5. The People’s Party: an Insurgent Party of Farmers and Workers
“We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized. … The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrate, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection …. a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down. … 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. … We charge that the controlling influences dominating the old political parties have allowed the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to restrain or prevent them” (Hicks: 436, 437).
Thus reads the stirring call to independent political action in the preamble to the People’s (or Populist) Party 1892 platform. Ignatius Donnelly’s words eloquently summarize the plight of workers during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. “Times were hard” indeed. Yet throughout much of the history of the United States, the times have been “hard” for workers and farmers. What is distinctive about the Populist Era was the political insurgency which challenged continued rule by the Democrats and Republicans on behalf of finance capitalism. By the mid-1890s, the People’s Party was a credible organization solidly established in 24 states where Populist candidates were winning between 25 and 45 per cent of the total vote. This class-based party, in fact, threatened to eliminate the Democratic Party as a viable political entity in much of the West and to end the Democrats’ majority party status in the South. The People’s Party succeeded in overcoming the sectional divisions of the post-Civil War era that had frustrated the Greenback-Labor Parties of the 1870s. Even more remarkable, Southern Populism was a bi-racial coalition of white and Black farmers based on shared economic oppression.
Despite such promise in its early struggle to become viable, capped by significant achievement in elections, that electoral success, ironically, marked the undoing of the People’s Party in the end. Populist office holders eventually succumbed to the blandishments of the Democrats for a fusion of the two parties in order to defeat the resurgent Republican Party of the 1890s. What remains distinctive about the People’s Party, however, is the success that it had in overcoming the obstacles to a mass-based Farmer-Labor Party in the U.S.
“Cultural dynamics” aptly describes the process of depoliticizing the majority of the electorate of the United States through out the country’s history. Americans are socialized to believe that their country personifies the idea of progress – the present is “better” than the past and the future will bring even more “betterment.” School children are taught a highly romanticized view of the American past which concludes that, for all its shortcomings, the system works. Therefore, any lingering flaws, in time, will be more or less automatically eliminated.
Workers in this country do not instinctively rebel in response to hard times and economic exploitation because they have been culturally conditioned not to rebel. They have been socialized to believe the depoliticizing myth that democratic forms in the U.S. have come into existence and been maintained with little effort. Americans workers, in the words of one historian, have been “instructed in deference.” Political dominance for those who benefit from the perpetuation of social and economic injustice has been assured by restricting the prevailing conception of political activity to the existing parties and processes. In such a context, “reforms” deemed acceptable by the existing political power structure are designed to appease public opinion rather than to challenge the “inherited modes of power and privilege” (Goodwyn: ix-xi, 97, 98).
Still rebels do appear. People, from time to time, do protest the fact that they have far fewer opportunities than those accorded to the more privileged. When critics arise, they are told as the Populists were told in the 1890s (and as African-Americans, Appalachian whites, farm laborers, and feminists are told today) that they are “improvident,” “lazy,” “deprived,” or in some way “culturally handicapped” and ultimately at fault. The process of depoliticization and “blaming the victim” has fostered a form of “mass resignation” – the decline in what people think that they have a “political right to aspire to.” What has developed, then, is the loss of individual political self-respect by millions of people.
The dynamics of contemporary American politics described above undermine contemporary attempts to understand and ultimately to learn from the experiences of the People’s Party. Americans in the 1990s are likely to conclude that egalitarians such as the Populists were “foolish” to have had such faith in democracy and in the “plain people” (Goodwyn: xii, xiv, xv). A basic premise of U.S. business-party dominated politics holds that insurgent political movements are “nonsensical” (Goodwyn: 97).
Populists were different from others in their time and from many modern Americans in that they were not resigned; they were not intimidated. Their sense of autonomy allowed them to dare to try to change things by creating institutions and methods of influencing others. Populists had a sense of “collective self-confidence,” what Martin Luther King would later identify as a “sense of sombodiness” (Goodwyn: xix, xxiv). The Populist movement taught that people could perform specific political acts of self-determination. They believed that the United States was a democratic society and that people in a democracy had the right to do whatever “they had the ethical courage and self-respect to try to do” (Goodwyn: 136). The objective of the 1890s political insurgents, as they articulated it, was to “link their hands and hearts together and march to the ballot box and take possession of the government … and run it in the interest of the people” (Goodwyn: 173).
Abuse of the power at the disposal of what Populists would come to identify as “concentrated capital” (primarily railroad companies and banking corporations) undergirded the farmers’ rebellion. Railroads were notorious for “gouging” farmers in rural areas served by a single line. The most hated practice was known as “long haul-short haul” rate discrimination. Farmers in regions with no alternative means of transporting their produce at harvest time would be charged a fee that was higher for a relatively short distance than the fee charged by the same company for a much longer distance in regions served by multiple carriers. The irate farmers considered this railroad policy to be nothing less than extortion; the farmers’ only alternative to being overcharged was to let their produce rot in the field (Rochester 13; Fine 74).
Even more troublesome for the small farmer was the lack of available credit at reasonable interest rates. With the failure of the Greenback movement, the money supply and available loans were tightly controlled by the nation’s privately owned banking system. Farmers, unable to obtain loans, even with ample collateral, were squeezed by local merchants. In a situation some have compared to a “giant pawnshop,” farmers’ access to necessary supplies was restricted to a “furnishing merchant” to whom they were required to sign over the next year’s harvest. The “furnishing man” (often shortened by African-American farmers to “the man”) devised a two price system – a cash price and a substantially higher credit price. The interest charged on the inflated credit price was 20 to 25 per cent annually.
If the debt incurred, including interest, exceeded the value of the farmer’s entire crop, the following year’s crop would be encumbered with another “crop lien.” The total interest paid to the merchant in these multi-year transactions frequently was over 100 per cent, and sometimes approached 200 per cent. The merchant could also dictate to the farmer what crops would be planted. In an age of deflation and declining prices for cotton, Southern furnishing merchants routinely stipulated: “no cotton, no credit.” In order to continue to receive necessary supplies, the farmer would then be required to mortgage his land to the furnishing merchant. The end result was an ever increasing number of farmers reduced to the status of “share cropper” working for the furnishing merchant on land which had previously belonged to the farmer (Rochester: 16, 17; Goodwyn: 20-23).
The solution turned to by farmers was a system of cooperative buying and selling. By eliminating the middle-man, supplies could be purchased at wholesale rather than retail price levels. “Bulk purchasing” by farmers’ cooperatives was looked to in order to solve the economic injustices associated with the “two-price system” and the usurious interest rates of the furnishing merchants. The cooperative incremental marketing of farm produce in relatively small quantities, too, was seen as the solution to the rapidly declining prices farmers received at harvest time, when the market was flooded with farm produce. The Farmers’ Cooperative, thus, was envisioned as the solution to both the buying and marketing problems facing small farmers. But in order to make large-scale purchases, the Farmers’ Cooperatives first had to borrow money from the nation’s banking corporations. The problem was that the privately owned banks adamantly refused to loan money to farmer-owned and worker-run cooperatives, even when the cooperatives presented the loan officers collateral in property that was valued at triple the amount of the loan requested.
