Populist Party (United States): Wikis


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People's Party
Founded 1884 (1884)
Dissolved 1908 (1908)
Preceded by United States Greenback Party
Succeeded by Progressives
Ideology Populism, bimetallism
Political position Left-wing
International affiliation None
Official colors blue
Politics of the United States
Political parties
People's Party campaign poster from 1904

The People's Party, also known as the Populist Party (derived from "Populist" which is the adjective which describes the members of this party) was a short-lived political party in the United States in the late 19th century. The party did not remain a lasting feature most probably because it had been so closely identified with the free silver movement which was not meaningful for urban voters. Currency ceased to become a major issue as the U.S came out of the recession of the 1890s.[1] The very term "populist" has since become a generic term in the U.S. for politics which appeals to the common in opposition to established interests.

At least three distinct American parties have used the term populist in their names since 1923. See "Recent Incarnations" section below.



The U.S. presidential election of 1892

A People's Party grew out of agrarian unrest in response to falling agricultural prices in the South and the trans-Mississippi West.[2] Another factor was railroad rates. The Farmers' Alliance, formed in Lampasas, TX in 1876, promoted collective economic action by farmers and achieved widespread popularity in the South and Great Plains. The Farmers' Alliance ultimately did not achieve its wider economic goals of collective economic action against brokers, railroads, and merchants, and many in the movement agitated for changes in national policy. By the late 1880s, the Alliance had developed a political agenda that called for regulation and reform in national politics, most notably an opposition to the gold standard to counter the high deflation in agricultural prices in relation to other goods such as farm implements.

In December 1888 the National Agricultural Wheel and the Southern Farmer’s Alliance met at Meridian, Mississippi. In that meeting they decided to consolidate the two parties pending ratification. This consolidation gave the organization a new name, the Farmers and Laborers’ Union of America, and by 1889 the merger had been ratified, although there were conflicts between “conservative” Alliance men and “political” Wheelers in Texas and Arkansas, which delayed the unification in these states until 1890 and 1891 respectively. The merger eventually united white Southern Alliance and Wheel members, but it would not include African American members of agricultural organizations.[3]

During their move towards consolidation in 1889, the leaders of both Southern Farmers’ Alliance and the Agricultural Wheel organizations contacted Terence V. Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor. “This contact between leaders of the farmers’ movement and Powderly helped paved the way for a series of reform conferences held between December 1889 and July 1892 that resulted in the formation of the national People’s (or Populist) Party.”[4]

The drive to create a new political party out of the movement arose from the refusal of both Democrats and Republicans to take up and promote the policies advocated by the Alliance, notably in regard to the Populists' call for unlimited coinage of silver. The movement reached its peak in 1892 when the party held a convention chaired by Frances Willard (leader of the WCTU and a friend of Powderly's)[5] in Omaha, Nebraska and nominated candidates for the national election.

The party's platform, commonly known as the Omaha Platform, called for the abolition of national banks, a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours and Government control of all railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. In the 1892 Presidential election, James B. Weaver received 1,027,329 votes. Weaver carried four states (Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada) and received electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota as well.

People's Party convention held at Columbus, Nebraska, July 15, 1890.

The party flourished most among farmers in the Southwest and Great Plains, as well as making significant gains in the South, where they faced an uphill battle given the firmly entrenched monopoly of the Democratic Party. Success was often obtained through electoral fusion, with the Democrats outside the South, but with alliances with the Republicans in Southern states like Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.[6] For example, in the elections of 1894, a coalition of Populists and Republicans led by Populist Marion Butler swept state and local offices in North Carolina, and the coalition would go on to elect Republican Daniel Lindsay Russell as Governor in 1896.[7]

Opposition to the gold standard was especially strong among western farmers, who viewed the inherent scarcity of gold (and its slow movement through the banking system) as an instrument of Eastern banking interests who could force mass bankruptcies among farmers in the west by instigating "credit crunches". Many western farmers rallied around the Populist banner in the belief that greenbacks not backed by a hard mineral standard would allow credit to flow more freely through rural regions. Free silver platform received widespread support across class lines in the Mountain states, where the economy heavily depended on silver mining.

The Populists were the first political party in the United States to actively include women in their affairs. At a time when cultural attitudes of white supremacy were permeating all aspects of American life, a number of southern Populists, including Thomas E. Watson, openly talked of the need for poor blacks and poor whites to set aside their racial differences in the name of shared economic self-interest. Regardless of these rhetoric appeals, however, racism did not evade the People's Party. Prominent Populist Party leaders such as Marion Butler, a United States Senator from North Carolina, at least partially demonstrated a dedication to the cause of white supremacy, and there appears to have been some support for this viewpoint among the rank-and-file of the party's membership.[8] After the party's disintegration, in fact, Watson himself became an outspoken white supremacist.

Presidential election of 1896

By 1896, the Democratic Party took up many of the People's Party's causes at the national level, and the party began to fade from national prominence. In that year's presidential election, the Populists nominated Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan; he backed the Populist opposition to the gold standard in his famous "Cross of Gold" speech. The Populists could not bring themselves to also nominate Bryan's conservative eastern running mate, Arthur Sewall, and nominated Thomas E. Watson for vice president instead, though Watson had previously expressed some opposition to fusion with the Democrats. Watson was cautiously open to cooperation, but after the election would recant any hope he had in the possibility of cooperation as a viable tool[9] The 1896 convention was the Coliseum of the St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall which in the same month hosted the 1896 Republican National Convention. Bryan lost to William McKinley by a margin of 600,000 votes.

