Who Were the Populists?

The People's Party, or Populist Party, was a 19th century American political group mainly comprised of Southern white farmers hoping to counteract the political dominance of the wealthy. The Populist movement was heavily concentrated in Georgia in the 1890s after declining cotton prices threatened economic stability.

In the late 1800s, farmers suffered repeated setbacks, including droughts in the Midwest and increasing reliance on moneylenders. The National Farmers' Alliance and the Colored Farmers' Alliance formed to advocate for agrarian rights. They believed farmers were disadvantaged by a commerce system that favored the industries responsible for their mounting debts, such as banking and rail companies.

The Alliance appealed to the federal government, aiming to restore the floundering cotton industry by proposing relief plans and trade reforms that would drive inflation. Lack of government support spurred the Populist movement, which gained widespread visibility through the presidential campaign of candidate James B. Weaver in 1892. The Populists attracted white and black followers from the South and Midwest and worked to undermine Democratic influence by polarizing voters.

The party's decline began when Populist leader and vice presidential candidate Tom Watson tried to recruit more black voters. Watson sparked resentment from white farmers by advocating for reform of prison programs that targeted blacks, including a system that allowed mining companies to lease convicts. Repeated losses and alleged Democratic corruption at the polls prevented many Populist leaders from obtaining high political positions. After 1896, Populism continued to die out because many Democrats who sympathized with the Populists were threatened by the party's challenge to white control.