In their determination to implement the system of cooperative buying and selling, farmer organizations proposed an adaptation of the 1870s Greenbackers’ interconvertible bond. The Sub-Treasury plan, as it was known, would simply by-pass the commercial banks in the Farmer Cooperatives’ quest for needed capital. The federal government would print “sub-treasury certificates” which would be accepted as “full legal tender for all debts, public and private.” Under the plan, government warehouses for non-perishable farm goods (Sub-Treasuries) would be constructed in every farming county in the United States which annually produced a minimum of $500,000 worth of produce. Farmers depositing their harvest at the warehouses would be advanced government certificates for up to 80 per cent of the market value of the produce. To fund the system, participating farmers would pay an interest rate and handling charge of approximately two per cent to the government. The exploitation of farmers associated with furnishing merchants, commercial banks, and chattel mortgages, in the process, would be eliminated from American agriculture (Fine: 76; Rochester: 46; Goodwyn: 92) .
The politicization of the farmers’ movement came incrementally and developed relatively slowly. Pro-business leaders in both the Democratic and Republican Parties steadfastly refused to seriously consider the Sub-Treasury system and mocked the needs of the struggling farmers of the West and the South. Rather than acquiescing to indifference on the part of the nation’s policy makers, grassroots organizations known as Farmers’ Alliances set in motion a sequential “fight-back” movement of the first magnitude that evolved through four distinct stages. First was the creation of an “autonomous institution” where new interpretations were formulated that ran counter to those of the “prevailing authorities” (the Farmers’ Alliances). Second was the development of a tactical means to recruit masses of people (Alliance Lecturers). Third was the process of educating the membership to the “culturally unsanctioned social analysis” (the Alliance Press). Fourth and last came politicization, the creation of an institutional means (the People’s Party) “whereby the new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement could be expressed in an autonomous political way” (Goodwyn: xviii, xix).
Farmers’ Alliances began as local groupings, more or less, spontaneous organizations established to deal with specific issues. The first on record began in 1878 in Lampasas, Texas, as an attempt by farmers to cope with the “crop lien” system. Of the 120 alliances established in the following two years, on the basis of cooperative buying and selling, only 30 survived in 1883. S.O. Daws came to personify Texas Populism. “Raised in the humiliating school of the crop lien system,” Daws did not believe the inherited Southern economic folkways were fair, and he thought he had a right to say so. Daws worked as a traveling lecturer for the Texas Farmers’ Alliance and initially energized 50 dormant suballiances and eventually coordinated the activities of more than 200. The vitality of the Farmers’ Alliances was attributable to men like Daws, who has been described as articulate, indignant, and speaking a language that farmers understood. From 10,000 Farmers’ Alliances in the summer of 1884, the agrarian organization soared to a total of 50,000 local branches by the end of 1885. Individual respect, collective self-confidence, and a form of “class consciousness” that was free of deference and ridicule emerged in the Alliance in the years 1884-1885 (Fine: 76; Rochester: 40; Goodwyn: 25-28, 32, 33).
Yet Populism was more than an agrarian protest movement. In the words of Nathan Fine, “The People’s Party rested upon the … tillers of the soil and the sons of toil” (Fine: 75). Though the working class was not the guiding force in the Populist movement, Populists consistently gave their support to the labor movement of the era. Labor struggles were definitely an important component to the social and political ferment of the Populist period. Beginning with the railroad workers’ bitter resistance to pay cuts in 1877, an alliance with working class organizations was sought by an important segment of the farmers’ movement. As a matter of record, the Homestead battle, July 6, 1892, where armed thugs attacked striking steel workers, helped to swell the People’s Party vote total in November 1892. Grover Cleveland’s breaking of the Pullman Strike in 1894, likewise, turned thousands of workers away from the Democrats and toward the Populists (Rochester: 6, 8-9).Unionized railroad workers in the Southwest in 1885 forced Jay Gould, owner of the Missouri-Pacific lines, to honor a Knights of Labor contract. This victory over a symbol of the new exploitative system of corporate capitalism was used by the Knights to multiply their national membership from 100,000 to 700,000 (Goodwyn 28, 29, 35, 36).
Then in the spring of 1886, Jay Gould moved to crush the railroad workers’ union. The strike, which began in East Texas, consisted of a series of minor and major confrontations between armed strikers and armed deputies and militiamen, followed by commando-like raids on company equipment by bands of workers. Before it was over, thousands of strikers were indicted, hundreds were jailed, and dozens killed. Among Texas Populists, William Lamb, president of the Montague County Farmers’ Alliance with over 100 suballiances, first proposed a political coalition between the Alliance and the Knights of Labor.
To William Lamb the solution was obvious. The plain people, workers and farmers, needed to be united against their common corporate enemy. Lamb organized a farmer boycott of Gould’s railroad in support of the Knights and proposed a farmer-labor political coalition (Goodwyn: 36). Farmers’ Alliance leaders like Lamb repudiated the traditional image of the farmer as a producer-entrepreneur and small capitalist. Rather, in a society dominated by manufacturers and their agents, the farmer was a worker, and the “labor question” was the central issue of the age. To Lamb, it was axiomatic that organized farmers of the Alliance should join forces with organized workers of the Knights of Labor in order to pursue independent political action (Goodwyn: 39, 46).
Texas farmers, laborers, and stock rangers met in Waco, Texas, in May of 1888 as the first step toward independent political action. The convention voted to abolish the national banking system and replace it with legal tender treasury notes issued on land security. William Lamb traveled to Cincinnati for the founding of the Union Labor Party and spoke for the Texas Union Labor Party. The Farmers’ Alliance cooperative crusade had generated a climate that was sufficiently radical to enable farmers to accept the Greenback critique of American finance capitalism. As a result, Greenback doctrines would provide the ideology, and the cooperative crusade the mass dynamics for the creation of the People’s Party (Goodwyn: 85, 86). An important antecedent to Populism was the National Union Labor Party ticket in the 1888 election.
The Union Labor Party’s candidate for president, Alson J. Streeter, former president of the Northern Farmers’ Alliance, steadfastly “denounced the Democratic and Republican parties for creating and perpetuating … [the] monstrous evils” besetting workers and farmers. Despite the party’s name, the National Union Labor Party was a farmers’ not a workers’ party. Knights of Labor leader Terence Powderly declined to support the independent initiative. For his part, Sam Gompers, of the new American Federation of Labor, adamantly refused to cooperate with what he contemptuously dismissed as “employing farmers.” On the ballot in only nine northern states and three southern states, the farmers’ party received no organized mass support from industrial labor. Socialists, too, remained aloof. Still, farmers and workers in the South and the West responded positively to the challenge to Democratic and Republican Party political hegemony. Texas gave Streeter 30,000 votes; Arkansas, where the Republicans had endorsed the farmers’ party, came through with 10,000 votes; in addition, nearly one-fourth of the 147,000 voters in Kansas marked their ballots for Streeter (Rochester: 48-50).
The failure of the Knights of Labor to endorse the Union Labor Party demands further explanation. Politics, though conceded to be important, did not appear to key Kof L factions as the solution to the movement’s most pressing needs, i.e., organizational stability in the short term, and ultimately the abolition of the wage system and the creation of the Cooperative Commonwealth. Still, the Knights Declaration of Principles evidenced more than a little ambivalence in regard to political action. The preamble stated: “This organization does not profess to be a political party nor does it propose to organize a political party, [sic] nevertheless, it proposes to exercise the right of suffrage ….” The Knights, thus, took the seemingly contradictory position of advocating workers’ political rights without offering a way to take advantage of those rights. On one hand, Kof L members were advised to “let political parties and political clubs of whatever name severely alone.” On the other hand, they were told to “organize, co-operate, educate till the stars and stripes wave over a contented and happy people.” Without a working class party in the field, how was the labor voter to make “a wise, independent and individual ballot,” when he could decide only between the representatives of two “cash cursed” parties (Fink: 22-26)?
