Panic and Populism: Revolt in the 1890s

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Panic and Populism: Revolt in the 1890s

The year 1890 marked the beginning of ten years of hardship and rebellion in America. The 1890s decade would lead the country down a path of economic depression, political reform, labor unrest (see Chapter 3), and agrarian (relating to land and rural matters) revolt, and war. America, which had just reunified itself after the Civil War (1861–65) and its issues of slavery and the economy of the South, would once again find itself divided, this time by issues of politics and money.

The Panic of 1893

Not since the depression of 1873 had America experienced economic hardship like that felt by Americans of all socioeconomic classes in 1893. A depression is a long-term economic state characterized by high unemployment, minimal investment and spending, and low prices. This depression was one of the worst in American history. The unemployment rate (percentage of the total working population that was out of a job) exceeded 10 percent for half a decade, something that had never happened before and would not happen again until the Great Depression of the 1930s. No city or region was left unscarred. One of every four workers in Pennsylvania was unemployed; in Chicago, Illinois, one hundred thousand people were sleeping in the streets.

Causes of the depression

The depression in 1893 was ushered in with financial panic as the value of America's currency (money) weakened. Since the time of President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97), the U.S. monetary system had been based on bimetallism, or the use of both gold and silver coins. But the California Gold Rush in 1849 resulted in the discovery of such large quantities of gold that its value decreased. Before 1849, gold had been sixteen times more valuable than silver.

People soon began melting their silver dollars and using the metal for other purposes, such as jewelry. In 1873, Congress ceased making silver coins, and America was placed on a "gold standard." A series of silver strikes beginning in 1875 and continuing throughout the 1880s in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and nearby regions caused the price of silver to fall even further. In spite of this decrease in value, silver mining as an industry continued to grow. Farmers, however, were going further into debt as prices per bushel of their crops continued to decrease quickly due to increased foreign competition and supply. In order to remain competitive, farmers had to continue lowering their prices, yet they still had monthly payments to make on expensive farm equipment and mortgages.


A movement of the late nineteenth century aimed at expanding the amount of money in circulation by backing it with silver as well as gold. Also sometimes referred to as free silver.
An economic system in which property and goods are privately owned, produced, and distributed.
Democratic Party:
One of the oldest political parties in the United States. Originally linked with the South and slavery, it transformed into one associated with urban voters and liberal policies.
A long-term economic state characterized by high unemployment, minimal investment and spending, and low prices.
farm tenancy:
An arrangement whereby farmers who no longer owned their own farm farmed someone else's land and were paid a share of the harvest.
Gilded Age:
The period in history following the Civil War and Reconstruction (roughly the final twenty-three years of the nineteenth century), characterized by a ruthless pursuit of profit, an exterior of showiness and grandeur, and immeasurable political corruption.
labor union:
A formally organized association of workers that advances its members' views on wages, work hours, and labor conditions.
A loan of money to purchase property, such as a farm. The property is used as security for repayment of the loan; that is, if the borrower fails to pay, the property is seized.
Republican Party:
One of the oldest political parties in the United States. Founded as an antislavery party in the mid-1800s, it transformed into one associated with conservative fiscal and social policies.
"Separate but Equal" doctrine:
A policy enacted throughout the South that theoretically promoted the same treatment and services for African Americans as for whites, but which required the two races to use separate facilities.
A share of ownership in a business.
Taxes imposed on goods imported from other countries.
A movement that campaigned for the public to refrain from drinking alcohol.
The concept of several companies banding together to form an organization that limits competition by controlling the production and distribution of a product or service.

The Sherman Silver Act

To help balance the economy, President Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901; served 1889–93) agreed to buy 4.5 million ounces of silver every month at market price. The U.S. Treasury, in turn, would issue notes that could be redeemed in either gold or silver.

This plan was known as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. The legislation was named after the Republican who initiated it, U.S. senator John Sherman (1823–1900) of Ohio. Although the idea may have been solid, in reality the Act did not work very well. The increased supply of silver forced down the market price. Mine owners tried to make up for their loss by cutting the wages of their miners and laborers, a move that led to unrest and violence throughout the mining regions. As holders of the notes understandably redeemed them for gold rather than silver (thereby getting more money for each note), the federal gold reserve was steadily drained.

Three weeks after Grover Cleveland (1837–1908; served 1885–89 and 1893–97) was sworn in as president for the second time in 1893, the gold reserves dipped below $100 million. This event weakened an already unsteady trust in the federal government. The Sherman Act was repealed, but it was too late. Silver mines were shut down across the mining regions. The price of silver per ounce dropped from 83 cents to 62 cents in one four-day period. Banks failed by the hundreds, and property values decreased to nearly nothing. America's economy was in serious trouble.

Trouble on the rails

Another factor in the 1893 depression was a decrease in the amount of money being invested in railroads. Between 1870 and 1890, railroads accounted for 15 to 20 percent of all federal investments. Tens of thousands of miles of track were laid, and loans were approved for additional construction and equipment purchase.

Private investors in America and Europe bought stock in U.S. railroads. It seemed like a sure thing, an easy way to make money. Stocks were bought for a particular amount, and if the company did well, each stock earned money. With the increase in immigration, the explosion in the railroad construction industry, and the increasing settlement of the West, investors believed they could not lose. But they did lose, and in a big way.

