The ultraconservative tone of Texas government shifted temporarily with the Populist agrarian revolt of the late 19th century. The state's farmers relied heavily on cotton cultivation for their income. However, overproduction aggravated by the spreading system of sharecropping and foreign competition ravaged the state’s farmers. The price of cotton plummeted from 15 to 5 cents a pound even as the federal government removed so-called “greenback” paper currency and silver-backed certificates from circulation, causing painful deflation.
Farmers also faced harsh overcharges from lenders, grain elevator operators and railroads during lengthy depressions in the 1870s and 1890s. These hardships radicalized farmers and led to the formation of the People’s or “Populist” Party in the early 1890s. The Populists adopted a bold political program in 1886 in Cleburne, Texas. The so-called "Cleburne Demands" called for a vast expansion of the nation’s money supply and, in order to cut out greedy middlemen, for Austin and Washington to provide direct credit to farmers.
By the time they competed on the state ballot in 1892, Populists more seriously challenged the Democrats’ hold on white voters than had the Republican Party during Reconstruction. Democrats responded to the threat by adopting some of the milder Populist demands as their own. A brief era of political reform ensued during the term of Governor Jim Hogg from 1891 to 1895.
As state attorney general, Jim Hogg prosecuted “wildcat” insurance companies and worked with Speaker Frank P. Alexander in 1889 to pass anti-trust legislation that targeted restraint of trade and price-fixing. Alexander, who served as speaker from 1889 to 1891, provides one of the most mysterious stories in Texas political history. In spite of his three terms in the Legislature, historians know virtually nothing about Alexander’s life before he entered politics, or anything about his post-speakership career or the place and time of his death. As a House member, he advocated anti-trust laws and proposed creation of a railroad commission to set freight charges. His railroad regulation proposal suffered defeat, but a similar law passed in 1891 after Alexander left the speakership. Such Populist-leaning sentiments were not the norm for the conservative Texas House, but in spite of his unusual ideology, Alexander, like many 19th century speakers, faded into obscurity.
Alexander and his successor as speaker, Robert Teague Milner, represented the two most policy-driven presiding officers in the 19th century. Milner, who authored a bill mandating the teaching of Texas history in public schools, served as speaker from 1891 to 1893. He previously promoted agrarian causes as editor of the "Henderson Time"s in East Texas. Milner strongly supported James Hogg and served as speaker during the governor’s first term.
Creation of the Railroad Commission was the highlight of the Hogg-Milner partnership. The Commission consisted of elected members empowered to fix railroad rates based on fair valuation and regulate business practices railroads used to manipulate stock values. At no point did Hogg embrace programs more central to the Populists, such as public ownership of the railroads, or government-supplied credit for farmers.
Yet, Hogg’s support of the Railroad Commission, his advocacy of silver coinage to increase the money supply, and his tangles with the insurance industry made him popular enough to dent support for the Populists, who began to crumble during the 1896 presidential election. The biggest obstacle that Populists faced, however, came from white members’ collaboration with parallel black Populist organizations, which led Texas Democrats to charge the Peoples’ Party with undermining white supremacy.
Democrats again used the terrorism that proved effective in crushing the state’s Republican Party in the 1860s and 1870s. During election day in 1896, forty Democrats in Robertson County held rifles while surrounding the courthouse to block entrance by black voters. The county judge later wrote, “I went down to the polls and took my six-shooter. I stayed there until the polls closed. Not a Negro voted.”
Brutal suppression and subsequent election “reforms” that severely restricted the right to vote for blacks and poor whites eliminated the only viable competition Democrats faced in Texas until the resurrection of the Republican Party in the 1960s. The voting reforms advocated by future speakers such as Pat Neff, however, had unintended consequences. Ironically, having eliminated many potential rivals from the electoral process, Democrats felt greater freedom to split on issues such as Prohibition.
As Southern historian John Boles points out, “this opened up white politics to influence by organized pressure groups, and by disenfranchising blacks and most dispossessed whites, politics was rendered safe enough to allow spirited debate . . . [and] the emergence of a bifactional politics that pitted . . . reform forces against the forces of the status quo.” In Texas, this meant the political initiative would be taken by a series of Progressive, reform-oriented speakers such as Pat Neff, Thomas B. Love and Sam Rayburn.
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.