The oft-noted Knights of Labor aversion to politics existed primarily at the national level. On the local level, Knights flexed their political muscle virtually everywhere they were established. Local labor tickets in the 1886 election under a variety of names – “Union Labor,” “United Labor,” “Knights of Labor,” “Workingmen,” and “Independents” – nominated candidates for office in 189 cities and towns, in 34 of the 38 states, and in four territories. Chicago’s United Labor Party elected seven assemblymen and five judges and came within 68 votes of electing a congressman (Fink: 26).
The apparent failure of the Greenback-Labor Party in the 1870s explains the reluctance of the Knights of Labor leadership to embrace political action at the national level. The difficulty and high costs of such efforts in which many of the central figures in the Knights had been involved left a “sour taste” about the potential for what they referred to as “high politics” in the United States. Powderly, who served six years as the Greenback-Labor mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for instance, condemned labor tickets as “diversionary pipe dreams” (Fine: 24).
Nonetheless, escalating class conflict led to a renewed interest in political action by grassroots Knights of Labor leaders. To some, the explosive growth of the organization in the years 1885-1886 gave the Knights greater potential to influence politics than ever before. Others turned to politics as a defensive weapon of last resort in the aftermath of the “bruising defeats” in strikes during the unprecedented industrial conflicts of those years. Jay Gould’s breaking of the railroad workers union in the Southwest strike and Chicago’s Haymarket tragedy, in which key leaders of the eight-hour movement had been hanged on trumped up conspiracy charges, left Knights’ Assemblies open to serious retaliation by employers unless some new show of strength could be “mustered” (Fink: 25).
Advocates of independent political action within the Knights anticipated the building of a powerful new party with the Knights of Labor and the National Farmers’ Alliance as the base. Some predicted that with the chartering of the National Union Labor Party, “… there will soon be but two parties in the field, one composed of honest workingmen, lovers of justice and equality; the other … composed of kid-gloved, silk-stockinged, aristocratic capitalists and their contemptible toadies” (Fink: 27).
In time, the battle within the Knights to impose a coherent political strategy would be won. By 1890 the KofL would make a connection with the agrarian-based third party movement. The process would be completed in 1893 when Powderly was deposed as the Knights’ national leader. But by that time it was too late. The Knights suffered from the union-busting tactics of the newly emboldened employing class and simultaneously experienced mass defections to the pure-and-simple trade unions of the AFL. As a result, the Knights of Labor would dwindle to relative insignificance among the American working class (Fink: 29, 30).
Farmers’ Alliance leaders too saw the objective necessity for a broader coalition, which included labor. Charles Macune, the prominent theoretician of the agrarian movement, proposed to bring under a “single institutional umbrella” all the major working class institutions in the nation. In a gesture to symbolize the sought for national coalition, the National Farmers’ Alliance was renamed the Farmers and Laborers Union of America (Goodwyn: 107, 108).
Organized labor in the late nineteenth century, however, could not be an equal partner with the Farmer Cooperatives. None of the labor institutions had developed an organizing tool that approximated the recruiting and educating power of the Farmers’ Alliance cooperatives. Because workers were unable to create stable mass institutions of their own, the labor movement had no means of spreading political consciousness to the huge working class ghettos of the nation’s cities. Organized labor remained for the most part unorganized, and thus, not in a position to bring masses of new recruits to the party of the people (Goodwyn: 17, 118, 176).
The corollary to labor’s political weakness was the political strength of the business class. Corporate America marshalled its considerable economic and political influence to suppress labor’s attempts at organization. “Friendly” judges issued timely strike-breaking court injunctions. “Friendly” governors frequently dispatched the National Guard for strike-breaking duties. The Pinkerton Detective agency, for a fee, could be summoned to provide a “hireling army.” In large part because of the political clout of business – the courts, the press, the National Guard, governors, legislators, and the Pinkertons combined to defeat worker initiatives at pivotal points in the labor upheaval of the late nineteenth century (Goodwyn: 175).
With little prospect of finding allies in their fight against corporate greed, agrarian reformers such as Charles Macune sought non-political solutions to the farmers’ traditional credit problem. Texas farmers established the “Farmers Alliance Exchange” as a giant cooperative to oversee the marketing of the cotton crop and to act as the central purchasing medium of Texas Farmers. The reform effort was crippled by the nearly unanimous opposition of the banking and merchant class. Loan request applications by the Farmers Alliance Exchange, which offered collateral as much as triple the total dollar amount of the loan sought, were uniformly rejected. Without access to capital, the farmer cooperatives could not succeed (Goodwyn: 56, 57). Political muscle on the part of the nation’s plain people was essential in order to redress their economic plight.
Reform minded politics in the Alliance reached a new stage of sophistication in the Farmers’ State Alliance of Kansas. A new kind of politics was in the process of being born. Kansas farmers inundated their legislature with petitions and even organized a mass public protest. In the process of discovering how the traditional two party system actually functioned, they learned that the voting records of the Democrats and Republicans demonstrated a surprising responsiveness to the interests of banks, railroads, and other corporate entities. As the Kansas farmers learned about the behavior of the politicians from both of the business parties, they became first angry and then determined to do something about it. The Kansas Farmers’ Alliance thus was transformed into “a schoolroom for self-education” (Goodwyn: 64, 65). The combined impact of the universal banker and merchant opposition to the farmer cooperatives, the distorted and negative news stories about the Alliance in the major newspapers, the deceptive style of the old party politicians, who consistently voted for corporate interests while pretending to be friends of the people, convinced growing numbers of farmers of the need for a new political party free from the control of bankers and their allies (Goodwyn: 68, 69).
Alliance leaders who resisted the politicization of the agrarian movement looked to the Sub-Treasury system as the solution to the farmers’ credit crisis. The problem was that neither existing party supported the Sub-Treasury proposal. Business oriented lobbyists warned that the plan would inject several billion dollars into the nation’s economy at harvest time in an era when neither politicians nor businessmen conceived of government appropriations in such dollar amounts. Some denounced the measure as unconstitutional because it amounted to “class legislation.” These critics conveniently overlooked a vast array of government subsidies to business, which ran the gamut from whiskey warehouses to transcontinental railroads. Alliance nonpartisans were hardpressed to find a strategy for passing a Sub-Treasury bill without embracing political activism. To abandon the fight for the Sub-Treasury was tantamount to conceding that the nation’s farmer cooperative movement was doomed to fail. The fundamental reality confronting the Alliance movement was that “Farmers simply lacked the access to low-cost credit to make large-scale cooperatives workable” (Goodwyn: 110, 111).
Ever increasing numbers of Farmers’ Alliance presidents concluded that “centralized capital, allied to irresponsible corporate power” constituted a “menace to individual rights and popular government.” More and more farmers came to understand that the American population did consist of “the masses and the classes” in a political system which permitted the latter to manipulate both of the old parties in order to constantly “down” the people. Grassroots farmer cooperative leaders saw the need for a national institution of the “producing classes” to oppose organized capital. By 1890, it was clear that Farmers’ Alliance was the most suitable institution to organize the masses in a political fight-back movement (Goodwyn: 114, 115).
The old radical vision was becoming a reality. The producing classes of the North and South sought to end the suicidal tradition of voting against each other, thereby keeping the business and banking classes in power. State Alliances were encouraged to promote political activism by establishing official newspapers which would coordinate their efforts through a federation of rural, country newspaper editors. The National Press Reform Association, as it was known, eventually united over 1,000 weekly newspapers into the educational arm of the People’s Party. In addition, an Alliance Lecture Bureau popularized the political positions of the Alliance to millions of readers in books and pamphlets published by the National Economist Publishing Company (Goodwyn: 116, 117).
