Populism in the Late 19th Century

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012


Although major reforms in big business and labor would have to wait until after the turn of the century, reform did take place in agriculture. The first step toward improving conditions for farmers had been the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The next step occurred when farmers realized that, like laborers in the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy, they could organize. Individually they were powerless; together they were strong.

During the late 1800s, farmers faced many challenges. Some of them were in desperate economic straits. Their profits had gone down while their expenses had gone up. Ironically, success had led to failure; after years of bountiful harvests, the supply of fresh produce and grain was exceeding demand. This imbalance caused prices to fall. Meanwhile, the railroads continued to raise prices for shipping, and manufacturers who sold equipment such as plows were also charging more. Farmers had little choice but to go into debt.

Oliver Kelley founded the National Grange in 1867 as a social organization for farmers, but as their troubles increased, it became a voice for farmers’ mutual concerns. The Grange began to address political and economic issues. Grange members formed cooperatives to buy equipment and necessary sup- plies in bulk, thereby saving money. They put their crops together and pooled the costs of shipping and hauling. They also pressured state legislatures to regulate railroad freight and grain storage costs. Their insistence began paying off during the 1870s, when many farming states passed laws to standardize such rates. In 1887, the Grange farmers had their first taste of national success when Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act. This act stated that railroads had to charge reasonable rates, could not refund large shippers secretly, and could not charge more for a short haul than for a long-distance haul. It created an Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate the railroads, but it gave the commission so little means to enforce its authority that it was useless.

The Farmers’ Alliance began in Texas during the 1870s. It organized cooperatives, offered farmers low-cost insurance, and constituted a powerful political lobby for tougher bank regulations and government ownership of the transportation system.

In the South, the Alliance movement was racially segregated, like every other aspect of southern life. By 1900, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance had largely disappeared from view; it did not have the power to fight both the southern Alliance and the interests of big business.

Farmers urged the printing of more paper money and a return to the coining of silver, which Congress had ended in 1873 in a return to the gold standard. This standard limited the amount of money in circulation to the amount of gold owned by the U.S. government. In 1878 and 1890, Congress passed acts legalizing the coining of silver in the hope that it would help a poor economy. This did not happen fast enough for the farmers, who successfully backed numerous candidates for office in the 1890 congressional elections. Pro-silver candidates won more than 40 seats in Congress as well as several governorships.

The Alliance movement gave rise to a new political party: the Populist Party.  The key planks in the Populist platform were

  • A graduated income tax
  • Regulation of banks
  • Government ownership of the railroads and the telegraph lines
  • Unlimited coinage of silver
  • Restrictions on immigration
  • A shorter workday
  • Voting reforms

The Populist candidate for president in 1892 was James Weaver, running against Republican Benjamin Harrison and Democrat Grover Cleveland. Although Weaver won 22 electoral votes, Cleveland had the support of labor, and he became the only president in American history to serve nonconsecutive terms in office.

In response to a severe financial panic in 1893, triggered when one of the major railroad companies failed, President Cleveland decided to return the nation to the gold standard. Many disagreed with his decision, and once again silver became the major issue of a presidential campaign. In 1896, William

Jennings Bryan ran for the Democrats against Republican William McKinley. The Populists decided to support Bryan rather than running a candidate of their own, because Bryan was an outspoken proponent of abandoning the gold standard and coining more silver.

Bryan was a colorful character, a lawyer, and a charismatic public speaker. Some time later, he and Clarence Darrow would oppose one another in the controversial Scopes trial, which would decide the fate of a Tennessee school- teacher who taught the theory of evolution in the classroom. (See Chapter 23.) At the 1896 Democratic convention, Bryan gave the famous “Cross of Gold” speech, arguing passionately for the coinage of silver:

We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them. . . . we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

The quiet Republican candidate William McKinley won a narrow victory over Bryan. Voting split along economic lines; rich people voted for McKinley, because they had nothing to gain from an increase in the amount of money in circulation. Everyone else voted for Bryan. Popular demands for reform would be addressed in the near future by a man who was as charismatic as Bryan— William McKinley’s vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Politics and the Call for Reform During the Late 19th Century Practice Test

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