The Populists

*Despite the expansion of the West and its rapid settlement, there were problems.  Just as excessive staple crop production drove down the value of crops in the South, keeping the sharecroppers and tenant farmers in debt, so the ever-larger wheat crops of the West made each particular shipment of wheat (and each individual farmer’s income) less valuable. 

*In the South, the boll weevil destroyed cotton crops, and droughts, blizzards, locusts, and floods ruined farms in different parts of the West.

*Farmers had other problems:  tariffs, which protected American manufacturers, meant that farm equipment was expensive, and the nation had experienced significant deflation since the Civil War.  The government was no longer printing paper money, so it was harder to get cash, and, after the Panic of 1873, the government switched to the gold standard, which meant that money either had to be made of gold or have an equal amount of gold in the government’s vaults.  This reduced the money supply, hurting debtors (mostly farmers) and miners (who sold the government silver); however, it made money more stable, which was popular among bankers.

*To purchase the farm equipment, fertiliser, and seed they needed, many farmers went into debt, borrowing money from eastern banks at rates that were sometimes as high as 40%. 

*Two financial panics, in 1873 and 1893, caused banks to call in their loans and farms to fail.  

*Farmers also felt gouged by railroad owners who shipped their produce, the operators of the elevators and warehouses where they stored it, and the urban companies that bought it.

*Some farmers wanted paper money to be issued again, which would easily drive down the price of money, but many farmers (and mine owners, who kept discovering more silver) felt that coining silver money again would help them a lot without going as far as issuing paper money.

*Farmers began to protest, and to ask to government to help them out, even though the government had always felt it had no business helping individuals—to do so, it was felt, would make them dependent so they no longer worked hard.  Farmers in the South and West disagreed, and became politically active.

*In 1867, Oliver Kelley of Minnesota helped organise the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry—commonly known as the Grange.  It was a sort of social club, union, and self-improvement society for farmers (at first, of course, it had its secret passwords and rituals, like any good 19th century society), and was open to both men and women.

*The Grangers tried to help themselves in various ways, including by creating manufacturing co-operatives to make their own farm equipment (which failed) and to run flour mills, cotton gins, and other processing plants (some of which were successfully).  Eventually, they got involved in politics, and in the grain belt of the upper Mississippi Valley they got a series of ‘Granger Laws’ passed to benefit farmers by regulating the railroads, warehouses, and grain elevators.

*Eventually, a number of the Granger laws were struck down, thanks in large part to the 1886 Supreme Court decision in Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railway Company v. Illinois, commonly known as the Wabash Case.  It determined that the states do not have the authority to regulate interstate commerce, and thereby struck down Granger laws affecting railroads that crossed state lines.

*However, Congress responded the next year by passing the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.  The Act outlawed pooling and rebates, and required railroads to publish their prices openly.  It also outlawed discrimination against shippers.  It also created the Interstate Commerce Commission to oversee these regulations.  However, the ICC usually enforced the rules weakly, and the railroads later came to see it as useful for them, because it satisfied the public demand for reform without really limiting big business much.

*Further demands for reform by both farmers and factory workers led to the creation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890, which attacked railroad cartels and business monopolies, at least in theory.  In fact, it was rarely used against big business until the early 20th Century; in the 1890s, it was actually used most successfully against unions, claiming that they were illegal combinations of workers—its most significant use was to break the Pullman Strike of 1894, saying the American Railway Union had a monopoly on railroad workers.  Later, though, it would form the basis of most subsequent anti-trust laws.

*In 1878, Congress had passed the Bland-Allison Act, requiring the government to purchase a mint a limited amount of silver, and in 1890, Congress also passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, in which the government agreed to purchase more silver (to please western miners and indebted farmers)—although not unlimited supplies of it—in exchange for miners’ support for a higher tariff.  The result was the McKinley Tariff of 1890, one of the highest in American history—an average of 48.4% on taxed imports.  So, although mine-owners benefited from the Silver Purchase Act, farmers actually suffered even more from rising prices on imports.

*In fact, the Congress meeting from 1889-1891 was so active in many ways that it was known as the Billion Dollar Congress, because 1890 was the first year in which the US government budgeted a billion dollars for expenses.  Very little of that money, however, went to the benefit of farmers, however.

*The Grangers may not have succeeded politically, but they were not the only group to seek to improve the lives of farmers.  Farmers’ Alliances formed in the North and in the South, and allowed both white and black farmers.  Although there were separate alliances for black and white farmers in some places, in other places, even in parts of the South, the two races sometimes worked together, feeling they had common interests as farmers more important than traditional racism.

*Eventually, the different Farmers’ Alliances and the even Grangers became more radical as anger against the banks and the trusts grew.  Western politicians joined their cause, and even women (some of whom had already been involved in the temperance movement) became famous for their speeches.  Mary Lease made 160 speeches in 1890 alone, and supposedly told farmers to raise “less corn and more hell!”

*In 1891, the Farmers’ Alliances, working with some leaders of the Knights of Labor and with silver miners from the mountain states, formed the People’s Party, commonly known as the Populist Party.  It drew voters from North, South, and West, Democrats and Republicans, White and Black.  In 1892, the Populists nominated General James Weaver, who won four states outright (Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada) and received electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota as well—5% of the electoral vote and 9% of the popular vote.  They also elected ten governors, six US senators, and thirty-nine US representatives throughout the 1890s.

