Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Rise of Populism and the High Tide of Southern Radicalism

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Here I describe the rise of the Populist Movement in Late 19th Century America.

By the last twenty years of the 19th century, it had become clear that Anglos, not Indians, would dominate the politics and culture of the West. As more Anglo-owned farms sprang up in the Plains and in the Western U.S., however, droughts, freezes, hail storms, and waves of locusts battered the newcomers. Nevertheless, American farm production increased 135 percent between 1870 and 1900. These bountiful harvests backfired, however, sinking the prices farmers could expect for their crops. Farm prices steadily declined for a decade, a situation aggravated by the productivity of foreign competitors. Wheat and cotton prices dropped about 60 percent between the 1870s and 1890s.

Government policies made the farming crisis worse. During the Civil War, the federal government faced unprecedented budgetary demands. Having to feed, clothe and arm the largest military in American history up to that point while maintaining the normal operations of government, the Lincoln administration printed “greenbacks” – paper currency – which were used along with gold for public debts. The greenbacks’ value rose and fell relative to gold prices based on the Union’s military fortunes. As the North emerged as the inevitable winner, the paper currency greatly increased farmers’ buying power. With a plentiful monetary supply and the government as a generous customer, Northern farmers fared well during the Civil War and many took out mortgages to buy more farmland or new harvesting equipment. Orthodox economic theory in the late 19th century, however, held that paper currency leads to dangerous inflation and that wealth should be based on gold or some other metal of intrinsic value. The United States treasury pulled the greenbacks out of circulation, aggravating deflation even as farm prices dropped.

Farmers also suffered at the hands of “middlemen” – the railroad companies that transported crops, the banks and the local merchants who provided credit to farmers, and the grain elevator operators who charged farmers for storing crops. These businesses grossly overcharged farmers, who paid more to ship their commodities across the country than overseas. Regardless of the financial squeeze on farmers, the U.S. government tightened the money supply even further. Up to 1873, the government had coined silver along with gold dollars, the value of sixteen ounces of silver set at one ounce of gold. In 1873, the government, responding to an oversupply of gold, which undermined the value of silver, stopped minting silver dollars, which made the money supply tighter. This plunged the country into a five-year depression.

By 1878, Congress belatedly responded to the deflation crisis and passed the Bland-Allison Act, which required the treasury to purchase and coin between $2 million and $4 million in silver a month. This bill temporarily expanded the currency supply, but by this point many farmers had lost their lands to foreclosure. At one point, the courts had foreclosed 50 percent of Kansas farms due to non-payment of debts.

Buffeted by hard times, farmers considered radical solutions to their plight. Western farmers formed the Patrons of Husbandry, better known as the Grange. Embracing the tactic of collective action, the Grange quickly grew to 1.5 million members. In 1874, pressure from farmers led several Midwestern state legislatures to enact so-called "Granger laws," setting caps on freight rates charged by the railroads. State legislators also investigated the price-fixing conspiracies of warehouses and grain wholesalers. They established a cap on charges for storing grain. Tired of predatory business practices, Grangers also tried setting up their own grain elevators, retail stores where farmers could obtain credit, and plants that would manufacture farm equipment at low cost to the customer. Farmers suffered from bad timing, with these experiments in financial independence overwhelmed by the 1873-1878 depression.

As for the “Granger laws,” the Supreme Court initially upheld these state regulations in the Munn v. Illinois (1877) decision. The court ruled that states could regulate businesses engaged in “public interest” such as the railroads. The court overturned that decision nine years later, however, with Wabash v. Illinois (1886) in which the majority opinion declared that only Congress, not the states, could regulate businesses like railroads engaged in interstate commerce. Yet, public anger at railroads was so fierce that the next year Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which mandated, in part, that the railroads charge the same freight rates for all customers.

The long depression and frustration over the continued exploitation of farmers by large corporations weakened the Grange, which saw its membership shrink to 100,000 by 1880. Nevertheless, the Grangers’ forays into financial independence for farmers and their calls for government regulation of credit and railroad interests provided a model for an agrarian revolt that would come to be known as the Populist movement.


During the 1880s, tens of thousands of farmers formed "alliances,” cooperative efforts at mutual aid and lobbying for political reform. As the movement grew, the farmers consolidated into two regional alliances, the Northwestern Farmers Alliance, which included the old Grange states of the Midwest and the Plains states, and the far more radical Southern Farmers Alliance, which began in Texas but spread as far east as the Carolinas. By 1887, the Southern Alliance claimed more than 200,000 members, and just three years later it could count more than 3 million adherents. The Southern Alliance even reached across the color line and recruited black farmers, although on a segregated basis. The Southern Alliance sponsored a separate National Colored Alliance that enrolled another quarter of a million members.

