During the panic of 1873 agriculture prices fell rapidly and created economic troubles for once well to do farmers. Farmers began to blame the government for their financial struggles they had been facing. Since the United States currency policies were created by Bankers and Industrialists, farmers argued that they did not care for or know the hardships during this period for the lower working class. Independent political action was too weak to make a difference, so they began to meet in groups and discuss their grievances. These confederations were called Farmers Alliances and they were sporadically formed throughout the North and South, however it was mainly white men, Southern blacks formed their own alliances. Growth of these different Farmers Alliances became so rapid and popular that the idea of creating an entire political party was constructed.
The Populist party came about from the economic collapse of agricultural products forcing many farmers to seek aid through political action. These economic issues began after the Civil War in the West and South from the transition of plantations into sharecropping and crop lien systems mainly. Share cropping sank millions into perpetual poverty. (Foner 651) At first there were Farmers Alliances across the West and South sporadically, many Southern farmers remained allied with the Democratic party in fear of splitting the white vote and allowing the blacks into power. They did not get much accomplished and only won small victories within their communities until the leaders of each of these factions came together in 1891 to form one collective political party, the Populist Party (or the People’s Party). Speaking on behalf of all working class, they hoped to attract followers from laborers and reform groups that will be motivated to help their cause of improving their economic condition.
Populists argued that the reason their struggles began was from high freight costs, excessive phone company rates, and the fiscal policies implemented by the federal government. (Professor Jackson, US Since 1877, 13/9/2018) Therefore, they advocated for regulation of railroads, the national market, and government elections. Specifically, the free coinage of silver, tariffs for revenue only, a graduated income tax, and direct election of senators. It is important to keep in mind that populists were not against modern technologies, they simply felt that there should be more government interference and regulation. They believed these things would strengthen political and economic democracy across the United States.
The populist platform, adopted in 1892 at the Omaha convention, stated all of their goals previously mentioned with the addition of a system of low cost public financing to sell crops, and rights for labor unions. They even endorsed women’s suffrage movements in four western states. “The platform put forth a long list of proposals to restore democracy and economic opportunity”. (Foner 653) In 1892 the Populist Party nominated their first president, James B. Weaver. He carried only five Western states and received only 22 electoral college votes, yet they still persisted. The Populists elected three governors and fifteen congress members.
With the growing discontent in 1893 after the depression began, increased conflict between laborers and capital led to the Populists support increasing, specifically in rural areas. “In 1896, Democrats and Populists joined to support William Jennings Bryan for presidency.” (Foner 657) Bryan received the nomination after he expressed farmers’ grievances and goals. Populists were especially drawn to the idea of free silver to increase the currency in circulation which would bring more revenue in for farmers for increasing agricultural prices. Bryan did not win however, he lost to the Republican nominee William McKinley. Ultimately, the goal of Populists was to create a more unified and democratized America that was more economically equal and regulated.
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