People's Party (United States)

People's Party
LeaderJames B. Weaver
William Jennings Bryan
Thomas E. Watson
Founded1892 (1892)
Dissolved1908 (1908)
Preceded byFarmers' Alliance
Greenback Party
Union Labor Party
Succeeded byDemocratic Party
Socialist Party
Political positionLeft-wing

The People's Party (also known as the Populist Party or the Populists) was a left-wing,[1] agrarian political party in the United States. The Populist Party emerged in the early 1890s as an important force in the Southern United States and the Western United States, but the party collapsed after it nominated Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 United States presidential election. A rump faction of the party continued to operate into the first decade of the 20th century, but never matched the popularity of the party in the early 1890s.

The roots of the Populist Party lay in Farmers' Alliance, an agrarian movement that promoted collective economic action by farmers, as well as the Greenback Party, an earlier third party that had advocated for fiat money. The success of Farmers' Alliance candidates in the 1890 elections, along with the conservatism of both major parties, encouraged leaders of the Farmers' Alliance to establish a full-fledged third party prior to the 1892 elections. The Ocala Demands laid out the Populist platform, calling for collective bargaining, federal regulation of railroad rates, an expansionary monetary policy, and a Sub-Treasury Plan that required the establishment of federally-controlled warehouses to aid farmers. Other Populist-endorsed measures included bimetallism, a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, a shorter workweek, and the establishment of a postal savings system. These measures were collectively designed to curb the influence of corporate and financial interests and empower small farmers and laborers.

In the 1892 presidential election, the Populist ticket of James B. Weaver and James G. Field won 8.5 percent of the national popular vote and carried four Western states, becoming the first third party since the end of the American Civil War to win electoral votes. Despite the support of labor organizers like Eugene V. Debs and Terence V. Powderly, the party largely failed to win the vote of urban laborers in the Midwest and the Northeast. Over the next four years, the party continued to run state and federal candidates, building up powerful organizations in several Southern and Western states. Prior to the 1896 presidential election, the Populists became increasingly polarized between "fusionists," who wanted to nominate a joint presidential ticket with the Democratic Party, and "mid-roaders" like Mary Elizabeth Lease, who favored the continuation of the Populists as an independent third party. After the 1896 Democratic National Convention nominated Bryan, a prominent bimetallist, the Populists nominated Bryan but rejected the Democratic vice presidential nominee in favor of party leader Thomas E. Watson. In the 1896 election, Bryan won much of the South and West, but was defeated by Republican William McKinley.

After the 1896 presidential election, the Populist Party suffered a nationwide collapse. The party nominated presidential candidates in the three presidential elections following 1896, but none of those candidates came close to matching Weaver's performance in the 1892 election. Former Populist voters joined the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and the Socialist Party, but other than Debs and Bryan, few politicians associated with the Populists retained national prominence. Historians see the Populists as a reaction to the power of corporate interests in the Gilded Age, but they debate the degree to which the Populists were anti-modern and nativist. Scholars also continue to debate the influence of the Populists on later organizations and movements such as the progressives of the early 20th century, New Deal liberals, and right-wing Republicans like Joseph McCarthy. In the United States, the term "populist" was originally associated with the Populist Party and related left-wing movements, but in the 1950s it began to take on a more generic meaning that describes any anti-establishment movement regardless of its position on the left–right political spectrum.


Third party antecedents

Economist Edward Kellogg was an early advocate of fiat money.

Ideologically, the Populist Party originated in the debate over monetary policy in the aftermath of the American Civil War. In order to fund that war, the U.S. government had left the gold standard by issuing fiat paper currency known as Greenbacks. After the war, the Eastern financial establishment strongly favored a return to the gold standard for both ideological reasons (they believed that money must be backed by gold which, they argued, had intrinsic value) and economic gain (a return to the gold standard would make their government bonds more valuable). As part of their efforts to restore the gold standard, these "hard money" financial interests pressured the government to prevent an expansion of the country's money supply, causing deflation and rising interest rates.[2] As part of an effort to prevent inflation, these same interests also won passage of the Coinage Act of 1873, which barred the coinage of silver, thereby ending a policy of bimetallism.[3] The deflation caused by these policies affected farmers especially strongly, since deflation made it more difficult to pay debts and led to lower prices for agricultural products.[4]

Angered by these developments, some farmers and other groups began calling for the government to permanently adopt fiat currency. These advocates of "soft money" were influenced by economist Edward Kellogg and Alexander Campbell, both of whom advocated for fiat money issued by a central bank.[5] During the difficult economic conditions of the Panic of 1873, advocates of soft money formed the Greenback Party.[6] Greenback nominee James B. Weaver won over three percent of the vote in the 1880 presidential election, but the Greenback Party was unable to build a durable base of support, and it collapsed in the 1880s.[7] Many former Greenback Party supporters joined the Union Labor Party, but it also failed to win widespread support.[citation needed]

Though soft money forces were able to win some support in the West, launching a third party proved difficult in the rest of the country. The United States was deeply polarized by the sectional politics of the post-Civil War era; most Northerners remained firmly attached to the Republican Party, while most Southerners identified with the Democratic Party.[8] Despite fierce partisan rivalries, the two major parties were both closely allied with business interests and supported largely similar economic policies, including the gold standard.[9]

Farmer's Alliance

Charles W. Macune, one of the leaders of the Farmers' Alliance

A group of farmers formed the Farmers' Alliance in Lampasas, Texas in 1877, and the organization quickly spread to surrounding counties. The Farmers' Alliance promoted collective economic action by farmers in order to cope with the crop-lien system, which left economic power in the hands of a mercantile elite that furnished goods on credit.[10] The movement became increasingly popular throughout Texas in the mid-1880s, and membership in the organization grew from 10,000 in 1884 to 50,000 at the end of 1885. At the same time, the Farmer's Alliance became increasingly politicized, with members attacking the "money trust" as the source and beneficiary of both the crop lien system and deflation.[11] In the hopes of cementing an alliance with labor groups, the Farmer's Alliance supported the Knights of Labor in the Great Southwest railroad strike of 1886.[12] Later that year, a Farmer's Alliance convention issued the Cleburne Demands, a series of resolutions that called for, among other things, collective bargaining, federal regulation of railroad rates, an expansionary monetary policy, and a national banking system administered by the federal government.[13] In 1887, the Farmer's Alliance merged with the Louisiana Farmers Union and expanded into the South and the Great Plains.[14] In 1889, Charles Macune launched the National Economist, which became the national paper of the Farmer's Alliance.[15]

Macune and other Farmer's Alliance leaders helped organize a December 1889 convention in St. Louis; the convention met with the goal of forming a confederation of the major farm and labor organizations.[16] Though a full merger was not achieved, the Farmer's Alliance and the Knights of Labor jointly endorsed the St. Louis Platform, which included many of the long-standing demands of the Farmer's Alliance. The Platform added a call for Macune's " Sub-Treasury Plan," under which the federal government would establish warehouses in agricultural counties; farmers would be allowed to store their crops in these warehouses and borrow up to 80 percent of the value of their crops.[17] The movement began to expand into the Northeast and the Great Lakes region, while Macune led the establishment of the National Reform Press Association, a network of newspapers sympathetic to the Farmer's Alliance.[18]