In the summer of 1890, hundreds of country editors and tens of thousands of lecturers began to agitate for what was classified as: the “great contest,” the “coming struggle,” and even the “coming revolution.” Still the Alliance was not yet an insurgent institution. “Reform” meant change through the two-party system. “Revolution” meant the overthrow of that system by the creation of a “third party” consisting “of the industrial millions.” Charles Macune and other Alliance leaders still clung to the belief that significant reform was possible through the hierarchially organized and business-dominated major parties (Goodwyn: 124, 125). The election of 1890 would test that thesis.
Farmers’ Alliances in the North and the West pursued an insurgent political strategy outside of the two-party system. Various names were adopted for the new farmers party, such as, Peoples’ Party (Kansas, Indiana), Independent Party (South Dakota), People’s Independent Party (Nebraska), Independent Fusion (Colorado), and Union Party (Oregon) (Rochester 50, 51). Southern Alliances, on the other hand, pursued a reform political strategy inside the Democratic Party. The Tennessee Alliance State President won the Democratic Party nomination and was elected governor. Georgia Democrats simply adopted the Alliance platform in toto and nominated an Alliance leader for governor. In addition to winning the governorship, Alliance members in Georgia won three-fourths of the seats in the state senate, four-fifths of those in the house of representatives, as well as six of the state’s 10 Congressional seats. Democratic Party loyalists in the Southern Alliances justified the inside tactics with the observation, “Being Democrats … we took possession of the Democratic Party” (Goodwyn: 14).
While the inside strategy enabled Alliance members to win elections, old line Democrats successfully blocked the passage of Alliance endorsed reform measures. The party machinery remained in the hands of traditional Democratic Party regulars, who retained the powerful chairmanships of key committees. The influence of corporate lobbyists, too, was used effectively by politicians oriented toward business interests rather than the needs of farmers. The issue that revealed the true nature of the Democratic Party was the Sub-Treasury proposal. Democratic Party opposition to the measure convinced Alliance members that they must choose between the Democratic Party and the farmers. The Democratic Party claimed to be the “Party of the People.” Alliance leaders, to the contrary, concluded that if the Democratic Party was unwilling to try to cope with the furnishing merchant and the crop lien, then it did not care about the people. Democratic Party opposition to the Sub-Treasury was tantamount to an admission that farmers could not be helped through the traditional two-party political system (Goodwyn: 145, 149).
Reform through the Democratic Party was tested across the South in 1891. “If found wanting,” other political alternatives including a third party could be considered early in 1892. Even the inside reform strategy spokesman Charles Macune conceded the possibility that independent political action might be on the agenda for the farmers: “If the people by delegates coming direct from them agree that a third party move is necessary, it need not be feared” (Goodwyn: 151). Southern Democrats “put to the test” by the Alliance Yardstick of legislative reform revealed the business orientation of the “party of the fathers.” The legislatures of the Southern states did not produce the hoped for “reform through the Democrats.” The American political system was not shown to be democratic, but rather to be hierarchical. Business lobbies dominated the legislative process on all vital issues. Rather than the “party of the people,” the Democratic Party revealed itself to be just another business party (Goodwyn: 159).
Electoral success for Alliance endorsed candidates in 1890 had not been restricted to those running as Democrats. Independent candidates in the North and the West demonstrated the potential for an insurgent political strategy. Candidates of the new opposition parties, in fact, controlled the Nebraska legislature and the lower house in Kansas. In addition, third party supporters elected two U.S. Senators (Kansas and South Dakota) and eight members of Congress (Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota) (Rochester: 51; Fine: 77). Combined with the frustrating outcome of the Southern Alliances’ reform strategy, these victories convinced Alliance leaders that the movement needed to continue to politicize and form a national third party (Nash: 173).
At the May 1892 Cincinnati Convention, where the People’s Party was formally organized, the delegates deliberately sought to orient the new party to the needs of the urban worker. Two labor resolutions were adopted. One urged that the eight-hour legal work day in government employment be extended to “all corporations employing labor in the different states of the Union.” Another condemned the directors of the World Columbian Exchange for refusing to pay the minimum rate of wages asked for by the “labor organizations of Chicago” (Rochester: 63; Hicks: 435). In addition to the pro-labor resolutions, active unionists were named to the Peoples’ Party executive committee. The first secretary of the new party’s executive committee, for example, was Robert Schilling, president of the Coopers’ Union and a member of the Knights of Labor, who had been active in the Industrial Congress of the 1870s and the Greenback Party. William Lamb was also named as a member of the executive committee (Rochester: 64).
The Populist Party attempted to develop a mass appeal in order to win significant support among the working class. At the February 1892 St. Louis convention, delegates were present from more than 20 organizations. Included were not only all of the farm organizations, but the Knights of Labor, the United Mine Workers of Ohio, and a scattering of delegates from several other labor unions. Speakers for the People’s Party addressed their remarks to the “great masses of people alive with a crusading spirit.” They declared that the mission of Populism was “to do battle against greed, injustice, and corruption” in the interests of the nation’s workers and farmers. Populists sought to appeal to what they saw as a kinship between all who toil, and denounced the existence of “colossal fortunes” that had been accumulated by “grinding the faces of the poor” or by “seizing upon monopoly privileges,” which had exacted “tribute from the masses” (Rochester: 66, 67).
In the crucial area of candidate selection, Populists appeared to have a clear favorite as the 1892 election approached. Leonidas L. Polk, the editor of Raleigh, North Carolina’s Progressive Farmer and one of the first Southern leaders to advocate a third party, had widespread support among both Northern and Southern Alliance members. On his extensive speaking tours of 1890 and 1891, Polk demonstrated the ability to overcome traditional sectional barriers with a class-based appeal. His address to 6,000 farmers in Winfield, Kansas, at an “Alliance Day” picnic, for example, emphasized the need for economic change. Polk also shared with Kansas farmers his sense of indignation at the refusal of Congress to alleviate the suffering of the plain people of the nation. “Congress could give us a bill in forty-eight hours that would relieve us, but Wall Street says nay. … I believe that both parties are afraid of Wall Street. They are not afraid of the People” (Goodwyn: 133, 134).
Among Southern farmers, L.L. Polk was the one Populist leader with unquestioned credibility. He had initially opposed secession, but once North Carolina left the Union, Polk fought in the Confederate Army and was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. Northern Populists viewed him as the one man who could break the Solid South. Polk implored white Southerners to remember, “Not the war of twenty-five years ago … but the gigantic struggle today between the classes and the masses …” (Rochester: 45; Goodwyn: 164, 167-172). As national president of the Farmers’ Alliance, Polk had presided over the founding convention of the People’s Party. His untimely death at age 55, just prior to the 1892 presidential nominating convention, was a heavy blow to the People’s Party electoral prospects in the South and the nation.
Meeting in the aftermath of Polk’s death, the People’s Party settled for a regionally balanced ticket. James B. Weaver, a former Union general and three-term Greenback Congressman from Iowa, was nominated for President. James G. Field, a former Confederate general and a Virginian, was nominated for Vice President. Though a weaker ticket than Populists had envisioned only months earlier, the delegates openly wept and enthusiastically applauded their candidates as symbolizing the first step toward the political unification of a sectionally divided people (Rochester: 67).