The effects of fusion with the Democrats were disastrous to the Party in the South. Collaboration with the white supremacist Democratic establishment effectively ended the Populist/Republican alliance which had governed North Carolina in part with the support of African Americans. By 1898, the Democrats used a violently racist and violent campaign to defeat the North Carolina Populists and GOP and in 1900 the Democrats ushered in disfranchisement.

Populism never recovered from the failure of 1896. For example, Tennessee’s Populist Party was demoralized by a diminishing membership, and puzzled and split by the dilemma of whether to fight the state-level enemy (the Democrats) or the national foe (the Republicans and Wall Street). By 1900 the People’s Party of Tennessee was a shadow of what it once was.

In 1900, while many Populist voters supported Bryan again, the weakened party nominated a ticket of Wharton Barker and Ignatius L. Donnelly, and disbanded afterwards. Many Populist leaders became involved in the burgeoning Progressive movement, and some followed Eugene Debs into the Socialist Party.

In 1904, the party was re-organized, and Thomas E. Watson was their nominee for president in 1904 and in 1908, after which the party disbanded again.


The nation remained at least partially on the gold standard until 1971, when President Richard Nixon revoked it. However, the Populists' notion of allowing silver to become legal tender was noted and adopted by the U.S. government, but only for a short period of time. On the same note, some historians would cite the Sherman Silver Purchase Act as a major contributing factor to the depression of 1893.

The People's Party's call for the direct election of senators was realized in 1913 with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment.

Elected officials



United States Congress

Approximately forty-five members of the party served in the U.S. Congress between 1891 and 1902. These included six United States Senators:

The following were Populist members of the U.S. House of Representatives:

52nd United States Congress

53rd United States Congress

54th United States Congress

55th United States Congress

56th United States Congress

  • William Ledyard Stark, Nebraska's 4th congressional district
  • Roderick Dhu Sutherland, Nebraska's 5th congressional district
  • William Laury Greene, Nebraska's 6th congressional district
  • John W. Atwater, North Carolina's 4th congressional district

57th United States Congress

Recent incarnations

People's Party

In the 1970s, a "People's Party" was established as a left-wing, anti-war coalition. In 1972, it nominated pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock for president. Among its better known state affiliates were the Peace and Freedom Party in California, and Vermont's Liberty Union. It ceased to exist after 1976.

Populist Party

In 1984, the Populist Party name was revived by some extreme activists including Willis Carto. The party's 1984 presidential nominee, Olympic medalist and ordained minister Bob Richards, and running mate Maureen Kennedy Salaman carried 66,324 votes. This party became the electoral vehicle for the Presidential campaigns of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in 1988, and of former Green Beret officer Bo Gritz in 1992, but was defunct by 1996. Willis Carto and party chair Don Wassall were said to be rivals competing for control of the party. In 1994 the anti-Carto group won the internal struggle and re-organized the group as the "American Nationalist Union".

Electoral history

Populist Parties, 2004–present

Meanwhile, the name Populist Party was adopted in 2004 by groups in several states seeking a ballot line for independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. The Populist Party of Maryland was one of those groups, but unlike most, it continued to exist after Nader's poor showing in 2004. In the 2006 United States Senate election in Maryland, the Populist Party of Maryland supported a fusion ticket of Green Party, Libertarian Party, and Populist supporters for U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Zeese, a founder of the PPMD and 2004 press secretary for Ralph Nader. The Maryland Populists also nominated candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of the state.

See also


  1. ^ http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h876.html. Retrieved on 11-4-08
  2. ^ Foner, Eric (2005). Give Me Liberty! An American History, Volume Two Second Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London.
  3. ^ Hild, Matthew (2007). Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists, Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South. The University of Georgia Press, Athens & London.
  4. ^ Hild, Matthew (2007). Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists, Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South.The University of Georgia Press, Athens & London, p. 123.
  5. ^ Gusfield, Joseph (1963). Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement The University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago & London, p. 78, 93.
  6. ^ http://history.missouristate.edu/wrmiller/Populism/Texts/bibliography.htm
  7. ^ William S. Powell, "Marion Butler", Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (1979)
  8. ^ James L. Hunt, Marion Butler and American Populism (2003), pp. 3-7
  9. ^ James L. Hunt, Marion Butler and American Populism (2003), pp. 4-6.
  10. ^ http://www.uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?year=1984&minper=0&f=0&off=0&elect=0 David Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. "1984 Presidential Election Results" (2005).
  11. ^ http://www.dcpoliticalreport.com/members/1988/pres88.htm D.C.'s Political Report. "1988 Presidential Candidates," (retrieved on April 4th, 2009).
  12. ^ http://www.uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?year=1992&minper=0&f=0&off=0&elect=0 David Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections "1992 Presidential General Election Results" (2005).


  • Goodwyn, Lawrence. 1978. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (ISBN 0-19-502416-8 or ISBN 0-19-502417-6)
  • Hicks, John D. "The Sub-Treasury: A Forgotten Plan for the Relief of Agriculture". Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Dec., 1928), pp. 355–373. First page available here.
  • Kazin, Michael. 1995. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York: Basic Books. (ISBN 0-465-03793-3)
  • Lester, Connie. Up from the Mudsills of Hell : The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, And Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915. University of Georgia Press. March 2006. Hardcover. ISBN 0-8203-2762-X.
  • McMath, Robert C. Jr. 1993. American Populism: A Social History 1877–1898. New York: Hill and Wang; Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (ISBN 0-8090-7796-5)
  • Beeby, James M. 2008 Revolt of the Tar Heels: The North Carolina Populist Movement, 1890–1901 Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-60473-001-2
  • Nugent, Walter T. K. 1962. The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Stock, Catherine McNicol. 1996. Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. (ISBN 0-8014-3294-4)

External links

Contemporary accounts

Party publications and materials

Secondary sources

External links — later parties


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