People's Party

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People's Party

United States 1892


The People's Party was formed in St. Louis in 1892 to represent working people, particularly farmers, against entrenched financial interests: the two major political parties, bankers and financiers, railroad magnates, corporations, agricultural processors, grain-elevator operators, and anyone allied with such interests. The party ran presidential candidates in 1892 and 1896, but its inability to forge a coalition with eastern industrial workers, coupled with internal divisions and rising farm prices in the late 1890s, undermined the party and led to its collapse. The terms "People's Party" and "Populist Party" are often used interchangeably, although "Populist" tends to refer to the national party, whereas "People's" is the name by which the party was known in some states.


  • 1872: The Crédit Mobilier affair, in which several officials in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant are accused of receiving stock in exchange for favors, is the first of many scandals that are to plague Grant's second term.
  • 1877: In the face of uncertain results from the popular vote in the presidential election of 1876, the U.S. Electoral Commission awards the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes despite a slight popular majority for his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden. The election of 1876 will remain the most controversial in American history for the next 124 years, until overshadowed by the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
  • 1882: Agitation against English rule spreads throughout Ireland, culminating with the assassination of chief secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and permanent undersecretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The leader of the nationalist movement is Charles Stewart Parnell, but the use of assassination and terrorism—which Parnell himself has disavowed—makes clear the fact that he does not control all nationalist groups.
  • 1885: German engineer Karl Friedrich Benz builds the first true automobile.
  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately—and after an extremely acrimonious battle—replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1891: French troops open fire on workers during a 1 May demonstration at Fourmies, where employees of the Sans Pareille factory are striking for an eight-hour workday. Nine people are killed—two of them children—and sixty more are injured.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1893: New Zealand is the first nation in the world to grant the vote to women.
  • 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, is convicted of treason. Dreyfus will later be cleared of all charges, but the Dreyfus case illustrates—and exacerbates—the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism that pervades France.
  • 1896: First modern Olympic Games held in Athens.
  • 1900: The first zeppelin is test-flown.

Event and Its Context


After the U.S. Civil War, the nation's farm sector grew dramatically as hundreds of thousands of farmers followed the nation's expansion and settled in the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountain West, and on the West Coast. Additionally, thousands of ex-slaves became sharecroppers on small farms in the South. At the start of the Civil War, there were about two million farmers in the United States, but by 1916 that number had more than tripled, rising to 6.4 million. During the same years, the total number of acres under cultivation more than doubled, from 407 million to 879 million, and improvements in the technology of planting, cultivating, and harvesting increased the yield of this acreage.

It should have been a golden age for farmers, but it was not. The post-Civil War period was marked by a general decrease in prices, a problem exacerbated in the farm sector by the huge surpluses the farmers were producing. The result was that many farmers were failing, or at least sinking into a quagmire of debt, and many lost their land. The problem became especially acute after the financial panic of 1873, which many people, especially farmers, blamed on the financial manipulations of eastern moneyed interests. Workers and farmers believed that an expansion of the U.S. paper money supply would benefit them and that the United States maintained a currency backed by specie, such as gold, because it served the interests of the rich—especially creditors such as banks, which stood to lose by any expansion of the money supply, for they would be paid back in dollars that were not worth as much as the dollars they had loaned. Out of this conflict the Greenback Party emerged in 1876 to advocate repeal of the Specie Resumption Act of 1875, which put the nation's currency on the gold standard. The party attracted few voters in the 1876 elections, but in the congressional elections of 1878, almost a million voters cast ballots for Greenbackers and sent 14 to Congress. One of those was James B. Weaver, who would later gain prominence in the 1892 presidential election.

The Farmers' Alliance

The Greenback Party faded from sight, but the discontent of farmers did not, particularly after a severe drought hit the wheat-growing regions of the Plains and the price for southern cotton sank to new lows. Thus, a second step toward the emergence of the People's Party was the formation of the Farmers' Alliance in the 1880s. The alliance was a loosely knit confederation of farmers in two principal geographical areas, with the National Farmers' Alliance (Northern Alliance) dominating the Plains states, and the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union (Southern Alliance) dominating the South, particularly Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. These groups supported a network of cooperatives and sponsored lectures, published newspapers, and provided farmers with a sense of solidarity. They agitated for railroad reform, tax reform, and the unlimited coinage of silver. They were outspoken in their disdain for the entrenched economic and political interests that seemed indifferent to their inability to make a decent living, though they lent their support to major-party candidates who promised to come to their aid. The alliances grew rapidly, attracting a quarter of a million members by 1888.

By 1889 efforts were being made to form a coalition of the two Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and the Colored Farmers' Alliance, but these organizations were unable to put aside their prejudices and sectional differences and work toward common goals. The Southern Alliance began to expand into a nationwide organization, with a presence ultimately in 43 states. It was becoming increasingly clear, however, that the organizations could not succeed without reform legislation, and the major-party candidates they had supported were proving unreliable.

