Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question 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
speech (web)

Daily Class Web Links

The Populist Movement and the Farmers Revolt

The Emergence of Modern Corporate

The Modern Farm Crisis and the New Populism

Populist Political Movements in the 1990s

Daily Class Outline

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

Daily Class Questions

1. According to the Populists, what are the major threats
to American society that are leading  our "nation to moral, political, and material ruin"?

2. What is the larger goal of the Populist movement?

3. What are the Populists attitudes towards the wealthy
and large corporations?

4. What are the major reforms that the Populists believe
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 blacks
and whites have common, not competing, interests?

7. According to Watson, what is the larger cause of
racial division in the South?

8. Why does Watson believe that the Populists can
solve the "Negro Problem"  in the South?

9. What is William Sumner's attitude toward social
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 cause
of the poverty and desperation of those who joined the Populist movement?

12. Why does Sumner believe that economic success
is more important  than democracy to the health of
American society?

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 institutions?

Daily Class Notes

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 democracy:

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 is threatening
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 are
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 which
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 manufactured
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 corporations
and the wealthy has corrupted state and federal governments and threatens to undermine 
American democracy

Groups Populists Charge are at
the center of this conspiracy against
American democracy

  1. The Railroads

  2. The Banks

  3. The Democratic and Republican Parties

  4. The Wealthy and Large Corporations

  5. Merchants and Agricultural suppliers

  6. 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.

© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 23 Sept. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/populism.htm
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