Were the Populists Prophets?


Volume IX, Number 2
Winter, 1990

In 1914, as she contemplated the ruins of the Populist movement to which she had devoted so much of her life, one-time firebrand Mary Lease, the celebrated "Kansas Cyclone," found a ray of consolation:

In these later years I have seen with gratification, that my work in the good old Populist days was not in vain. The Progressive party has adopted our platform, clause by clause, plank by plank. Note the list of reforms which we advocated which are coming into reality. Direct election of senators is assured. Public utilities are gradually being removed from the hands of the few and placed under the control of the people who use them. Women suffrage is now almost a national issue . . . The seed we sowed out in Kansas did not fall on barren ground.1

This assessment, which might, under other circumstances, have been dismissed as sour grapes, has been elevated by subsequent historians into gospel. John D. Hicks, whose 1931 study of The Populist Revolt was the first major scholarly appraisal of that movement, devoted his final chapter, "The Populist Contribution," to a review of the "triumph of Populist principles," agreeing with Mary Lease that "a backward glance at the history of Populism shows that many of the reforms that the Populists demanded, while despised and rejected for a season, won triumphantly in the end."2

A quarter century later, Richard Hofstadter, in his revisionist examination of The Age of Reform, rejected virtually all of Hick's assumptions but, nonetheless, retained his conclusion. In a section entitled "Success Through Failure," Hofstadter argued that the historic function of third parties "has not been to win or govern, but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the dynamic element in our political life."3 By that standard, he judged the Populist experience to have been a success since, despite its electoral failure,

the cause itself went marching on, and the "pure" Populists had the satisfaction of seeing plank after plank of their platforms made law by the parties whose leaders had once dismissed them as lunatics. Forming a third party was no way to win office, but given some patience, it proved a good way of getting things done.4

This image of the Populist Party as phoenix, with its platform rising reborn from the ashes of electoral defeat, has become the standard judgement of political historians and has entered into virtually every college history textbook. In these texts students cramming for an exam on the Populists can learn that "Time vindicated their demands. A large number of their rejected solutions were adopted in the first two decades of the new century; most of their remaining agenda was enacted in modified forms during the New Deal of the 1930's."5 Or: "Ironically, by 1920 many populist reform goals would be achieved . . . ."6 Or: "Indeed, the Populists' political reforms were in large part, although not by them, to become the law of the land."7 Or, to take one more example out of a multitude: "In one form or another all [the main proposals of the Populists] would be enacted into legislation in the future."8 History may not repeat itself, someone once observed, but historians certainly repeat each other.

What precisely was in these Populist platforms that entitled them to such a reputation for uncanny foresight? And to what extent can the Populists themselves claim credit for whatever posthumous success their proposals had?

Although the People's Party (to give the Populists their formal title) lingered in an attenuated form until 1908, their heyday was actually brief. Their first national campaign, in 1892, secured 22 electoral votes and more than a million popular votes for their candidate, James Baird Weaver. Four years later though they drafted their own platform and nominated their own vice-presidential candidate, the Populists chose to endorse William Jennings Bryan, the presidential nominee of the Democratic party, and with that decision, in effect, they surrendered their distinctive political identity. It is from the platforms of these two campaigns, the first adopted in Omaha, the second in St. Louis, that the specific political demands of the Populist movement can best be elicited.

The Omaha platform of 1892 contained the apocalyptic rhetoric favored by its author, flamboyant Minnesota congressman and novelist Ignatius Donnelly, but its essential planks were economic in nature and relatively straightforward. The two most important were the subtreasury plan and free silver. The first was a complex scheme by which the federal government would purchase and store surplus farm products, paying for them with a new type of currency established for that purpose. Such a currency would, of course, be inflationary. This was also the intention behind the demand for the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of sixteen to one with gold. Other planks included government ownership of the railroads, telegraph, and telephone lines; a graduated income tax; a postal savings bank; prohibition of alien ownership of land; and the customary calls for national unity and strict economy in government expenditures. In addition, the Platform Committee recommended a set of subsidiary resolutions as expressing the sense of the convention, but not as part of the official platform. These included: the Australian (or secret) ballot, liberal pensions for Union veterans, immigration restriction, a shorter workday for labor, adoption of the initiative and referendum, one-term limit for president, and the direct election of U.S. senators.9

