Beset by crop failures in the 1880s, Midwestern farmers dealt with falling prices, scarce money, and debt. To cope with these problems, farmers began forming farmers’ alliances, which multiplied in the Great Plains and spread to the South, where white and black farmers formed separate alliances. Working together in these cooperative organizations, farmers hoped to lower costs by buying supplies at reduced prices, obtaining loans at rates below those charged by banks, and building warehouses to store crops until prices became favorable.
In 1889 the Southern and Northwestern alliances merged and in 1890 became politically active. In the early 1890s, alliance delegates formed a national party, the People’s Party, whose members were called Populists, and decided to wage a third-party campaign. The delegates nominated James B. Weaver as the party’s candidate for president in 1892. Although he lost, the party won several governorships and legislative seats. Populism inspired colorful leaders, such as lawyer Mary E. Lease of Kansas, a powerful orator, and Tom Watson of Georgia, who urged cooperation among black and white farmers.
Populists supported a slate of reforms. These included calls for the government to issue more silver coins and paper currency; such inflationary measures, Populists hoped, would raise farm prices and enable farmers to pay off their debts. They wanted the government to regulate closely or even to take over the railroads in the hope of lowering farmers’ transportation costs. The Populists also supported a graduated income tax to more equitably distribute the costs of government, as well as tariff reduction, abolition of national banks, direct popular elections of U.S. senators, and an eight-hour workday for wage earners.
Economic collapse in the 1890s increased agrarian woes. The panic of 1893 was followed by a depression that lasted until 1897. Businesses went bankrupt, railroads failed, industrial unemployment rose, and farm prices fell. The depression increased doubts about laissez-faire economic policies.
The money question, an issue since the 1870s, dominated the election of 1896. Populists supported the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who called for free silver, or free and unlimited coinage of silver.
Bryan electrified the Democratic convention with a powerful denunciation of the gold standard. But Republican William McKinley, with a huge campaign chest and business support, won the election. With McKinley, Republicans gained a majority of the electorate that lasted, with only one interruption, until the New Deal in the 1930s. The corporate elite was now empowered in national politics. The influence of the Populist Party declined after the election, but the massive protest stirred by Populists did not completely fail. Many of the reforms that agrarian protesters endorsed were eventually enacted in the Progressive Era. But Populists had been unable to turn back the clock to a time when farmers had more autonomy, or to remedy the economic problems of the new industrial society. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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