The railroad system was overbuilt and overfunded. Companies were often mismanaged. In 1892, just 44 percent of all railroad stocks offered investors received a return (profit) on their investment. European investors pulled out before the situation got worse. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroads were the first companies to file for bankruptcy (a legal declaration that a company cannot pay its debts. By May 1893, more railroads shut down; 156 railroads would fail before the crisis was over. Without the railroads, industries like iron, steel, and farming had no way of shipping their products. America fell into a serious economic depression marked by high unemployment rates and tens of thousands of business failures.

Plight of the farmer

Farmers were perhaps the hardest hit by the depression of 1893. Prior to that year, the agriculture industry had enjoyed expansion and increased profit, thanks to improved farming methods, the introduction of machinery that could do a worker's job in half the time, and the railroads, which opened new regions to business. Between 1870 and 1890, the number of U.S. farms rose by almost 80 percent, to 4.5 million. By the end of the nineteenth century, that number increased yet again by 25 percent. Across the nation, about 29 percent of farmers were paying on mortgage loans (money loaned to them by banks so that they could live on and farm their property). One expert estimated that by 1890, 2.3 million farm loans were worth more than $2.2 billion. During that year, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas had more farm mortgages than they did families.

But the depression was preceded with six years of bad weather and drought. Crop seasons were shortened, or in some cases, nonexistent. Before farmers understood the importance of sustainable farming methods (which includes crop rotation to decrease the chances of disease and to maximize crop output), they farmed land in such a way that it no longer produced healthy or big crops. The combination of nature and ignorance proved too much for many farmers. On top of that, they were expected to take into consideration the dismal economic conditions across the country and accept lower prices for their product. Wheat prices fell twenty cents per bushel in 1892. When crop prices dropped below the cost of production, farmers chose instead to use their crops for firewood.

Different regions, different hardships

The depression did not affect all farmers in the same way. Those in the West and on the Plains suffered most in that they were unable to obtain credit from banks and stores. Weather in this region was harsher than climates elsewhere, so the chances for making a profit were uncertain, and lenders knew that. They developed tougher standards regarding farm loans, and most farmers did not meet those standards. Unable to pay their existing loans, farmers knew it would be impossible to get new loans. Creditors began foreclosing on (taking away) farms. Between 1889 and 1893, more than eleven thousand Kansas farms went into foreclosure. Western farmers were being evicted from (thrown out of) their homes and farms; many were homeless.

Coxey's Army

The Depression of 1893 affected Americans of various income levels in different ways. Many of those who found themselves unemployed became "tramps" who walked the countryside in search of work. Others became beggars who knocked on doors in search of food or work. The winter months were especially hard on families with children. Thrown out of their homes, with no income, they became wanderers who took food and shelter wherever they could find it.

Those without food, shelter, and work grew increasingly desperate. The middle class as well as the wealthy feared violence and chaos, in part because of the widespread—and sometimes violent—labor strikes (in which workers refuse to work until conditions improve) that swept the country (fourteen hundred strikes in 1894 alone). The middle class and wealthy blamed the unemployed for the nation's crisis and called them lazy. Some of the more unfortunate blamed themselves as well, despite the obvious reasons for the economic downturn. Daily newspapers regularly reported stories of suicide and despair.

The federal government did not seem to be in much of a hurry to find a solution to the country's woes. Many people complained, but one man took action. Civil War veteran Jacob Coxey (1854–1951) was a successful Ohio businessman who organized a protest in reaction to the government's apparent inaction. Coxey, along with approximately five hundred unemployed demonstrators, marched from Ohio to the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., in 1894. The group was nicknamed "Coxey's Army," and members were treated well along their journey to the Capitol. Coxey became somewhat of a folk hero, an ordinary guy who could have let things happen as they might but who chose instead to take a stand.

Coxey was marching in support of the Good Roads Bill and the Non-Interest-Bearing Bonds Bill, two acts that would establish public works projects he believed would provide relief for the poor. Although his ideas would eventually be considered worthwhile ventures and be included in the "New Deal," a series of economic programs that began during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), Coxey was largely ignored by Congress in 1894. Instead, when he and his army arrived at the Capitol steps, he and two other leaders were arrested for trespassing.

Coxey led another march on Washington in 1914, and this time he was given a hearing at the Capitol, where he presented his proposals. His efforts failed, though, and he returned home to his life of business. Coxey served as mayor of Massillon, Ohio, from 1931 to 1933. He died there in 1951.

Other farmers went into tenancy, meaning they no longer owned their own farm, but they farmed someone else's land and were paid a share of the harvest. Farm tenancy increased from 25 percent across the country in 1880 to 36 percent by 1900. The very farmers who had been encouraged to borrow money as the Plains and western regions were being settled spent the last decade of the nineteenth century losing their farms or farming for someone else. It was a miserable existence.

The situation in the South was somewhat different. Once slaves were freed after the Civil War, they usually refused to work land in gangs under the supervision of an overseer. It reminded them too much of the slave conditions they had just escaped. With this attitude, commercial farming was out of the question. Most wanted to own their own land and equipment. The problem was not that land was not available; it was. Huge plantations had been broken into smaller properties. The outlawing of slavery made money scarce, however, so freed-men had nothing with which to purchase a plot of land.

