The Populist Party

The Rise of Populism
The People's Party (or Populist Party, as it was widely known) was much younger than the Democratic and Republican Parties, which had been founded before the Civil War. Agricultural areas in the West and South had been hit by economic depression years before industrial areas. In the 1880s, as drought hit the wheat-growing areas of the Great Plains and prices for Southern cotton sunk to new lows, many tenant farmers fell into deep debt. This exacerbated long-held grievances against railroads, lenders, grain-elevator owners, and others with whom farmers did business. By the early 1890s, as the depression worsened, some industrial workers shared these farm families' views on labor andthe trusts.

[William Peffer]In 1890 Populists won control of the Kansas state legislature, and Kansan William Peffer became the party's first U.S. Senator. Peffer, with his long white beard, was a humorous figure to many Eastern journalists and politicians, who saw little evidence of Populism in their states and often treated the party as a joke. Nonetheless, Western and Southern Populists gained support rapidly. In 1892 the national party was officially founded through a merger of the Farmers' Alliance and the Knights of Labor. In that year the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, won over one million votes. Between 1892 and 1896, however, the party failed to make further gains, in part because of fraud, intimidation, and violence by Southern Democrats.

By 1896 the Populist organization was in even more turmoil than that of Democrats. Two main factions had appeared. One, the fusion Populists, sought to merge with the Democrats, using the threat of independent organization to force changes in the major party's platform. The Populist organization in Kansas had already "fused"--over the bitter protest of those who considered this a sell-out. Fusionists argued that the regionally based third party could never hold national power; the best strategy was to influence a major party that could.

The second faction, called "mid-roaders," suspected (with good reason) that Democratic leaders wanted to destroy the third-party threat; fusion, they argued, would play into this plot. These Populists advocated staying "in the middle of the road," between the two larger parties, and not merging with either. In practice, these Populists were not "in the middle," but more sweeping in their political goals than either of the major parties, while fusionists were more willing to compromise in hopes of winning powerful Democratic allies. Mid-roaders like Tom Watson warned that "fusion means the Populist party will play Jonah, and they will play the whale."

Inside the People's Party, mid-roaders sought to schedule the national convention before those of the Republicans and Democrats. They lost this fight, and fusionists selected a date after the major-party meetings, hoping that silver Democrats would win a dramatic victory in the Chicago convention. When this happened--with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan on a free-silver platform--mid-roaders found themselves in a difficult spot.

The Populist Convention in St. Louis
July 24-26, 1896

By the start of the convention, relations between mid-roaders and fusionists were tense; the latter were clearly in communication with Bryan's manager, James K. Jones of Arkansas. One of the most popular and eloquent mid-roaders, Tom Watson of Georgia, stayed home--either because he sensed disaster, or more likely because hoped mid-roaders would win control of the convention and nominate him for president. According to tradition (which McKinley followed and Bryan did not), presidential hopefuls did not appear at the party's convention, but waited modestly at home for news of their nomination.

The convention was a disaster for mid-roaders, as the convention endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee, making William Jennings Bryan the candidate of both the Democratic and Populist parties. When mid-roaders tried to stage a counter-rally, the lights in their meeting hall mysteriously went out--though they were burning brightly fifteen minutes after the group gave and went home.

Vice-Presidential Confusion
Mid-roaders did defeat the nomination of Arthur Sewall, Democrats' vice-presidential choice, who was too conservative and anti-labor for the Populist convention to stomach. Instead, Populists chose Tom Watson of Georgia. Watson, editor of the People's Party Paper, was a dedicated Populist who had endured abuse and death threats from some Democrats in his state who feared the People's Party.

Watson accepted the nomination only because he believed a deal had been struck with Jones, in which Bryan would renounce Sewall, making "Bryan and Watson" both the Democratic and Populist ticket. Fusionist leaders had not obtained such a promise--or, if they had, they were betrayed afterward by their erstwhile Democratic allies.

Upon discovering this when the convention was over, Watson refused to campaign for Bryan, denouncing the deceit. At the same time, he refused to step down in favor of Sewall. Watson and other mid-roaders argued that their party's platform was substantially different from the Democrats' Chicago platform, even if the latter represented a substantial shift for that party. Watson and others focused on issues rather than individuals, hoping to rescue the third party from the 1896 debacle and revive it another year.

[Mary Lease]Fusionist Populists campaigned enthusiastically for Bryan; many Republicans and Gold Democrats depicted "Populists" and "Silver Democrats" as a united opposition, though this was far from the case. Some mid-road Populists, like the Kansas orator Mary Lease, reluctantly campaigned for Bryan while calling attention to Populists' broader goals.

The Populist Platform
Compared with silver Democrats, Populists advocated more sweeping federal intervention to offset the economic depression, curtail corporate abuses, and prevent poverty among farming and working-class families. They made a stronger statement than the major parties in support of Cuban independence and raised other issues--such as statehood for Territories and the District of Columbia--that Republicans and Democrats did not address. The platform was, however, less radical than the state-level platforms of Western Populist organizations, some of which had called for woman suffrage.

