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The Populist Movement in the 19th Century  

Charles Postel

American Populism of the 1880s and 1890s marked the political high-water mark of the social movements of farmers, wage earners, women, and other sectors of society in the years after the Civil War. These movements forged the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, which campaigned against corporate power and economic inequality and was one of the most successful third parties in US history. Populist candidates won gubernatorial elections in nine states and gained some forty-five seats in the US Congress, including six seats in the Senate, and in 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver of Iowa, received over a million votes, more than 8 percent of the total. The Populist Party was not a conventional political party but a coalition of organizations, including the Farmers’ Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and other reform movements, in what the Populists described as a “congress of industrial orders.” These organizations gave the People’s Party its strength and shaped its character as a party of working people with a vision of egalitarian cooperation and solidarity comparable to the labor, farmer-labor, and social-democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere that took shape in the same decades. Despite their egalitarian claims, however, the Populists had at best a mixed attitude towards the struggles for racial equality, and at worst accommodated Indian dispossession, Chinese exclusion, and Jim Crow segregation. In terms of its legacy, veterans of the Populist movement and many of its policy proposals would shape progressive and labor-farmer politics deep into the 20th century, partly by way of the Socialist Party, but mainly by way of the progressive or liberal wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties. At the same time, the adjective “populist” has come to describe a wide variety of political phenomena, including right-wing and nationalist movements, that have no particular connection to the late 19th-century Populism.

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The Populist Party, Industrial Workers, and Their Unions  

Michael Pierce

The People’s (or Populist) Party represented the last major third-party effort to prevent the emergence of large-scale corporate capitalism in the United States. Founded in 1891, the party sought to unite the producers of wealth—farmers and workers—into a political coalition dedicated to breaking the hold of private bankers over the nation’s monetary system, controlling monopolies through government ownership, and opening up unused land to actual settlers. Industrial workers and their unions were initially wary of the new party, but things changed after the traumatic labor unrest of 1894: Coxey’s March, the nationwide coal strike, and the Pullman boycott. At that time, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) debated some form of alliance with the Populists. Although the Federation rejected such an alliance in both 1894 and 1895 by the slimmest of margins, it did elect a labor Populist—John McBride of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)—to the presidency in 1894. This Populist insurgency represents the closest that the main body of the nation’s labor movement ever came to forming a labor party resembling those that arose in industrialized Europe, and its failure helps explain why American workers were unable to mobilize politically to challenge the emerging economic order dominated by large corporate enterprises. While the agrarian leaders of the People’s Party at first sought the backing of industrial workers, especially those associated with the AFL, they shunned labor’s support after the trauma of 1894. Party officials like Herman Taubeneck, James Weaver, and Tom Watson feared that labor’s support would taint the party with radicalism and violence, warned that trade unionists sought to control the party, and took steps designed to alienate industrial workers. They even justified their retreat from the broad-based Omaha Platform (1892) on the grounds that it would drive the trade unionists they called “socialists” from the party.