Many landowners let freedmen farm the land and agreed to accept a portion of the crop, rather than money, as rent. These owners also became merchants who sold farmers seed, equipment, and other necessities. As collateral (something of value used to insure repayment of debt), farmers signed a mortgage on their crop. Because the only crop most landowners wanted was cotton, that left farmers without food for their families. They had to buy food from local stores. After 1870, cottonprices fell, and farmers did not earn enough to settle their debt. The merchant landowners then forced them into signing yet another mortgage on next year's crop. It was a never-ending cycle that led farmers only further into debt.

This system made tenant farmers of both African American and white men in the South. For the whites, tenancy was especially demeaning because it forced them into a status historically associated with slaves. It also represented a loss of freedom that hurt their pride. With credit nearly impossible to attain and few skilled laborers in the region, the South's economy was uncharacteristically hopeless.

Farmers in the Midwest and Northeast, though affected by the depression, faired better than those in other regions. These farmers had been able to pay off their mortgages because of the inflation of the Civil War economy. During the war, there was a general increase in the price of goods, including crops. Farmers were getting more money per bushel. Even though there was less money in circulation at the time, people still had to eat, so farmers were making money.

These farmers had another advantage because they lived among a more developed railroad system. They were less likely to be charged higher rates than their fellow farmers in the West and South. These lower rail costs allowed the farmers to plant grain, which grew well in nearly any soil. Because they lived near cities and growing urban areas, the farmers of the Midwest and Northeast were also able to engage in dairy farming. Cows could survive on land that had been overused. Milk could be transported before it had time to spoil, because the distance from the farms to the cities was short.

Obtaining credit was much easier in these regions as well. Most farmers had lived in the area their entire lives. They knew the bankers and the local agricultural conditions. They knew how to successfully farm in those local conditions and knew which crops would sell.

Recovery from the depression began in mid-1897, but the American economy was not prosperous again for another year.

Organizing for power

Farmers were not alone in their struggles during the crisis of 1893. The idea of labor unions and organizations (groups that protect and fight for the rights of workers) was not new in 1890. Labor organizations had been forming since the late 1870s (see Chapter 3). These unions provided individuals with the chance to lead large numbers of American workers for whom traditional political and social concepts of problem-solving did not work. In 1880, farmers joined in on the unionizing efforts and formed the National Farmers' Alliance. This group would eventually become one of the biggest political threats to Republicans and Democrats and be known as the Populists.

Before the Farmers' Alliance, there was the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. Seven disgruntled farmers established this group in 1867. Oliver Hudson Kelley (1826–1913) led the group, which was more commonly known as the Grange. ("Grange" means "outlying farm"; given that the founders were farmers whose political needs were more specific, or outside the realm of society in general, the Grange was an accurate description of the organization, and easier to remember.) Kelley and his group believed a national organization was needed to represent farmers much as labor unions were beginning to represent workers. Organization was arguably more important for farmers, since they operated independently and were scattered throughout the country.

The Grange worked to promote cooperatives (smaller groups) in which farmers helped each other economically and educationally. They achieved their goals by establishing mills, stores, grain elevators, even banks. The Grange also tried to manufacture farming equipment, but that endeavor failed. Membership in the Grange grew slowly but steadily until the Panic of 1873. America suffered severe economic depression that year.

Laborers were exploited at the hands of their employers, but farmers suffered abuse from more than one opponent. Railroads were perhaps the worst abusers. They knew farmers had to transport their crops to buyers, so they charged astronomical shipping fees. The farmers had no choice but to pay them. They were further insulted by the ability of government officials and many politicians to travel at reduced rates or even for free. Banks were hard on the farmers, too, especially in the West where the land was more difficult to farm. This added uncertainty caused banks to hesitate on giving loans and credit to farmers, which in turn made turning a profit more difficult, if not impossible. When loans were approved, they usually had higher interest rates than business loans for other people.

The Grange was in favor of railroad regulations as well as rules for grain elevators. These elevators were actually storage bins located in railway sidings. The elevators deposited the grain directly into freight cars at stations along each route. Western railroads forbid farmers to load their grain themselves, and they provided just one grain elevator in each station. So farmers either had to sell grain to the elevator operators, or they had to pay a fee to use the railroads' services. Owners of these elevators had a monopoly (complete control) of the business. Farmers were treated unfairly not only by the railroads (which they relied on for shipping) but also by the owners of the grain elevators (which they required for storage). Political action on the part of the Grange resulted in the Granger laws that became effective in the Midwest. These laws regulated shipping rates as well as the rates imposed for grain elevator usage. The U.S. Supreme Court determined in 1886 that several of these regulations were unconstitutional. The basis for this ruling was that the laws violated the power over interstate commerce that only Congress had. The following year, these same regulations were legalized by the Interstate Commerce Act.

Membership in the Grange peaked in 1875 at around 850,000. The depression took its toll on farmers' abilities to continue their organizing efforts, and membership in the Grange eventually declined. It exists today with 3,600 local chapters in 37 states and a total membership of 350,000. The Grange also helped act as a model for future farm alliances.

Other parties

As Grange membership peaked in 1875, another party was founded. The Greenback Party was established much for the same agricultural reasons that motivated the Grange. Some of the Grangers actually joined forces with the Greenbackers, who took their name from the paper money printed during the Civil War. The Greenbackers supported the quantity theory of money, which says that if the amount of money in circulation grows more quickly than the economy, inflation will occur. If the opposite happens, deflation (falling prices) results. They also promoted the concept of fiat money, which says money has value only because the government says it does and not because it can be redeemed for gold. Bankers and other money experts criticized both theories as illogical.