Borrowing an idea from the Grange, the Alliance established farmers’ cooperatives. Farmers sold commodities as a group instead of competing with each other in the hope that they could command higher prices. The Alliance also established country stores, which became sources of low-interest credit for Alliance members. Alliance stores and other businesses quickly opened in a dozen states, but floundered when Alliance members could not obtain credit and supplies from merchants, wholesalers, bankers and manufacturers. The Texas Exchange, an effort to create a statewide cooperative, survived only one season. After this failure, farmers concluded that reform could succeed only through political reform of the American money and credit systems.

Alliance members met in Cleburne, Texas in 1886 to draft a set of demands that called for state legislatures and the Congress to regulate railroads, outlaw land speculation, ease access to credit for farmers, and issue paper and silver currency to expand the money supply. These reforms languished, however, stymied by Democratic and Republican politicians dependent on the campaign contributions and even bribes paid by big businesses. Alliance leaders began to consider formation of a third political party as the only means to get these demands met.


Advocates of a third party carried the day at an 1892 convention of workers and farmers in St. Louis. Forming the People's Party, candidates under this banner called for creation of the so-called subtreasury, which would act as a combination of government warehouse and creditor. Farmers could store nonperishable crops in government facilities until commodity prices allowed them to sell at a reasonable profit. In the meantime, farmers would receive credits from the federal government based on the amount of crops they stored, which would allow them to maximize their earnings and “get by” until the next growing season. Mainstream newspapers and powerful Republican and Democratic politicians denounced the idea as farfetched and communistic.

Populists also called for excessive land bought for speculative purposes by foreign investors and railroad companies to be seized by the government and redistributed to poor farmers. Other demands called for government ownership of the railroads and telegraph lines as a way to end overcharging. Addressing the tight money supply, the party called for the coining of silver and the printing of greenbacks. Wishing to expand their appeal beyond the farm belt, Populists also supported the eight-hour workday and the abolition of convict labor. Finally, the platform advocated laws requiring the secret ballot, the direct election of senators, and the right of referendum and recall of elected officials.

The People's Party did well for a third party, capturing more than a million votes in the 1892 presidential election, about 8.5 percent, and twenty-two votes in the Electoral College. A tragedy prevented the party from even better results. The most popular leader of the Populists, Leonidas K. Polk of the Southern Alliance, had won the party’s presidential nomination but died before he could begin his campaign. A veteran of the Confederate Army, Polk had worked extensively to build the Northwestern Alliance and was well liked across regional lines. His replacement, James B. Weaver of Iowa, carried the baggage of being a former Union commander, which hurt him in the South (though the party chose a Confederate general, James G. Field of Virginia, for vice president in an attempt at regional balance.) Southern Democrats also claimed that Populists would split the white vote and if they succeeded, the supposed "negro rule" of Reconstruction would return. Populists stood accused of being race traitors and of insulting the memory of the Confederate dead by supporting a Yankee officer for president. In the North, Republicans also played on regional passions, bashing Populists for voting side-by-side with former Confederates. This political exploitation of unresolved bitterness from the Civil War came to be known as "waving the bloody shirt.” The tactic proved effective in many communities.

But what inspired more fear and rage among Southern Democrats was the willingness of Populists to form alliances with black farmers. Tom Watson, a leading Georgia Populist, argued that Democrats had kept all farmers economically powerless by playing a game of racial “divide and conquer.” He promised that the Populists would "wipe out the color line." When angry white Democrats in Georgia threatened to lynch a black Populist preacher, Watson gathered 2,000 gun-toting white Populists to form a protective ring around the preacher’s house.

Republicans and Democrats alike brutally oppressed the movement. In the North, Republicans turned to vote fraud, bribery and intimidation. In the South these methods were supplemented with violence, up to and including the murder of Populist leaders and supporters. Nevertheless, Populism grew even stronger as a result of a national depression that began in 1893. Both farmers and factory workers were devastated by this depression, which lasted for four years and, at its low point, left three million people, or 20 percent of the country's workforce, out of work. Hunger and suicide became rampant in parts of the country as hard times dragged on.


