The Populists

By Kevin Baker

America’s farmers found themselves at their wits’ end by 1883. Most of the nation’s people still made their living off the land, but they found themselves boxed into peonage by nearly every other element of society.

The monopolistic pricing practices of merchants and railroads ate up their profits. They were hamstrung by the federal government’s decision to return to the gold standard after the Civil War, and the capricious demands of Wall Street that drained money not only out of rural banks but entire regions. They were bedeviled by the conundrum that the harder they worked, the more they produced, the less they had to show for it.

Every year, thousands of farmers found themselves sinking into a European-style serfdom. An early attempt to band together and do something for themselves, called “The Farmer’s Alliance,” began in Lampasas County, Texas in 1877, and spread quickly to Kansas, but now seemed to be running out of steam.

Enter the first Populist, a 36-year old, former tenant farmer from Mississippi. It was Daws’ brainstorm to make the Alliance an overtly political organization, with its own “People’s” or “Populist” platform, candidates, and party structure, but his real genius lay in his dazzling oratory, and his grasp of tactics.

Daws got the Alliance to appoint him “Traveling Lecturer,” and he spread the word by mouth and by foot, moving about the country, telling his fellow farmers what they had to do. He found a ready convert who had even more, a 34-year old Tennssean named William Lamb, who had all of 25 days of formal education but an unsurpassed talent for organization.

Together, Daws and Lamb were the spark the Alliance had been wanting, using the sweeping executive powers the farmers granted to them to bring hundred of thousands of new recruits into the fold. All told, they reached some 2 million people in 43 states—an accomplishment their leading historian, Lawrence Goodwyn, characterized as the most massive organizing drive of any citizen institution in nineteenth-century America.

Yet the Populists were never about their leaders. Like the corn, more seemed to spring up from the earth every year. They were about an idea—or rather, many idea, anything that might enable men to make a living off the land without losing every shred of human dignity. Over the years, they have been derided as nativist boobs, and worse, in part because of latter-day imitators, but at their best, at the beginning, they were staunchly anti-racist, and brought a firestorm of new idea into what had become a moribund American political system.

The Populists’ political program included government ownership of railroads and utilities, a graduated income tax, a new money system, direct election of U.S. senators, the secret ballot, laws to protect union organizing—and above all, some kind of regulation of the agricultural markets, to ensure farmers a decent return on their labors. Many of these ideas, of course, were taken up by subsequent, progressive movements and eventually adopted.

Time and fate worked against the Populists. They were undermined by an increasingly industrialized America—by an even greater trend, born of necessity and boredom, under which farmers streamed in off the land for centuries, all over the Western world. After running their own candidate for president in 1892, and winning numerous state, local, and even congressional elections, they were folded into William Jennings Bryan’s silver wing of the Democratic Party.

Their real legacy lived on in a thousand other ways, both more and less tangible. Here were men and women capable of standing in the hot sun for hours, listening to speeches about the ever-normal granary, and the sub-treasury system. Here were people willing to form collectives, cooperative stores, credit unions, and whatever other innovations it took to stand up to the faceless money men who would determine their fate.

“How is a democratic culture created?” asked Goodwyn, surveying the Populists’ massive rallies out on the lonely plains of Kansas and Texas.

“Apparently in such prosaic, powerful ways. When a farm family’s wagon crested a hill en route to a Fourth of July ‘Alliance Day’ encampment and the occupants looked back to see thousands of other families trailed out behind them in wagon trains, the thought that ‘the Alliance is the people and the people are together’ took on transforming possibilities. Such a moment—and the Alliance experience was to yield hundreds of them—instilled hope in hundreds of thousands of people who had been without it.”

American Greats Edited by Robert A. Wilson & Stanley Marcus
Public Affairs Press, a member of the Perseus Group