put farming on a professional and business footing, and break the monopoly on “business intelligence” that gave corporate elites a commercial advantage. Education was also seen as essential for applying more scientific farming methods and modernizing rural life. Here it should be noted that we know today that the development of modern scientific agriculture, especially the advent of the tractor and combine, has resulted in driving tens of millions of farmers off the land. But late nineteenth century farm reformers did not have this hindsight, and hoped that new techniques would help agriculture keep pace with industry.

The key idea of the Populist educational campaign was empowerment. Farmers and other ordinary citizens needed to gain mastery of how the machinery of modern society worked, because only then would they have the power to move the levers of that machinery so that it better served their needs. Toward that end, the Farmers' Alliance undertook to transform itself into “the most powerful and complete educator of modern times.” It built up a national campaign for adult education. This included extensive lecturing circuits, a national network of hundreds of reform newspapers, large quantities of inexpensive books and pamphlets, lending libraries, and book clubs. The local neighborhood suballiances that met in rural lodges and schoolhouses provided classroom instruction in a broad array of topics. History, literature, agricultural technique, and the latest discoveries in the natural sciences were educational staples. But more than any other topic the focus was on the study of political economy: commerce and regulation, taxes and policy, and especially financial and monetary systems. As the members of one Texas suballiance explained, the educational campaign had inspired “a general desire for information and almost universal effort at research.”

Meanwhile, the Populist movement provided a powerful constituency for improving the public common schools. Many rural districts lacked proper schoolhouses, and had underpaid and untrained teachers. The crisis was especially acute in the rural South, where many children never attended school, or only sporadically as dictated by the cycles of the cotton crop. The Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party provided much of the impulse for building up a modern school system in the rural districts of the former Confederate states. This was a racially segregated system, separate and unequal in resources, leaving illiteracy rates among African Americans in the South at over sixty percent. Even more than their white counterparts, the members of the Colored Farmers' Alliance devoted themselves to improving the schools by pooling dues money to pay teachers' salaries, fix school buildings, and extend the months of instruction.

As for higher education, from North Carolina to California, Populism provided an effective lobby for setting up and expanding teachers' colleges, agricultural colleges, and state universities. The Populist movement also pushed for rural extension services, farmers' institutes, and state and federal funding for research and development to serve the nation's farmers.

Populist reform was driven by the idea that an educated and informed citizenry could refashion the institutions of modern society. With education, they believed, the citizens would understand how to purge government of corporate influence, regulate the railroads and banks in the public interest, fix a broken monetary and financial system, and make a more enlightened and just society. In all of their efforts, perhaps the Populists' most telling success was their educational campaign, which built up the public schools in rural districts and made higher education more accessible to the sons and daughters of rural people.

Why Did So Many Women Join the Populist Cause?

Women joined the Populist movement in unprecedented numbers. By 1890, 250,000 women had enrolled in the Farmers' Alliance, and many other women would later support the People's Party. The novelist Hamlin Garland observed at the time that “no other movement in history” had “appealed to the women” as much as Populism did. But why did women choose to join the Populist movement? The partial answer is that women joined for the same reasons men joined; they shared the work and the woes of the farm, and sought the same reforms to relieve rural poverty. As a women lecturer for the Kansas Farmers' Alliance put it, “all things that are of interest to men are of like interest to women.” But Populism also provided a means for women to take steps towards independence, and to define and claim their rights as women.

The Farmers' Alliance offered women the same membership rights that men enjoyed, including the right to vote and stand for office within the organization. This stood in contrast to virtually every other major institution in American life. Notably, political parties barred women altogether, and the churches excluded women from being officers or serving in positions of authority. In practice, the Farmers' Alliance did not fully live up to its promise of equality between the sexes, as a woman was often viewed as the “helpmeet” of her husband, and relegated to providing refreshments at Alliance meetings. Nonetheless, women served as secretaries, treasurers, and other officers. Luna Kellie served as the secretary of the Nebraska Farmers' Alliance, and Bettie Gay held a prominent place in the Texas Alliance. The Populists also recruited a remarkable group of talented women as lecturers, writers, and newspaper editors. This included Marion Todd of Illinois and Annie Diggs of Kansas. Another Kansan, Mary Elizabeth Lease – who according to reporters called on farmers to “raise less corn and more hell” – gained national prominence with her speeches before Farmers' Alliance and People's Party audiences.