Talk thus began to center on the formation of a new farm-labor political party, particularly at the Farmers' Alliance 1890 convention in Ocala, Florida. Out of this convention emerged the so-called Ocala Demands—essentially a threat to politicians in the major parties that the alliance would form its own political party if the parties did not meet its demands. Included in the Ocala Demands were calls for free coinage of silver (a move that would inflate the money supply, thereby helping indebted farmers), the direct election of U.S. senators, and low tariffs. Additionally, the alliance called for the formation of a "subtreasury" system—a massive government warehouse-building program that would allow farmers to store their crops until prices rose; in the meantime, the government would grant loans to farmers, with the stored crops as collateral.

The Populist Party

After the Ocala convention, the Southern Alliance continued to try to operate within the Democratic Party, but many members of the Northern Alliance formed a third party in the Plains states. Kansas took the lead, and in 1890 Populists seized control of the state legislature and sent to Washington the party's first U.S. senator, William Peffer. Although Peffer was an object of ridicule by eastern journalists and politicians, the party continued to gain support in western and southern states until many Farmers' Alliance members called for the formation of a national party.

Their call was answered in February 1892 when the Farmers' Alliance and the Knights of Labor convened in St. Louis to form the People's Party, intended to be an alliance of agricultural workers in the South and West and industrial workers in the North. Triggering their actions was the waffling of the two major-party presidential candidates (Republican Benjamin Harrison and Democrat Grover Cleveland) over the currency issue. In July the new party convened in Omaha, Nebraska, where it nominated James B. Weaver, a former Union general from Iowa, for president; the vice presidential nominee was James Field, an ex-Confederate from Virginia.

In the preamble to its platform, written by Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota, the party made its position clear: "We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform." Donnelly further wrote that "they propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppression of the usurers may be lost sight of."

The platform went on to call for free coinage of silver, abolition of national banks, a subtreasury system, a graduated income tax, an expanded supply of paper money, government ownership of transportation and communication (especially the railroads), direct election of U.S. senators and term limits for the president and vice-president, the repatriation of land currently owned by foreigners, civil service reform, an eight-hour workday, postal banks, pensions for ex-Union soldiers, revision of the law of contracts, and reform of the immigration system (which "opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners"). The convention also offered its full support to the Knights of Labor in its labor dispute with the "tyrannical combine of clothing manufacturers of Rochester."

Weaver and Field made a respectable showing, polling over one million votes and actually carrying five western states (22 electoral votes); from the Civil War to the beginning of the twenty-first century, only Teddy Roosevelt, Strom Thurmond, and George Wallace had won more electoral votes as third-party candidates, and only four third-party candidates—Roosevelt, Wallace, Robert LaFollette, and H. Ross Perot—exceeded Weaver's 8.5 percent of the popular vote. In some parts of the country the ticket won up to 45 percent of the vote, but it made a disappointing showing in the North, where it was able to attract little support from nonfarm voters. In the South, racial divisions, sectional loyalties, election fraud, and even violence ensured the solid control of the Democratic Party. Nonetheless, the People's Party grew, and in the 1894 congressional elections the party's candidates polled more than 1.5 million votes.

The Decline of the People's Party

The decline and collapse of the People's Party began as the 1896 presidential election approached. The party was in turmoil, riven by two factions. One faction, which included the party's national chairman, Herman E. Taubeneck, consisted of "fusion Populists." This faction sought to drop the Omaha platform and fuse with the Democrats, believing that a regional party could never achieve national prominence and that it would be more expedient to exert influence within a major political party. In Kansas the Populist Party had already fused with the Democrats, prompting cries from bitter opponents of the move that the party had sold out.

The other faction, generally referred to as "mid-roaders," believed that the Democrats wanted to destroy the threat of a third party and that fusion would play right into their hands. This group wanted to stay "in the middle of the road" between the two major parties—though this phrase fails to suggest the sweeping changes desired by the mid-roaders. The mid-roaders tried to schedule the party's nominating convention before the conventions of the two major parties, but the fusionists succeeded in scheduling the convention afterwards in the hope that a "silver" Democrat they could support would win his party's nomination in Chicago.

The fusionists realized their hopes when William Jennings Bryan, a former congressman from Nebraska, won the Democratic Party nomination after electrifying the convention with his famous "Cross of Gold" speech ("You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold") in opposition to the firm commitment to the gold standard on the part of the Republican nominee, William McKinley.

The mid-roaders were in a tight spot. They had hoped actually to capture the White House, believing that the "gold voters" would split between the two major parties and that the People's Party would appeal to a growing corps of "silver voters." When the Democrats nominated Bryan, however, they faced a dilemma: they could either nominate Bryan themselves and ensure silver coinage, in the process losing their identity as a distinct party, or they could nominate their own candidate and wind up splitting the silver vote. Relations between the fusionists and the mid-roaders were tense. The fusionists were in communication with Bryan's campaign manager; the mid-roaders' most eloquent spokesman, the fiery Tom Watson of Georgia, stayed at home, sensing disaster. When the convention endorsed Bryan—putting him in the unique position of being the presidential candidate of two political parties—the mid-roaders tried to rally, but the lights in the convention hall mysteriously went out. They just as mysteriously came back on 15 minutes after the mid-roaders had given up and dispersed.