Throughout the 1880s, the Greenback Party aligned itself (sided) with local and state labor parties. In 1887, they joined with the farm alliances and labor organizations to form the National Union Labor Party, or Union Labor Party (ULP). The ULP sought reform in land, railroad, and financial sectors.

Unfortunately for the ULP, it was perceived by the public to be closely aligned with the Knights of Labor (see Chapter 3), or KOL. The KOL was a national labor organization that was involved in most of the labor strikes in the late nineteenth century. Some of the strikes became violent, and the violence turned public opinion against the labor unions and organizations. ULP party growth was limited because of this affiliation with the KOL, and so its nominee in the 1888 presidential election, state senator Alson J. Streeter (1823–1901) of Illinois, did poorly.

Clearly, politicians were heavily influenced by the wealthy businessmen, and they supported legislation that advanced the businessmen's cause, primarily profit. The failure of the ULP to perform well in the 1888 election did nothing to stop the farmers and laborers from running for political office. These farmers and laborers saw an ever-widening gap between the producing class (workers, including themselves) and the rich. Most of the issues they faced were economic. The American economy was providing great wealth, but the money was being unfairly distributed. Capitalism (an economic system in which property and goods are privately owned, produced, and distributed) was not working for the working class, the very people upon whom it relied. The producers watched the rich get richer and were determined to empower the state and federal governments to take control and regulate the distribution of wealth. From the workers' point of view, America's economy was reliant on the millions of men and women who toiled in the fields, ran the machines, and worked the businesses. As the workers saw, the people who got the money were those who were already wealthy. Something had to change, and soon.

The final election of the nineteenth century

As the voices of this "new" voting population got louder, Republicans and Democrats alike realized they would have to at least give the impression they were listening. Democratic president Grover Cleveland publicly echoed the sentiments of the farmers and laborers when he expressed concern over the growing power and wealth of a select few. Cleveland called this concentration of wealth undemocratic. In particular, the president attacked the protective tariffs (taxes) that kept overseas competition from taking over an American market. These taxes were levied on certain goods that companies in other countries might want to sell in America. The taxes prevented most overseas competition from entering the American marketplace because doing so would cost them more money than it was worth. The protective tariffs made sure that American companies that sold the same items would have the business of American consumers. Cleveland believed this limited healthy competition and gave power to businesses that may not have the consumers' best interests at heart.

Generally speaking, Republicans were in favor of the tariffs (because they wanted to keep the American marketplace saturated with American-made products) while Democrats were against them (because they believed foreign competition would keep the marketplace healthy and limit unethical business practices). Earlier in the 1880s, Congress had passed a tariff that protected the rights and goods of American producers who had strong ties to Congress. These producers donated money to political campaigns, and the politicians wanted to keep these men happy. Such favoritism only strengthened the suspicion that the federal government was more concerned with keeping big business happy than it was with protecting the interests of "regular" people.

No other issue divided Republicans and Democrats more than the tariffs. Traditionally, Democrats represented the working people in big cities like New York and Chicago as well as white Southern farmers. They considered themselves consumers who wanted to pay lower prices, and they believed economic wealth should be evenly distributed so that the country was not run by a handful of wealthy men. Republicans were traditionally farmers in the Midwest, workers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Cincinnati, Ohio, and African American Southerners. Their priority was protecting industry from foreign competition that would serve only to lower prices. Republicans focused on profits, with an emphasis on taxes, money, and banking. These issues were the foundation of the elections throughout the 1890s.

The McKinley Tariff

President Cleveland wanted to reduce tariffs, which he blamed for the uneven distribution of wealth. Manufacturers constantly lobbied Congress to keep tariffs high so that they would continue to prosper. Cleveland believed these companies were working together in an unethical way to ensure their own profit and success.

Democrats introduced several tariff-cutting measures, citing the conflict of interest between laborers and farmers on one side and manufacturers on the other. The Democrats called these big businesses monopolies or trusts. They made sure the public knew that these trusts made amazingly huge profits off the hard work of their employees. The trusts were the enemies of the working class.

Here is an example of how the "protective" tariff worked: Grain was stored in bags. The bags were subject to a tariff of 54 percent. So for every $100 worth of bags a farmer bought, he paid $154. But this was only part of the injustice of the tariffs. The bags produced in America might be able to be sold at a profit for $100 or $125, but the manufacturer could charge as much as $153.99, or whatever farmers would be willing to pay, sell imported bags for less, and pocket the additional profit. This unfair (but common) practice was perfectly legal under the protective tariffs. This sort of business ethic was greatly responsible for driving farmers out of business. Democrats stressed that tariffs were not protective of the workingman.

Although the extra money brought in by the tariffs went to the federal government, Democrats argued that the government could not spend as much money as the tariffs brought in. They supported a tariff that would be for revenue (income) only. This tariff would be lower and bring in only as much money as the government needed to function. Lowering the tariff became the remedy for the unequal distribution of wealth.