The People's Party fared well in the 1894 congressional elections. Populists won a half-million more voters than in 1892. With discontent turning to despair, voters seemed eager for an alternative to the Republican and Democratic parties, and the Populists looked like a serious threat in the 1896 presidential race. The tight money supply grew worse as established politicians insisted on the gold standard. The coinage of silver became a particularly popular political stand in Western states where silver mines had opened. Farmers in the South and West hoped that an inflation of the money supply would ease access to credit and improve the prices farmers received for their crops. Populists pinned their hopes of victory on being the only political party advocating the coinage of silver. These hopes grew when the Republicans ignored public discontent with the status quo, nominating a rock-ribbed conservative, Ohio Senator William McKinley, for president in 1896. Throughout the campaign, McKinley remained a solid supporter of the gold standard.

Southern and Western Democrats rebelled against the incumbent Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, whose economic policies were indistinguishable from McKinley’s. Instead, the party nominated former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, who attracted a national following by focusing on the miseries of the farm belt and by blasting the greed of bankers and big business. In his acceptance speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan loudly declared his support for coining silver, telling a rapturous audience, “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, 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.” Bryan aimed his speech not just at the Democrats at the Chicago convention, but at the millions of Populists he hoped would join a common front with the Democrats against a still solidly pro-business Republican Party.

Even though ten Populist governors had been elected and forty-five party candidates won seats in the U.S. Congress during a four-year period, the Populist leadership grew impatient with the third-party strategy and concluded that they should back Bryan’s campaign. As a result, the People’s Party also nominated Bryan for president, although they replaced Bryan’s Democratic running mate, economic conservative Arthur Sewell, with former Congressman Tom Watson, as the vice presidential candidate. In spite of this support, Bryan’s policies, however, represented pseudo-Populism at best. He embraced only the least significant part of the Populist program, the coining of silver. More substantial reforms called for by the Populists, such as access to government credit for farmers, establishment of cooperative warehouses, and government ownership of the railroads and telegraph lines, were ignored by the Democratic nominee.

Ultimately, the nomination of Bryan undermined Populism. Many Southern Populists could not swallow supporting the Democratic presidential candidate when so many had been the target of Democratic fraud and violence in the 1892 and 1894 elections. Support for the Populist Party dropped sharply in the South. Nevertheless, even though McKinley raised an unprecedented $4 million in campaign contributions from corporate interests (more than twice the amount raised by any previous presidential candidate), the election proved to be surprisingly close.

For his part, Bryan had only his eloquence and his tirelessness as he crisscrossed the country, delivering more than 600 speeches that reached 5 million voters in the three months after the convention. In spite of their reservations, many Southerners backed Bryan, and the Nebraskan did well in the silver-rich West. The heavily populated Northeast backed McKinley. In numerous states, the winner claimed victory by 1,000 votes or less. Several factors hampered Bryan. An improvement in the economy just before the election made many voters reluctant to back a candidate widely perceived as radical and, as in past elections, Republicans north of the Mason-Dixon line padded their vote total through deceit. Southern voters supportive of the Democrats also suffered confusion since Bryan’s name appeared on the ballot twice, once as a Democrat and once as a Populist, and he was paired with two different running mates. In the end, McKinley carried twenty-three states to Bryan's twenty-two, even though the Electoral College gave the Republican a comfortable 271-176 margin.


“Fusion” – joining forces with the Democrats -- proved a disaster for the People’s Party, which won less than 300,000 votes nationwide, more than a million less than they polled in the 1894 off-year elections. In their clamor to support the Democrat Bryan, Populists had lost their separate identity. With an improved economy, Southern whites returned to the party of their fathers, the Democrats. The People's Party straggled on for years, a shell of its former self. The party withered and with it the agrarian revolt that had dominated politics in the 1880s and 1890s.

Although forward-looking ideas animated much of Populism, the movement featured an unpleasant underside. The agrarian rebels rigorously maintained segregation in their movement even though black support was critical to Southern populism. The racial cooperation that white Populists sought was, with few exceptions, self-centered and based on claims that, as farmers, whites and blacks faced the same hardships. Populists never directly addressed the difficulties that uniquely faced black farmers, such as segregation, racism, and the constant threat of racial violence. Yet, even the limited white-black cooperation in the Southern Populist movement, whether it was opportunistic or idealistic, threatened white elites. In Populism’s aftermath the politically powerful would incite lynch mobs to kill hundreds of African Americans. State constitutions were rewritten to take the vote away from not only blacks, but also poor whites who might become African Americans’ political allies.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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