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date: 14 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: People’s Party, populism, American Federation of Labor, labor movement, industrialization, crisis of the 1890s

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