Many women saw the Populist movement as a way to win voting rights. At the state level, the Farmers' Alliances in the Midwest and West supported women's suffrage, and under Populist state governments women won the right to vote in Colorado in 1893 and in Idaho in 1896. But some Populists, mainly in the South, objected to women entering politics and the national People's Party refrained from endorsing a women's suffrage plank.

Although they may have disagreed about women gaining the vote, Populist women shared much in common when it came to discussing “emancipating women” from the harsh burdens of traditional farm life. Many women agreed that it was preferable to work in the home or the garden rather than doing heavy work under the sun in the cotton patch or cornfield. But the home and garden needed to be better managed with modern methods and appliances to break the drudgery of daily chores. Populist women were especially interested in acquiring the skills to be teachers, dentists, photographers, accountants, telegraph operators, and other careers then opening up to women. The bottom line was education. “Educate your daughters that they may be independent,” urged one Texas farmwoman.

The combination of education and economic independence would lead to a “better womanhood,” the Populists believed, which in turn would lead to freer and therefore better choices in marriage and a more culturally elevated farm life. The latest discoveries in biology and evolutionary thinking also led to speculations among Populist women about how better mothers would produce stronger and more intelligent children. Mary Elizabeth Lease was among those who saw women's improvement as a matter of racial social engineering, protecting the “gifted white race” from hereditary failure. By embracing such ideas, Populist women showed that their movement suffered from similar limitations as the urban and middle class women's movement. Indeed, Populist women made up what might be best understood as the rural women's movement, which had a profound impact on the making a more modern and equitable society.

Market Populism: Farmers and Cooperative Enterprise

The majority of farmers who supported the Populist cause owned small or middle-sized operations. They eked out a living by the sweat of their own brow and that of their family and perhaps that of several tenants or hired hands. That is why in historical memory, the Populist farmer is often perceived representing the little people in a nation increasingly dominated by great railroad, industrial, and banking enterprises. In many ways, they were indeed the Lilliputians confronting the corporate giants. But this has lead to the historical misconception that the Populists mainly wanted to return to a past of a small-scale, local, and decentralized institutions. In reality, far from rejecting centralization and giant economies of scale, Populist farmers embraced these principles for their own business purposes.

Farming in late nineteenth century America was a commercial business. Crops from cotton and wheat to lima beans and citrus were sold on national and global markets. Farmers faced a two-fold dilemma: the prices of their crops steadily declined; but their costs steadily grew, especially the price of credit to pay for land, machinery, and supplies. To escape this dilemma, Charles Macune believed that farming, like every other commercial interest, needed to make use of the modern business methods of combination and advantages of size. What worked for industry would also work for agriculture. As Nelson Dunning, a publicist for the Farmers' Alliance, explained, “nothing could withstand” the power of the farmers if they “would organize as intelligently and solidly as the Standard Oil Company has.”

In previous decades farmers had experimented with cooperative stores, packing plants, cotton gins, and other businesses. But being small and local, farmers realized that such local cooperatives were incapable of countering the larger market forces buffeting the rural economy. In the 1880s and 1890s, farmers across the spectrum of American agriculture launched experiments in large-scale cooperative enterprise with the aim of controlling regional and national markets. Such efforts involved dairy farmers, fruit and vegetable growers, and cotton, wheat and other staple crop producers. Some of these experiments, such as those by New York state grape growers or Minnesota dairy farmers, had no particular connection to Populism. But Populist reformers, including California raisin growers, southern Illinois wheat and corn farmers, Georgia and Florida fruit growers, and North Carolina vegetable producers also launched efforts at large-scale marketing systems.

