Populism and Agrarian Discontent

by Michael Kazin

Today, the Gilded Age evokes thoughts of “robber baron” industrialists, immigrants toiling long hours in factories for little pay, massive strikes that were often put down by force, and political corruption in both big cities and the halls of Congress. But there were also serious problems in rural America, where most of the population lived. And many small farmers turned to social movements and politics to remedy those ills.

For example, during the 1880s, the population of Nebraska doubled to one million, a faster rate of growth than that of any other state in the Union. Taking advantage of cheap land offered by the railroads, Civil War veterans and European immigrants rushed in to start farms or launch small businesses to supply all the new residents, whether they lived on the land or in cities like Lincoln and Omaha.

Then, near the end of the decade, a nasty mix of calamities put an end to the boom. A massive blizzard in 1888 killed stock animals across the northern plains, ruining Nebraskans who had invested nearly everything they had in pigs and cattle. Then in 1889, a bumper harvest of corn—Nebraska’s largest crop—resulted in the lowest prices in memory. Some farmers resorted to burning their corn for fuel instead of selling it to buy coal. City newspapers blamed the crisis on too many ears chasing too few buyers; they blandly predicted the market would readjust itself in time. But a hundred weekly papers from the rural counties told a more dramatic story, and skilled lecturers from the Farmers Alliance helped drive it home. A year later the worst drought since the Civil War destroyed millions of acres of corn, wheat, and oats. The health of Nebraska’s urban economy depended upon the bounty of its farms. Bankrupt businesses and unfinished buildings scarred the streets of Lincoln and Omaha.[1]

A growing number of Nebraskans had already begun to rail at a human scourge as deadly as the elements. They called it by a variety of names—“monopoly,” “the money power,” “Wall Street,” or “organized wealth.” But their indictment was simple enough: A powerful conspiracy was robbing small farmers of the fruits of their labors. They accused the railroads of imposing sharp and unfair hikes in freight rates, bankers of committing a legal form of usury, and the political establishment of serving the rich and the cities at the expense of productive families in the countryside. Men and women who had broken the prairie sod, expecting it to yield them an independent life, if not always a comfortable one, were forced to mortgage their farms and sometimes even their plows and animals to stay in business.[2]

Children who sensed their parents’ anger began to sing:

When brokers are freed from all their harm
And lobbyists are dead
The banker’ll bow unto the farm
And come to us for bread.[3]

Since 1880, a state branch of the Farmers Alliance had been attempting to mobilize these discontents. Like its counterparts in states to the north and south, the Nebraska Alliance did not begin as a political insurgency. Organizers launched cooperative stores and sold hail insurance and life insurance at rates lower than commercial firms were offering. For most of the decade, good crop prices and the rush of optimistic newcomers kept its membership in the low thousands, but by 1890, the Farmers Alliance boasted over two million members nationwide.

Similar events and a similar kind of outrage were present in farming states all across the South and Great Plains. Foreign competition and commodity speculators at home were driving down prices for cotton, wheat, and corn. Neither major party, wedded to a doctrine of laissez-faire, was willing to do anything much about it. And many wage earners had their own reasons to protest: railroad companies, mine operators, and big manufacturers routinely fired men for trying to organize unions, making it difficult to win either job security or a living wage. The nation’s largest union group, the Knights of Labor, sympathized with the agrarian rebellion.

Thus, in 1892, farmers and labor insurgents came together in Omaha to organize a new People’s Party, also known as the Populists. “We believe,” proclaimed Ignatius Donnelly, a 61-year-old former congressman from Minnesota who also dabbled in science fiction, “that the powers of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded . . . as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.” Most of the party’s rank-and-file belonged to the Farmers Alliance, whose huge network of local papers and lecturers who stumped through rural America gave it a base that no other third party in US history could match.

But the Populists also knew they would never transform the nation from the agrarian hinterland alone. Their Omaha Platform proposed a number of ways to restrain and regulate corporate America so that “the plain people” would once again feel the government was standing up for their interests: a graduated income tax, a “flexible” currency based on silver as well as gold, the nationalization of the railroads and the telegraph, the initiative and referendum which allowed voters to place their own measures on the ballot or vote down a bill already passed by the state legislature, and a ban on aliens owning land targeting wealthy European investors. The Omaha Platform also preached that “the interests of rural and civil labor are the same; their enemies are identical” and backed it up with demands for an eight-hour day for public workers and abolition of the Pinkerton Agency, a notorious strikebreaking firm.

