The Populist movement of the late 1800s is a major topic in Kansas history. A brief glance at history books tells us that the populism of that era was more or less radical agrarianism. While this is basically true, the topic is far more complex than this.
What did the Populists believe? How did they try to achieve it? And what became of them? Lengthy books can be (and have been) written on the subject. This week and next, we’ll try to summarize the main points.
To begin with, what Populists advocated can be summed up as “economic reform.” Not all Populist leaders agreed on the precise reforms to be implemented, but there were several important common themes.
The major policies that most Populists agreed on were:
- Abolishing national banks.
- Establishing a graduated income tax.
- Preventing foreign ownership of land.
- Limiting the working day to eight hours.
- Freely coining silver to make currency more readily available.
- Giving the government control of railroads, telegraphs, and telephone companies.
Populists also typically agreed that senators should be directly elected by the people. At the time, senators were selected by the state legislatures.
The topics that proved to be slightly more controversial among the Populists tended to be non-economic reforms. However, the attention brought to bear on these issues during the movement tended to secure varying levels of reform in subsequent years. Examples of non-economic reforms advocated by sizable numbers of Populists included:
- Women’s suffrage.
- Equal justice for African-Americans.
- Term limits for the president and other elected officials.
The Origins of the Movement
Many historians have noted that Populism tended to flourish in areas where farmers suffered hardship, while the movement simply could not gain a foothold in areas where farmers were prosperous. This highlights one of the reasons that Populism’s stronghold was Kansas. Kansas had enjoyed favorable weather and a dramatic economic boom, climaxing in 1887, but drought and debt were defining features of the late 1880s and early 1890s. No other state had more mortgaged acres at the time. A glut of agricultural products could only fetch low prices, while railroad rates were soaring. Some farmers coped by moving to greener pastures; others demanded assistance from the state, as well as from the nation.
In the midst of this dissatisfaction with the way agricultural conditions were going was a dissatisfaction with corruption, both in the government and on Wall Street. Some reformers felt that Wall Street was practically running the federal government. Trust in either major political party was dwindling rapidly.
The immediate predecessor of the People’s Party, identified with the Populist movement, was the Farmers’ Alliance. The Alliance in turn had arisen out of the Grange, originally a secret society dedicated to the education and social enrichment of rural residents. Grange members in various states often pooled their money to receive discounts on farm equipment and purchase their own grain elevators. After the nationwide economic fiasco known as the Panic of 1873, caused by rampant speculation on railroads and other enterprises, the Grange became a lobbying organization advocating increased government regulation in affairs affecting the farmer, such as shipping rates.
The Farmers’ Alliance was first established in Texas in 1874 to protect land titles and capture horse thieves. In 1889, the Kansas Farmers’ Alliance arose from the ruins of the Grange, which had been beset by financial difficulties and warring factions. This organization at first sought to promote the interests of the farmer without entering into politics, but the 1890 elections stirred it into further action. A March convention held in Topeka saw county Alliance presidents demanding reduced railroad rates, direct election of senators, and laws to give farmers more time to pay mortgages, among other reforms.
Later that year, the People’s Party was organized in Topeka to provide candidates that were pledged to carry out precisely the types of reforms that the Alliance demanded. This party came to national attention over the course of the next few years as suspicions grew that both the Democrat and the Republican parties had sold themselves out to big business.
Some reformers began to talk of combining all the various state Farmers’ Alliances to establish their own political party, dedicated to the farmer and the laboring man. In 1892, a convention was held in Omaha, Nebraska, to establish the national People’s Party. The platform that was adopted embodied most of the principles listed above in which the Populists were unanimous. The People’s Party also nominated James Weaver as their presidential candidate. The fledgling party was ready for the campaign trail.