Written by: Andrew Fisher, William & Mary
By the end of this section, you will:
- Explain the similarities and differences between the political parties during the Gilded Age
Use this Narrative with the Populists and Socialists in the Gilded Age Lesson and the William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold” speech, 1896 Primary Source to give students a deeper understanding of Gilded Age political platforms.
During the 1890s, a powerful social and political coalition of farmers briefly challenged not only the supremacy of the two major parties but also the very assumptions behind the emerging system of industrial capitalism in the United States. Under the banner of the People’s Party, or Populists, this mass movement sought to unite farmers and workers in a cross-regional alliance to reform American democracy and curb the influence of big business. Although they failed to win the presidency or control Congress, the Populists forged a grassroots political insurgency and won a place for farmers as a powerful lobbying group with the federal government. Some of their ideas became reality in later decades, and populist rhetoric remains a hallmark of modern American politics.
Populism was rooted in the struggles of farmers during the post-Civil War period. As the nation rapidly industrialized and urbanized, the American agricultural sector underwent dramatic transformations that affected the lives of millions. Across the South and West, expanding railroads drew formerly isolated rural communities into a web of commercial relationships that both enticed and entrapped farmers. The opportunity to participate in national and international markets required them to deal with bankers, commodities brokers, freight agents, insurance companies, equipment wholesalers, warehouse operators, and merchants, all of whom appeared to profit at their expense.
Farmers faced significant challenges in the late nineteenth century, such as rising costs and railroad rates, while prices were falling and credit was difficult to obtain. Many lost their land and were forced to become laborers. In the South especially, the shortage of credit and the unstable price of cotton fostered an exploitive crop lien system in which black farmers and white farmers borrowed against the future, only to fall deeper in debt to the “furnishing merchant.”
Farmers responded to these difficulties by forming organizations that tried to stop the slide into what some called “modern feudalism.” During the 1870s and 1880s, groups such as the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association (FMBA) and the Patrons of Husbandry (the Grange) experimented with cooperative stores, machine shops, warehouses, and marketing exchanges to relieve the difficulties facing their members. Midwestern grangers also successfully pushed for state regulation of the grain elevators and railroads that controlled access to markets. Legal challenges soon struck down these “granger laws” while economic depressions wiped out most of their cooperative enterprises, but a spirit of solidarity survived in the Northwestern Farmers’ Alliance.
In the meantime, the Southern Farmers’ Alliance roared to life in Texas, then swept across the South and into the West. Led by Charles Macune, it united small land-owning farmers in a campaign to break the grip of creditors. By the end of the decade, gifted Alliance speakers and sympathetic newspaper editors had sparked a mass movement for economic reform. Together, the Northern and Southern Alliances represented more than a million white families, with a separate Colored Farmers’ Alliance counting some 250,000 black members.
Mutual enemies and common demands encouraged steps toward concerted political action. In 1889, the national conventions of the three alliances met jointly with the FMBA and the Knights of Labor to discuss shared principles and possible unification of the Northern and Southern organizations. A formal merger never took place, due to disagreements rooted in the divergent interests and opinions of farmers from different sections of the country, particularly regarding the membership of nonwhites. The St. Louis Conference did produce a political platform, however, on which the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union (the renamed Southern Alliance) began running candidates for office in 1890.
Initially working through the Democratic Party in the South and independent parties in the West, Alliance politicians won impressive victories at the state and national levels. Flush with success, the National Alliance and the Colored Alliance convened in December to draft a strident reform program called the Ocala Demands. The Northern Alliance quickly followed suit, announcing a similar platform at its meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. Upon its adoption by a unified convention in 1892, that document became the blueprint for a national third party – the People’s Party.