One of the most celebrated of these experiments was the Texas Farmers' Alliance Exchange, which Charles Macune organized in 1887. The plan for the Exchange was to establish an effective monopoly over the entire cotton crop in the state of Texas. Controlling and regulating all cotton sales would cut out dealers and middlemen, allowing the Dallas headquarters of the Exchange to negotiate higher prices with purchasers in New York, Liverpool, and London. The Exchange would make available to farmers cheap credit and centralize purchasing of farm supplies. Everything a farmer in the state of Texas might need, from coffee and cook stoves, to plows and harness, would be supplied from the same Dallas headquarters. No private corporation would match the Exchange in terms of economy of scale. Centralized and technically elaborate, the Exchange represented a giant system designed to lift Texas farmers out of poverty. =

The Texas Farmers' Alliance Exchange failed. Almost all of the efforts to control and regulate markets in cotton, wheat, or other staple crops succumbed to the pressures of global markets, and the hostility of merchants and bankers. Dairy farmers, citrus growers, and other specialty crop producers were more successful at establishing effective monopolies. Some of these cooperative monopolies we know today as pillars of agri-business: Land-O-Lakes, Sunkist, Sun-Maid, and Diamond Brand. But at the time, the Populists viewed such cooperative systems as a model for the future: combining modern technique, centralization, and economies of scale to serve the marketing and credit needs of large as well as many medium and even small farmers.

Populist Politics: The Business of Government

The Populist organizations such as the Farmers' Alliance were avowedly non-political and above party politics. In practice this meant that they worked for reform by way of influencing the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. However, by the early 1890s many members of the Farmers' Alliance and kindred groups came to the conclusion that the traditional parties were too attached to corporate interests and the perks of political office to be effective agents of reform. This led to the “industrial conferences” held in Cincinnati, Ohio (May 1891) and St. Louis, Missouri (February 1892) that launched the new People's Party or Populist Party. The national People's Party convention held in July 1892 in Omaha, Nebraska produced the Omaha Platform, the manifesto celebrated by the Populists as “The Second Declaration of Independence.”

Ignatius DonnelleyDrafted by the Minnesota reformer Ignatius Donnelly, the preamble of the Omaha platform echoed the original Declaration of Independence with its warning that American liberty was threatened. Corrupted by the corporations, banks, and trusts, government policy bred “the two great classes – tramps and millionaires.” The Omaha Platform was not only a cry of protest, as it was also a set of positive demands to make sure that the government would serve the needs of the farmer-labor majority. These demands amounted to an innovative and massive expansion of the role of government in the national economy.

The Populist platform called for the nationalization of the railroads, the telegraphs, and other “natural monopolies.” It demanded that the federal government stimulate the economy, raise farm prices, and relieve debt burdens by inflating the dollar with a policy of printing paper money and coining silver at the ration to gold of 16 ounces to one. It endorsed the subtreasury proposal of the Farmers' Alliance that would provide federal loans at two percent interest on the crops that farmers stored in a national system of federal warehouses. To finance a more active federal government, and to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth, the platform also demanded the adoption of a federal income tax to be paid by the wealthiest Americans.

In the literature on the Populists one will see references to Populist hostility to the bureaucracy of big government. But this characterization makes little sense in regard to the original Populists of the 1890s. At the time, the federal government was quite small and the Populists wanted to make it much bigger and more effective. They also had a highly favorable opinion of the one large federal bureaucracy of that era: the U.S. Post Office. As compared to the abusive and arbitrary practices of the railroad and telegraph corporations, the Populists viewed the Post Office as the model of efficient and equitable business practices. The expansion of government, they believed, should be on the same model. As the Omaha Platform stated: “We believe that the power of government – in other words of the people – should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teaching of experience shall justify.”

