About the Author: Johnny Roy has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 8 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has been actively involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 3 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam.
Populism in America
Populism was a social and political movement of the people and began under the economic hardship that was being felt by American farmers during and after the Civil War. Economic hardship for America’s farmers during the Civil War occured because of the government’s issue of almost $500 million dollars in paper money known as greenbacks. This paper or “soft” money could not be exchanged for gold or silver, which made it less valuable than “hard” money that could be exchanged for precious metals.
This paper or “soft” money created by the U.S. Government could not be exchanged for gold or silver, which made it less valuable than “hard” money that could be exchanged for precious metals.
This put an unfair economic burden on farmers who had borrowed money to purchase more land during and after the Civil War in an effort to produce more crops to make up for declining crop prices. This cycle of debt resulted in many farm foreclosures and bankruptcies. Bad faith business practices by the railroads further hindered farmers abilities to make a profit from their crops.
Farmers Band Together
As farmers organized against the monopolistic practices of the railroads, other issues began to emerge that were affecting the nation’s citizens beyond farmers. This growth of interest in reform practices spread throughout the nation and populism began to merge with the Democratic Party as several issues moved to the forefront of political debate. Economic disparity, political fairness, social equality, and workplace reform became the driving forces behind the Populist movement.
Challenges to the political and social status quo became national headlines. The march on Washington DC by Coxey’s Army in 1894 showed the passion and willingness of people to take action against what was felt as unfair economic practices specifically designed to harm average citizens. The debates over taxes, bi-metalism, political reforms, and workplace reforms transformed a movement from one of simple local farmers to complex national party.
The march on Washington DC by Coxey’s Army in 1894 showed the passion and willingness of people to take action against what was felt as unfair economic practices specifically designed to harm average citizens.
Farmers vs. The Railroads
Social isolation faced by the nation’s farmers led to the formation of social groups throughout the mid-19thcentury. The formation of the Patrons of Husbandry in 1867 by Oliver Hudson Kelley originally began as a social outlet for famers and their families, but quickly turned into an early political action group as hardships faced by farmers continued to increase.
By the 1870’s The Patrons of Husbandry evolved into a more politically and socially active group known as The Grange and began to organize farmers and collectively fight against the railroads. Along with feeling the harmful effects of the Panic of 1873, farmers had been complaining about the unpredictable and oftentimes outrageous costs of transporting crops from farms to cities to be sold. Yet, due to a lack of competition due to the railroad monopoly, the farmers had little choice but to pay the high prices and try to make whatever profits they could.
Due to a lack of competition due to the railroad monopoly, the farmers had little choice but to pay the high prices and try to make whatever profits they could.
Munn v. Illinois (1877)
The Grange inspired other activist organizations like the Farmers Alliance and together they worked to spread the message of farmer hardships. Membership in these organizations grew to more than 4 million-mostly in the South and the West. As the groups challenged the laws governing the business practices of interstate companies, they scored a major victory with the Supreme Court decision of Munn v Illinois (1877). The Supreme Court decided that the state had the constitutional authority to regulate private business that affected public interests. This victory reinforced the existing Granger Laws and encouraged the passage of new ones throughout the West, Midwest, and Southeast.
The Supreme Court decided that the state had the constitutional authority to regulate private business that affected public interests.
Gold vs. Silver
As the debate over access to capital (money) increased the debate turned to the basis of the nation’s monetary system. Should the nation’s cash be backed by gold or by gold and silver? Bimetallism is a government system in which the government would give citizens either gold or silver in exchange for paper currency or checks.
Supporters of the Populist Party platform backed the possibility of expanding access to money and federal loans in order to ease the financial burdens on farmers and small businesses through increased access to cash.
The “Gold Bugs”
On the other side were President Grover Cleveland and those known as “gold bugs” who supported the gold standard, which would limit access to cash. This debate became a major part of the 1896 presidential election between Democratic candidate who supported a Populist Platform William Jennings Bryan and Republican President Cleveland.
At the Democratic convention, Bryant would deliver his most famous speech to date that became known as the Cross of Gold Speech, which he declared, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”. Unfortunately, for Bryan and Populists across the nation, he lost the election of 1896 to the well-funded Republican William McKinley. McKinley’s election began the erosion of Populist support in the nation with the majority of the supporters of the Populist platform moving towards the Democratic Party.
Bryant would deliver his most famous speech to date that became known as the Cross of Gold Speech, which he declared, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”.
Monopolies vs. Workers
As the industrial revolution raged on throughout the Gilded Age, the battles between powerful capitalists and hardworking laborers intensified. Urban workers began to organize protests as they fought for higher wages, better working conditions, and increased social services for the poor. As capitalists embraced a philosophy based upon the Gospel of Wealth, the Populist Party sided with organized labor.
A rise in labor union participation led to the formation of unions such as the Knights of Labor, National Labor Union (NLU), and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and saw increased calls for a shortened workday, better health benefits, child labor laws, and greater shares of profits. Companies unwillingness to concede to these union demands the workers were forced to use the most effective tool they had to force change; the strike.
A rise in labor union participation saw increased calls for a shortened workday, better health benefits, child labor laws, and greater shares of profits.
Led by vocal pro-labor activists like Eugene V. Debs and radical unionists like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), labor began a series of strikes that turned violent and eventually cost them public support for their causes. The Great Strike of 1877 (railroad), the Haymarket Affair of 1877, and the Homestead Strike in 1892, led to bombings, deaths, and violence that the public was not ready to support.
However, the tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 that resulted in the deaths of 146 women finally forced the public to face the reality of the working conditions that desperate workers often faced. The continued struggles of organized labor became a core component of the Populist Movement.
Legacy of the Populist Movement
While losing a significant amount of influence and essentially being absorbed into the Democratic Party, the ideas of the Populist Movement did not disappear. The Progressive Movement of the 20thcentury was a major component of the Democratic Party platform and was inspired by Populist ideals. Political reforms rooted in Populist ideals aimed at combatting the corruption of the political machines were also passed. These reforms included the 17thAmendment (direct election of senators by the people instead of state legislatures), a graduated income tax, and the ability of the public to access the lawmaking process through the use of the referendum, recall, and initiative measures. The influence of the Populist Party was not short lived. While there is no official Populist Party, the ideals and principles of the movement have consistently been seen in the women’s rights movement, the labor movement, and civil rights movements throughout the 20thcentury.