The Omaha Platform brought together ideas that had been circulating among agrarian radicals, labor organizers, and monetary reformers since the 1870s. To expand opportunity and eliminate corruption, the Populists demanded a flexible currency independent of private banks, a graduated federal income tax, government ownership of the railroads, immigration restrictions, the eight-hour work day, the secret ballot, the direct election of U. S. senators, a constitutional amendment to limit the presidency to one term, and the prohibition of foreign land ownership. It was noticeably silent on the issues of racial segregation and women’s suffrage, though Populist speakers such as Tom Watson and Mary Elizabeth Lease had called for cooperation across lines of race and sex.
For farmers, the most important planks were those in support of the subtreasury system and the free coinage of silver. First proposed by the Southern Alliance, the subtreasury would allow farmers to store their crops in government-funded warehouses until prices were favorable for market. Until then, they could draw U.S. Treasury notes for up to 80 percent of the value of their crops, to be repaid at the time of sale. To further assist farmers, the Treasury would return to a bimetallic monetary standard through the free and unlimited coinage of silver at a ratio of 16 silver dollars to one gold dollar. By inflating the money supply and decreasing its value, silver coinage would increase crop prices, loosen credit, and enable debtors to pay back their loans more easily. It also had the benefit of attracting votes from silver-producing states in the western United States, thus expanding the Populist coalition, although the hoped-for increase in farm prices ran up against the interests of consumers and those who advocated the gold standard as the basis of financial soundness.
The man chosen to give this radical platform a fitting preamble was Ignatius Donnelly. A lawyer by training, Donnelly had served Minnesota as a lieutenant governor, state legislator, and Republican congressional representative before becoming an organizer for the Northern Alliance. He had also published a popular utopian novel, Caesar’s Column, about a working-class revolution against supposedly greedy capitalists. With dramatic flair, the opening words of Donnelly’s preamble painted a stark picture of America in the Gilded Age: “The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin.” Donnelly went on to condemn political corruption, the suppression of organized labor, and the widening gap between rich and poor:
The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented in the history of the world, while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes tramps and millionaires.
The delegates in St. Louis greeted the platform enthusiastically. That enthusiasm produced results at the ballot box, but it also provoked criticism and countermeasures from the two major parties. In the 1892 election, the Populist candidate for president, James B. Weaver, won more than a million popular votes (8.5 percent) and 22 electoral votes the first time since 1860 that a third party had made a mark in the Electoral College. The People’s Party performed best in the West, where Weaver carried five states and Populists elected more than a dozen governors, congressmen, and senators. In the South, however, they struggled to break the hold of the Democratic Party, which used the threat of “Negro domination” to keep white voters in line.
The Democrats also took the free-silver issue as their own after Populist gains in the 1894 midterms demonstrated its mass appeal. At their convention in 1896, the Democrats picked the fiery Silverite William Jennings Bryan to head their presidential ticket. That maneuver presented the Populists with a dilemma: Either choose a different candidate and split the silver vote, or nominate Bryan and fuse with the Democrats on the presidential ballot. They chose fusion in the hope that free silver would carry them to the White House and open the door to additional reforms.
The 1896 election proved them wrong. Bryan was a strong candidate, inspiring millions with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, which matched Donnelly’s passionate description of a nation divided. In choosing to support him, however, the Populists had to compromise most of their platform and their distinctive identity. Meanwhile, the Republicans intensified their criticism of “Popocrats” as a pack of fanatical hayseeds bent on wrecking the economy and evading their debt obligations. The Republican candidate, William McKinley, stood for “sound money” and moral order. Bryan won the South and most of the West, but free silver failed to inspire the labor vote in the more populous Northeast and Midwest. McKinley’s victory ushered in 16 years of Republican rule, during which the Populists faded away as an independent political force.
Most of the reforms sought by the Populists were not immediately achieved. Even so, economic growth in the first decade greatly improved the condition of farmers, allowed them to participate in the consumer culture (through popular mail-order catalogs), and increased the prices for their crops. Populists gained a voice in state and national politics to lobby for their interests alongside big business and labor unions. Some of their reforms a graduated income tax, direct election of senators, closer government regulation of commerce and finance – were later realized during the Progressive Era and the New Deal.
