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 People’s 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 People’s 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 America’s political
language and a way to frame political change.