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A Call to (F)Arms: The Populist Response

The Tumultuous Gilded Age

- Era of Contrasts:
o Concentration of wealth
o Industrial revolution and economic depression
- Era od disruption
o Labor strikes
o Racial violence, political violence
o Economic crashes and hardship

- Farmland production explodes in the West
- 1860-1890, farmers double cultivation of land
- Number of farmers almost triples and population of the Plains
states soars
- Land price boom and speculation

Citadels of Corruption
- Farmers face two critical antagonists:
o Railroads
Rural powerbrokers
Individual farmers are easy targets for
Feel powerless in the face of big industries
o Cities
Rapid growth
Urban areas absorb more and more of the
Challenge to fundamental ideas about American
identity and sources of moral and economic
Seen as centers of vice, greed, and corruption

Hard Row
- Economic turmoil especially hard on farmers
- High interest rates and rising debts
- Plunge in agricultural prices (40-60% declines over 20 years)
- Another financial panic bursts land price bubble in 1890s
- Drought and pests become more prevalent

The Farmers Response

The Grange
- Farmers establish organizations and pool resources after Civil
- Growth of The Grange
- Claim more that 1.5 million members by 1870s
- Various goals:
o Build collective identity
o Combat social isolation
o Lobby for railroad reform
o Purchase shared farm machinery
- By 1880, membership is less than 100,000

- Another early movement: Greenback Party (1876-1884)
- Focused on monetary policy
o Paper money as permanent legal tender
o Pay federal debt with paper money
- Some social aspects
o Decrease public salaries
o Public school system
o Restrain power of the railroads
- Run a third party ticket

The Farmers Alliance

- The Farmers Alliance originates in Texas (1870s-80s)
- A booster org. that turns to economic activism
o Large-scale cooperatives
o Lobbying
o Innovative economic policy
o Widespread educational programs
- By 1890s, 1.2 million members nationwide
- Racially segregated and strongly nativist
- Avoid formal political action (third party campaigning, etc.)

Women in the Populist Movement

- In 1890, 250K women join the Farmers Alliance
- Draw upon tradition of shared labor in farming
- Serve as lecturers, educators, officeholders in the organization
- Populist movements of the era support suffrage (but not at
the national level)
- Many more women continue to join through the next decade

The Political Turn

- The Alliance relied on lobbying and influence, not an
independent political presence
- Frustration leads to a series of conferences in 1891-92
- Culminates in the Peoples Party Convention in Omaha
(July 1892)
- Demanding an expansion of federal role in economic life, with
concerns about restraint
- The Party nominates James Weaver for president in 1892
Political Success
- Peoples Party governors in 3 states
- Balance of power in several state legislatures
- 5 senators, 10 representatives, 1,500 state and county

- Debate ensues:
o Remain independent?
o Align with an existing party?
- Disadvantages to independence
- Fusion faction wins; endorse Democratic nominee: William
Jennings Bryan
- Breaks the Peoples Party apart

William Jennings Bryan

- Bryan is a young, firebrand congressman from Nebraska
- Accomplished and compelling orator
- Barnstorms the country to rally support (instead of using
- Wins Populist support at Democratic convention speaking
against the gold standard

The Fall
- Bryan loses to William McKinley
- Ends national presence of Populist Movement
- Opposed by a variety of groups
o North: bankers, business, immigrants, and upper-class
o South: white supremacists, large-scale farmers
- Many Americans saw Populists as a threat to economic and
social order
- Much of the Populist program becomes part of the political
agenda in coming decades
o Income tax
o Direct election of senators
o Banking reform
- Populist appeals/campaigns become more common in
Populist Legacies
- Populism offers a widespread, grassroots reform movement
- An early and relatively successful response to the struggles of
the Gilded Age
- Sows the seeds of larger shifts, especially political and
economic reform
- Women play a central part in spreading and shaping Populism;
gain political experience and build momentum for future
- Populism becomes an enduring part of Americas political
language and a way to frame political change.