With such proposals, Populists won the votes of large numbers of miners in the Rocky Mountains and urban craftsmen in the cities of the Mississippi Valley and the Far West—as well as from small farmers in the South and West. From 1892 to 1896, as an economic depression wracked the nation, the new party elected forty-five congressmen and six senators, as well as governors and a majority of state legislators in Colorado and Kansas, and a mayor of San Francisco. Populist candidates were competitive nearly everywhere outside the industrial Northeast. In 1892, the Populist James Weaver ran a courageous campaign for president, braving rocks and rotten eggs in the Democratic South and a blackout of coverage by Republican papers in the Midwest. Despite such animus, he gained over a million ballots—almost 9 percent of the total—and twenty-two electoral votes.

The involvement of women in the movement put the older parties to shame. Female Populists organized camp meetings on the prairies and the fields, spoke widely at rallies, and wrote for the movement press. The veteran reformer Mary Elizabeth Lease became famous for allegedly telling Kansans in 1890 to “raise less corn and more hell.” When Populists took charge of Colorado’s government in 1892, one of their first acts was to place a referendum on woman suffrage before the voters. It passed easily, with big majorities coming from the same counties that had recently delivered the state to the insurgent party.[4]

The Populists also moved, in halting steps, from their white core to the black periphery. They first welcomed the formation of a separate Colored Farmers Alliance—only to shun it in 1891 when thousands of black cotton-pickers staged a strike at harvest time against employers who included members of the white Alliance. Still, African Americans joined the People’s Party in states from North Carolina to Kansas, and the party’s ability to persuade black men to switch from the Republican Party was crucial to electing scores of third-party candidates, all of them white, in the former Confederacy. During the 1892 campaign in Georgia, two thousand white supporters rushed to stop the lynching of the Reverend Henry S. Doyle, a black Populist leader. “We propose to wipe the Mason and Dixon line out of geography,” stated Ignatius Donnelly, “to wipe the color-line out of politics.” For a few exhilarating years, it did not seem impossible.[5]

Most Populists wrapped their aspirations in the Social Gospel, a theology that held that Christians should apply their faith to such worldly problems as poverty, war, and the exploitation of labor. Given the size and range of the movement, quite different versions of the worldly faith commingled within it. Southerners of both races, reared in Biblical literalism, tended to believe that “God has promised to hear the cry of the oppressed,” and insisted that “No man in this nation can live a consistent Christian life” unless he threw himself into the agrarian insurgency. Black Populists were usually faithful church members, and ordained ministers became the most trusted and eloquent leaders of the “colored” insurgency. But no one attempted to bar believers in evolution, spiritualism, or freethinking from taking part in the smaller Populist parties that sprouted in the urban West and Northeast. For Populists, the virtue of one’s motivation eclipsed the details of one’s theology. Such an ecumenical attitude was notable at a time when the Supreme Court was unanimously hailing the United States as “a Christian nation” that respected the Sabbath and financed “Christian missions in every quarter of the globe.”[6]

But the heyday of the People’s Party was brief. Its first presidential campaign in 1892 was its last as a serious contender. Part of the reason is that the Populists drew fear and hostility from economic elites and well-placed conservatives. “The present assault upon capital is but the beginning,” warned Supreme Court Justice David Field in 1894. “It will be but the stepping stone to others, larger and more sweeping, till our political conditions will become a war of the poor against the rich; a war growing in intensity and bitterness.”[7] Field was opposed to such Populist ideas as a guaranteed income tax. But he was also alarmed by inflammatory remarks made by such figures as Davis Waite, the Populist governor of Colorado. In 1893, Waite had declared, “It is better, infinitely better that blood should flow to the horses’ bridles rather than our national liberties should be destroyed.” No wonder the prospect of the third party gaining power, alone or in fusion with a faction of a major party, horrified the custodians of social order.