While demanding a larger role for government, the Populists also wanted cheap government. They believed that the people's business should be conducted in the spirit of business efficiency. This meant purging the corrupting influence of corporate lobbyists, and breaking the power of political bosses in state legislatures and city and town councils. The Populists wanted to do away with the personal and partisan politics of parties in favor of impersonal and business-like administration. The clean government proposals in the Omaha Platform included civil service laws, the direct election of senators, and the secret ballot, as well as direct legislation through the initiative and referendum. Populist education in “the science of government” would ensure that the vote rested in the hands of an informed citizenry.

The People's Party had an encouraging start at the polls. In 1892, James B. Weaver of Iowa won over a million votes as the Populist candidate for president. Colorado, Kansas, and North Dakota elected Populist governors. The Populist blocs in California, North Carolina, and other states held the balance of power in the legislatures. This was the most promising third party movement since the rise of the Republican Party in the decade before the Civil War.

Yet the Populists remained far from gaining national power. To the extent that they appealed to voters against partisan politics, they undercut their own ability to conduct political warfare. And everywhere the realities of the winner-take-all political system worked against the success of a third party. In the Northeastern states, powerful Republican and Democratic machines effectively froze out a Populist challenge. Elsewhere, when the two traditional parties faced each other in competitive elections, one of the parties would adopt reforms attractive to Populist-minded voters, again freezing out the third party. The People's Party scored its major victories in Republican Western states and Democratic Southern states, where the Populists emerged as the reform opposition. But even then, whether in North Carolina or Kansas, Populist electoral victories were almost always the result of so-called “fusion” agreements with either the Democrats in the West or the Republicans in the South.

In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a young congressman from Nebraska captured the Democratic nomination for the presidency on the platform of silver inflation and other reforms that rural voters wanted. Bryan's nomination split the People's Party, as some Populists wanted “fusion” with the Democratic ticket while “middle of the road” Populists wanted an independent People's Party ticket. The electoral defeat of Bryan at the hands of the Republican William McKinley proved a mortal blow to the People's Party from which it never recovered.

Populism and Race: Separate and Unequal

The People's Party confronted a racial and sectional dilemma. The traumas of the Civil War, the Reconstruction experiments in bi-racial government in the former Confederate states, and the violent destruction of those experiments were fresh in memory. In the South, most white voters supported the Democratic Party of white supremacy, while most black voters had little choice but to vote for a Democratic candidate or a weak Republican opposition. The Populists had to parlay Democratic charges that the third party represented treason to the white race. In much of the Midwest and West, farmers voted for Republicans, and the Populists had to grapple with Republican accusations that they were a stalking horse for the Democratic Party of secession.

A common misunderstanding is that Populism responded to these challenges by efforts to unite poor black and white farmers in a common cause. But the reality was more complex. The Farmers' Alliance provided the foundation for the People's Party, and enforcing segregation was a reform backed by the Alliance movement. Charles Macune and the other leaders of the Farmers' Alliance argued that a whites only clause was an essential feature of a modern business organization. And as the Alliance expanded north and west it made segregation a principle of farm organization. At the same time, the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party appealed for reconciliation between the former Confederate and Union states on the basis of a common nationalism, including support for white supremacy and Chinese exclusion.

In the South, the Farmers' Alliance mobilized to push legislators in several Southern states to adopt Jim Crow laws segregating railroads and other public accommodations. The Colored Farmers' Alliance was tolerated by the white Farmers' Alliance, but only within the framework of strict segregation and inequality. That tolerance evaporated, however, when in the summer of 1891 black cotton pickers attempted to go on strike against white farm owners.

In the South, most of the leadership and membership of the People's Party had come out of the Democratic Party. No less than the Democrats the white Populists promised to abide by the white supremacist ideal that “this is a white man's country.” At the same time, as black men continued to vote into the 1890s, both Democrats and Populists competed for African American votes. Both white Democrats and white Populists made election promises to African Americans of economic opportunity and other reforms. Black Populists, such as John B. Rayner of Texas, saw this as an opportunity to press for increased school funding for black children, placing blacks on juries, and other rights.

