Populist candidate James Weaver did not become president in 1892, as most undoubtedly know. However, he did win 8.5% of the popular vote, which was considered an impressive amount for a third-party candidate. He also won the states of Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho.
The Populist movement was far more successful in some states than others. As previously mentioned, Populist strongholds tended to be states in which farmers were hard hit by drought and economic turmoil. One of these states was Kansas.
Populists in Power
When the Kansas People’s Party first organized in Topeka in 1890, it enjoyed considerable political success across the state. The lower house of the state legislature was taken by Populists. Rancher “Sockless Jerry” Simpson, the origin of whose nickname is clouded in myth but may have come from his association with poor farmers, won a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Long-time U.S. Senator John J. Ingalls, who had been involved in Kansas politics since the territorial days, lost his seat to Populist editor William Peffer.
In 1892, a People’s Party candidate became Kansas governor with the election of Lorenzo D. Lewelling. The party also won the upper house of the state legislature, while the lower house remained divided between Populists and Republicans, leading to a rather bizarre situation known as the Legislative War.
The “war” began as a dispute over election results. The Republicans claimed to have taken control of the Kansas House, while the Populists asserted that they had done so through election fraud, making the People’s Party the majority. At first, the two parties met in the same chamber at different times to pass legislation independently, but tension finally mounted to the point that the Populist members locked themselves into the House and the Republican members gained entry via sledgehammer. The Kansas Supreme Court eventually decided in favor of the Republicans.
Fusion and the End of the Populist Era
In many elections, Populist candidates won their offices through the support of the Democrats. In fact, in the Kansas elections of 1892, the state’s Democratic Party did not nominate its own candidates, but endorsed the People’s Party ticket instead. Thus, the precedent was early on established for joining forces with the older party in a move known as “fusion.”
This created a deep divide within the People’s Party, with one faction wanting to ride the coattails of the better established Democratic Party to victory and the other cautioning that fusion would be the end of the party. Populist Thomas E. Watson warned that “fusion means the Populist party will play Jonah, and [the Democrats] will play the whale.”
When William Jennings Bryan was nominated as the 1896 Democratic presidential candidate on a platform of free coinage of silver, the People’s Party was in a quandary. Their convention occurred after the Democratic convention, and it was clear that it was likely to be a divisive event. Never before had fusion been such an attractive option, but there was a sentiment that the Populists should demand recognition from the Democrats on more issues than simply silver.
Fusion was the course pursued by the majority of the People’s Party delegates when the votes were cast. Those against fusion attempted to organize a counter-rally and regain control of the convention, but the lights in the meeting hall abruptly went out. William Jennings Bryan became the Populist nominee for president. However, the People’s Party also took the unusual course of rejecting his Democratic running mate Arthur Sewall because he was a banker and railroad man and instead nominating Thomas Watson for vice president. This created a rather awkward situation, as Watson positively refused to campaign for Bryan, but was equally obstinate in declining to step aside for Sewall. All this time, the Republicans cheerfully announced that the Democrats had allied themselves with anarchists. William Jennings Bryan ultimately lost the presidency to Republican William McKinley.
A few antifusion members of the People’s Party held out for over a decade, but the party was officially disbanded in 1908.
Impacts of Populism on Subsequent Events
While antifusion Populists were certainly correct in their prediction that fusion would destroy the identity of the party, it was by no means the end of their philosophies. The Populist movement gradually morphed into the subsequent Progressive movement. Progressive candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, tended to support anti-trust legislation, federal regulation of private industry, and federal support for the farmer and the laborer.
During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt, while highly critical of the People’s Party, became an outspoken advocate of the Populist-friendly policy of trust-busting. Direct election of United States senators became a reality in 1912. The general notion that farmers and laborers should receive federal assistance during times of economic disaster became a concrete fact with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Thus, while the People’s Party did not achieve most of its ambitions itself, the movement marked the end of the Gilded Age and ushered in a new phase of federal government.
Legislative War Artifacts
More on the Legislative War, along with several artifacts on display at the Kansas Museum of History.