On this date in 1892, the People’s Party held its first convention in Omaha, Nebraska. Building upon two decades of rural labor’s deep dissatisfaction with the Gilded Age, the Populists articulated a powerful challenge to the unregulated capitalism of the day.
The late 19th century was pretty tough for rural people. For farmers in the Midwest, the promise of Republican free labor ideology proved as much of a lie as it had to urban workers. Both found themselves impoverished and exploited by the corrupt capitalism of the Gilded Age. Southern farmers struggled with the aftermath of the Civil War and the bottomed out price of cotton after the British and French expanded cotton production to their colonies in the 1860s. Perhaps the biggest culprit for farmers’ troubles was the railroad. Since railroads gave favorable rates to big capitalists like John D. Rockefeller, it had to make up lost profits somewhere, and that was often by charging high rates to small farmers who depended on the railroad to get their crops to market but did not have the power to challenge it. On top of railroad price gouging, high tariff rates meant that farm equipment was expensive. When the government stopped printing paper money after the Civil War, cash supplies dwindled. Finally, the government going on the gold standard in 1873 meant that, while the economy as a whole became more stable, money was in extremely short supply for the poor and for farmers.
Throughout the 1870 and 1880s, farmers organized themselves into groups to fight the poverty they faced and lack of control over their own lives they felt. The first Farmers Alliance was formed in 1876 in Lampasas, Texas. The Farmers Alliance is the most direct link to the People’s Party, but there were all sorts of groups–the Agricultural Wheel and the Grange, as well as Colored Farmers’ Alliances for African-American farmers.
During the late 1880s, Farmers’ Alliance members began reaching out to the growing number of reformers and working-class activists. People like Knights of Labor leader Terence Powderly began encouraging the Alliance to mount a political challenge to the corrupt 2-party system of the Gilded Age, when neither party represented working-class interests.
Thus in 1892, the Farmers Alliance and its allies met in Omaha to articulate a political platform and nominate a presidential candidate. The Omaha Platform demanded much that reformers would take up over the next thirty years. It called for the 8-hour day, government control of railroad and communication networks, direct election of senators, civil service reform, the graduated income tax, and the abolition of national banks. It also supported the coinage of silver, which would create inflation, allow farmers to pay off their substantial debts, and alleviate the very real shortage of currency the U.S. faced in the 1890s.
The Preamble to the Omaha Platform, written by famed writer and reformer Ignatius Donnelly, draws on the very real feelings of anger, powerlessness, and outrage that not only farmers but many Americans felt in the 1890s:
The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires. The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bond-holders; a vast public debt payable in legal-tender currency has been funded into gold-bearing bonds, thereby adding millions to the burdens of the people.
We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, ever issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.
The People’s Party, becoming commonly known as the Populists, nominated James B. Weaver for president. A Civil War officer and veteran of the battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh, Weaver became disenchanted with Republican corruption during the Grant Administration and became a member of the Greenback Party, which articulated much of the People’s Party financial platform. Weaver served as a member of Congress from Iowa as a Greenbacker.
The People’s Party was quite popular among southern farmers. But the white elite was still consolidating their control in the post-Reconstruction period and saw it as a major threat to be crushed, and not only because they tentatively worked with African-Americans. Widespread intimidation and voter fraud almost certainly robbed Weaver of winning Alabama, and quite possibly several other southern states as well. Weaver did however win Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada, as well as electoral votes in Oregon and North Dakota. He received 22 electoral votes overall, making him the only 3rd party candidate to win electoral votes between 1860 and 1912.
It seemed the Populists would build on their Omaha Platform in the mid-1890s, with the Panic of 1893 driving working Americans into looking for any alternative to Gilded Age political norms. But the seeds of decline were already sown. The Panic placed extra emphasis on the silver plank, which attracted more members in the West and even among rich silver interests, but which became another of the cure-all tonics that plagued critiques of Gilded Age capitalism. The farmers also had a difficult time reaching out to urban workers, in part because they were white Anglo-Saxon racial conservatives who were quite uncomfortable with the increasingly polyglot America of the late 19th century. When William Jennings Bryan co-opted the silver plank for the Democrats in 1896 and then betrayed the Populists by nominating an opponent of labor unions as vice-president, the Populists basically died. Many members rejoined the party of their youth, others, such as Tom Watson, turned on their former African-American allies and became virulent white supremacists.
Yet the challenge to unregulated capitalism articulated by these largely uneducated farmers was real enough and far more influential than it receives credit for. Over the next 30 years, much of the Omaha Platform became law, including government regulation of railroads, the income tax, and direct election of senators.
It is also important for us today to remember that labor is not just urban workers and labor unions, but that there are many different labor histories in this nation, including that of small farmers in states with historically low unionization rates and not much recent history of radicalism.