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People's Party (United States)

People's Party
Founded 1891 (1891)
Dissolved 1908 (1908)
Ideology Populism
Political position Left-wing
International affiliation None
Colors Blue
Politics of the United States
Political parties

The People's Party, also known as the "Populists", was a short-lived political party on the left in the United States. It was established in 1891 during the Populist movement. It was most important in 1892-96, and then rapidly faded away. Based among poor, white cotton farmers in the South (especially North Carolina, Alabama, and Texas) and hard-pressed wheat farmers in the plains states (especially Kansas and Nebraska), it represented a radical crusading form of agrarianism and hostility to banks, cities, railroads, gold, and elites generally. It sometimes formed coalitions with labor unions in the North and with the Republican Party in the South. Its strongest election came in 1894. In 1896 the Populists endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, but added their own vice presidential nominee. They lost their distinctive identity and faded away. The terms "populist" and "populism" are commonly used In the 21st century for anti-elitist appeals in opposition to established interests and mainstream parties, and may refer to the left or right.


  • History 1
    • Formation 1.1
    • Presidential election of 1896 1.2
    • Fading fortunes 1.3
    • Reorganization 1.4
  • Debate by historians over Populism 2
  • Elected officials 3
    • Governors 3.1
    • United States Congress 3.2
  • See also 4
  • Footnotes 5
  • References and further reading 6
  • External links 7
    • Contemporary accounts 7.1
    • Party publications and materials 7.2
    • Secondary sources 7.3



People's Party candidate nominating convention held at Columbus, Nebraska, July 15, 1890.

A People's Party grew out of a large mood of agrarian unrest in response to low agricultural prices in the South and the trans-Mississippi West.[1] The Farmers' Alliance, formed in Lampasas, Texas in 1876, promoted collective economic action by farmers and achieved widespread popularity in the South and Great Plains. The Farmers' Alliance ultimately did not achieve its wider economic goals of collective economic action against brokers, railroads, and merchants, and many in the movement advocated 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 high deflation in agricultural prices in relation to other goods such as farm implements.

In 1886, a "People's Party" elected some members to the Wisconsin State Assembly and Wisconsin State Senate; but this was a labor party, and by the 1888 elections was using the Union Labor Party label.

In December 1888 the National Agricultural Wheel and the Southern Farmer’s Alliance met at Meridian, Mississippi where the national farmers convention was held that current year. In that meeting they decided to consolidate the two parties pending ratification. This consolidation gave the organization a new name, the Farmers and Laborers’ Union of America, and by 1889 the merger had been ratified, although there were conflicts between “conservative” Alliance men and “political” Wheelers in Texas and Arkansas, which delayed the unification in these states until 1890 and 1891 respectively. The merger eventually united white Southern Alliance and Wheel members, but it would not include African American members of agricultural organizations.[2]

During their move towards consolidation in 1889, the leaders of both Southern Farmers’ Alliance and the Agricultural Wheel organizations contacted Terence V. Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor. “This contact between leaders of the farmers’ movement and Powderly helped pave the way for a series of reform conferences held between December 1889 and July 1892 that resulted in the formation of the national People’s (or Populist) Party.”[3]

1892 People's Party campaign poster promoting James Weaver for President of the United States.

The drive to create a new political party out of the movement arose from the belief that the two major parties Democrats and Republicans were controlled by bankers, landowners and elites hostile to the needs of the small farmer. The movement reached its peak in 1892 when the party held a convention chaired by Frances Willard (leader of the WCTU and a friend of Powderly's)[4] 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. Success was often obtained through electoral fusion, with the Democrats outside the South, but with alliances with the Republicans in Southern states like Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.[5] For example, in the elections of 1894, a coalition of Populists and Republicans led by Populist Marion Butler swept state and local offices in North Carolina, and the coalition would go on to elect Republican Daniel Lindsay Russell as Governor in 1896.[6]

Quite separate from the Populists were the Silverites in the western mining states, who demanded Free silver to solve the Panic of 1893.