The first response among Republicans was to try to find a way to spend the surplus tax revenue. When their schemes failed even before they were put into practice, the Republicans turned to other ideas. One Republican in particular, U.S. representative William McKinley (1843–1901) of Ohio, shrewdly switched the focus from foreign competition to U.S. production. McKinley insisted that protection was in the best interests of all Americans, especially the poor. He gave speeches in which he stressed the notion that protection enriched all Americans, not just the wealthy. By buying only American-made products, Americans guaranteed prosperity because they kept their jobs and bought each others' goods and services. To accept foreign substitutes was un-American and would lead directly to unemployment and poverty.

McKinley was a skilled speaker; his ideas appealed to union workers and laborers who believed protective tariffs would provide more jobs. The tariff was the central issue of the 1888 presidential campaign, which put President Grover Cleveland against former U.S. senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. Harrison won the election, although Cleveland won one hundred thousand more popular votes than his opponent. The victory encouraged Republicans, who introduced the McKinley Tariff in 1890.

The McKinley Tariff was a tax that increased prices of most foreign goods by 49.5 percent. Some products, such as sugar, were untaxed. Because it was an important staple (basic item) in the American diet, sugar escaped taxation. But in order to allow sugar into the country, money from the tariff was used to pay a "bounty" to sugar growers in Louisiana and Kansas. This bounty was the first sugar subsidy (grant paid to an enterprise by the government for the benefit of the greater public).

The tariff caused prices to skyrocket, and Republicans fell out of favor with the general public. Cleveland ran for reelection in the 1892 campaign and beat Harrison. The Democrats immediately set to work to reduce tariffs. By that time, the economy's downward spiral was out of control, and the depression of 1893 was unavoidable.

Birth of Populism: power to
the people

Members of the Farmers' Alliances, the KOL, the Labor parties, and other smaller groups realized that their concerns were never going to be addressed unless changes were made in the political landscape. In 1892, thirteen hundred delegates from these organizations met in Omaha, Nebraska, and formed an independent political party. Their formal name was the People's Party, but they became known as Populists.

The reforms supported by the Populists were not new; their underling issues had been the basis of major complaints among protest groups for years. The Populists supported government ownership of the railroads and telegraphs and believed government land grants should be given to actual settlers, not to railroads. They called on the government to issue more silver and paper currency in the hope that the increase of money in circulation would raise prices and help farmers pay off their debts. Populists campaigned for the graduated income tax (the more money people made, the more taxes they paid). The graduated tax would redistribute wealth by taxing the rich more heavily than the poor. Populists wanted postal savings banks, which would give the poor a safe place to deposit their money because the banks would be government-owned. This new party supported the direct election of U.S. senators (rather than having them appointed by state legislatures). Populists wanted a reduction in tariffs and called for an eight-hour workday.

Unlike the Republicans and the Democrats, the Populists were not influenced by big business or corporate America. They represented the working class and tried to give these voters a voice. To convince voters, they needed to establish national unity, so they sent representatives to all regions of the United States. These activists gave public speeches to enthusiastic crowds in which they denounced the major political parties as money-grubbing politicians. Although most would-be Populists agreed on the major issues, one strong factor kept them from unifying: racism.

Jim Crow laws

One of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 1850s was the minstrel show. Minstrel shows traveled the country and featured white entertainers in blackface (charcoal or burnt cork was smeared over one's face). These performers sang, danced, and provided audiences with comic skits. Often, the comedy was at the expense of the African American population.

One of the most popular minstrels was Thomas "Daddy" Rice (1808–1860), who created a character named Jim Crow for his song and dance routine. The story goes that Rice invented this character after traveling in the South and seeing a crippled African American dancing and singing. By the 1850s, virtually every American knew who Jim Crow was. The term "Jim Crow" became a racial slur, used for any African American.

Despite the abolition of slavery, America established and defended many acts of racial discrimination. These various laws and regulations became known as Jim Crow laws. Prior to the 1890s, Jim Crow laws prohibited African Americans from enjoying the same public places as whites. For example, some restaurants refused to serve African American customers. Other restaurants forced them to eat at tables at the back of the establishments. African Americans were forbidden from drinking from the same water fountains as whites, and they could not use the same public restrooms, attend the same schools, go to the same churches, or use the same public transportation as whites. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1875 had ordered that all persons should be entitled to equal enjoyment of public facilities, the Supreme Court ruled the Act unconstitutional in 1883. The Court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution protected African Americans only from discrimination at the state level; private businesses and individuals could treat them as they saw fit.

Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was overturned, southern states took advantage of the law and enforced the limitations on African Americans mentioned above.

Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring African Americans to ride in separate railroad cars. To protest the law, a light-skinned African American named Homer Plessy (1862–1925) boarded a whites-only train car. He was immediately arrested and a local judge ruled against him.

Plessy appealed the ruling and his case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. The Court determined that Plessy's rights had not been denied him because the separate railroad car provided was equal in every way to the cars provided whites. The "separate but equal" accommodations did not act as evidence that African Americans were inferior to whites.

The separate-but-equal doctrine is what allowed states to restrict African Americans from public areas and services. Soon, signs reading "Whites Only" and "Colored" appeared everywhere. Curfews were established for African Americans, and they were forced to use separate entrances and exits at places like libraries and theaters.

Lynching: vigilante justice

With the legalization of Jim Crow laws that encouraged racism and segregation (separation of African Americans from whites), the year 1890 ushered in another violation of justice: the phenomenon of lynching (unlawful hanging by rope until death).