Populists entered the 1892 election season with a platform, which they believed addressed the “living issues,” a preamble that “excited” the party faithful, and a political memory of some import, the “emotional and recent memory of the Farmers’ Alliance” (Goodwyn: 172). The platform’s demands were divided into two groups: those incorporated into part of the actual platform on which the election campaign was to be made and those stated in resolutions, which expressed the sense of the convention. On the key question of money, the People’s Party platform demanded a “flexible and adequate supply of currency,” to be achieved by the Sub-Treasury plan of crop loans and the monetization of silver. To liberate the Plain People from the exploitative practices of the privately owned banking corporations, the Populists proposed postal savings banks and government control of all currency (Rochester: 68, 69; Hicks: 442, 443).
Workers’ needs were addressed in the platform’s resolutions. Several sections were intended to be read as pro-labor. Resolution No. 5, for example, stated that “We cordially sympathize with the efforts of organized labor to shorten the hours of labor ….” The eight-hour day was explicitly endorsed, on one hand, and the “army of mercenaries, known as … Pinkerton[s],” explicitly condemned, on the other, as “a menace to our liberties.” In addition, sympathy with a Knights of Labor strike in Rochester, New York, was stated in Resolution No. 10 and a boycott in support of the strikers recommended to People’s Party supporters (Rochester: 69, 70; Fine: 79; Hicks: 444).
Other resolutions were designed to facilitate genuine democratic government. The very real prospect of being “counted out” on election night by unscrupulous Democratic Party and Republican Party election officials was acknowledged in the demand for a “free, secret ballot, and a fair count.” Other measures to enable the people to influence public policy were also endorsed. The Populists proposed the direct election, rather than the appointment, of United States Senators. Even more control of the people over government was sought in the demand for the right of people to legislate directly through the initiative and referendum process (Rochester: 69; Hicks: 443, 444).
Despite the Populists’ enthusiasm and remarkably progressive platform, the election campaign pitted social forces of decidedly uneven strength. The advocates of the corporate dominated economic and political status quo controlled all of the “commanding heights” in the culture. Opinion makers backing the old parties included the nation’s press, the universities, the banks, and the churches. The forces backing significant and meaningful change to benefit workers and farmers could mobilize on their behalf “several regiments of stump speakers,” the editors of one thousand or so mostly rural newspapers, and a core constituency possessing emotive though receding memories of the “Alliance’s cooperative crusade” (Goodwyn: 212).
The mass circulation press saw no need to engage in a serious discussion of the economic issues raised in the People’s Party platform. They found ridicule of Populists and Populism to be a much more serviceable campaign tactic. For example, an editorial in The Nation, a journal of liberal opinion, dismissed the agrarian revolt as little more than “the vague dissatisfaction which is always felt by the incompetent and lazy and ‘shiftless’ when they contemplate those who have got on better in the world” (Goodwyn: 209, 210).
Nevertheless, the Populist program thoroughly alarmed the business and banking community. Though business traditionally preferred Republican to Democratic Party presidents, Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1892 was an exception to that rule. Cleveland, who was considered to be “sound” on the money question, further ingratiated himself with the corporate capitalist class when he publicly “spat upon the … money and reform program of the Populists.” For the 1892 election season, the finance capitalists inundated the Democratic National Committee with unusually generous amounts of campaign contributions (Nash: 182).
Class conflict in the summer of the year, however, punctuated the importance of the election to workers. Gunshots were fired July 6, 1892, at Homestead, Pennsylvania, by a Pinkerton “hireling army” in a murderous attack on the Carnegie steel mill strikers. Within days a similar pitched battle between locked- out miners and Pinkertons fought at a silver mine owned by eastern investors in the Coeur d’Alene mining district of Idaho ended with U.S. Army troops incarcerating the militant miners in a hastily constructed military prison. In a Buffalo, New York, railroad strike, meanwhile, the governor mustered the state militia to break the strike. At about the same time, union miners in Tennessee took possession of several mines and forcibly expelled the convict-laborers working for almost no cost to the mining companies involved (Rochester: 75).
Populist candidates and office holders responded sympathetically to the crisis facing the labor movement. Kansas People’s Party legislators introduced legislation to mandate a check-weighman to insure miners were not cheated by dishonest company officials. They also supported a law requiring the payment of wages on a weekly basis and in cash, rather than company scrip. Populist sponsored pro-labor legislation in Colorado included a bill to ban child labor, an eight-hour day law, and an employer’s liability measure. Idaho Populists voted to condemn state and federal martial law authorities and expressed sympathy for the local embattled Knights of Labor affiliated miners’ unions (Fine: 79). Though the American Federation of Labor remained officially non-political and therefore neutral in the election, Sam Gompers could not prevent the AFL convention from endorsing important elements of the Populist platform, including the initiative and referendum resolution. Several local AFL unions, as a matter of fact, openly participated in the People’s Party campaign (Rochester: 76).
The vote recorded for the People’s Party presidential ticket totalled a rather remarkable 1,027,329 or 8.5 per cent of the total number of popular votes. What was even more noteworthy for a third party presidential candidate, Weaver actually received more votes than did either the Democratic or Republican Party candidate in the states of Kansas, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada and, therefore, was officially credited with 22 electoral votes. Populism also demonstrated widespread support in other states where the People’s Party received no electoral votes but garnered more than one of every three votes cast. This occurred in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Alabama. Outside of the Northwest and Colorado, however, little support came from workers. In the industrial Northeast, traditional sectional working class party loyalties persisted (Rochester: 80; Fine: 79).
Gains for Populist candidates were also registered further down the ballot. The number of People’s Party U.S. Senators increased to three as Nebraska’s William Allen joined his co-thinkers from South Dakota and Kansas. Similarly in the House of Representatives, two Populists were elected in Colorado, which increased the People’s Party delegation in the nation’s lower house to more than 10 members. Support for the People’s Party was most impressive, however, at the grassroots level. Populist governors were elected in the western states of Colorado, Kansas, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The nation’s state legislatures in 1893 seated 345 People’s Party representatives in 19 of the 44 states. There were also one senator and four representatives in the Oklahoma Territorial legislature (Rochester: 79, 80).
But for the rather widespread use of fraud, trickery and voter intimidation, even more Populist candidates would have surely been elected. Some rather blatant instances of fraudulent reporting of vote totals took place in Virginia’s 4th and Georgia’s 10th Congressional districts. In Augusta, Georgia, for example, the total number of votes reported by the Democratic Party election officials far exceeded the number of registered voters in the city. In Kansas, where the People’s Party elected the governor and a majority (25 of 40) in the state senate, Populists challenged the vote reported for four of the Republicans in the lower house (which initially consisted of 59 Republicans, 56 Populists, and two Democrats). In one of these cases the Republican Party election clerk admitted to having “carelessly” reversed the actual totals for Populist and the Republican candidates (Rochester: 81).
Instances of voter fraud and intimidation of potential Populist supporters were endemic in the South where the Populists had pursued the “most radical dream of all – a farmer-labor coalition of the ‘Plain People’ that was interracial” (Goodwyn: 118). In the Jim Crow South, a “Colored Alliance” to duplicate the role of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance came into existence as early as 1888. Yet the dynamics of the fight-back against “vicious corporate monopoly” was much more complicated for Black farmers. Southern African-Americans could not envision a purely “economic solution to their problems.” Their caution was explained by the fact that white conservatives exercised governmental authority in the region, including police power (Goodwyn: 120, 121).