The emergence of Populism had split the white vote, opening up a limited space for African Americans political mobilization. This was especially the case in North Carolina, where mainly black Republicans made a political alliance with white Populists to turn out the Democrats from state offices. This was a unique defeat for the Democratic Party in the post-Reconstruction South. In 1898, the Democrats mounted a violent “white supremacy campaign” that destroyed the Republican-Populist alliance. In the aftermath, white Democrats, most often with the support of white Populists, disfranchised black voters across the South by way of poll taxes, literacy tests, and whites-only primaries.

Finally, what of Populist attitudes towards Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities? Most Populists were born in the United States, spoke English, and read the Protestant Bible. Many of them supported prohibition of alcoholic beverages, a measure favored by many Protestants but opposed by many Irish, German, and other Catholic groups. The People's Party tried to avoid the pitfalls of such ethnic divisions. Despite the personal preferences of most of its members, it refused to endorse prohibition laws so as to not alienate Catholic voters.

In the main, the Populists had a similarly open policy towards the Jews as well. But there were exceptions. Populist literature, for example, occasionally employed the anti-Semitic stereotype of Shylock to stand in for the greedy banker. Of course, such stereotypes were widely employed in the United States during those years, and the academic and corporate elite often embraced a more virulent strand of anti-Semitism. As for the Populists, in all but rare cases their references to Shylock were metaphorical and did not address actual Jews. Whereas they demanded segregated train cars for African Americans and the enforcement of exclusion laws against Chinese immigrants, the Populists sought no similar measures against the Jewish population. Indeed, generosity towards religious and ethnic minorities – at least those deemed to be white – was more often than not a hallmark of Populist nationalism.

A Populist Confederation: Labor and Middle Class Reform

Unlike a traditional political party, the People's Party was founded as a “confederation” of a wide array of reform organizations. The largest of these were the Farmers' Alliance and other farm-based movements. But labor organizations also played a major part in the Populist coalition. So too did groups of middle class activists, including tax reform clubs, currency leagues, urban reform associations, and utopian societies. Labor and middle class support meant that, especially in the Midwest and West, Populism represented an urban-rural alliance.

The Knights of Labor was a prominent member of the Populist coalition, although by the 1890s it was no longer the powerful national organization that it was during the previous decade. The leadership of the American Federation of Labor was divided over whether or not to support the new party, but several important unions within the AFL did support the Populists. This included John McBride's United Mine Workers. Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, was another prominent labor Populist. In much of the upper Midwest and in the Populist strongholds of the Rocky Mountain States, miners and railway employees formed the base of support for the People's Party. Labor Populists supported public ownership of the railways and the expansion of government power in the economy for similar reasons farmer Populists did. They also had their own demands such as an eight-hour day law and the outlawing of the use of Pinkertons and other private security agencies in labor disputes.

In the fall of 1893, the nation's economy slid into a deep depression. The next spring on the West Coast, unemployed workers banded together to travel to Washington. They made common cause with the Ohio Populist Jacob Coxey who led a "petition in boots" - a march of the unemployed to Washington seeking a federal program to improve roads and to stimulate the economy through dollar inflation. "Coxey's Army" as it was known, along with a strike wave in the nation's coal mines, followed by the 1894 boycott by Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union of Pullman cars that shut down much of the nation's railroads, showed the depths of discontent among American workers. But for many upper class Americans the Populist connection to these developments made the Populism especially frightening.

Meanwhile, the People's Party, from Cincinnati and Chicago, to Denver and San Francisco, gathered urban coalitions of socialists, trade unionists, champions of women's rights, and a variety of nonconformists and freethinkers. The most influential of the nonconformist movements were the Nationalist Clubs and the Single Tax Leagues. The Nationalists drew inspiration from a utopian vision of a cooperative future described in Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward. The single-tax idea was the brainchild of Henry George, the author of Progress and Poverty, one of the most widely read exposes of the inequities of Gilded Age America. According to George, a single-tax on land would restrict speculation in real estate and ensure a more just distribution of wealth. The famous Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow came to Populism by way of the Single-Tax League. Indeed, the Illinois People's Party was an alliance between downstate farmers, coal miners, railway employees, and urban radicals and nonconformists.