In the past, white supremacy groups (who believed other races to be inferior to whites) like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) sometimes used lynching as a way to try to control and threaten African American communities and populations. Mostly, the KKK tried to keep the African American race submissive by restricting their right and ability to vote. Even if the law permitted them to vote, the KKK terrorized African Americans into giving up that right in order to stay alive. Those who refused to be intimidated often were the victims of KKK violence and torture.

Lynching gained momentum beginning in 1890. Historians estimate that 233 lynchings took place between 1880 and 1884; 381 from 1885 to 1889. But from 1890 to 1894, lynchings hit an all-time high (of the century) of 611.

Antilynching campaign gains momentum

Local and state governments did nothing to deter the lynchings of the South. One brave woman, a teacher named Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), became known throughout the nation as leader of the antilynching campaign. Born in Mississippi, Wells experienced the Jim Crow laws firsthand. When a conductor tried to force Wells-Barnett to give up her first-class accommodations and move to the Jim Crow car of the train, she refused. As the conductor tried to physically remove her, Wells-Barnett bit his hand but was thrown off the train. Although she sued and won, the defendant eventually won in appeals court.

Wells-Barnett became co-owner of an African American newspaper in Memphis called "The Free Speech & Headlight." Her editorials and essays spoke out against racism and discrimination, and her writing got her fired from her teaching job. She turned to writing full time.

In 1892, three people, one a good friend of Wells-Barnett's, were lynched while defending their grocery store from white attackers who wanted to put the store out of business. In the scuffle, one of the owners shot one of the attackers. An outraged Wells-Barnett criticized the event in her newspaper and specifically discussed the evils of lynching. She encouraged African Americans to leave town. While out of town herself, a white mob ransacked and destroyed her newspaper office and warned her not to return. Wells-Barnett took her campaign to England, where she founded the National Afro-American Council and served as chairman of its Anti-Lynching Bureau. Wells-Barnett eventually helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Lynching continued to be used as a terrorist weapon well into the twentieth century. Across the nation, nearly five thousand African Americans were lynched between the 1800s and 1955. Most of these victims were murdered because they were political activists or labor organizers. Others simply violated unspoken laws of how whites expected African Americans to behave.

African Americans and populism

Given the always-present racism of the final decade of the nineteenth century, it only made sense that southern African Americans would organize their own unions and alliances. The Colored Farmers' Alliance was formed in Texas in 1890 when two smaller organizations merged. By 1891, the Colored Alliance had a membership of more than one million. These men were prohibited from joining the white farmers' alliances.

Although the Colored Alliance sometimes cooperated with another group of organized farmers called the Southern Farmers' Alliance, they clashed on some major issues. One of those issues was voting rights. An election bill promised federal protection to safeguard voting rights in the South. The Colored Alliance recognized the value for African Americans in this bill and supported it. The Southern Alliance was against it. Formed in 1877, most members of the Southern Alliance were in cotton production. All of them were white.

The Colored Alliance disbanded after it called for a cotton picker strike in 1891. The strike failed to happen due to poor communication and leadership. One Arkansas community actually tried to strike, and fifteen strikers were killed in the process. The alliance fell apart in the months after the strike.

The Colored Farmers' Alliance was just one of several African American organizations that mobilized for reform. Historically, the concept of "black populism" has been considered an off-shoot of a primarily white movement. But historian Omar H. Ali of Towson University suggests that black populism was actually a movement parallel with the Populist movement.

Ali argues that during the years 1886 to 1898, Southern African Americans led an independent economic reform movement to help improve schools, establish newspapers, lead labor strikes, and usher in political reform. These efforts were not born of the mainstream Populist movement, but occurred alongside it.

By the late 1890s, racism completely separated the white Populists from the African Americans, even though their goals were nearly the same. Without the support of the whites, and with the widespread physical attacks on African Americans that characterized the decade, the so-called black populist movement collapsed.

African American Populists and farmers' alliance members were victims of racism in ways that kept them from being effective activists. For example, members of the Mississippi Colored Alliance boycotted (stopped doing business with) unfair merchants in 1889. Boycotts were common tactics among activists. But the Colored Alliance boycotters suffered extreme consequences: They were murdered because their behavior went against the status quo (what exists in society at the time). Although one would think the murder of fellow alliance members (from various alliances) might upset other members, this was not the case. White alliancemen were not disturbed by the murders, as they believed the African Americans knew the risks they faced and made their choices anyway.

Hope for the hopeless

The Populist Party needed to get a leader in the White House. Its choice for the presidential candidate in the 1892 election was former U.S. representative James B. Weaver (1833–1912) of Iowa. Weaver had been active in the Greenback-Labor Party and had unsuccessfully run for president on its ticket in 1880. Weaver was a lawyer who had served admirably in the Civil War, then later in the House of Representatives (1879–81 and 1885–89).

Weaver campaigned across the country on a speaking tour in 1892. To the surprise of Democrats and Republicans alike, he won more than one million popular votes on Election Day. His twenty-two electoral votes were not enough to win the election, but it was the first time a third party had won any states in the Electoral College since 1860. (Each state is appointed a number of voters in the Electoral College. That number is determined based upon the population of the state. The electoral votes ultimately decide a presidential election.)