Black Alliance organizers were confronted with the widespread reluctance on the part of African-American opinion leaders to relinquish ties with the Republican Party. Should the agrarian movement fail politically, Black Southerners would be left with no political foothold whatsoever to insure even their physical survival. The restrictions associated with the culture of white supremacy, in addition, prevented Black farmers from participating in the collective acts of solidarity that helped develop individual self-respect and collective confidence among oppressed white farmers in the North and West. There could be no vast “colored” cooperatives or public demonstrations by Black Alliance members or Populists (Goodwyn: 121-123).
When Black Populists dared to defy tradition, the Democrats responded with acts of terrorist violence. The 60,000 member Mississippi Alliance in 1890 used its press to promote the People’s Party. In response, “night riders” descended upon the Alliance headquarters. They burned the building and wrecked the printing press. Next, the local courthouse was broken into and all the voter registration records were stolen and most likely burned. Mississippians no longer dared to talk freely about politics. On election day, old line Mississippi Democrats, consisting largely of furnishing merchants, won a clear-cut victory (Goodwyn: 162, 163).
Alabama Democrats proved especially brazen in their election stealing efforts. The Populist candidate for governor in 1892 clearly carried the state, but was counted out by the Democrats, who controlled the election machinery and used it with “unblushing trickery and corruption.” The tabulation of fictitious Black votes for traditional Democrats, in the end, was the decisive factor in determining the outcome of the election (Goodwyn: 188).
Georgia Democrats turned to murder in order to retain political power. Black voters in that state held the balance of power. A number of killings, the exact number is unknowable, were committed to keep the Populists from winning office. A Black man in Dalton, Georgia, who dared to speak out publicly for the People’s Party was killed in his home. An African-American minister who openly campaigned for Populist candidates among Black voters was shot at during an election rally. Numerous election day murders also occurred. Only by such heinous tactics could the Democratic Party retain political power in Georgia in 1892 (Goodwyn: 190; Rochester: 81).
Texas Democrats evidenced a familiarity with the methods of intimidation, terrorism and vote fraud, as well. In the 1894 elections, People’s Party candidates won widespread voter approval in North and West Texas and were dominant in Central and Eastern Texas. An honest tally of votes would have likely resulted in as many as seven Populist Congressmen from the “Lone Star” state. The Democrats counted out the People’s Party candidates in each and every district. The unscrupulous methods employed ran the gamut from ballot box stuffing, to open bribery, to numerous forms of intimidation, to massive voting by dead or fictitious negro voters. Despite the Democrats’ rigging of the elections, the percentage of the vote total officially credited to the People’s Party jumped from the 23 per cent reported in 1892 to nearly 40 per cent (Goodwyn: 192, 193).
Louisiana Democrats turned to terrorist tactics with reckless abandon. In the year 1896, 21 Black Louisianans were lynched, a total which accounted for one-fifth of all the racially motivated murders in the entire nation. When physical intimidation proved insufficient to retain political control in the state, the gubernatorial election was stolen through massive and poorly-disguised ballot box fraud. Democrats rationalized their corrupt behavior as a necessary evil in order for the “intelligence and virtue of the state” to triumph over “the force of brute numbers” (Goodwyn: 195). An editorial in the Shreveport Evening Judge was unusual only for the level of candor in regard to the matter. The partisan Democratic Party editor commented that “it is the religious duty of Democrats to rob Populists … of their votes whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself and any failure to do so will be a violation of true Louisiana Democratic teaching. The Populists … are our legitimate political prey. Rob them! You bet! What are we here for” (Goodwyn: 195)?
Stealing elections was seen as a short term solution to the threat posed by the People’s Party bi-racial political coalition to Democratic Party dominance in Louisiana. Alarmed Democrats in the state pioneered an elaborate “election reform” law to disenfranchise thousands of impoverished farmers and workers, Black and white (Goodwyn: 194). The bars to voting, which would remain in place in the South until the 1960s, are often erroneously identified with the decade of the 1870s and the end of Reconstruction. In reality, Black voting was tolerated by the Southern Democratic Party power structure until the 1890s when the class-based People’s Party won a positive response from oppressed farmers of both races. Not until the late 1890s and early 1900s were laws establishing poll taxes, literacy tests, and the notorious “grandfather clauses” imposed to severely restrict the right to vote throughout the South (Hicks: 410, 411). One indication of the relative impact of such restrictions on the franchise can be gleaned from the fact that Louisiana in 1896 had more than 130,000 Black registered voters. By 1904, that number had been drastically reduced to 1,300.
The People’s Party political insurgency across the Old Confederacy posed an imminent threat to the Democratic Party power structure. The fury of the vicious response of the pro-business Democrats left the region shaken. Time, however, seemed to be on the side of the Populists. The longer the third party survived, the more the tradition-bound voting habits of the one-party region would be undermined. In political terms, the People’s Party challenge had converted the once “Solid South” into a “contested” region (Goodwyn: 199, 200).
Still, the “empty fruits of stolen victories” for the Southern Populists determined electoral efforts were demoralizing. The virtual disenfranchisement of Blacks and laws to make it more difficult for poorer whites to vote resulted in a dramatic increase in the sense of political alienation among Southerners. In the words of one historian, “[M]ore and more … felt increasingly distant from their government and concluded that there was little they could do to affect ‘politics’” (Goodwyn: 288).
Texas Populists invested much of their energy and resources in the futile process of searching for a way to win contested election lawsuits in a legal system dominated by a partisan Democratic Party affiliated judiciary. Still the prospects for the People’s Party in Texas remained promising. With a total 250,000 Farmers’ Alliance members registered in the state, the Texas People’s Party had 160,000 votes “officially” counted for their candidates. Up to 90,000 Alliance members, then, seemed to retain their loyalty to the “Party of the Fathers.” One reason for continued optimism in regard to the possibility of winning Alliance Democrats to insurgent politics was that the Texas People’s Party’s public gatherings and summer encampments continued to attract larger and more enthusiastic crowds (Goodwyn: 223).
Despite the old parties’ corrupt electoral tactics, support for Populist Congressional candidates in 1894 totalled nearly one-half million more votes than Weaver had received for president only two years earlier (the total number of Populist voters increased by nearly 50 per cent, from 1,027,329 to 1,523,979) (Rochester: 96; Fine 80). In what has been described as a “tidal wave” of votes in the South and West, the number of People’s Party legislators elected in the various states was impressive. From a high of more than 40 per cent in North Carolina and Colorado, the proportion of Populists in state law making bodies exceeded 30 per cent in Kansas and Alabama; 20 per cent in Idaho, Georgia, Montana, Nebraska, Washington, Oklahoma Territory, and South Dakota; and 10 per cent in Texas, North Dakota, and Oregon (Rochester: 98). The Populist Party, in institutional terms, seemed to be on the verge of establishing a permanent presence in vast regions of the nation. On the other hand, increasing vote totals did not automatically translate into a steady rise in the number of office holders. The Populist minority in the various legislatures increased in 12 states, while it declined in nine others. The People’s Party delegation in the House of Representatives, too, actually decreased in number despite the surge in the number of independent party voters.
When elected, Populist officeholders sought to use their influence to benefit worker-based challenges to corporate dominance. One such instance was in the 1894 Cripple Creek, Colorado, miners’ strike to defend the eight-hour day. Heavily armed hired gunmen deputized by the company-controlled local sheriff prepared to assault the Western Federation of Miners’ picket line. In response, the strikers armed themselves and built fortifications to resist the anticipated attack. The People’s Party governor, David Waite, intervened in the dispute by sending in the National Guard to protect workers from the impending assault. Waite’s actions proved to be instrumental in the miner’s eventual victory in the conflict (Rochester: 98, 99).
