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AMERICAN HISTORY SINCE 1865 THE POPULIST MOVEMENT Why did the Populist Movement Fail?
Introduction Who were the Populists and What did they want?
Economic and social circumstance Reluctance of voters to change parties Reactions of the main parties Fusion Did Populism fail?
Conclusion The Age of Reform: R. Hofstadter
- The People's Party was founded in 1891 and, along with the Populist movement, spearheaded a principally agrarian backlash against what was felt to be the domination of American politics by Eastern industrialists, finance interests, and railroad interests.
- The Farmers' Alliance was formed in 1876 in Texas and hoped, through collective action, to protect its members from collapsing agricultural prices.
- They opposed the imposition of the Gold Standard because of its deflationary impact.
- Negotiation between farmers' unions and the Knights of Labour resulted in the formation of the People's Party.
- The Party sought the abolition of national banks, graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, civil service reform, an eight-hour day, and Government control of railroads and telecommunications.
- At the 1892 Presidential election, Populist candidate J.B. Weaver won over 1million votes and four States.
- By the mid-1890s the Democrats had adopted many of the People's Party's causes for themselves. The Democrat's 1896 Presidential candidate, W.J. Bryan, appealed to the People's Party and it adopted him as their nominee. He subsequently lost to McKinley, and lost again in
1900. - Populism never recovered from this alliance with the Democrats and the People's Party ceased to exist as an effective organisation after 1896.
- Populists sought to bring back morality and civic purity which they thought had been lost, although they have been criticised for being overly utopian in their outlook1.
- Populism had three compact centres, overwhelmingly rural and defined by production of goods whose price had catastrophically declined: the South - cotton, the North-western States - wheat, and the mountain States - silver2.
- There were only nine States where Weaver captured more than one-third of the vote, and many where Populism's presence was virtually non-existent; the Party was geographically isolated.
- Populism did not fail because agriculture was no longer a significant economic interest, but trying to turn agrarianism into a nationally popular third-party movement was always going to be fraught with difficulties.
- When a third Party's demands become popular enough they are appropriated by one or both of the main Parties, and the third Party disappears. 1 The Age of Reform: R. Hofstadter 2 The Age of Reform: R. Hofstadter
- Working men did not vote consciously as a class and, whilst the American Federation of Labour was in its infancy, there was hardly any labour movement in America at the end of the 19th century.
- The Party itself was built upon extremely weak financial foundations.
- 1896 proved to be the nadir for American agricultural prices, which rapidly increased thereafter. Between 1897 and 1909 the price of corn rose from 21 to 57 cents a bushel; the price of cotton climbed to 14 cents a pound from 6 cents3.
- Importance of urbanisation, industrialisation, and falling relative employment in agriculture. The Populist Response to Industrial America: N. Pollack
- Were agrarians vainly trying to turn back history or were they a genuinely progressive social force?
- They were unwilling or unable to combine with industrial labour movements.
- Populism accepted industrialised society but was strongly pro-labour; it attacked capitalism on both economic and humanistic grounds.
- Farmers did not oppose technology; they were receptive to modernisation.
- They did not seek to abolish railroads, but subject them to government control, and in doing so confront what they saw as specific transport abuses.
- They offered remedies to existing problems, rather than seeking a return to a utopian society4.
- Popularism traces its origins back to Grangerism and Greenbackism in the 1870s; it was not an isolated movement.
- 'Popularism regarded itself as a class movement...it accepted industrialisation but opposed its capitalistic form;'5 it was a progressive social force.
- Argues that farmers shared common complaints with industrial workers as a result of their precarious economic position.
- Homestead Act?
- Coxey Movement? Supported by agrarian workers.
- Of the Pullman Strike, the Governor of Colorado told a populist rally that the 'strike can never success because the entire armed forces of the United States are against the success of the labouring man.'6
- By 1894 the AFL was shaping the future of Populism; it was hoped that it would evolve into a farmer-labour movement. However, 'while its weight was essential to a stronger third party, its failure to act guaranteed the ultimate downfall of Populism.'7
- Once Populism had passed its peak, fusion offered the best chance to advance its radical causes.
- It had to repudiate its demand for free silver, which many Populists considered trifling, in exchange for the potential advancement of other more significant demands.
- Despite having serious reservations about Bryan, Populists were forced to form the bedrock of his following.
- Bryan was not a Populist, but a Democrat, and did not even acknowledge the People's Party nomination until the last weeks of the campaign. Democrats only supported free silver to undermine Populism, and did not support other aspects of the Populist platform. 3 The Age of Reform: R. Hofstadter 4 The Populist Response to Industrial America: N. Pollack 5 The Populist Response to Industrial America: N. Pollack 6 The Populist Response to Industrial America: N. Pollack 7 The Populist Response to Industrial America: N. Pollack
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