Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


William Alfred Peffer was a prominent newspaper editor who helped organize the People's Party and became the first Populist U.S. senator. Born in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, on September 10, 1831, Peffer farmed and taught school in several states before settling in Fredonia, Kansas, in 1870. There he purchased a small newspaper that he renamed the Fredonia Journal.

A Republican, Peffer was elected a state senator in 1874 and a presidential elector in 1880, but he was more involved in journalism than politics. In 1875 he moved to Coffeyville, renamed his newspaper the Coffeyville Journal, and became active in the Kansas Editors Association. In 1881, leaving a son to run the Coffeyville Journal, Peffer moved to Topeka as editor of the Kansas Farmer, the state's foremost farm journal and most widely circulated newspaper. He also became an associate editor for the Topeka Capital, the state's leading Republican daily. But he followed a nonpartisan course in making the Kansas Farmer an influential reform newspaper, advocating railroad regulation, financial reform, antimonopolism, and political democratization. He urged farmers to organize, and the Farmers Alliance made the Farmer its official state paper.

In 1890 Peffer's editorials and speeches helped the alliance launch the People's Party of Kansas, which defeated the Republicans and in 1891 elected him senator. Resigning from the Farmer, he became the major shareholder of the Topeka Advocate, the leading Populist newspaper, and organized and became the first president of the Kansas Reform Press Association. His books, The Way Out (1890) and The Farmer's Side: His Troubles and Their Remedy (1891), were fundamental Populist literature.

Peffer chaired the 1891 Cincinnati conference that organized the national People's Party, and he became the principal advocate of Populist measures in Congress. He used his official salary to help start the National Watchman as a Populist newspaper in Washington DC, and in 1895 he took control of the Advocate. He consistently promoted a radical and independent course for the Populist Party but gradually lost influence as it turned to a policy of fusion on the basis of free silver. He was not reelected in 1897 and shortly thereafter sold the Advocate. He continued to write for newspapers and magazines on agricultural and economic topics until his death in Grenola, Kansas, on October 6, 1912.

See also POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Populists (People's Party).

Peter H. Argersinger Southern Illinois University

Argersinger, Peter H. Populism and Politics: William Alfred Peffer and the People's Party. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.

Peffer, William A. Populism, Its Rise and Fall, edited by Peter H. Argersinger. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

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