Populist Faith: Science and Religion

Many Populists were raised in rural Protestant homes where the family Bible was often the most read or perhaps only book. In their lectures and stump speeches, Populists often referenced biblical stories to make their point, and in their educational campaigns the Populists made use of camp meetings and other techniques borrowed from evangelical revivals. Moreover, Populists spoke with a moral certainty and righteousness. Yet the Populists tended to distance themselves from what might be considered as traditionalist religion. As in economics, politics, and other fields, in matters of faith many Populists embraced innovative and often unorthodox views. Most of all, the Populists believed in the power of science to lead to a more just, prosperous, and modern society.

In the decades after the Civil War, new developments in science had a profound impact on how many Americans understood their world. The Populists shared a strong belief in science's authority. Whether an agnostic or a Baptist lay preacher, Populists tended to agree that moral rights and wrongs must be judged by empirical evidence and scientific truth. In the Populist view, the laws of science made necessary the reforms they wanted. The Populist educational campaigns focused on the “science of political economy” and “scientific government,” along with the latest developments in the natural sciences. Their lessons included the work of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and other evolutionary theorists.

Too often, Populist belief is seen through the prism of the Scopes Trial of 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, went on trial in Dayton, Tennessee for violating the new state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Clarence Darrow, the skeptical, agnostic, big city Chicago lawyer argued for the defense. For the prosecution it was William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, who had been the Democratic-Populist presidential candidate in 1896. Bryan's role in the trial forged a link in historical memory between Populism and fundamentalist religion.

But it is important to keep in mind that it was Darrow, not Bryan, who was with the People's Party in the 1890s. At the time, Populism was home to a large number of people questioning religious orthodoxy. This included nonconformists outside of Christianity: Spiritualists, devotees of “mental science” and Eastern metaphysics, and freethinking agnostics such as Darrow. It also included many Populists who embraced a reform-minded social Christianity.

At the time, the nation's Protestant churches were wracked by controversies about the theory of evolution, the origins of the Bible, and the attitudes towards social reform. Populist Christians tended to take a stand on the liberal side of the religious debates. Salvation, many Populists believed, meant working for a better life among the living. A new scientific age, as they understood it, meant aligning one's faith with the latest discoveries in biology and physics. Urban middle class reformers called such liberal ideas “the social gospel.” Farm and labor Populists described their similar faith as “the religion of humanity.”

The Populist Legacy

At the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, William Jennings Bryan (below), a young congressman from Nebraska, won the presidential nomination on a platform of silver inflation and other reforms. This put the Populists in a bind. Either the People's Party could run their own independent candidate on the full Omaha Platform of Populist demands, risking the possibility of draining votes from Bryan and ensuring the victory of the hated “gold bug” William McKinley. Or the People's Party could endorse the Bryan and silver reform, posing the danger of watering down the Populist program and even being swallowed by the Democratic Party. Led by Herman Taubeneck of Illinois, the Populist convention endorsed “fusion” with Bryan and the Democrats, whereas a determined minority demanded a “middle-of-the-road” policy of running an independent Populist candidate.

William Jennings Bryan The defeat of Bryan's presidential campaign only intensified the factional warfare within the People's Party. Each side accused the other of betraying core principles. But the truth was neither “mid-road” nor “fusionist” Populists had an answer to the fact that Democrats and Republicans were learning how to defeat the third party by adopting its reforms. A handful of the Populist faithful kept up the People's Party flag into the first years of the twentieth century. But the great Populist farm and labor organizations had long faded. Most of the Populist activists returned to the traditional parties. For some Populists, however, such a return was out of the question, and they looked to other possibilities. A number of former Populists would follow Eugene Debs into the Socialist Party, making Kansas, Oklahoma, and other rural states into socialist strongholds.

