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Populist Party: When the Major Parties Failed the Common Man

Rural discontent had brewed in the United States since the sharp decline of farm prices in the 1870s. Popular opinion tended to place the blame for the depressed economy on Eastern financial interests. The Greenback Party emerged as a force in national politics, leading the agitation for the currency's expansion. The temporary return of prosperity blunted the Greenback message, but the return of hard times in the 1880s led to emergence of the farmers' alliances. In December 1890, representatives from a number of the alliances met in Ocala, Florida to examine the issue of united political action. This initial foray into direct involvement came to nothing; allegiances to the Democratic Party still remained strong. Racism, as well as loyalty, played a role; some feared that splitting the Democratic vote would revive the old Republican-black alliance. Two events in 1890 paved the way for a new political party. First, Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, a totally inadequate gesture toward currency expansion. Second, Republicans in Congress chose to withhold support from a bill to enforce civil rights in the South, thus ending any hope for cooperation between the former slaves and the party of Lincoln. Into this void moved figures like Tom Watson of Georgia, who urged Southern white farmers to overcome their antipathy toward blacks because both groups were suffering at the hands of the same oppressors.

  • Election of 1892 Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats addressed rural distress in terms sufficient to encourage the farmers of the West and South. As a result, a convention was held in Omaha, Nebraska in February 1892. Many members of the powerful farmers' alliances were present. The name "populist" (from the Latin populus, meaning people) was borrowed from a state political organization in Kansas. The Populist convention nominated a truly national ticket:
    • James B. Weaver of Iowa, a former Greenback candidate and Union general, for president
    • James G. Field of Virginia, a former Confederate general, for vice president.
    The Populist platform, backed by nearly religious fervor, advocated an array of progressive ideas, many of which would later be adopted by law or amendment. The Populists ran a surprisingly successful campaign in 1892, polling more than one million popular votes and electing several of their number to Congress. Their real expectation, however, was to prepare for a serious run four years later.
  • Election of 1896 In 1896, the Populists gained control of the Democratic Party and engineered the nomination of William Jennings Bryan. The campaign was dominated by the silver issue. In a futile effort to assert their independence, however, the Populists refused to support the Democratic vice presidential candidate and instead nominated Thomas E. Watson of Georgia to run with Bryan. An energetic campaign failed to sway the electorate, except in the farm belt. The Republicans were returned to power and the Populists were badly split between those who wished to remain with the Democrats and those who wanted to reclaim their identity.
  • Election of 1900 The depression of the 1890s had subsided and much of the fervor for silver had declined. Nevertheless, many Populist Party members elected to cast their lot with Bryan and the Democrats in 1900. A small minority of Populists refused to endorse "fusion," nominating Wharton Barker and Ignatius Donnelly instead. The duo finished at the bottom of the heap, outpolled even by the Prohibition and Socialist tickets. Clearly the Populist Party had become too closely identified with free silver and that issue had vanished.
  • Election of 1904 In 1904, the Populist Party was reunited, but sorely lacked numbers. Thomas Watson, a former vice presidential candidate, was nominated to run with Thomas Tibbles. The Populists won fewer than 120,000 popular votes and none in the Electoral College.
  • Election of 1908 Tom Watson was trotted for a final round in 1908, paired with Samuel Williams. The ticket polled fewer than 30,000 votes, effectively ending the Populist Party's short life.
The Populist effort was probably doomed from the start. They advanced a number of stellar ideas, but fell prey to the allure of free silver, an issue that resonated poorly with urban workers whose votes were badly needed. Discontented farmers, despite their enthusiasm, simply lacked the numbers to move the nation.