*The Populists demanded reform through government action.  They wanted more circulation of money, the minting of all the silver that could be mined, a progressive income tax, direct election of senators, and government ownership of transportation and communication so they could be run for the common good, not private profit.

*The Populists took votes from both the Republicans and the Democrats, but in the South the Democrats countered by splitting them along racial lines—insisting that a vote for the Populists (who included black Farmers’ Alliance members) was a vote for ‘Negro supremacy.’ 

*Furthermore, strikes, such as the Homestead Strike in 1892, showed that high tariffs did not mean higher wages, which hurt the Republicans, too, as did the wastefulness of the ‘Billion Dollar Congress.’  In the end, Grover Cleveland defeated Benjamin Harrison and James Weaver, returning to the White House for the only non-consecutive second term in American history.

*When the Panic of 1893 hit shortly after Cleveland’s inauguration, the President got Congress to repeal the Silver Purchase Act, which used up the government’s gold through the Act’s obligation to buy a certain amount of silver each year.  This split his own party, turning many westerners against him.  It also was not enough to keep the country solvent, as in 1895, Cleveland had to arrange a $65 million loan through JP Morgan.

*The government’s immense spending and borrowing angered unemployed Americans, who marched on Washington demanding paper money and a public works program—jobs created by the government to help the unemployed.  The most famous of these groups was led by Jacob Coxey, a wealthy Ohio quarry owner, who began marching to Washington with about 100 supporters in 1894.  Eventually more joined him, forming Coxey’s Army with 6,000 men at its height.  By the time they reached Washington, though, Coxey was arrested for walking on the grass at the US Capitol.  Other groups attempted similar marches, one even seizing a train and fighting off US Marshals before being arrested.

*Despite some foreign policy successes and despite surviving a secret operation to remove a cancerous area from his mouth, Cleveland’s conservatism had alienated too many members of his own party for him to possibly run for re-election in 1896—he angered the western Silverites by ending the Silver Purchase Act, he angered labour by breaking the Pullman Strike, and angered Southerners and farmers by supporting tariffs (even if they were lower than the McKinley Tariff, they were not low enough for many Democrats). 

*Instead, the Democratic leadership had to make sure that they did not lose the radicals to the Populists.  They did so by turning to a strongly pro-silver western congressman, the 36-year-old Representative from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan.

*Bryan was already a famous speaker, known as the Boy Orator of the Platte (he was also compared unfavourably to the Platte River, as both were supposedly six inches deep and six miles wide at the mouth).  He spoke for farmers and poor workers, demanding Free Silver in religious imagery, saying, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

*Bryan travelled around the country repeating this speech and others.  Relying on just a few hours of sleep a night, he travelled 18,000 miles in three months to address an estimated five million people; at a time when there were only around 70,000,000 people in the country (of whom 13,500,000 voted in 1896), Bryan personally spoke to about one out of every 14 Americans.

*Although Free Silver was not the main issue for most Populists, they recognised Bryan as one of their own--he was also known as the Great Commoner--and they nominated him as their candidate, too (although with a different vice-presidential candidate than the Democratic one).  Some Democratic Gold Bugs (including Cleveland) were so opposed to the bi-metallic standard that they actually opposed their own party, which helped ensure Republican occupancy of the White House for the next 16 years.

*The Republicans nominated William McKinley, a Union Army officer in the Civil War, who stayed home and allowed others to campaign for him.  He was sponsored by the Ohio businessman Mark Hannah, who once said, ‘There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is,’ and by Gold Bug Republicans who managed to outspend the Democrats by 5 to 1.  Among other campaign gimmicks were dollar bills printed with Bryan’s portrait and the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST...FOR THE OTHER 53 CENTS,” because it was believed that free coinage of silver would drop the value of the dollar to 47¢.

*With the Democrats split and the Republicans running a well-funded campaign, McKinley won the election.  Soon, the Populist Party began to dissolve, having already given its support to the Democrats. 

*American farmers also got some relief when crop failures in Europe led to rising crop prices in America.

*Furthermore, the discovery of gold in Alaska, Canada, Australia, and South Africa in the late 1890s created inflation without the coinage of free silver, although Bryan would run on that platform again in 1900.  However, in the first decade of the 1900s, urban reformers would take up many of the same demands as the Populists.

*Incidentally, some historians have suggested that a popular novel of the year 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is an allegory for the politics of the late 1800s.  The various characters supposedly represent different people or groups of the time:  the Scarecrow represents the farmers, the Tin Man the factory workers who have been dehumanised by their labour, the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan himself, the Wizard of Oz is really William McKinley or even Mark Hannah (the man behind the curtain).  The Munchkins are the middle class:  groups like the Lollipop Guild represent craft guilds like the AF of L and the Lullaby League is made up of female reformers like Jane Addams.  The flying monkeys are, perhaps, Indians.  Dorothy (an innocent girl from the heart of Populist country) spends most of the story trying to solve her problems by following the Yellow Brick Road, representing the Gold Standard, but does not succeed, until the Good Witch points out that she had the solution with her all along—not the ruby slippers of the film, but the Silver Shoes.  While L. Frank Baum may not have had this in mind at the time, it can serve as a way to remember some of the issues of the late 1800s.

This page last updated 20 July, 2020.
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