During the Panic of 1873 agricultural prices in the United States began to decline. The economic welfare of farmers suffered badly; many believed that the management of currency was at fault and that the government's currency policy was determined by Eastern bankers and industrialists. After attempts at independent political action failed (see Greenback party), loosely knit confederations called Farmers' Alliances were formed during the 1880s. Separate organizations were founded in the North and South, and Southern blacks organized their own alliances.
The Farmers' Alliances agitated for railroad regulation, tax reform, and unlimited coinage of silver and attempted to influence the established political parties. Growth was so rapid, however, that interest in a third party began to increase; in 1891 delegates from farm and labor organizations met in Cincinnati. No decision was made to form a political party, but when the Republican and Democratic parties both straddled the currency question at the 1892 presidential conventions, a convention was held at Omaha, and the Populist party was formed (1892).
The party adopted a platform calling for free coinage of silver, abolition of national banks, a subtreasury scheme or some similar system, a graduated income tax, plenty of paper money, government ownership of all forms of transportation and communication, election of Senators by direct vote of the people, nonownership of land by foreigners, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours, postal banks, pensions, revision of the law of contracts, and reform of immigration regulations. The goal of the Populists in 1892 was no less than that of replacing the Democrats as the nation's second party by forming an alliance of the farmers of the West and South with the industrial workers of the East. James B. Weaver was the Populist candidate for President that year, and he polled over 1,041,000 votes. The Populist votes in the 1894 congressional elections increased to 1,471,000 as the party gained momentum.
In 1896, while the Republican party adhered to the "sound money" platform, the Populists kept intact their platform of 1892; the Democratic party, however, adopted the plank of free coinage of silver and nominated William Jennings Bryan for President. Although the Populists tried to retain their independence by repudiating the Democratic vice presidential candidate, the Democratic party, helped by the eloquence of Bryan, captured the bulk of the Populist votes in 1896. The 1896 election undermined agrarian insurgency, and a period of rapidly rising farm prices helped to bring about the dissolution of the Populist party. Another important factor in the failure of the party was its inability to effect a genuine urban-rural coalition; its program had little appeal for wage earners of the industrial East.
See R. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955, repr. 1963); N. Pollack, ed., The Populist Mind (1967) and The Just Polity (1987); C. Beals, The Great Revolt and Its Leaders (1968).
The Populist Party (also known as the People's Party) was a relatively short-lived political party in the United States in the late 18th century. It flourished particularly among western farmers, based largely on its opposition to the gold standard. The party did not remain a lasting feature of the political landscape, though many of its ideas have. The very term "populist" has since become a generic term in U.S. politics for politics which appeals to the common in opposition to established interests.
At least three distinct American parties have used the term populist in their names since 1924. See "Recent Incarnations" section below.
The Populist Party grew out of the agrarian revolt that rose to the collapse of agriculture prices following the Panic of 1873. The Farmers' Alliance, formed in Lampasas, TX in 1876, promoted collective economic action by farmers and achieved widespread popularity in the South and Great Plains. The Farmers' Alliance was ultimately unable to achieve its wider economic goals of collective economic action against brokers, railroads, and merchants, and many in the movement agitated for changes in national policy. By the late 1880s, the Alliance had developed a political agenda that called for regulation and reform in national politics, most notably an opposition to the gold standard to counter the deflation in agricultural prices.
The drive to create a new political party out of the movement arose from the refusal of both Democrats and Republicans to take up and promote the policies advocated by the Alliance, notably in regard to the Populists' call for unlimited coinage of silver. The Populist Party was formed by members of the "Alliance", in conjunction with the Knights of Labor, in 1889–1890. The movement reached its peak in 1892 when the party held a convention in Omaha, Nebraska and nominated candidates for the national election.
The party's platform, commonly known as the Omaha Platform, called for the abolition of national banks, a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours and Government control of all railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. In the 1892 Presidential election, James B. Weaver received 1,027,329 votes. Weaver carried four states (Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada) and received electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota as well.
The party flourished most among farmers in the Southwest and Great Plains, as well as making significant gains in the South, where they faced an uphill battle given the firmly entrenched monopoly of the Democratic Party. Opposition to the gold standard was especially strong among western farmers, who viewed the inherent scarcity of gold (and its slow movement through the banking system) as an instrument of Eastern banking interests who could force mass bankruptcies among farmers in the west by instigating "credit crunches". Many western farmers rallied around the Populist banner in the belief that greenbacks not backed by a hard mineral standard would allow credit to flow more freely through rural regions. Free silver platform received widespread support across class lines in the Mountain states, where the economy was heavily dependent upon silver mining. The Populists were the first political party in the United States to actively include women in their affairs. At a time when cultural attitudes of white supremacy were permeating all aspects of American life, a number of southern Populists, including Thomas E. Watson, openly talked of the need for poor blacks and poor whites to set aside their racial differences in the name of shared economic self-interest. Regardless of these rhetoric appeals, however, racism did not evade the People's Party. In fact, after the party's disintegration, Watson himself later became an outspoken white supremacist.
In 1900, while many Populist voters supported Bryan again, the weakened party nominated a ticket of Wharton Barker and Ignatius L. Donnelly. Thomas E. Watson was the Populist nominee for president in 1904 and in 1908, after which the party effectively ceased to exist.
In addition, the Populist Party's call for the direct election of senators was realized in 1913 with the ratification of the seventeenth amendment.
The following were Populist members of the U.S. House of Representatives:
In the 1970s, a "People's Party" was established as a left-wing, anti-war coalition. It ceased to exist after 1976.