Populism began literally hundreds of years ago, before the United States even existed. Only it wasn’t a purely political movement. It was a rebellion- Bacon’s Rebellion. In this rebellion, some angry farmers refused to obey their leaders and attacked Native American settlements. This uprising was partly because of the anger felt toward the native people, but also of other things. Taxes contributed to this, and so did prices. But acts such as this would continue. After the American Revolution, another group of angry farmers in Massachusetts was distressed at the abuses of the local government and excise taxes on whisky, and rioted. This was Shays Rebellion, and although neither Shays nor Bacon’s rebellions were conducted under the banner of populism, they were the forerunners for the movement.
The Populist movement really got underway in the late nineteenth century. The party was created for many reasons, such as “economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy.”
Known as the People’s Party
, the Populists were a product of society. Before the Civil War, most businesses were privately owned and small, with perhaps the occasional partnership. After the Civil War, large corporations began to dominate industry, consolidating power and control of the economy. Horizontal and vertical integration allowed monopolies to form. These monopolies benefited from secret deals, such as rebates from the railroads, and also conducted unethical business practices like pools. In pools, prices were fixed at a low setting. When smaller businesses couldn’t compete, they were no longer business and either closed or sold out to the monopolies. Then in the Reconstruction era, the economy began to falter. Recessions and depressions caused economic turmoil and deflation. Most farmers favored inflation, because to farm in the late nineteenth century (and make a living) required expensive machinery. To buy this machinery, farmers would take out loans, which inflation would ease slightly. Some hoped to cause inflation by allowing the free coinage of silver. Vast deposits of silver had been found on the West coast, and would cause inflation if introduced to the economy. In 1873, Congress voted against the coinage of silver, convincing the farmers that the government and corporations were working together. And so the populism movement began it “was the last people's movement which told the truth about past and present -- told the truth about the present in order to unlock the past; unlocked the past in order to see the truth about the present. Populism was not about ending ‘corruption’ or ‘excess.’ It was about ending private governance which had been the rule -- private governance first by a slave owning class, and then by a corporate class. It was about stopping public officials from using law and armed force to enable the few to deny the many.”
And so the Populist People’s Party emerged during the Gilded Age, trying to campaign for the rights of the everyday farmer, John Q. Public. It was created in the early 1890s, and played a part in the election of 1896, although it would leave as swiftly as it had arrived. The election pitted the Republican Hayes against the Democrat Bryan. In the third corner were the Populists, raising serious issues that the other politicians wouldn’t touch. The period between the Reconstruction and Progressive era was known as the Gilded Age. It was a time when both parties stood for practically the same things, and voters didn’t seem to care who ran the country. This was evident in an election where a candidate won enough of the electoral votes, but not the majority of the popular vote. Then the Populist came into play, and started to rattle some cages, stare down the government. They stood for, of course, the coinage of silver. But they also stood for other things. They wanted the direct election of senators. These were the days before the seventeenth amendment existed. Instead of getting into office by popular election, senators would be appointed by a ruling body. This resulted in corrupt and/or incompetent senators. But despite their reformer attitudes and high ideals, the populists were getting nowhere fast. In their first presidential election, “Populist presidential candidate James B. Weaver won only twenty-two electoral votes, but third-party candidates won numerous state and local offices in 1892.”
The only way it seemed that populists would have their ideas realized by society would be through fusion. In fusion, a weak political party joins another, stronger party, and hopes to introduce its ideas. This worked, in a capacity, when the Democratic candidate for president in 1896 had a plank dedicated to the free coinage of silver. Apparently the only way for a weak third party to get its ideas recognized in America is if a mainstream party adopts it.
The populists argued against the gold standard and called those who supported it “gold bugs” A famous politician, William Jennings Bryan once spoke of why the United States was trapped in the standard: “we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
And once the Democrats took on the silver plank, the populists started to back down. But the silver debate forever marked the United States, and many have pointed to a simple children’s book as an allegory of those times. The Wizard of Oz
is a story about a farm girl who lives somewhere in Kansas with her Aunt and Uncle. A weird storm forces her and her dog into a strange land, which is full of symbolism. The similarities between The Wizard of Oz
and the populists was discovered in 1964 when Henry Littlefield wrote an article about how the book is a parable of populism. “The wicked Witch of the East represented eastern industrialists and bankers who controlled the people (the Munchkins); the Scarecrow was the wise but naive western farmer; the Tin Woodman stood for the dehumanized industrial worker; the Cowardly Lion was William Jennings Bryan … the Yellow Brick Road, with all its dangers, was the gold standard; Dorothy's silver slippers (Judy Garland's were ruby red, but Baum originally made them silver) represented the Populists’ solution to the nation's economic woes (‘the free and unlimited coinage of silver’); Emerald City was Washington, D.C.; the Wizard, ‘a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise? able to be everything to everybody,’ was any of the Gilded Age presidents.”
The People’s Party faded away, but was not forgotten. The Progressives were heavily influenced by the populists, and adopted many of their causes. This led to the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth amendments, regarding a graduated income tax, the direct election of senators, and prohibition. But the core of the Populist movement was a reliance on the common people. That still exists today, although it has never been as strong as the populists of the 1890s. And we may never see another strong populist movement in American history again.