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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.