for Discussion: How do the Populists'
political demands illustrate the major
economic and social problems facing
American society in the 1890s?
Reading: Populist Party
Platform (web); Tom Watson
The Populist Movement and the
The Emergence of Modern Corporate
The Modern Farm Crisis and
the New Populism
Populist Political Movements
in the 1990s
1. The Farm Crisis and the
rise of Populism
2. The Populist Movement
3. Populism in Modern America
4. The Reform Party and American Populism
1. According to the Populists, what are the
to American society that are leading our "nation
to moral, political, and material ruin"?
2. What is the larger goal of the Populist
3. What are the Populists attitudes towards
and large corporations?
4. What are the major reforms that the Populists
will make America a more democratic society?
5. Do the Populists believe that the government
should support and subsidize large, national corporations?
6. Why does Thomas Watson believe that poor
and whites have common, not competing, interests?
7. According to Watson, what is the larger
racial division in the South?
8. Why does Watson believe that the Populists
solve the "Negro Problem" in the South?
9. What is William Sumner's attitude toward
reform movements like the Populists?
10. Why does Sumner believe that our industrial
society cannot easily be reformed?
11. According to Sumner, what is the larger
of the poverty and desperation of those who joined the Populist
12. Why does Sumner believe that economic
is more important than democracy to the health of
13. Do you agree with Sumner that industrialism
and economic growth dominate and control American
14. Do you think William Sumner and the Populists
have the same understanding of American democracy?
15. How would the Populists respond to Sumner's
argument that industrialism and economic growth control and
dominate our society and even determine and shape our democratic
What are the major political and
economic concerns raised by the Populists in the 1892 Populist
Party Platform? The Populists larger concern is that democracy
in the United States is threatened by the growth of large national
corporations and increasing inequality between the rich and the
poor. The Populists charge: "The fruits of the toil of millions
are boldly 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." The Populists
call for a people's movement to protect and save American democracy
from the monied interests and the millionaires. But
what are the specific political problems
that the Populists cite as proof of this conspiracy against democracy
and the American people?
Major Political Problems that the
Populists cite as proof of a wider "conspiracy" against
1) The Federal government keeping a
tight money supply which causes interest rates to be high, which
makes it difficult for farmers and poor Americans to pay their debts.
2) The railroad companies are exploiting
the public by charging outrageous rates to ship goods.
3) Taxes are unfairly burdening farmers
and small businesses, allowing large corporations and the wealthy
not to have to pay their fair share of the taxes.
4) Large corporations and investors
are buying up
and controlling huge tracts of farm land.
5) The open system of public voting
our democracy, because voters are being intimidated and forced to
vote for candidates they would
otherwise not freely vote for.
6) Large corporations and the government
denying workers the right to form unions and strike
for higher wages.
7) Large corporations are using private
security organizations like the Pinkertons to harass,
beat-up, and kill Union organizers and defeat strikes.
8) The Federal government is allowing
large numbers of immigrants to migrate to the United States
keeps workers wages low and prevents the growth of Unions.
9) Workers are being forced to work
12 to 14 hours
a day by large corporations, preventing workers from
taking proper care of their family and their duties as
10) High tariffs on European
manufactured goods force Americans to pay higher prices for
goods and consumer products. The high tariffs on
European goods limits free enterprise and allows American producers
to charge more for their goods.
11) State and local banks are charging
high interest rates, which makes it hard for farmers to borrow
the money they need to make their farms profitable. As a result
increasing numbers of farmers are going bankrupt in the 1890s.
12) Corruption and bribery by large
and the wealthy has corrupted state and federal governments
and threatens to undermine
Charge are at
the center of this conspiracy against
The Democratic and Republican
The Wealthy and Large Corporations
Merchants and Agricultural suppliers
Federal and State Governments
corrupted by "Big Money"
Let's now look at the larger causes
of the growth of the Populist party in the late 1800s. The Populist
political movement began as a movement of Western and Southern
small farmers in the 1880s. In the 1880s and 1890s, small farmers
were increasingly threatened with losing their farms and their
land. With the growth of a national market for grain in the 1880s,
farmers found that the price they received for their crops began
to fall. Despite their increasing success growing more crops,
farmers by the late 1880s faced a growing farm crisis. The Populist
movement grew out of this farm crisis.