The People's Party platform in 1896 was essentially the same as the 1892 platform. In contrast to the "sound money" platform of the Republicans, party members continued to place their faith in silver coinage and an expanded money supply. Additionally, they called for abolition of the electoral college, recognition of Cuba as a free and independent state, home rule in the territories and the District of Columbia, early admission of the territories as states, and a public-works system to put "idle labor" to work during times of industrial depression.

To try to salvage some independence, the mid-roaders did manage to defeat the nomination of Arthur Sewall, Bryan's Democratic running mate and an antilabor conservative. Instead, for vice president they chose Watson, the editor of the People Party's Paper and a dedicated Populist who had received death threats from Georgia Democrats who feared the rise of the People's Party. Thus, voters could choose between a Bryan-Sewall ticket or a Bryan-Watson ticket. Watson accepted the nomination only because he was led to believe that Bryan had promised the party's leadership that he would renounce Sewall. Bryan, however, had given no such promise, so Watson refused to campaign for him; Bryan, for his part, virtually ignored the People's Party. Out of this bitterness and confusion the Republicans were able to portray the Populists and the silver Democrats as ignorant "hayseeds" and "anarchists." In the election, McKinley won 7.1 million votes and 271 electoral votes, and Bryan won 6.5 million votes and 176 electoral votes. Bryan carried no industrial state in the North and even lost the agricultural states of Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota.

Disillusion and Dissolution

Many members of the People's Party were disillusioned by Bryan's defeat, and rising farm prices in the 1890s took much of the fire out the party. After 1896 many joined the Democratic Party, believing that the Democrats were the best hope for un-seating conservative, antilabor Republicans. Some joined a new party, the Social Democratic Party, which nominated Eugene V. Debs for president in 1900. Others clung to the People's Party and ran candidates primarily in state and local elections, though they did nominate Wharton Barker for president in 1900 and Tom Watson in both 1904 and 1908. Neither of these candidates won nearly the number of votes that Weaver had in 1892.

Although the People's Party died, its ideals lived on, and many of its proposals eventually became realities. President Theodore Roosevelt expanded federal regulation of business corporations, and under his leadership the Progressive Party's 1912 platform echoed that of the People's Party. In 1912 Congress passed a constitutional amendment that provided for direct election of U.S. senators. In the 1930s the government began to provide aid to farmers and public works programs to help unemployed workers during the depression. In recent years the issue of term limits for elected officials has been widely discussed.

Key Players

Bryan, William Jennings (1860-1925): Born in Salem, Illinois, Bryan practiced law before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1891-1895) from Nebraska. After leaving office, he turned to lecturing and journalism, then ran for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908. In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson appointed him secretary of state, but he resigned in 1915 to protest Wilson's belligerence toward Germany. In 1920 he moved to Florida, where he made a fortune in the real estate boom. His last major public appearance was in the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," where he spoke for the prosecution.

Peffer, William (1831-1912): Peffer was born in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. He began his career as a school teacher, but later he migrated throughout the country. He made money in the California gold rush; farmed in Missouri and Illinois; served in the Civil War; practiced law in Tennessee; and then moved to Kansas to practice law, establish two newspapers, and purchase a third, the Kansas Farmer. In 1874 he was elected to the state senate as a Republican. In 1890 he joined the Farmers' Alliance and was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served one term (1891-1897).

Watson, Tom (1856-1922): Watson, the firebrand of the Populist movement, was born on a small plantation near Thomson, Georgia. After prospering as a lawyer and landowner, he entered politics and was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1882 and resigned in 1884. In 1890 he was elected to Congress as a Democrat, but he supported the existence of a third party and helped found the Populist Party in Georgia in 1892. In addition to running for vice president in 1896, he ran for president in 1904 and 1908 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920. Late in life he became a virulent racist, anti-Semite, and anti-Catholic.

Weaver, James B. (1833-1912): Weaver was born near Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in Iowa. He practiced law until he joined the Union Army during the Civil War, rising to the rank of brevet brigadier general. After the war he was elected district attorney and was appointed federal assessor of internal revenue, a post he held until 1873. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Weaver was active in third-party politics, and in 1878 he was elected to Congress as a member of the Greenback Party (1878-1880, 1884-1888). After running for president in 1892, he returned to Iowa, where he served as mayor of Colfax.

See also: Colored Farmers' Alliance; Knights of Labor.



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Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform. New York: Random House, 1955.

McGrath, Robert C., Jr. American Populism: A Social History, 1877-1898. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Peffer, William. Populism: Its Rise and Fall. Lawrence:University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Pollack, Norman, ed. The Populist Mind. New York:Macmillan, 1967.

——. The Just Polity: Politics, Law, and Human Welfare.Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1987.


Edwards, Rebecca. "People's Party Platform" (1896). Vassar Collage Web site. 2000 [cited 8 October 2002]. http://

W. W. Norton and Company. The Essential America. "Populist Party Platform (1892)." From "People's Party Platform," Omaha Morning World-Herald, 5 July 1892 [cited 8 October 2002]. .

—Michael J. O'Neal