Which Will Win?
Source: New York Graphic, 14 August 1873
In the late 1800s, the United States experienced a tremendous growth in industrialization. Led by oil, steel, and other manufacturing industries, the United States had become the world’s leading producer of manufactured goods by 1900. The value of American exports tripled from 1870 to 1900 as America went from a debtor to a creditor nation. National wealth and national income skyrocketed. It was the age that amassed fortunes for John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Commodore Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, James B. Duke, and E. H. Harriman, to name a few. Before 1860 there were few millionaires in the United States, but by 1900 there were more than four thousand. Yet in the midst of all this industrial growth and production of wealth, almost ten million Americans, or about one out of eight people, lived in poverty.
Among the Americans left out of the prosperity were the farmers who experienced difficult economic times. An article in the April 28, 1887, edition of the Progressive Farmer magazine accurately summed up the attitude of farmers:
There is something radically wrong in our industrial system. There is a screw loose. The wheels have dropped out of balance. The railroads have never been so prosperous, and yet agriculture languishes. The banks have never done a better or more profitable business, and yet agriculture languishes. Manufacturing enterprises never made more money or were in a more flourishing condition, and yet agriculture languishes. Towns and cities flourish and ‘boom’ and grow and ‘boom,’ and yet agriculture languishes. Salaries and fees were never so temptingly high and desirable, and yet agriculture languishes.
Farmers believed that their economic demise resulted from the low prices which they received for their produce. Statistics validate their belief as the price of agricultural produce did fall drastically during the closing decades of the 19th century. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 1870 to 1897, wheat prices fell from $1.06 a bushel to 63¢ a bushel, corn from 43¢ to 30¢ a bushel, and cotton from 15¢ a pound to 6¢ a pound. Most of the time farmers received even less for their produce.
Farmers refused to admit it, but the primary cause of their problem was overproduction caused by increases in acreage of farm land and increased yields per acre due to improved farming methods generated by newly created agricultural colleges. Thus, farmers produced more than consumer demand, and prices fell to a point that farmers barely made a profit. Farmers, however, came to believe that their chief problem was not the market dynamics of supply and demand but that they sold goods in a free market and purchased goods in a protected and monopolistic market. They primarily zeroed in on two villains – banks and railroads. In their view banks charged outrageous interest rates, and monopolistic railroads not only charged outrageous rates but their rates were unfair and arbitrary in that the railroads charged farmers higher rates than they charged fellow industrialists.
In an attempt to improve their condition, farmers in the 1870s decided to organize. They created numerous organizations including the Patrons of Husbandry or Grange, the National Farmers’ Alliance, the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, and the Southern Alliance. Working within existing political parties, farmers attempted to bring about political change. They managed to gain control of several state legislatures and to enact state laws which regulated railroads. At first the U. S. Supreme Court in Munn v. Illinois upheld these laws of railroad regulation, but in the late 1880s the court reversed itself and either declared state regulatory laws unconstitutional or took most of the starch out of them.
Frustrated by the reversal of the court and their inability to get either major political party to adopt their agenda, farmers in 1890 decided to field candidates for state and national offices under diverse party labels. Farm leaders surprised themselves by gaining partial or complete control of twelve state legislatures and by electing six governors, three senators, and approximately fifty congressmen.
Elated over their success, the agrarian leaders decided it was time to create a national farm and labor party. Accordingly in July 1892, they held a convention in Omaha, Nebraska. The agrarians created the People’s or Populist Party, drafted a platform, and nominated James B. Weaver for president and James G. Field for vice president. The Omaha platform of 1892 concisely documented the grievances and demands of farmers. It was also one of the most radical platforms to this point in American history. Among other things, it called for government ownership and operation of the railroad, telephone, and telegraph systems.
Third parties have never won national elections and the Populist Party was no exception. Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate in 1892, won the presidency, but Weaver did poll more than a million popular votes and twenty-two electoral votes. In the 1896 presidential election, the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan and adopted a platform that included several planks from the 1892 Populist platform. After much discussion, Populist leaders decided to support Bryan and in so doing, signed the death warrant of the Populist Party. Bryan lost three presidential elections as the nominee of the Democratic Party.
Populist Party fades away
Nevertheless, in their eyes Populists had made a good showing and thus believed they would ultimately triumph. However, Populist results at the polls in elections from 1892 to 1898 were, at best, terribly disappointing. In 1898 cotton prices fell below the cost of production, yet in the congressional elections that year, Populist candidates received fewer votes than in previous elections. In 1900 William McKinley, the Republican candidate for president, received more votes than Wharton Barker, the Populist candidate. For all practical purposes, Populism had died.
In the late 19th century, the Populist Party arose out of agrarian economic and political protest, was short lived, and passed into history. Yet, in time, it achieved most of its platform. At the national level, the presidential administration of Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) and the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) enacted most of the Populist demands into law.
Adapted from an article by Kenneth G. McCarty, Ph.D., history professor emeritus, University of Southern Mississippi, and editor of The Journal of Mississippi History, a quarterly publication of the Mississippi Historical Society.