Populism had represented a vision of modern society that was more inclusive and broad based than the corporate vision. It involved a much wider role for publicly owned and cooperative enterprise. And it involved a more active government and a more active and educated citizenry controlling the levers of political power. Many upper class Americans were horrified by the prospect of common farmers and laborers being so mobilized. The corporate establishment saw an intolerable challenge to their prerogatives and power, and did what they could to bankroll the counterattack to the third party challenge. Outspent, outmuscled, and where necessary counted out through ballot fraud, the impoverished People's went down to bitter defeat. By the turn of the century, the Populist movement as configured in the early 1890s was dead.

Yet, Populism had a powerful legacy. Much of the Populist program was incorporated into the reform wings of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. The ensuing wave of Progressive legislation had a decidedly Populist stamp. The federal income tax and the Federal Reserve Bank, the National Weather Service, Rural Free Delivery, and the extension of agricultural education and research services, the new federal agencies to regulate and subsidize farm credit and marketing, and the direct election of senators and adoption of the referendum and the initiative by several states – all had Populist roots.

The word populism has also lived on in the nation's political language. In its present usage, populism is a synonym for anti-elitism. Any protest against political, economic, or cultural elites may be described as populist. But such protests often have little or perhaps nothing to do with the intents or purposes of the Populist movement of the 1890s. For example, journalists and commentators label critics of government intervention in the economy (federal economic stimulus, healthcare, and so forth) as populists, even though the original Populists believed strongly in such expansion of the government's role. The same journalists and commentators often define populism as the visceral politics of rage, of the gut instead of the head. Undoubtedly, such descriptions have the millions of men and women who took part in Populist education campaigns spinning in their graves.

Suggested Primary Sources

Documents in Books

Jerry Simpson, “The Political Rebellion in Kansas,” Farmers' Alliance History and Agricultural Digest, Nelson A. Dunning, ed. Washington, D.C.: Alliance, 1891, pp. 280-83

R. M. Humphrey, “History of the Colored Farmers' National Alliance and Co-operative Union,” Farmers' Alliance History and Agricultural Digest, Nelson A. Dunning, ed. Washington, D.C.: Alliance, 1891, pp. 288-92

Bettie Gay, “The Influence of Women in the Alliance,” Farmers' Alliance History and Agricultural Digest, Nelson A. Dunning, ed. Washington, D.C.: Alliance, 1891, pp. 308-12

Isom P. Langley, “Religion in the Alliance,” Farmers' Alliance History and Agricultural Digest, Nelson A. Dunning, ed. Washington, D.C.: Alliance, 1891, pp.313-17

“Declaration of Purposes of the Farmers' Alliance and Co-operative Union (Shreveport, Louisiana, Oct. 12, 1887),” William L. Garvin and S. O. Daws, History of the National Farmers' Alliance and Cooperative Union of America. Jacksboro, Tex.: J. N. Rogers, Steam Printers, 1887, pp. 72-83.

“Co-operation and Exchange,” William L. Garvin and S. O. Daws, History of the National Farmers' Alliance and Cooperative Union of America. Jacksboro, Tex.: J. N. Rogers, Steam Printers, 1887, pp. 84-90

“The Omaha Platform,” July 1892, National Economist July 9, 1892 (reprinted in Norman Pollack, ed., The Populist Mind. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967, 59-66.

“Report of the Committee on the Monetary System,” St. Louis Convention of the Southern Alliance, December 1889, George Brown Tindall, ed., A Populist Reader: Selections from the Works of American Populist Leaders. New York: Harper & Row, 1966, pp. 80-87 (a reprint from “The Sub-Treasury System as Proposed by the Farmers' Alliance,” Library of the National Economist Extras, I (Washington, June 1981), pp. 9-14). This “Report” is also in W. Scott Morgan, History of the Wheel and Alliance, and the Impending Revolution, St. Louis, C. B. Woodward Co., 1891, pp. 175-84.

Luna Kellie, “Stand Up for Nebraska,” A Prairie Populist: The Memoirs of Luna Kellie, ed. Jane Taylor Nelsen. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1992, pp. 127-32.


