Conservative ideologues pine for the halcyon days of the gold standard. Historically, the gold standard was a disaster, especially for farmers. It was responsible for the volatility of the 19th century American economy. This volatility, combined with drought and the growing inequity between rich and poor, resulted in the creation of the Populist Party. In addition, a prolonged depression rocked the first years of the 1890's.
The Populists were arguably the most numerous and successful third party in American history. In 1892, Populist Party presidential candidate General James Weaver received well over a million votes, and by 1894 the party had six senators and seven representatives. In addition, many Western states, including Nebraska, Kansas and Wyoming had either Populist governors or Populist control of state houses. Populists had a decade-long presence, with members in the 53rd to 57th Congress.
The Populist Party was officially constituted in 1891 by the merger of the Knights of Labor, Farmer’s Alliances, and some Grange members. Populists were agrarian, their power confined largely to the South and West. They were frequently ridiculed by citizens of the northeast coast, decried as hayseeds and rubes by the urban press.
Populists called for the end of the gold standard; graduated income tax, and nationalization of railroads, telegraphs and telephone. The party platform of the Omaha Convention of 1892, available online, seems modern, almost prefiguring demands of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The preamble of the Populist Party decries a government where “Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and even touches the ermine of the bench.” From “the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes--- tramps and millionaires.” But just as government has caused the current crisis, it can be reformed: “We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people--- should be expanded… to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”
The two party system failed: “the struggles of the two great political parties [are] for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people…. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform…. They propose to… destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.” Little has changed in the past century.
The official platform ends with the “Expressions of Sentiments,” including solidarity with striking workers. It calls for a “rigid enforcement of the existing eight-hour law.” The 9th resolution could have been written today: “we oppose any subsidy or national aid to any private corporation for any purpose.”
The party benefited from the skill of gifted orators. One of the most famous was Mary Lease. She observed, “We are confronted with glutted markets and idle labor. It is a condition that makes it possible for a few men to become landlords of a proud city like this [New York] while God’s poor are packed into slums…. Once we made it our boast that this nation was not founded upon any class distinction…. Here in this country we find in place of an aristocracy of royalty and aristocracy of wealth” (speech given at Cooper Union Hall, August 12, 1896).
The complaint of a detractor, Henry Demarest Lloyd, in the September 1896 Review of Reviews, is noteworthy in the light of OWS demonstrations: “Everyone commented on the number of gray heads--- heads many of them grown white in previous independent party movements. The delegates [of the Populist Party convention] were poor men. It was one day discovered that certain members of one of the most important delegations were actually suffering for food. They had no regular sleeping place.”
Historians have debated the legacy of the Populist Party. It is impossible to dismiss its impact: most of its demands were adopted. The gold standard was abolished, a graduated income tax was put into place, and statewide initiatives and referendums became legal. The Progressive movement incorporated most of the Populist Party platform, though Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt ridiculed the Populists. While the Populists were rural, the Progressives were urban, and enjoyed more favorable press.
By 1908, the Populists became allied with the forces of Nativism, xenophobia, and the Klan. The 4th resolution of the platform demanded “the further restriction of undesirable immigration.” Then, as now, big business brought in immigrants as cheap labor; people despised the immigrants rather than those who exploited them. Populists, allied with others, succeeded in passing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, renewed in 1892 and 1905. This law forbade most Asians from becoming U.S. citizens or even owning land, and wasn’t repealed till 1943. The 1924 Immigration Act, as well as the Galveston Laws of 1900, effectively kept Jews from immigrating.
A rural phenomenon, the evangelical vernacular of the Populists is striking. Populist speakers and writers seemed oblivious to any separation of church and state. Mary Lease excoriates corporate capitalism as “a travesty upon the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Lease had severed ties with organized religion by the time of this 1896 speech. William Jennings Bryan was perhaps the most famous Populist, and the candidate of both Populists and Democrats in the 1896 election. Today Bryan is remembered not as a radical but as the sentimental lawyer who defended the teaching of creationism in the 1925 Scopes trial.
After the precipitous decline of the party in 1908, many adherents joined the Progressives, others became Socialist. Others joined the Prohibition Party, the Anti-Saloon League, or the Klan. Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter with Kansas, brilliantly explains how wedge issues derailed the once liberal politics of the Midwest. While Populists may be ancestors of today’s Occupy Wall Street, they no doubt spawned another, less savory movement. The xenophobia and religiosity of the Populists are visible in the Tea Party.