Finding that the prices they receive
for their crops falling, farmers grew more crops and put more
land into production. They hoped that the money they got for increasing
their production would make up for the lower price they got for
their crops. But this didn't work. Instead, as farmers throughout
the country tried to expand production, it only increased the
surplus of grain on the market, which caused the price of grain
to fall even faster. This economic squeeze would have been bad
enough but small farmers found that they had to pay higher rates
to ship their crops to the railroads, higher prices for seed,
machinery, and supplies, and to pay off the money they were increasingly
forced to borrow from the banks. If the money they got for growing
their crops at the end of the year didn't pay their expenses,
then farmers would have to borrow money at the beginning of the
next year just to plant their crops, hoping that this year would
finally see enough profits to allow them to pay off their debts.
But because the price of grain continued to fall, many small farmers
faced bankruptcy and the loss of their farms.
Many small farmers blamed their problems
on the railroads, the banks, corrupt seed, machinery, and supply
corporations that gouged them, and state and federal government
for not protecting their interests. By the early 1890s, the failure
of so many small farms allowed large agricultural companies and
banks to buy up farm land cheaply and create large, corporate
farms. And, especially in the South, these large corporate farms
would hire these same farmers who had lost their land to bankruptcy
to now farm that land for these corporate landlords. These farmers
were now tenant farmers: they agreed to farm the land for the
landlord in return for half of the crop and to pay the landlord
for the seed, food, and supplies that he had lent the farmer at
the beginning of the year. But, if these small farmers couldn't
make it on their own, they found it even more impossible to be
successful as tenant farmers. At the end of the year, both black
and white tenant farmers found that they owed even more money
and were greater in debt than they were at the beginning of the
years. These farmers faced a bleak future, one dominated by debt
peonage to corporate farm landlords.
In the early 1890s, worried farmers
in the West and the South formed the Populist party, hoping to
win control of state and federal government and use that control
to protect their farms and way of life. In order to challenge
the Democratic and Republican parties, the Populists would have
to win the support of both White and Black farmers, industrial
workers, small businessmen, and even women. The Populists thus
reached out to poor White and Black farmers, arguing that they
should ignore their traditional racial animosities and join together
to challenge the power of the corporate elite that was destroying
their future. Tom Watson was one of the most prominent Populist
Party politician in the South. He spoke throughout the South trying
to convince poor Blacks and Whites to join together and challenge
the entrenched political power of the Southern Democratic elite.
In addition, to supporting and protecting
Black rights and interests, the Populists were forced to reach
out to the growing number of American workers in the industrial
cities. The Populists promised to support the right to form Unions,
to outlaw the use of private security organizations to intimidate
Union organizers and strikers, to mandate an eight hour day for
American workers, and to restrict immigration to protect the standard
of living of American workers. The Populists argued that American
farmers, workers, and small businessmen must join together to
challenge the growing power and corruption caused by the growth
of large corporations and the wealthy.
In addition to seeking the support
of Blacks and American workers, Populists tried to reach out to
American women. They supported granting women equal rights and
granting them the right to vote. Populists understood that many
American women worked on and owned farms, worked in factories,
and were suffering along side their husbands and men as a result
of the growing power of large corporations and the wealthy.
The Populists ran for national office
in 1892 and 1896 promising that they would create government control
of the railroads, they would regulate and prevent large corporations
from threatening the American people, they would expand the money
supply to allow Americans to pay their bills, they would mandate
the secret ballot and the popular election of U.S. Senators, and
they would make the government protect and promote the interests
of American farmers, workers, and small businessmen. The Populists
were determine to prevent the growing wealth and power of large
corporations and the wealthy from undermining American democracy,
free enterprise, equality of opportunity, and the American Dream
for all Americans.
The Populists political movement
was ultimately defeated in the national election of 1896. Republican
and Democratic politicians tried to absorb their supporters by
co-opting their issues and concerns. In addition, Southern Democratic
elites used violence and intimidation to take the vote away from
Blacks and divide poor Whites and Blacks in order to defeat the
Populist challenge to their continued rule and domination of the
South. And many American workers accepted the Republican and Democratic
argument that the only way to help the poor was to increase economic
growth. The election of 1896 was a watershed election in American
history. It was a choice between protecting an earlier rural,
non-industrial America of small farmers and small businessmen
and promoting an industrial, urban America dominated by large
corporation and the wealthy. With the defeat of the Populist political
movement, the Democratic and Republican parties and state and
federal governments have increasingly come to believe that by
supporting large corporations and economic growth that all Americans
will be better off. Large corporations and the wealthy, they argue,
will create more wealth and opportunity that will benefit all
Americans by providing jobs, wealth, and opportunities for advancement.