Weaver ran against Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland won 277 electoral votes, leaving Harrison with 145. Weaver won the states of Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, and North Dakota.

The Populist Party did not do as well as they had hoped in the election for several reasons. In the South, Populists sometimes aligned with Republicans in order to reach a larger voter population. (Most African American Southerners were Republican.) But in the states where Populists did not support Republicans, African American voters were reluctant to give up what little power they already had in the Republican Party. To vote Populist was a risk they were not willing to take. In many cases, disfranchisement (taking away the right to vote) and violence at the polls prohibited African Americans from voting at all. Populists in the Midwest and Northeast did not do well because voters in those regions did not need a third political party; the close rivalries between Republicans and Democrats provided alternatives within the traditional two-party system. Also, recent immigration to these regions established a population of nonunion workers. The philosophies and goals of the Populist Party did not hold great appeal to foreign-speaking workers who would be satisfied with work of any kind.

In the congressional races of 1894, the Populists managed to get thirteen representatives into Washington. They increased their vote by 41 percent over the 1892 election when they garnered 1,471,000 votes. Although this was not enough to give them a majority in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, their success was impressive for a third political party.

The Election of 1896

In an effort to increase the party's appeal, the Populists decided in January 1895 to downplay some of the more radical reforms of their platform (for example, transportation and land reforms, for which some party members wanted government ownership of all railroads and a portion of public lands to be set aside for settlers) and focus on the money issue. Party leaders promoted free silver as a way to gain control of the federal government. Many Populists balked at the change in campaign strategy; they wanted the whole Populist platform or nothing at all and feared a change in focus would divert the movement from issues they considered equally important.

The Populists approached the election of 1896 as a split party. Those in favor of focusing on the issue of bimetallism to the exclusion of all other issues were also in favor of fusing their platform with the Democrats, who shared their perspective on the money issue. Those who preferred to stay with the original platform established in 1892 remained committed to participating in the election as an independent political party. They were against the free silver (another term for bimetallism) stance because they did not believe it would change the existing system of commerce and banking. This faction of Populists felt the issue of industrial monopolies was more important than free silver.

With America still in the midst of economic depression, the idea of free silver caught on strongly. The Democrats in particular favored it because their party had been hurt by the depression as well as by President Cleveland's inability to fix it. Additionally, the farmers' revolt had led to labor parties and Populism, which took away seats in Congress and severely limited Democratic power. Cleveland had made it clear that he was committed to maintaining the gold standard, and his stance turned many Democrats against him.

In a surprising turn of events, the Democratic Party made their feelings clear to Cleveland when they nominated former U.S. representative William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) of Nebraska as the Democratic candidate. Bryan had been elected to Congress twice, in 1890 and 1892, then lost in 1894 in his bid for election to the U.S. Senate. During his years in Congress, he had gained a reputation as a gifted speaker whose passion for bimetallism and opposition to high tariffs endeared him to Democrats and Populists alike.

Bryan spoke at the 1896 Democratic convention on July 9 and delivered a powerful speech that became known as the "Cross of Gold" speech. Bryan's words called for free coinage of silver at a ratio of silver to gold of sixteen to one (for every sixteen silver coins minted, one gold coin would be produced). As noted on the 1896: The Presidential Campaign Web site, he concluded his speech with this declaration: "Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Bryan was telling his audience that sticking to the gold standard would work against the very people who built the great nation of America: the workers and laborers. When the thirty-six-year-old speaker finished his speech and sat down, the crowd exploded with clapping and cheering. Men tore off their vests and jackets and threw them high into the air. Women screamed while men waved their hats and canes back and forth. According to newspaper accounts of the event, the frenzy lasted for a full half hour after the speech had concluded. The next day, Bryan was nominated. Populists recognized the value in joining the Democrats in their support of Bryan as well as the fact that they had just lost their position as leader of reform. It was in their best interests to merge with the Democrats, so they did.

This merge did not please Southern Populists. They believed that Democrats had victimized them for years, and now their political mates in the West were embracing them. The fusion with the Democrats split the Populist Party forever, and was the beginning of the end of the once-hopeful third party.

Although many reformers supported Bryan in the 1896 election, Republican William McKinley defeated his Democratic opponent and was elected president that year. McKinley had the support of millions of dollars in campaign funds donated by big business and industry; Bryan could not compete with such financing. The gold standard was kept in place, and high tariffs ruled the day.

The end of Populism

Populism quickly came to an end after the 1896 election. A run of gold strikes in the late 1890s increased the volume of money even without the free silver the Populists demanded. Determined Populists nominated national tickets in 1900, 1904, and 1908, but public support had eroded and disappeared. There were no Populists in Congress after 1903.

Temperance movement

All of America was busy trying to survive drought and economic depression. African Americans were struggling to deal with racism and hatred in addition to the economic conditions. Yet another issue came to the forefront of the country's attention in the 1890s: temperance (a movement that campaigned for the public to refrain from drinking alcohol).

The movement was led by women concerned with the destructive effects of alcohol on families and values. A group of women in Ohio met in 1874 and established the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU did much more than advocate against drinking alcohol. Members promoted the concept of kindergartens and physical fitness for women. They donated money and time to beautifying public areas. The organization advocated for women speaking out for the rights of children, families, and themselves in public.

One of the most famous and effective presidents of the union was Frances E. Willard (1839–1898). Willard was the second president of the organization and took it to the next level by founding the World's WCTU.

