Populist Party

Populist Party

The Populist Party (originally the People's Party) was established in 1891 when the Knights of Labor and Farmers' Alliance joined forces. The party advocated the public ownership of the railroads, steamship lines and telephone and telegraph systems. It also supported the free and unlimited coinage of silver, the abolition of national banks, a system of graduated income tax and the direct election of United States Senators.

William Peffer of Kansas and Tom Watson of Georgia became the party's first Senators in 1891. The following year, the party's presidential candidate, James Weaver, received 1,041,028 votes and won four states. In the mid-term elections of 1894 the party received 1,400,000 votes and elected six Senators and seven Representatives.

In the 1896 presidential election the leaders of the Populist Party entered into talks with William J. Bryan, the proposed Democratic Party candidate. They thought they had an agreement that Tom Watson would become Bryan's running mate. After giving their support to Bryan he announced that Arthur Sewall, a conservative politician with a record of hostility towards trade unions, would be his vice presidential choice. This created a split in the Populist Party, some refused to support Bryan whereas others, such as Mary Lease, reluctantly campaigned for him.

The defeat of William J. Bryan severely damaged the Populist Party. While Populists continued to hold power in a few Western states, the party ceased to be a factor in national politics.

Under the leadership of Tom Watson the party moved to the right. He denounced socialism and called for the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan. He was the party's presidential candidate in 1904 but won only 117,183 votes. The party's fortunes continued to decline and in the 1908 presidential campaign, attracted only 29,100 votes.

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Primary Sources

(1) Ignatius Donnelly, The Representative (10th June, 1896)

Mrs. Lease, on June 3, made a grand speech of two and a half hours, before an immense crowd at Dodge Center. The next night she addressed an extemproized meeting at Kasson. Steps should be taken to keep her in Minnesota until election day, if it is possible. She makes hundreds of votes wherever she speaks. The only danger is of break-down. She is over-zealous and forgets herself in her earnestness. Our friends must not let her work herself to death. See that she is well entertained and has plenty of rest between speeches.

(2) Annie Diggs, Arena Magazine (July, 1892)

Mrs. Lease was educated a Catholic, but thought herself out of that communion, and is now not over-weighted with reverence for the clergy of any sect. She not infrequently rouses their ire by her stinging taunts as to their divergence from the path marked out by their professed Master, whose first concern was for the poor and needy.

In the campaign of 1890 she made speeches so full of fiery eloquence, of righteous wrath, and fierce denunciation of the oppressors, that she became the delight of the people of the new party and the detestation of the followers of the old. Seldom, if ever, was a woman so vilified and so misrepresented by malignant newspaper attacks. A woman of other quality would have sunk under the avalanche. She was quite competent to cope with all that was visited upon her. Indeed, the abuse did her much service. The people but loved her the more for the enemies she made.

Her chiefest distinguishing gift is her powerful voice; deep and resonant, its effect is startling and controlling. Her speeches are philippics. She hurls sentences as Jove hurled thunderbolts.

(3) Mary Lease, speech at Cooper Union Hall (12th August, 1896)

I accept this splendid greeting from this splendid audience in evidence that there is no Mason and Dixon's line between the East and the West. I accept it as an evidence of the fact that the people of the East and West are battling for a common cause against a common foe. Not since the bleeding years of the war have party lines been so nearly obliterated, and the obedience to party leaders so refused as at the present time. The heart of the nation is aroused, and Principle and not Self is the watchword. The great heart of the nation beats response to patriotism, and the nation is safe.

We stand today at the beginning of one of those revolutionary periods that mark an advance of the race. We stand at a period that marks a reformation. All history is illustrated by the fact that new liberties cannot exist with old tyrannies. New ideals ever seek new manifestations. The ideals of Christ could not live under the tyrannies of the Roman government. The ideals of the founders of this Government could not exist under the tyrannies of royal rule.

The grand principles of Socialism and the brotherhood of man cannot live under old forms of tyranny - neither under the forms of Old-World tyranny nor of British gold.