Because the presidential campaign hinged on the currency issue, this plank (which Populists had held since the early 1890s, and now shared with the Democrats) received most attention and debate.

The End of Populism--or Not?
In the national campaign, Populists served mostly as a symbol for Republicans, who warned that the silver Democrats had allied themselves with ignorant "hayseeds" and "anarchists." Bryan virtually ignored the People's Party, even though he was its nominee. While the nomination of Bryan had destroyed the hopes of mid-roaders, Bryan's defeat demoralized the fusionists, leaving the whole party in shambles. As Watson had predicted, fusion on the "free silver" issue de-railed the rest of Populists' agenda and killed the party's hopes for national power. While Populists continued to hold power in a few Western states, the party vanished from the larger electoral map.

Nonetheless, Populist ideas survived into the new century. Progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt resurrected many Populist planks and re-cast them in new forms as he tentatively expanded federal regulations of business corporations. The Progressive Party, which Roosevelt headed in the "Bull Moose campaign" of 1912, also echoed many People's Party concerns. By constitutional amendment, direct election of U.S. Senators became law in 1912. Other Populist planks--particularly those calling for aid to farmers and employment on public works in time of depression--became reality during the 1930s, under the New Deal administrations of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt.

I say it fearlessly, and it can not be denied, that reforms for which the masses have been clamoring for years--whether it be silver or labor or income tax or popular rights or resistance to government by injuction--had never been written, and might never have been written, into a Democratic platform, until the Populist party, 1,800,000 strong, thundered in the ears of Democratic leaders the announcement that a mighty multitude demanded these reforms.

--John Temple Graves (Democrat), Atlanta Constitution, 27 August 1896

The burning question of today is, shall we fuse with the democrats? Shall all the reform elements of this country drop every other reform issue, except free coinage of gold and silver, join hands with the free silver democrats and fight the common enemy--plutocratic republicanism?
If the democrats would do half of the "fusing," I for one would say yes. But do the democrats offer the reformers one single concession? I fail to see it as yet.
... We forced them into making free coinage the issue; shall we then drop all other reform issues and run to meet them with open arms? Shall the outraged girl, who forces her seducer to marry her at the point of a revolver, drop her mother, sisters and brothers at his command, in order to make the marriage perfect and happy?
... No, my brother; the democratic party can not swallow me down unless it swallows all the populist reform issues. There are too many horrors fresh in my memory--too many scenes of poverty and want, at which a democratic administration turned a deaf ear.

--"A Man Without a Soul," The Coming Nation, June 27, 1896

The Populist gathering of this year lacked the drill and distinction and wealth of the Republican convention held the month before in the same building. It had not the ebullient aggressiveness of the revolutionary Democratic assembly at Chicago, nor the brilliant drivers who rode the storm there. Every one commented on the number of gray heads--heads many of them grown white in previous independent party movements. The delegates were poor men.... Cases are well known of delegates who walked because too poor to pay their railroad fare. It was one day discovered that certain members of one of the most important delegations were actually suffering for food. They had no regular sleeping place, having had to save what money they had for their nickel meals at the lunch counter.

--Henry Demorest Lloyd, Review of Reviews, September 1896

The old plutocratic politicians have been out-generaled by the flank move of the People's party. They invaded our field, stole our leader, set him up on a platform they builded from materials they likewise purloined from us for the occasion. The artful dodge of securing the nomination of a TRUE Populist Vice-President will force the designers against the people's rights, who had cunningly secured the nomination of a banker and railroad magnate, in the new Democracy, to the wall--Wall street where they belong.

--Vineland (NJ) Independent, in Public Opinion, 13 August 1896

The nomination of Thomas E. Watson for the vice presidency by the Populists complicates the situation in an unfortunate degree. It may be believed that the middle-of-the-road division, which has been opposed to Bryan, is highly pleased at the turn of affairs. . . . At this writing it is impossible to tell what turn matters may take.

--Rocky Mountain News, 25 July 1896

Don't ask me after all my service with the People's party to kill it now. I am going to stand by it till it dies, and I want no man to say that I was the man who stabbed it to the heart.... No; Sewall has got to come down. He brings no votes to Bryan. He drives votes away from Bryan.

--Tom Watson in Kansas City Times, from C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel

Mr. Watson really ought to be the first man on the ticket, with Mr. Bryan second; for he is much the superior in boldness, in thorough-going acceptance of his principles according to their logical conclusions, and in sincerity of faith.... Mr. Watson belongs to that school of southern Populists who honestly believe that the respectable and commonplace people who own banks, railroads, dry goods stores, factories, and the like, are persons of mental and social attributes that unpleasantly distinguish Heliogabalus, Nero, Caligula, and other worthies of later Rome.... If he got the chance he would lash the nation with a whip of scorpions, while Bryan would be content with the torture or ordinary thongs.

--Theodore Roosevelt, Review of Reviews

The Populist platform is almost too absurd to merit serious discussion.

--The Detroit Tribune, in Public Opinion, 6 August 1896

Populists at St. Louis, Review of Reviews, September 1896


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College