By contrast, Democratic Party control of the national government proved costly to workers. A strike at the Pullman Sleeping Car Company against wage cuts and other corporate take-backs in 1894 escalated into a labor conflict of historic proportions when the American Railway Union voted to support the strikers with a national boycott of trains carrying Pullman cars. Democrat Grover Cleveland intervened in the matter over the vehement protests of John Peter Altgeld, the Governor of Illinois, by sending in federal troops to Chicago to break the strike. Though the architect of the strike-breaking maneuvers, Attorney General Richard Olney, was paid a railroad company “retainer” which exceeded his government salary while in office, it was Eugene Debs, the railroad union president, who was indicted for conspiracy in the incident. Populist organizations everywhere denounced government orchestrated violence against striking workers. The Georgia People’s Party deplored the class bias of the Democratic administration which indicated “by its every word and deed that Cleveland considers but one side of the question (after the election) and that is the side of capital” (Rochester: 94).
Cleveland’s anti-labor record discredited his administration among workers and Farmers’ Alliance members. The Panic of 1893, one of the longest and deepest depressions in U.S. history, led to the near universal repudiation of both the Cleveland administration and the Democratic Party. Unemployment reached levels not surpassed until the Great Depression of the 1930s. An unprecedented wave of business and bank failures added to the sense of economic panic in the nation. The Congressional elections in 1894, in response, gave the Republican Party a “sweeping majority.” Democratic Party strategists began to fashion a demagogic appeal to People’s Party leaders for a fusion as their only hope of remaining in office (Rochester: 89-92; 101).
Democratic office holders feared that the entire South might be won to the People’s Party and in the process destroy Democrats’ political careers by the hundreds. Everywhere west of the Mississippi River, the Democratic Party had lost adherents to the extent that the Party’s credibility as a viable political institution was open to question. In their anxious appraisal of the situation, Democratic Party insiders concluded that unless some drastic action was undertaken, the national political realignment favored by the insurgent workers’ and farmers’ movement would become a reality in the 1896 election (Goodwyn: 232; Rochester: 102).
Third party office holders were tempted by the prospect of a fusion with the Democrats. Populists with immediate short-term objectives favored the proposed merger on pragmatic grounds. After four years of agitation and education, the People’s Party had won a following which ranged from 25 to 45 per cent of the voters in more than 20 states. Fusionists argued that Populism needed to continue to broaden its base of support or see the cause of reform die. In short, coalition advocates argued that there could be no further reforms unless reformers were in office and that Republican Party domination could only be realistically challenged by combining the votes of Populists with those of the Democrats (Goodwyn: 233).
The issue seized upon by Populists and Democrats in favor of fusion was the unlimited coinage of silver. Silver had been included in the People’s Party platform as one element in the struggle against the domination of bankers and the monopoly power of finance capitalism (Rochester: 71, 74). Coalition advocates, on the other hand, proposed a one-plank platform of “free silver,” in order to create a winning national coalition – a “vote-getter” for the anticipated Populist-Democrat fusion (Goodwyn: 233). So-called “single-shot” Populism had proven popular in the mining states of the West. Silver Democrats, silver Republicans, and silver Populists, in fact, had fused in a myriad of combinations to challenge the traditional parties’ dominance in Colorado, Nevada and Idaho (Goodwyn: 215, 216).
Opponents of fusion in the People’s Party identified themselves as “mid-roaders.” In general Populist fusionists shared some common characteristics. For the most part, they either held office, had once held office, or hoped to hold office. They had the tendency to view the future of Populism in immediate terms. That is, they not only wanted to win, they wanted to win at the next election. Fusionists tended, also, to live in states where the Alliance movement had stagnated or at least ceased to grow. Mid-roaders tended to share an earlier connection with the Farmers’ Alliance than did the fusionists. Mid-roaders, typically, were from states with strong and/or growing third-party movements. It is only a slight exaggeration to summarize the dispute over fusion as a contest between ambitious office seekers, on one side, against the Populist movement, on the other (Goodwyn: 230, 231).
Mid-road editors articulated a quietly effective case against fusion. By comparing the idea of so-called “silver party” to a Trojan horse, they pointed out that silver coinage would “leave undisturbed all the conditions which give rise to the undue concentration of wealth” (Goodwyn: 250). Free silver offered no comprehensive solution to the problems facing the plain people. To the contrary, it actually undermined the theoretical underpinning of the Farmers’ Alliance, the Greenback philosophy. Silver would not provide the sought after flexible monetary system which could adapt to population expansion and to industrial growth. A silver based inflation that left the corporate banking system in place offered no solution to the problems confronting the nation’s producing classes. Worse yet, free silver would not constitute an important step toward a fiat money system but would actually represent a step backward and reinforce the existing system of metallic-based hard money (Goodwyn: 235).
Most crucial of all in the minds of mid-road Populists was the fact that silver coinage would not address the central problem of the age, that of corporate concentration. The People’s Party, to a large extent, had been founded on the perceived need to rescue American democracy from the permanent corruption that was inherent in the domination of the political process by corporate interests. Free silver totally ignored the issue of corporate-dominated banking, known as the “money trust,” which was thought to be the most destructive of all the monopolies. Corporate-controlled banking, in that view, constituted a system of private plunder “anchored” in metallic currency and assured of continued dominance because it “owned” both of the so-called “sound-money” parties (Goodwyn: 235). Rather than facilitating a fight-back against corporate domination of society, free silver diverted the nation’s attention from the source of the widespread human misery which characterized working-class life in the late nineteenth century.
Mid-roaders proposed that, rather than fusing with the Democrats, the People’s Party hew to the middle road on the full range of Populist issues and continue “fighting it strait” (Goodwyn: 234) in order to win the allegiance of the nation’s workers and farmers. From all indications, the third-party cause was in excellent shape. The farmer-led fight-back effort had become a mass movement which had created a national third party. In a relatively brief period, the party had sunk deep and spreading roots. The single most promising political reality was that the national Democratic Party apparently had been fatally undermined by the growing appeal of Populism. That was the explanation for the new found enthusiasm on the part of the Democrats in Congress for the cause of free silver. Even the most adept opportunists among the Democrats could not go much beyond silver coinage without capitulating to fullblown Populism (Goodwyn: 236).
The mid-roaders most resolute supporters were found among Southern Populists. They indignantly reminded the fusionists of the record of Southern Democrats for corrupt practices, widespread coercion, and election day violence against People’s Party candidates and their supporters. It seemed absurd for the political insurgents in the West and the North to ask their Southern comrades to embrace their most hated foes (Goodwyn: 256). “‘For God’s sake,” wrote a Texas Populist, “don’t endorse [the Democrats]. … Our people are firm, confident and enthusiastic; don’t betray their trust. Don’t try to force us back into the Democratic Party …’” (Rochester: 104).
Prior to fusion, the People’s Party by 1896 seemed to be on the verge of an electoral breakthrough in several Southern states. In Alabama, for instance, a sense of panic among Democratic Party leaders was evident following the 1894 election. Of the nine incumbent Democrats in the Congressional delegation, only three survived the tidal wave of Populist votes. Two others were fraudulently “counted in,” but the political careers of the remaining four could not be salvaged even by the highly corrupt method of counting votes. Free silver was grasped by Alabama Democrats as the “last hand hold on the cliff.” (Goodwyn: 227). Without a fusion with the Populists, Alabama’s Democrats faced political oblivion. The “Party of the Fathers” had lost the struggle to hold the loyalty of the white farmers in the state. Hard pressed farmers in growing numbers increasingly rejected the Democrats’ premise that loyalty to the Democratic Party required that they accept starvation in order to preserve the sectional tradition of white supremacy (Goodwyn: 226).