The Populists followed the Marion Butler, a United States Senator from North Carolina, at least partially demonstrated a dedication to the cause of white supremacy, and there appears to have been some support for this viewpoint among the rank-and-file of the party's membership.[7] After 1900 Watson himself became an outspoken white supremacist and became the party's presidential nominee in 1904 and 1908, winning 117,000 and 29,000 votes.

Presidential election of 1896

In 1896, the 36-year old William Jennings Bryan was the chosen candidate resulting from the fusion of the Democrats and the People's Party

By 1896, the Democratic Party took up many of the People's Party's causes at the national level, and the party began to fade from national prominence. In that year's presidential election, the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, who focused (as Populists rarely did) on the free silver issue as a solution to the economic depression and the maldistribution of power. One of the great orators of the day, Bryan generated enormous excitement among Democrats with his "Cross of Gold" speech, and appeared in the summer of 1896 to have a good chance of winning the election, if the Populists voted for him.

The Populists had the choice of endorsing Bryan or running their own candidate. After great infighting at their St. Louis convention they decided to endorse Bryan but with their own vice presidential nominee,

  • Farmers, the Populist Party, and Mississippi (1870-1900). By Kenneth G. McCarty. Published by Mississippi History Now a project of the Mississippi Historical Society. Retrieved August 24, 2006.
  • The Populist Party in Nebraska. Published by the, a project of the Nebraska Department of Education.
  • Fusion Politics. The Populist Party in North Carolina. A project of the John Locke Foundation. Retrieved August 24, 2006.
  • The Decline of the Cotton Farmer. Anecdotal account of rise and fall of Farmers Alliance and Populist Party in Texas.

Secondary sources

  • The People's Advocate (1892-1900), digitized copies of the Populist Party's newspaper in Washington State, from The Labor Press Project.
  • Populist Cartoon Index. Archived at Missouri State University. Retrieved August 24, 2006.
  • Buttons, tokens and ribbons of the Populist Party. Reprinted from Issue 19, Buttons and Ballots, Fall 1998. Retrieved August 26, 2006.
  • People's Party Hand-Book of Facts. Campaign of 1898: Electronic Edition. Populist Party (N.C.). State Executive Committee. Reformated and reprinted by the University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Populist materials online courtesy University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Party publications and materials

  • Trent, W. P. (January 1897). "Dominant Forces in Southern Life". The Atlantic monthly (University of Northern Iowa) 79 (471): 42–53. Retrieved 2006-10-09. 
  • Peffer, Senator William A. (January 1898). "The Passing of the People's Party". The North American review (University of Northern Iowa) 166 (494): 12–24. Retrieved 2006-10-09. 

Contemporary accounts

  • 40 original Populist cartoons, primary sources
  • Peffer, William A. "The Mission of the Populist Party," The North American Review (Dec 1993) v. 157 #445 pp 665–679; full text online. important policy statement by leading Populist senator
  • 96 p.People's Party Hand-Book of Facts. Campaign of 1898, official party pamphlet for North Carolina election of 1898
  • Populist, republican and Democratic cartoons, 189s election, primary sources
  • Populist Party timeline and texts; edited by Professor Edwards, secondary and primary sources

External links

  • Beeby, James M. Revolt of the Tar Heels: The North Carolina Populist Movement, 1890–1901 (2008) ISBN 978-1-60473-001-2
  • Clanton, Gene. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900 (1991).
  • Formisano, Ronald P. For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s (2009), populist movements flourished long before People's Party began
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. (1978). ISBN 0-19-502417-6
  • Hackney, Sheldon, ed. Populism: The Critical Issues (1971), excerpts from scholars
  • Hicks, John D. "The Sub-Treasury: A Forgotten Plan for the Relief of Agriculture". Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Dec., 1928), pp. 355–373. in JSTOR.
  • Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party (1931). Stresses geographical environment that turned harsh and radicalized wheat farmers
  • Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New (1995). (ISBN 0-465-03793-3)
  • Knoles, George Harmon. "Populism and Socialism, with Special Reference to the Election of 1892," Pacific Historical Review, vol. 12, no. 3 (Sept. 1943), pp. 295–304. In JSTOR
  • Lester, Connie. Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, And Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915. University of Georgia Press, 2006.
  • McMath, Robert C., Jr. American Populism: A Social History, 1877-1898. (1993).
  • Miller, Worth Robert. "A Centennial Historiography of American Populism." Kansas History 1993 16(1): 54-69. Issn: 0149-9114 online edition
  • Miller, Worth Robert. "Farmers and Third-Party Politics in Late Nineteenth Century America," in Charles W. Calhoun, ed. The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America (1995) online edition
  • Nugent, Walter T. K. The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1962.
  • Peterson, James. "The Trade Unions and the Populist Party," Science & Society, vol. 8, no. 2 (Spring 1944), pp. 143–160. In JSTOR.
  • Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision (2007).
  • Stock, Catherine McNicol. Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 1996. (ISBN 0-8014-3294-4)
  • Woodward, C. Vann. Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938) online edition
  • Woodward, C. Vann. "Tom Watson and the Negro in Agrarian Politics," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Feb., 1938), pp. 14–33 in JSTOR