Although the style of the 1896 St. Louis platform was more pedestrian than its melodramatic predecessor, its contents were similar. The main difference was the removal of the subtreasury plan, which had proven too complex for voters to grasp. Free silver now stood alone as "the great and pressing issue of the pending campaign." Otherwise, the changes were minor, with immigration restriction, the eight-hour day, and the one-term presidency also dropped from the platform. In their place were demands for Free Cuba, abolition of the electoral college, opening of Indian lands for settlement, home rule for the District of Columbia, and public works projects for the unemployed.10

The Populists' performance as prophets can be tested from these two platforms. The record is uneven. The central goal of the Populist crusade - free silver - was never enacted. Since this was the panacea to which Populists and their allies were willing to subordinate all their other causes, its failure weighs heavily against the claims of ultimate Populist success. The other major Populist proposal was the subtreasury plan. Although certain aspects of that scheme were part of the McNary-Haugen bills of the 1920's and the New Deal farm legislation of the 1930's, central elements of the plan were never adopted. In any event, since the Populists themselves abandoned the plan in their 1896 platform, their claim to whatever subsequent success it may have had is clouded.

The platforms' minor planks fared somewhat better. The graduated income tax and the direct election of senators became law through the sixteenth and seventeenth constitutional amendments adopted early in the twentieth century. Beginning with South Dakota in 1898, many states and localities enacted the initiative and referendum, and the secret ballot became universal. In 1910 the federal government instituted a postal savings system.

But alongside these examples of success one must also set those Populist proposals that misfired. Except for a brief interlude during World War I, the federal government never assumed control of the railroads, telegraph, or telephone lines. Nor was a one-term, popularly-elected presidential office ever established. Home rule for the District of Columbia in 1965 and an eight-hour day for government workers as well as Free Cuba, became reality but by processes largely independent of whatever input the Populists may have had.

Taking these considerations into account, the batting average of Populist proposals drops substantially. But to what extent are these proposals uniquely Populist? The People's Party was the most successful third party of the nineteenth century, but it was hardly the only one. The political culture of the post-Civil War years encouraged the formation of a host of minor parties. In an era when the strength of the two major parties achieved such an even balance, even relatively insignificant splinter groups had the potential of tilting the political equilibrium and thus could command a hearing.

Historians tend to dismiss these minor parties, such as the Greenback Party, the Equal Rights Party, and the various Prohibition parties, as single-issue organizations. But, in fact, they often adopted platforms that ranged far beyond the group's primary concern. Just as the Populists borrowed their first presidential candidate, James Baird Weaver, from the Greenbacks, so too they drew most of their platform planks out of the grab-bag of various splinter-party proposals. These were not Populist proposals as such, but were part of the common currency of late-nineteenth century American reform movements. Other parties shared and even anticipated many of those reform proposals that have since become identified with the Populists.

The direct election of the U.S. senators, for example, had been advocated by the Prohibition Party as early as 1872. In 1876 they also asked for the direct election of the president and vice-president, as did the American National Party. The American Prohibition and Anti-Monopoly parties seconded these demands in 1884, as did the Union Labor in 1888 and National parties in 1896.11

A graduated income tax was proposed by the Greenback Party in 1880 and again in 1884. The issue received support from the Anti-Monopoly Party in 1884, the Union Labor Party in 1888, and the Socialist Labor Party, which also asked for an inheritance tax, in 1892 and 1896. Government ownership or regulation of railroads, telegraph, and telephone lines was another old standby, put forward by the Greenbackers (1884), the Union Labor and the United Labor parties (1888), Prohibitions (1892), National (1896), and Socialist-Labor (1892 and 1896). Most of these parties had also endorsed the eight-hour day - the Greenbackers as early as 1880 - as well as the initiative, referendum, and recall. The secret ballot was a plank in the United Labor Party's platform in 1888 and even free silver, which later became so closely identified with the Populist crusade, had been a demand of the Union Labor Party as early as 1888.