Other organizations formed as the years passed, including the Anti-Saloon League in 1893. It started as a state-level organization in Ohio but became a powerful national organization after 1895. Unlike the WCTU, the League focused only on prohibition (the outlawing of alcohol). Although a small political party called the Prohibition Party had formed in 1869, the League did not join. Instead, it opposed or supported Republican or Democratic politicians according to their views on temperance and nothing else.

The Prohibition movement would not become official until the 1920s, but the temperance movement that preceded it had great national influence in America. The movement was directly responsible for the drafting and passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol from 1918 to 1933.

By the time the decade was coming to a close, Americans were ready for some peace. But 1898 would take America to war with Spain, and William McKinley would be reelected as president in 1900 only to be assassinated shortly after beginning his second term the following year. The Progressive Era was about to begin.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Populism

L. Frank Baum, author of the classic children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was not a political activist. He did live in the Great Plains, though, where Populism had its greatest influence.

In a 1964 issue of American Quarterly, scholar Henry Littlefield analyzed Baum's story from a Populist perspective and focused on Baum's use of symbolism. Littlefield's interpretation has Dorothy as the symbol of Everyman. She hails from the Midwest (Kansas), home of hardworking people with simple lifestyles and expectations. Not uncoincidentally, she comes from a farm family. The Scarecrow and Tin Man are symbolic of farmers and industrial workers. The Scarecrow is in search of a brain, symbolic of the societal prejudice that farmers were not intelligent enough to recognize their own interests. The Tin Man had been dehumanized by hard and callous factory labor. His rusting was symbolic of the closing of thousands of factories in the depression of 1893.

The Cowardly Lion represents William Jennings Bryan. When he first meets Dorothy and her friends, he tries to hurt the Tin Man. He fails and does not even so much as dent the Tin Man's body, thereby symbolizing his failure to win over industrial labor populations.

According to Littlefield, Oz is actually Washington, D.C., and the Wizard is the president of the United States. The actual journey to Oz represents the march to Washington undertaken by Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey and his "army."

When Dorothy and her companions reach Oz, the Wizard instructs them to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, who is symbolic of the forces of nature. Dorothy does the job by dousing the witch with water, which symbolizes the end of the drought that had plagued the West for years. Once the four friends return to the Wizard, they discover he is nothing special, just a common man. The political Wizard promises everyone what they desire, except for Dorothy. Her wish to return home to comfort her family is selfless; the Wizard has no magic solution for her.

In Baum's novel, Dorothy's shoes were made of silver. The silver shoes symbolize the silver standard that the Populists so passionately demanded. They had magic powers to solve Dorothy's crisis (just as the silver standard was supposed to solve the farmers' dilemma). When the book was turned into a movie, however, technicolor was a new enhancement to film, and producing studio MGM wanted to highlight its abilities, so Dorothy's silver shoes became ruby slippers.

Dorothy, being just a simple gal, does not realize the power she possesses. Instead, she goes down the yellow brick road, which symbolized the gold standard and got her into all kinds of trouble. By the end of the story, Dorothy understands the power of her shoes, but they are gone when she awakens from her dream, in her own bed, in Kansas. The imagery of Oz faded from her memory, just as the free silver issue faded from the public's concern.

Some critics insist Baum never intended to write a political allegory (fable using symbolism) at all, that any similarities are strictly coincidental. But Little-field's theory has increased in popularity over time.

For More Information


Brands, H. W. The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Chambers, John Whiteclay II. The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1890–1920. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Howes, Kelly King. Reconstruction Era: Almanac. Detroit: UXL, 2005.

Miller, Worth Robert. "Farmers and Third-Party Politics." In The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America. Edited by Charles W. Calhoun. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1996.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877–1919. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1987.

Steeples, Douglas, and David O. Whitten. Democracy in Desperation: The Depression of 1893. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.


Ali, Omar H. "Black Populism in the New South: The Mothers, Daughters, and Sisters of the Movement." Towson University. (accessed on April 28, 2006).

Ali, Omar H. "Black Populism in the South." Towson University. (accessed on April 28, 2006).

Davis, Ronald L. F. "Creating Jim Crow: In-Depth Essay." The History of Jim Crow. (accessed on April 28, 2006).

Edwards, Rebecca. "The Depression of 1893." 1896: The Presidential Campaign: Cartoons & Commentary. (accessed on April 28, 2006).

Edwards, Rebecca. "'No Cross of Gold"' 1896: The Presidential Campaign: Bryan's Cross of Gold Speech. (accessed on June 27, 2006).

"Freedom, a History of US." PBS. (accessed April 28, 2006).

Holmes, William F. "Colored Farmers' Alliance." The Handbook of Texas Online. (accessed on April 28, 2006).

Library of Congress. "African American Perspectives:

Progress of a People: Ida B. Wells-Barnett." American Memory. (accessed on April 28, 2006).

Marcum, Christopher Steven. "The Parable on Populism: An Autobiography of a Wizard." University of Arizona. (accessed on April 28, 2006). "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow." PBS. (accessed on April 28, 2006).

Whitten, David O. "The Depression of 1893." EH.Net Encyclopedia. (accessed on April 28, 2006).

Woman's Christian Temperance Union. (accessed on April 28, 2006).