Rise of the Populists and William Jennings Bryan

by Mary Kate Blaine

Historical Background

As the United States evolved into an industrial powerhouse in the decades following the Civil War, the growing strength of the railroads and the banks particularly, coupled with the impact of mechanization on agricultural practices, challenged the financial stability of American farmers in ways never before experienced. The late 1860s saw the birth of the Grange (a.k.a. the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry), an organization dedicated to the social and political uplift of farmers. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, farmers organized collectively, at first locally, and eventually nationally into the Farmers Alliance, an organization that promoted economic cooperation and broad economic reform to protect the interests of farmers. Both of these movements helped to create the People’s Party, or the Populist Party, which officially established its party platform in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 4, 1892.

The Populists would reach the high water mark of their political power in 1896, when the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan as its candidate for President of the United States.

Significance of the Topic

The Populists reiterated a long-significant question in the American experience: Why do some have and others have not? Historians can find similar patterns of populist agitation throughout all of US history, particularly when examining the interests and points of view of rural vs. urban citizens. As Populists challenged the increasing power of the moneyed interests in the national economy, they paved the way for a movement of broad social reform that would sweep the nation throughout the early twentieth century.

Essential Question

Was the Populist movement a success? To what extent do populist ambitions come to light in our political discourse in the twenty-first century?

Motivation / Do Now

  • For homework, students should have completed primary source readings #1, 2, and 3 on The Farmers’ Revolt (link below).
  • Students should have their notes from that reading on their desk before class begins.
  • Ask students to take two minutes to record everything they know about what it takes to borrow money from a bank. What influences how much money one can borrow? What responsibilities does a borrower have when s/he accepts a loan of money from a bank?

Students Will Be Able To

  • Explain the concerns of farmers in the years following the Civil War.
  • Evaluate the impact of technological development and its financial burdens on the political activism of American farmers.
  • Work independently and collectively to analyze written and visual primary sources.
  • Discuss the Populist rhetoric both in its historic context, as well in contemporary political discourse.

Materials

Questions and Activities

After students have recorded their own insights regarding borrowing / lending of money, the teacher will use their comments to explain the mechanics of loans and the appeal that the unlimited coinage of silver held for struggling American farmers.

The teacher will then briefly discuss students’ perceptions of the three primary source readings from the homework, focusing particularly on the Omaha Platform as it relates to wealth, work, and the farmers’ political demands.

After the teacher introduces the political context of the presidential election of 1896, students will individually read and then discuss in small groups William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech. Students should use the Questions for Consideration to guide their small group discussion.

Once students have read individually and in small groups discussed the “Cross of Gold” speech, the teacher will guide a large group discussion to ensure collective understanding.

Closure / Summary

  • Students may compare / contrast two dueling visual interpretations of Jennings and the Populist platform. Teachers should make certain to point out criticisms of Bryan’s advocacy of silver coinage. Use technology available to ensure students’ ability to see the images as clearly as possible.
  • Consider examining President Obama’s December 6, 2011, comments delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas, available from the White House. What, if any, parallels do students uncover between the rhetoric of the current president and the candidate for president in 1896?

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