Frustrated with the inability of Democrats and Republicans to address the concerns of farmers and poor people, and feeling like both parties were owned by big business, the People’s Party held a convention in Topeka, Kansas in 1890. The People’s Party sought to unite all farmers and all factory workers. Mary Elizabeth Lease spoke to an enthusiastic crowd:
“Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.”
She also said:
“Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags.”According to Mary Lease, it was time to “raise less corn and more hell.”
Mary Elizabeth Lease is shown above.
In 1892, the fledging People’s Party (also known as the Populist Party) held a national convention in which they agreed on a platform. The platform began:
“We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench…The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up the colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”The platform called for government ownership of the railroads, telegraph, and telephone; an end to government subsidies to private corporations; unused land held by the railroads and other corporations should be expropriated and held for “actual settlers”; graduated income tax. In addition, the platform called for political reforms including the initiate where legislation could begin by petition and referendum where the people as a whole could vote on a bill. It also promoted the idea of recall which would allow voters to recall elected officials before their term had expired. They also called for a one-term limit for the President.
Another radical idea promoted by the populists was the direct election of Senators. The Senate, part of the aristocracy of American government, was selected by state Legislatures at this time.
With regard to labor, the platform called for rigid enforcement of the eight-hour day for government workers and for sympathy for labor unions.
With regard to monetary policy, the populists called for the free and unlimited coinage of silver. In what Populists called “The Crime of ‘73” the government, beginning in 1873, had accepted only gold. Opponents to this proposed policy claimed that it would ruin the economy of the United States.
At their nominating convention, they nominated James Weaver, a former Union general, for President. Weaver had originally entered politics as a Republican, but became disenchanted with the Republican Party and the presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant. He felt that government had come under the control of big business and so he joined the Greenback Party which advocated, among other things, an eight-hour work day, the taxation of interest from government bonds, and a graduated income tax. In 1878, he was elected to Congress on the Greenback ticket.
In 1892, Weaver’s running mate for Vice President was James G. Field, a former Confederate general from Virginia.
For the 1892 election, the People’s Party attempted to put together a coalition of diverse groups, including northern Republicans and southern Democrats, urban workers and farmers, white people and blacks. In the south the Colored Farmers National Alliance grew to nearly a million members, but it was difficult to translate this into votes. Whites in the south put many obstacles in the way of black voting. White Democrats in the South responded to the incorporation of blacks into the People’s Party by claiming that the Populists were promoting anarchy, Negro supremacy, mongrelism, and “the destruction of the Saxon womanhood of our wives and daughters.”
In the 1892 election, Weaver received more than a million votes: he won Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada, winning 22 electoral votes. He won some counties in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas. They also elected numerous Senators, Congressmen, and state legislators.
In 1896, the Populist movement merged into the Democratic party. Corporations, the press, and massive amounts of money then helped elect Republican William McKinley to the Presidency. Historian Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, writes:
“Even the hint of Populism in the Democratic party, it seemed, could not be tolerated, and the big guns of the Establishment pulled out all their ammunition, to be sure.”While the People’s Party (AKA the Populist Party) was only a brief blip in the history of American politics and elections, many of their proposals have been incorporated into American government. The two main items—the graduated income tax and the direct election of Senators—is currently under attack by conservatives. The progressive nature of a graduated income tax in which wealthy people pay a greater share of taxes has been eroded and the cost of government is shifting back to the poor and middle class. A return to the selection of Senators by state legislatures is currently being advocated by a number of conservative groups. Government subsidies to the wealthy have, of course, continued.