Yet today our splendid theory of government is confronted by a great peril. We have become blind to evils that menace us. We are confronted with glutted markets and idle labor. It is a condition that makes it possible for a few men to become landlords of a proud city like this while God's poor are packed in the slums. Such a condition is not only a menace to Republican institutions, but a travesty upon the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It makes it possible, too, for an American to pay $10,000,000 for the cast-off, disreputable rags of old world royalty, for the scion of a house that boasts the blood of a Jeffreys and a Marlborough. It is a disgrace to our nation.

A condition by which the wealth accumulated by the common people is poured into lard tubs and oil wells, to enable Mr. Rockefeller to found a college and Mr. Whitney to buy a diamond tiara for his daughter is a disgrace to the country.

Once we made it our boast that this nation was not founded upon any class distinction. But now we are not only buying diamonds for their wives and daughters and selling our children to titled debauchees, but we are setting aside our Constitution and establishing a gold standard to help the fortunes of our hereditary foe.

Today, a determined and systematic effort is being made by our financiers to perpetuate a gold standard. Every influence that moulds public opinion has been bought up, and the great dailies in the employ of the gold syndicate have fallen into line. The whole power of the government administration is being used to deceive the people. We hear sound money and honest dollar applied to the most dishonest money that ever cursed a nation or enslaved a people. What right has McKinley or Whitney to delegate our constitutional right to coin money to England or any other nation?"

An organized effort is making to deceive the people. There are two great enemies of thought and progress, the aristocracy of royalty and the aristocracy of gold. Long ago, the aristocracy of royalty came to a common plane with the common people by the discovery of gunpowder, and the two met on a common field. Where is the respect of old for royalty? Even the English speak of their sovereign, Queen Victoria as being made not of common clay, but of common mud. The aristocracy of royalty is dying out.

But here in this country we find in place of an aristocracy of royalty an aristocracy of wealth. Far more dangerous to the race is it than the aristocracy of royalty. It is the aristocracy of gold that disintegrates society, destroys individuals and has ruined the proudest nations. It has called Rothschild's agent here to make the platform of the Republican party.

(4) Henry Demarest Lloyd, Review of Reviews (September, 1896)

The Populist gathering of this year lacked the drill and distinction and wealth of the Republican convention held the month before in the same building. It had not the ebullient aggressiveness of the revolutionary Democratic assembly at Chicago, nor the brilliant drivers who rode the storm there. Every one commented on the number of gray heads - heads many of them grown white in previous independent party movements. The delegates were poor men. Cases are well known of delegates who walked because too poor to pay their railroad fare. It was one day discovered that certain members of one of the most important delegations were actually suffering for food. They had no regular sleeping place, having had to save what money they had for their nickel meals at the lunch counter.

(5) Theodore Roosevelt, Review of Reviews (September, 1896)

Mr. Watson really ought to be the first man on the ticket, with Mr. Bryan second; for he is much the superior in boldness, in thorough-going acceptance of his principles according to their logical conclusions, and in sincerity of faith. Mr. Watson belongs to that school of southern Populists who honestly believe that the respectable and commonplace people who own banks, railroads, dry goods stores, factories, and the like, are persons of mental and social attributes that unpleasantly distinguish Heliogabalus, Nero, Caligula, and other worthies of later Rome. If he got the chance he would lash the nation with a whip of scorpions, while Bryan would be content with the torture or ordinary thongs.

(6) Rocky Mountain News (25th July, 1896)

The nomination of Thomas E. Watson for the vice presidency by the Populists complicates the situation in an unfortunate degree. It may be believed that the middle-of-the-road division, which has been opposed to Bryan, is highly pleased at the turn of affairs. At this writing it is impossible to tell what turn matters may take.

(7) Tom Watson, quoted in the New York World (28th September, 1896)

The menace which endangers Mr. Bryan's success today is the profound dissatisfaction which exists among the humble, honest, earnest Populists who have built up the People's party. Through storms of abuse and ridicule these men have fought the battles of Populism, preached its gospel, paid its expenses and followed its progress with the hopeful devotion of the Israelite who followed the pillar of fire through the nights of dreary trial. Deep down in the hearts of men who want no office and hunger for no pie, is settling the conviction that they have been tricked, sold out, betrayed, misled... If McKinley is elected the responsibility will forever rest upon those managers who had it in their power to control by fair means 2,000,000 votes and lost them by violating the terms of the compact.

Last updated: 27th May, 2002