In 1896, the People’s Party split apart over the question of whether to endorse William Jennings Bryan for president. The young, charismatic Bryan was already the Democratic nominee for president, and he was sympathetic to many of their ideas and had campaigned for James Weaver four years earlier. But if the Populists fused with the Democrats, they would no longer pose a radical alternative to the two-party system. In the end, a majority of delegates to the Populist convention supported Bryan, in the hope that his election would be the first step toward liberating the nation from the rule of big business.

But Bryan was a reform-minded Democrat, not a Populist. He wanted to cleanse the system of the corrupting influence of big money, not destroy it and build a new one. Still, his presidential campaign, one of the most dramatic in US history, provoked the business establishment and most big-city newspapers to warn that victory for the “Popocrats” would lead to “anarchy” and bankrupt the nation. Bryan’s loss to Republican nominee William McKinley doomed the third party to a slow but certain demise.

The Democrat from Nebraska did achieve one lasting success: he effectively remade his party into a strong supporter of union rights and the strict regulation of corporations. On Labor Day, 1896, Bryan offered a crowd of fifteen thousand workers and their families a metaphor for what would become the progressive approach to business from his campaign. Bryan recalled that, during his youth in southern Illinois, he had been in charge of tethering the family swine so they would not tear up the land. “And then it occurred to me that one of the most important duties of government is to put rings in the noses of hogs.”[8]

So the eclipse of the People’s Party opened the way for a different kind of triumph. The powerful critiques of “monopoly” and “the money power” voiced by the populist insurgency helped persuade major-party presidential nominees from Bryan to Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson—and the thousands of candidates who followed their lead—to put an end to the freebooting capitalism of the nineteenth century. Some did so because they feared a failure to act could lead to a revolution. Others sympathized with discontented Americans and believed, as had the Populists, that a strong national government would be the best protector of the welfare of small farmers and wage earners. The policies they enacted included crop subsidies, the protection of union organizers, and the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for an income tax. Thus was born an enduring truism of twentieth-century American politics: the disruptive potential and moral critique of radical movements helped powerful progressives to transform the nation.


[1] For succinct accounts of these events and their relationship to the growth of the state, see James C. Olson and Ronald C. Naugle, History of Nebraska, 3rd edition (Lincoln, 1997).

[2] For rich accounts of these charges, see Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (NY, 1976); Robert McMath, American Populism: A Social History (NY, 1993); Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (NY, 2007).

[3] Quoted by a woman who remembered the song from her childhood on a farm in Lancaster County. Mary Louise Jeffery, “Young Radicals of the Nineties,” Nebraska History 38 (March 1957): 31. On the Nebraska Farmers Alliance, see Olson and Naugle, History, 221–225.

[4] Rebecca Edwards, “Mary Elizabeth Lease: Advocate for Political Reform,” in John Brown to Bob Dole: Movers and Shakers in Kansas History, ed. Virgil W. Dean (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), 127–139; Marilley, Woman Suffrage, 124–158.

[5] On Doyle and black populism generally, see Omar Ali, Black Populism in the New South (forthcoming, University of Mississippi Press), 138–140. Donnelly quote from ibid., 159.

[6] Quotes from Robert C. McMath Jr., Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 68; Joseph W. Creech Jr., “Righteous Indignation: Religion and Populism in North Carolina, 1886–1906,” PhD diss., University of Notre Dame, 2000, 230–231; Postel, Populist Vision, 264; Holy Trinity v. United States 143 US 457 (1892).

[7] Field quoted in Josephson, The Politicos, 57

[8] William Jennings Bryan, The First Battle (Chicago, 1896), 378.


Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent magazine. He is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2011); A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006); The Populist Persuasion: An American History (1995); Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era (1987), co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (fourth edition, 2012), and editor-in-chief of The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History (2010).

 

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Already have an account?

Please click here to login and access this page.

How to subscribe

Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.

Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.

Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.

Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Why Gilder Lehrman?

Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.

Individual subscription: $25

Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Upgrade your Account

We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.

All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!

How to Subscribe

K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.

Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Discussion

check it out


Great essay!


Add comment

Login or register to post comments