Texas Democrats also promoted fusion with the People’s Party as the last hope for white supremacy. Populist votes in Texas nearly reached the quarter million mark in November of 1896. The third party indicated every sign of dynamism and growth at the very moment that its ideological and organizational roots were poisoned by fusion. Democrats won in Texas primarily by resorting to the intimidation of Mexican-American voters and the terrorizing of Black voters. On election day, armed men on horseback rode through predominantly African-American districts in the Populist Party strongholds of East Texas to threaten independent party voters. The combination of fusion and the Democrats’ terrorist tactics destroyed years of political organizing by the People’s Party (Goodwyn: 285, 286). The fusion tactic thus rescued both the Democratic Party and white supremacy in Texas from the political abyss.
Populists in Western states were under immense pressure to join in a political coalition with the Democrats. The reality was that People’s Party office holders owed their positions to the votes of both Populists and Democrats. By nominating a free silver candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats confronted the Populists with the choice of supporting a major party candidate who advocated modest monetary reform or remaining independent and insuring the election of William McKinely, a sound money Republican. In addition, advocates of coalition politics warned that a People’s Party ticket in the field in 1896 would doom Populist office holders to defeat by dividing the votes for reform in the electorate. As an added inducement, silver mine owners hinted that generous amounts of campaign contributions would be made available to a Democrat/Populist fusion ticket. The politics of silver proposed to unify the Western reform movement, but in an alignment which threatened the continued existence the People’s Party (Goodwyn: 247, 248, 256).
Mid-road Populists, to their credit, correctly perceived that an endorsement of Bryan’s candidacy could only lead to a political catastrophe of epic proportions: the destruction of the farmer-led fight-back movement and the end of the class-based challenge to the hegemony of the sectionally divided pro-business parties. Political insurgents, therefore, continued to advocate party realignment as an important objective in and of itself. They argued that, in order to restructure the nation’s financial and economic system, it was first necessary to restructure the party system (Goodwyn: 234, 263). Once the Populist political agenda was reduced, as it was in 1896, to free silver and a Democrat named Bryan, the insurgent agrarian movement had reached a dead end.
Like so many grassroots movements for meaningful social and economic change, the People’s Party was subjected first to a cynical attempt at coopting their most visible issue; then they were virtually absorbed by the Democratic Party. The impact of the demise of Populism for U.S. politics was profound and many-sided, not the least of which was the banishment of the discussion of the “money question” from American political discourse. Though the issue that animated Populism, the Greenback critique of monopoly capitalism quietly passed from the scene essentially through self-censorship, which was itself an expression of cultural intimidation – the debate over “concentrated capital” was effectively silenced in the United States. Greenback doctrines became culturally inadmissible among the so-called “respectable” segments of American society, including the solidly “gold-bug” college and university faculties. Select ideas and criticisms of the economy, no matter how plausible and supported by evidence, had become too dangerous to voice (Goodwyn: 265-267).
Some might suggest that the 1913 Federal Reserve System of the Progressive Era signified the eventual triumph of Populism and justifies continued confidence in the unrelenting march of progress in the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth! The impact of the much heralded Federal Reserve Act was to centralize and rationalize the nation’s fiscal and monetary system in ways compatible with the interests of New York’s finance capitalists. In addition, the functioning of “the Fed” was designed to shield the bankers themselves from the criticism of the public. The nation’s attention, in regard to banking and monetary matters, focused on a government agency (the Federal Reserve System), while the key actors, New York’s commercial bankers, for the most part, were rendered anonymous. Rather than the triumph of Greenbackism and a form of democratic control over the structure of the nation’s financial system, the Federal Reserve System symbolized the final victory of the “sound money” advocates of the 1890s (Goodwyn: 267).
Even more significant in regard to future political discourse in the United States, the demise of the People’s Party can be linked to the transformation of the sense of political acquiesence on the part of the nation’s plain people into a passive resignation. The failure of the Populist movement contributed to a growing sense of despair, which held that the class-divided American society could be marginally humanized but could never be fundamentally democratized (Goodwyn: 269, 270).
The accepted wisdom of the post-Populist era held that only certain kinds of people had a right to govern. Other kinds of people could legitimately be intimidated or even disenfranchised. Factory workers in the nation’s industrial heartland, in fact, were routinely subjected to political coercion by their bosses. African-Americans in the South in the early 20th Century, for the most part, were denied even the right to participate in the political process. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties endorsed such actions as essential to the maintenance of a political system committed to the dominance of corporate-oriented values (Goodwyn: 286).
Corporate concentration thus molded a new political landscape, one in which the spectrum of democratic possibilities had shrunk dramatically. Modern politics in the U.S. had been restricted to questions and values acceptable to the corporate state. It had become “bad manners” to venture outside those limits. Most did not venture; neither did they celebrate the restriction. The result was a growing sense of political anxiety. One pervasive aspect of the popular subculture in the U.S., as a result, has been a deeply felt, but often inarticulately stated discontent in regard to “politics” and “politicians” (Goodwyn 317, 318).
Despite the negative consequences associated with the end of the Populist era, the legacy of the People’s Party to the modern workers’ movement and the struggle for independent political action is substantial. They demonstrated how the plain people in society could build upon the existing democratic forms in the U.S. to generate democratic aspirations capable of mounting a serious challenge to the business-oriented opinion leaders and policy makers. Farmers and workers showed by example how marginalized people could create for themselves the psychological space necessary to organize a first rate struggle for a level of social and economic change which opposed the existing unjust status quo through the creation of an independent political movement that put the interests of farmers and workers first (Goodwyn: 295).
Perhaps the ultimate failure of the People’s Party to establish a permanent presence in the American political system can best be explained in the timing of the farmer led fight-back movement. The historic effort to build a Farmer-Labor party came before the struggling labor movement in the U.S. was adequately prepared for mass insurgent politics. In the 1890s, literally millions of industrial workers battled corporate domination in the strikes and the lock-outs of the great labor upheaval of the era. However, the political and economic muscle of the nation’s business class, in most instances, resulted in the marshalling of the means necessary to break the strikes and smash the unions involved. By the 1930s, when the industrial workers discovered that the sit-down strike was a successful organizing technique, it was too late. When labor was ready, or appeared to be ready for insurgent politics, the farmers no longer were. This fact constitutes what is perhaps the single greatest irony in the history of the working class of North America (Goodwyn: 297).
For the first two decades of the 20th Century, the “pure and simple,” non-political stance identified with Sam Gompers’s AFL continued to dominate labor politics. In reality, the Gomperian strategy of “rewarding” labor’s “friends” and “punishing” labor’s enemies” in the old parties translated into mobilizing working class support for one or the other of the business parties. Grassroots labor leaders at the end of World War I, buffeted by corporate take-backs and a serious post-war depression, would again turn to independent political action. Though this party would be known as the Farmer-Labor Party, unlike the People’s Party it was primarily a labor party.
Fine, Nathan. Labor and Farmer Parties in the United States, 1828-1928. New York:
Russel & Russel, 1961
Fink, Leon. Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana and Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Goodwyn, Richard. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.
Nash, Howard P. Third Parties in American Politics. Washington, D.C.: Public Affair Press, 1959.
Rochester, Anna. The Populist Movement in the United States. New York: International Publishers, 1943.