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The Populists

AP.USH:
KC‑6.1.III.C (KC)
,
PCE (Theme)
,
Unit 6: Learning Objective K
In the late nineteenth century, a new American political party sprung up to defend the interests of farmers. 

Overview

  • The Populists were an agrarian-based political movement aimed at improving conditions for the country’s farmers and agrarian workers. The Populist movement was preceded by the Farmer’s Alliance and the Grange.
  • The People’s Party was a political party founded in 1891 by leaders of the Populist movement. It fielded a candidate in the US presidential election of 1892 and garnered 8.5% of the popular vote, which was a substantial amount of support for a third party.
  • The Populists allied with the labor movement and were folded into the Democratic Party in 1896, though a small remnant of the People’s Party continued to exist until it was formally disbanded in 1908.

Agrarian activism in the United States

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the nation’s farmers began to organize to defend their interests against what they perceived to be the interests of the Eastern establishment and banking elite. As the number of landless tenant farmers rose, and as the debts of independent farmers skyrocketed due to burdensome loan terms and interest rates from banks, discontent among the nation’s agrarian workers burgeoned.
In 1876, the Farmer’s Alliance was established in Texas with the goal of ending the crop-lien system that had thrown so many farmers into poverty. The crop-lien system operated in the cotton-growing South, among sharecroppers and tenant farmers, both white and black, who did not own the land that they worked. These workers took out loans to obtain the seed, tools, and other supplies they needed to grow the cotton. After the harvest, they were required to pay back the loans in the form of cotton crops. When cotton prices tanked, these workers were sometimes left with nothing after their crops were collected by creditors.start superscript, 1, end superscript
Print showing the Farmer's Alliance flag, which features the motto, "The most good for the most people."
Flag of the Farmer's Alliance. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Farmer’s Alliance was not the only organization that sprang up to defend the nation’s agrarian workers. The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, known as the Grange, was founded in 1868 in New York to advocate on behalf of rural communities. From 1873 to 1875, local chapters of the Grange were established across the country, and membership skyrocketed.squared This was partly due to the Panic of 1873, a financial crisis that resulted in a number of bank failures and the bankruptcy of several of the nation’s railroads. The Panic of 1873 depressed wages for workers, and the prices of agricultural products plummeted, saddling farmers with massive amounts of debt that they had little hope of paying off.cubed

The People’s Party

In 1891, the People’s Party (also known as the Populist Party, or the Populists) was formed as a political party representing the interests of the nation’s agricultural sector. The Farmer’s Alliance was a major part of the Populist coalition.
The People’s Party nominated James B. Weaver, a former US representative from the state of Iowa, as its candidate in the 1892 presidential election. Campaigning on a platform designed to strengthen farmers and weaken the monopolistic power of big business, banks, and railroad corporations, the People’s Party garnered 8.5% of the popular vote, carrying the states of Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, and Nevada.
Photograph of William Jennings Bryan.
William Jennings Bryan was the presidential candidate for the Democrats in 1896. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Because of the mass appeal of the Populist movement, the Democratic Party began to champion many of its policy goals. In the 1896 presidential election, the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan as its candidate, and the Populists agreed to support him. The People’s Party was thus folded into the Democratic Party and began to fade from the national scene.
The effect of the fusion of the Populist Party and the Democratic Party was a disaster in the South. Though there had always been conflict within the Populist movement about whether African Americans should be included, the Democratic Party in the South was unabashedly racist. Though Bryan performed strongly in the areas of greatest Populist influence, he lost the election to Republican William McKinley.start superscript, 4, end superscript
The People’s Party continued to function and fielded candidates in both the 1904 and 1908 presidential elections, but the heyday of the party’s influence was over. Although the People’s Party was formally disbanded in 1908, the Progressive movement would take up many of the goals and causes of Populism, including anti-trust legislation, greater federal regulation of private industry, and stronger support for the nation’s agricultural and working classes.start superscript, 5, end superscript

What do you think?

What were the nation’s farmers so upset about?
What sorts of policies did agrarian activists champion?
How would you measure the achievements of the Populist movement?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leafers sapling style avatar for user stazioorion
    What did the Democratic and Republican parties stand for, both economically and socially, during this time?
    (20 votes)
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  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user ianyc
    How are the populists of today different from the populists of the late 19th century?
    (7 votes)
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    • mr pants purple style avatar for user sarah mazur
      The populists in the late 1800s early 1900s believed in inflation, graduated income tax, referendum, and direct election of U.S senators. Populists were farmers back in those times. Nowadays, we do have direct election and referendum, but you don't see populism as- well- as popular anymore. If you really wanted to pinpoint it, you can find evidence that populism is growing in the beliefs of wanting less corruption in big business and politics, rather than the focus of economic hardships.
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user maryann
    why did the the populist party oppose the use of foreign labour?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user 2021rgarcia
      Migrant workers were willing to work on farms for lower wages than the native-born population was. This meant that when trying to negotiate better contracts or form unions, native-born peoples success was limited by the fact that the employers could simply hire a migrant worker who was not in a union and would work for a lower wage. In short, populists were against foreign labor as it undercut the success of their unions and provided cheap competition.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user ezarate556
    there is not enough on the Grange, what they did they stand for?
    (4 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user 19ssargsyan
    In the fourth paragraph, it says that the Populists folded into the democratic party but the South had major issues with that. What were the issues the south had and what happend as a result?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user damarionb690
    What were the nation’s farmers so upset about?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The farmers were upset about the stranglehold that the railroads had on the price of transporting harvests to markets, the low prices they were paid by the capitalist organizations that purchased from them and then charged large markups before selling those farm products to consumers,by high interest rates charged by banks for loans, and by the lack of support when there were disasters.
      (8 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Sarahi Gonzalez
    How did the populist party influence American politics in short & long term?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user 2021rgarcia
      In the short term, they had little effect on government policy- they were unable to pass significant lasting legislation. However, in the long term their movement was like a precursor to the progressive movement. The Populist and Progressive parties share a lot of similarities on policy, and the Populists basically brought a conversation about the role of government in business regulation onto the table.
      (5 votes)
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Nicholas Ryan
    Who did the Populists run in 1904 and 1908?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user mandomerlie
      The joined with the Democratic Party and although they had influence, they didn't have a candidate of their own.

      In 1904 - Alton B. Parker was the Democratic candidate
      In 1908 - William Jennings Bryant was again (he was the candidate in 1896) the Democratic candidate.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user emily vasquez
    What sorts of policies did agrarian activists champion?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user fts9074
    How long did the Farmer's Alliance last?
    (1 vote)
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