J. R. Detwiler, “The St. Louis Conference,” People's Party Paper (Atlanta), April 7, 1892

Tom Watson, “A Great Problem: The Negro Question in the South,” People's Party Paper (Atlanta), September 16, 1892

Tom Watson, “Mr. Watston's Sub-Treasury Bill,” People's Party Paper (Atlanta), January 20, 1893

“First Populist Law,” People's Party Paper (Atlanta), March 17, 1893

G. T. Rhodes (letter), “From the Lone Star State,” People's Party Paper (Atlanta), July 14, 1893

Mrs. Allie Marsh, “ Our Common Schools,” The Progressive Farmer (Raleigh), January 22, 1889

“Some Legislation Asked For,” The Progressive Farmer (Raleigh), February 5, 1889

“Meeting of Colored Alliance,” The Progressive Farmer (Raleigh), August 26, 1890

“What Are Politics,” (from the Dakota Ruralist), in The Advocate (Meriden, KS), September 21, 1889

“The Sub-Treasury Plan,” The Advocate (Meriden, KS), January 16, 1890

“The Suffrage Plank Satisfactory,” The Advocate (Meriden, KS), June 10, 1891

“Mrs. Mary E. Lease in Westmoreland, Kansas,” The Advocate (Meriden, KS), July 29, 1891

Jennie Franc Kungle (letter), “Woman's Sphere,” Kansas Farmer (Topeka), February 9, 1887

R. S. Phelps (letter), “Wants Equal Rights,” The American Non-Conformist (Winfield, KS), September 12, 1889

C. J. Lamb (letter), “From Topolobampo,” The American Non-Conformist (Winfield, KS), September 19, 1889

“People's Ticket Resolutions,” The American Non-Conformist (Winfield, KS), October 3, 1889

Ignatius Donnelly, “Donnelly's Speech,” The American Non-Conformist (Indianapolis), April 26, 1894

“Nationalize the Railroads,” The American Non-Conformist (Indianapolis), May 10, 1894

“The Kansas Populists. The Suffrage Plank Adopted – Governor Lewelling Renominated,” The American Non-Conformist (Indianapolis), June 21, 1894

“Economist Educational Exercises.” National Economist (Washington, D.C.), January 23, 1892

“Prospects of the Caucasian,” The Caucasian (Clinton, NC), March 14, 1889

“The Editors Chair,” (editorial on “the recent negro national convention), The Caucasian (Clinton, NC), February 20, 1890

“Topics of the Day. The Income Tax,” The Caucasian (Clinton, NC), May 15, 1890

“Opinion of Others which we Can Endorse on the Various Topics of the Day,” (editorial on the cotton pickers' strike, citing Progressive Farmer), The Caucasian (Clinton, NC), September 17, 1891

Editorial on “the negro question,” The Caucasian (Clinton, NC), August 25, 1892

Mary Elizabeth Lease, “The World Will Wag. And Our Descendants Will Enjoy Great Advantages,” The Caucasian (Clinton, NC), August 10, 1893

C. W. Macune, “An Open Letter,” Southern Mercury (Dallas), April 19, 1888

Elle's Fisher, “Bastrop County,” (letter), Southern Mercury (Dallas), May 3, 1888

Mrs. J. Morton Smith, “Essay Read Before the Bell county Alliance,” Southern Mercury (Dallas), May 10, 1888

Ann Other, “Ladies' Department. Where Shall We Look for Help?,” Southern Mercury (Dallas), May 31, 1888

Ida H. “Lavacca County,” (letter), Southern Mercury (Dallas), June 7, 1888

Alex. “Ben Franklin, Texas,” (letter), Southern Mercury (Dallas), September 25, 1888

T. J. Cox, “Exchange Support,” (letter), Southern Mercury (Dallas), November 6, 1888

John McFall, “From One Who Knows,” (letter), Southern Mercury (Dallas), April 11, 1889

Evan Jones, “President Jones' Message,” Southern Mercury (Dallas), August 22, 1889