Populist Party Platform (1892)
The People's party, more commonly known as the Populist party, was organized in St. Louis in 1892 to represent the common folk—especially farmers—against the entrenched interests of railroads, bankers, processors, corporations, and the politicians in league with such interests. At its first national convention in Omaha in July 1892, the party nominated James K. Weaver for president and ratified the so-called Omaha Platform, drafted by Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota.
Assembled upon the 116th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the People's Party of America, in their first national convention, invoking upon their action the blessing of Almighty God, put forth in the name and on behalf of the people of this country, the following preamble and declaration of principles:
The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench.1
The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires. The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bond-holders; a vast public debt payable in legal-tender currency has been funded into gold-bearing bonds, thereby adding millions to the burdens of the people.
Silver, which has been accepted as coin since the dawn of history, has been demonetized to add to the purchasing power of gold by decreasing the value of all forms of property as well as human labor, and the supply of currency is purposely abridged to fatten usurers, bankrupt enterprise, and enslave industry. A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.
We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, ever issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.
Assembled on the anniversary of the birthday of the nation, and filled with the spirit of the grand general and chief who established our independence, we seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of the ''plain people,'' with which class it originated. We assert our purposes to be identical with the purposes of the National Constitution; to form a more perfect union and establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. . . .
Our country finds itself confronted by conditions for which there is not precedent in the history of the world; our annual agricultural productions amount to billions of dollars in value, which must, within a few weeks or months, be exchanged for billions of dollars' worth of commodities consumed in their production; the existing currency supply is wholly inadequate to make this exchange; the results are falling prices, the formation of combines and rings, the impoverishment of the producing class. We pledge ourselves that if given power we will labor to correct these evils by wise and reasonable legislation, in accordance with the terms of our platform. We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teaching of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land. . . .
We declare, therefore—
First.—That the union of the labor forces of the United States this day consummated shall be permanent and perpetual; may its spirit enter into all hearts for the salvation of the republic and the uplifting of mankind.
Second.—Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. ''If any will not work, neither shall he eat.'' The interests of rural and civil labor are the same; their enemies are identical.
Third.—We believe that the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads; and should the government enter upon the work of owning and managing all railroads, we should favor an amendment to the constitution by which all persons engaged in the government service shall be placed under a civil-service regulation of the most rigid character, so as to prevent the increase of the power of the national administration by the use of such additional government employees.
FINANCE.—We demand a national currency, safe, sound, and flexible issued by the general government only, a full legal tender for all debts, public and private, and that without the use of banking corporations; a just, equitable, and efficient means of distribution direct to the people, at a tax not to exceed 2 per cent, per annum, to be provided as set forth in the sub-treasury plan of the Farmers' Alliance, or a better system; also by payments in discharge of its obligations for public improvements.
We demand free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1.
We demand that the amount of circulating medium2 be speedily increased to not less than $50 per capita.
We demand a graduated income tax.
We believe that the money of the country should be kept as much as possible in the hands of the people, and hence we demand that all State and national revenues shall be limited to the necessary expenses of the government, economically and honestly administered. We demand that postal savings banks be established by the government for the safe deposit of the earnings of the people and to facilitate exchange.
TRANSPORTATION.—Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people. The telegraph and telephone, like the post-office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the government in the interest of the people.
LAND.—The land, including all the natural sources of wealth, is the heritage of the people, and should not be monopolized for speculative purposes, and alien ownership of land should be prohibited. All land now held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs, and all lands now owned by aliens should be reclaimed by the government and held for actual settlers only.
Expressions of Sentiments
Your Committee on Platform and Resolutions beg leave unanimously to report the following: Whereas, Other questions have been presented for our consideration, we hereby submit the following, not as a part of the Platform of the People's Party, but as resolutions expressive of the sentiment of this Convention.
RESOLVED, That we demand a free ballot and a fair count in all elections and pledge ourselves to secure it to every legal voter without Federal Intervention, through the adoption by the States of the unperverted Australian or secret ballot system.
RESOLVED, That the revenue derived from a graduated income tax should be applied to the reduction of the burden of taxation now levied upon the domestic industries of this country.
RESOLVED, That we pledge our support to fair and liberal pensions to ex-Union soldiers and sailors.
RESOLVED, That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.
RESOLVED, That we cordially sympathize with the efforts of organized workingmen to shorten the hours of labor, and demand a rigid enforcement of the existing eight-hour law on Government work, and ask that a penalty clause be added to the said law.
RESOLVED, That we regard the maintenance of a large standing army of mercenaries, known as the Pinkerton system, as a menace to our liberties, and we demand its abolition. . . .
RESOLVED, That we commend to the favorable consideration of the people and the reform press the legislative system known as the initiative and referendum.
RESOLVED, That we favor a constitutional provision limiting the office of President and Vice-President to one term, and providing for the election of Senators of the United States by a direct vote of the people.
RESOLVED, That we oppose any subsidy or national aid to any private corporation for any purpose.
RESOLVED, That this convention sympathizes with the Knights of Labor and their righteous contest with the tyrannical combine of clothing manufacturers of Rochester, and declare it to be a duty of all who hate tyranny and oppression to refuse to purchase the goods made by the said manufacturers, or to patronize any merchants who sell such goods.
1. A valuable white fur adorning the robes of some judges.
2. Currency and/or coin.
[From ''People's Party Platform,'' Omaha Morning World-Herald , 5 July 1892.]