References and further reading

  1. ^ Foner, Eric (2005). Give Me Liberty! An American History, Volume Two Second Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London.
  2. ^ Hild, Matthew (2007). Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists, Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South. The University of Georgia Press, Athens & London.
  3. ^ Hild, Matthew (2007). Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists, Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South.The University of Georgia Press, Athens & London, p. 123.
  4. ^ Gusfield, Joseph (1963). Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement The University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago & London, p. 78, 93.
  5. ^
  6. ^ William S. Powell, "Marion Butler", Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (1979)
  7. ^ James L. Hunt, Marion Butler and American Populism (2003), pp. 3-7
  8. ^ James L. Hunt, Marion Butler and American Populism (2003), pp. 4-6.
  9. ^ R. Hal Williams, Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 0000 (2010)
  10. ^ Eric Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872-1901 (1981).
  11. ^ Connie L. Lester, Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915 (2007)
  12. ^ For a summary or how historians approach the topic see Worth Robert Miller, "A Centennial Historiography of American Populism." Kansas History 1993 16(1): 54-69.
  13. ^ See Worth Robert Miller, "The Republican Tradition," in Miller, Oklahoma Populism: A History of the People's Party in the Oklahoma Territory (1987) online edition
  14. ^ Gene Clanton, Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900 (1991) p, xv
  15. ^ Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, (1920) p. 148; online edition
  16. ^ Martin Ridge, "Populism Revolt: John D. Hicks and The Populist Revolt," Reviews in American History 13 (March 1985): 142-54.
  17. ^ C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938); Woodward, "Tom Watson and the Negro in Agrarian Politics," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Feb., 1938), pp. 14-33 in JSTOR
  18. ^ Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955)
  19. ^ Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (2007)
  20. ^ Hasia R. Diner (2004). The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000. U. of California Press. p. 170. 


See also

57th United States Congress

  • William Ledyard Stark, Nebraska's 4th congressional district
  • Roderick Dhu Sutherland, Nebraska's 5th congressional district
  • William Laury Greene, Nebraska's 6th congressional district
  • John W. Atwater, North Carolina's 4th congressional district

56th United States Congress

55th United States Congress

54th United States Congress

53rd United States Congress

52nd United States Congress

The following were Populist members of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Approximately forty-five members of the party served in the U.S. Congress between 1891 and 1902. These included six United States Senators:

United States Congress


Elected officials

Some Populists believed that Jews made up a class of international financiers whose policies had ruined small family farms, they asserted, owned the banks and promoted the gold standard, the chief sources of their impoverishment. Agrarian radicalism posited the city as antithetical to American values, asserting that Jews were the essence of urban corruption.[20]

Populists saw the Panic of 1893 as confirmation that evil global conspiracies and big city villains were to blame. Historian Hasia Diner says:

Postel (2007) rejects the notion that the Populists were traditionalistic and anti-modern. Quite the reverse, he argued, the Populists aggressively sought self-consciously progressive goals. They sought diffusion of scientific and technical knowledge, formed highly centralized organizations, launched large-scale incorporated businesses, and pressed for an array of state-centered reforms. Hundreds of thousands of women committed to Populism seeking a more modern life, education, and employment in schools and offices. A large section of the labor movement looked to Populism for answers, forging a political coalition with farmers that gave impetus to the regulatory state. Progress, however, was also menacing and inhumane, Postel notes. White Populists embraced social-Darwinist notions of racial improvement, Chinese exclusion and separate-but-equal.[19]

George Wallace in the 1960s.