1. The Southern Farmers’ Alliance was the first organization to propose the idea of
- monetary inflation through the free coinage of silver
- African American sharecroppers joining the National Alliance
- a subtreasury system to store crops in taxpayer-funded government warehouses
- an eight-hour day for industrial workers
2. The Omaha Platform proposed all the following ideas except
- government ownership of railroads
- equal tax rates for all wage earners
- free coinage of silver
- a subtreasury system to help farmers
3. Ignatius Donnelly, the author of the preamble to the Omaha Platform, inspired Populist voters with his
- call for racial unity to break the dominance of the Democratic Party in the South
- embrace of “sound money” as the key to prosperity for all
- dramatic imagery of a nation divided between rich and poor
- criticism of immigrants as the source of America’s problems
4. Those who favored free coinage of silver at a ratio of 16 silver dollars to one gold dollar argued it would
- inflate money and raise prices for goods
- create more jobs for miners
- benefit banks and stockbrokers
- finance railroad expansion and, therefore, competition
5. In the 1896 election, the Democratic Party effectively neutralized the Populist challenge to the traditional two-party system by
- endorsing the subtreasury system
- criticizing Jim Crow laws and the disfranchisement of black voters
- portraying the Populists as anarchists and hicks
- nominating pro-silver politician William Jennings Bryan for president
6. The People’s (or Populist) Party was most successful in what region of the United States?
- The agricultural Midwest
- The “redeemed” South
- Northeastern cities with many union members
- The West
7. The 1890s political label “silverite” refers to a person who
- was against the circulation of silver as money
- wanted to maintain strict adherence to the gold standard
- supported a 16-to-1 ratio of silver to gold as currency
- stood for “sound money”
Free Response Questions
- Explain how the challenges faced by farmers in the late nineteenth century contributed to the Populist movement.
- Explain the downfall of the Populists movement.
- Evaluate the success of Populism as a movement for significant social, economic, and political change.
AP Practice Questions
“Expression of Sentiments: . . .
1. RESOLVED, That we demand a free ballot and a fair count in all elections and pledge ourselves to secure it to every legal voter without Federal Intervention, through the adoption by the States of the unperverted Australian or secret ballot system.
2. RESOLVED, That the revenue derived from a graduated income tax should be applied to the reduction of the burden of taxation now levied upon the domestic industries of this country. . . .
4. RESOLVED, That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.
5. RESOLVED, That we cordially sympathize with the efforts of organized workingmen to shorten the hours of labor, and demand a rigid enforcement of the existing eight-hour law on Government work, and ask that a penalty clause be added to the said law.”
People’s Party Platform, July 5, 1892Refer to the excerpt provided.
1. Resolution 4 in the excerpt has most in common with what other political movement?
- Antebellum reforms of the 1840s
- Jacksonian Democrats’ platform of the 1820s and 1830s
- Know Nothings of the 1850s
- Anti-Masonic Party of the 1830s
2. What was a major impetus for the social and political movement that inspired the excerpt?
- Unlimited development of the steel industry in the East
- Unfair treatment of farmers by the railroad companies
- Unfair treatment of factory workers by the owner class
- Unlimited immigration to the United States by southern and eastern Europeans
3. Several ideas for reform expressed by the Populist Party were
- later incorporated into U.S. policy as constitutional amendments or laws
- rejected by the American people until the economic emergency created by the Great Depression
- too unrealistic to attract political support
- responsible for rejection of the “Popocrats” agenda
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Lease, Mary Elizabeth. “A Woman’s Work: Mary Lease Celebrates Women Populists.”http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5303/
“The Omaha Platform: Launching the Populist Party.”http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5361/
Pollack, Norman, ed.The Populist Mind. New York, NY: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1967.
Watson, Thomas. “The Negro Question in the South.”http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5348/
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