Given this multiplicity of voices, it is hard to credit the Populists, as Hofstadter did, with fulfilling the historic function of third parties by generating new ideas. Furthermore, there were many other genuinely new ideas, some of which later became law, that the Populists did not propose or endorse. Among these was the restriction of child labor, advocated by the Greenbackers in 1880 and 1884, the United Labor Party in 1888 and the Socialist Labor Party in 1892 and 1896. Women's suffrage, which, pace Mary Lease, was not supported in either of the platforms of the national Populist Party, was a staple fixture in the platforms of most other third parties, beginning with the Prohibition Party in 1872. Going beyond that, the call for equal pay for equal work was raised by the Prohibition and Union Labor parties in 1888, the Socialist Labor Party in 1892 and 1896, and even by the supposedly conservative Republican Party in 1896, but not the Populists. The abolition of capital punishment and the settlement of international disputes through arbitration were other reforms urged by various splinter parties but ignored by the Populists.

A striking and unexpected pattern that emerges from the above listings is the remarkably prescient record of the various prohibition parties. Not only did they advocate many reforms in advance of their adoption by the Populists but they also supported a wider range of reform measures and saw a greater percentage of them enacted into law. Furthermore, unlike the Populists, they even had the satisfaction of seeing their central panacea triumph, albeit temporarily, in the form of a constitutional amendment. All of this gives the prohibitionists a better claim to the mantle of prophecy than the Populists, but such a claim is never made by the history textbooks.

One wonders why. Part of the reason may simply be intellectual laziness: taking the easy path of following well-worn historiographic ruts rather than blazing new trails.12 But this begs the question of why this particular interpretation became so universally accepted in the first place.

Perhaps ideological considerations also played a part. A persistent project of American political historians since the days of Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington early in this century has been the creation of a respectable lineage for American liberalism, linking modern reformers to Jefferson and Jackson in an unbroken chain of descent. As champions of the underdogs, the Populists fit into this family tree far better than the Prohibitionists with their inclination towards social control and their advocacy of traditional Christian life-style, such as their support of Sabbatarian legislation and prayer in the public schools. The Populists are not without problems of their own. Their evangelical tone, their rural intolerance, their touches of anti-semitism and xenophobia could well make them seem unlikely candidates for the liberal pantheon. These drawbacks, however, can be minimized by stressing instead those aspects of the Populist program that anticipated the reforms of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, thereby turning them into prophets.

Portraying the Populists as lonely voices crying in the wilderness not only neglects the babel of similar voices out of which Populism emerged, but it also obscures the fundamentally backward-looking nature of the Populist vision that nostalgically tried to recreate the lost arcadian paradise of Jeffersonian vertu in an increasingly industrialized and cosmopolitan nation. This is not political history but politicized history, and the cost of this interpretive sleight-of-hand is to distort the American political tradition.


1Cited in John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1931), 421.


2 Ibid., 422; 404 

3Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Random House, 1955), 97. 

4Ibid., 109.

5James Kirby Martin, Randy Roberts, et. al., America and Its People (Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1989), 602. 

6 Mary Beth Norton, David M. Katzman, et al., A People and a Nation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 602. 

7Joseph R. Conklin, The American Past (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990), 574-75. 

8James West Davidson, William E. Gienapp, et al., Nation of Nations (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990), 775. 

9Thomas Hudson McKee, The National Conventions and Platforms of All Political Parties, 1789 to 1905 (Baltimore: Friedenwald, 1906), 279-85. 

10Ibid., 305-10. 

11All platforms are drawn from McKee's compendium. 

12In a review of the historiography of the Gilded Age published in 1975, Vincent DeSantis was struck by the persistence with which historians maintained their negative assessment of the politics of that era despite a generation of revisionist scholarship to the contrary. Over a decade later, he revisited the literature and found that the old stereotypes continued to persist with scarcely any modification. (Vincent P. DeSantis, "The Political Life of the Gilded Age: A Review of the Recent Literature," The History Teacher, IX (November, 1975), 73-106; Vincent P. DeSantis, "The Gilded Age in American History," Hayes Historical Journal, VII (Winter, 1988), 38-57.