In the 1930s Woodrow Wilson pointed as having been vehement enemies of Populism, though William Jennings Bryan did cooperate with them and accepted the Populist nomination in 1896.[18]

The most influential Turner student of Populism was John D. Hicks, who emphasized economic pragmatism over ideals, presenting Populism as interest group politics, with have-nots demanding their fair share of America's wealth which was being leeched off by nonproductive speculators. Hicks emphasized the drought that ruined so many Kansas farmers, but also pointed to financial manipulations, deflation in prices caused by the gold standard, high interest rates, mortgage foreclosures, and high railroad rates. Corruption accounted for such outrages and Populists presented popular control of government as the solution, a point that later students of republicanism emphasized.[16]

The Farmers' Alliance and the Populist demand for government ownership of the railroad is a phase of the same effort of the pioneer farmer, on his latest frontier. The proposals have taken increasing proportions in each region of Western Advance. Taken as a whole, Populism is a manifestation of the old pioneer ideals of the native American, with the added element of increasing readiness to utilize the national government to effect its ends.[15]

Frederick Jackson Turner and a succession of western historians depicted the Populist as responding to the closure of the frontier. Turner explained:

Some historians see the populists as forward-looking liberal reformers. Others view them as reactionaries trying to recapture an idyllic and utopian past. For some they are radicals out to restructure American life, and for others they are economically hard-pressed agrarians seeking government relief. Much recent scholarship emphasizes Populism's debt to early American republicanism.[13] Clanton (1991) stresses that Populism was "the last significant expression of an old radical tradition that derived from Enlightenment sources that had been filtered through a political tradition that bore the distinct imprint of Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Lincolnian democracy." This tradition emphasized human rights over the cash nexus of the Gilded Age's dominant ideology.[14]

People's Party campaign poster from 1904 touting the candidacy of Thomas E. Watson.

Since the 1890s historians have vigorously debated the nature of Populism; most scholars have been liberals who admired the Populists for their attacks on banks and railroads. Some historians see a close link between the Populists of the 1890s and the progressives of 1900-1912, but most of the leading progressives (except Bryan himself) fiercely opposed Populism. For example, Robert LaFollette, William Allen White and Woodrow Wilson all strongly opposed Populism. It is debated whether any Populist ideas made their way into the Democratic party during the New Deal era. The New Deal farm programs were designed by experts (like Henry Wallace) who had nothing to do with Populism.[12]

Debate by historians over Populism

In 1904, the party was re-organized, and Thomas E. Watson was their nominee for president in 1904 and in 1908, after which the party disbanded again.


In 1900, while many Populist voters supported Bryan again, the weakened party nominated a separate ticket of Wharton Barker and Ignatius L. Donnelly, and disbanded afterwards. Populist activists either retired from politics, joined a major party, or followed Eugene Debs into his new Socialist Party.

Populism never recovered from the failure of 1896. For example, Tennessee’s Populist Party was demoralized by a diminishing membership, and puzzled and split by the dilemma of whether to fight the state-level enemy (the Democrats) or the national foe (the Republicans and Wall Street). By 1900 the People’s Party of Tennessee was a shadow of what it once was[11]

The effects of fusion with the Democrats were disastrous to the Party in the South. The Populist/Republican alliance which had governed North Carolina, the only state in which it had any success, fell apart. By 1898, the Democrats used a violently racist campaign to defeat the North Carolina Populists and GOP, and in 1900 the Democrats ushered in disfranchisement.[10]

Fading fortunes

[9] by a margin of 600,000 votes, and lost again in a rematch in 1900 by a larger margin.William McKinley Bryan's strength was based on the traditional Democratic vote (minus the middle class and the Germans); he swept the old Populist strongholds in the west and South, and added the silverite states in the west, but did poorly in the industrial heartland. He lost to Republican [8]

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