Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


A dynamic third party of the 1890s, the People's Party sharply challenged the period's economic inequities and the unresponsiveness of the two major political parties. Though Populists, as adherents of the new party were called, were also important in the South and in the Rocky Mountain states, they were especially numerous and influential in the Great Plains.

Populist protest emerged amid an agricultural depression that engulfed the Plains beginning in the late 1880s. A boom spurred by railroad development, town building, ready credit, and good weather collapsed because of drought, low crop prices, falling land values, and onerous debt. To protect their fading interests, distressed farmers demanded reforms, ranging from state laws reducing interest rates and regulating railroads to national laws providing agricultural credits and promoting monetary inflation. Increasing the money supply through an expanded greenback currency and unlimited silver coinage ("free silver") was widely favored to reduce the burden of debt and to increase farm prices.

To the farmers' dismay, the Republican Party, which dominated state legislatures in the region, rejected their reform proposals in favor of untrammeled business development. Nor could the Democratic Party–weak, conservative, and focused on cultural issues–serve as a vehicle for agrarian economic reform.

Mobilized by the Farmers Alliance and other reform organizations, angry farmers therefore created third parties throughout the Plains states in 1890. South Dakota dissidents moved first, forming the Independent Party on June 7, 1890, but it was the formation of the Kansas People's Party on June 12, 1890, that provided the name eventually adopted everywhere.

These initial campaigns achieved considerable success. Led by crusading editors like William Peffer of the Kansas Farmer and Henry Loucks of the Dakota Ruralist and spellbinding orators like Mary Elizabeth Lease and "Sockless Jerry" Simpson of Kansas and Omer Kem of Nebraska, Populists elected several congressmen and senators and captured control of the legislatures in Nebraska and Kansas while gaining the balance of power in others.

Kansas Populists then led in organizing a national People's Party in 1891. The new party's first national nominating convention met in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 4, 1892. It adopted the famous Omaha Platform, eloquently summarizing the Populists' economic and political reform goals, and nominated James Weaver of Iowa for president. The Populists carried Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada and garnered more than a million popular votes, but the party met little success in the South, where fraud, intimidation, and racism disrupted their potential constituency, or in the industrial East.

But Populists again achieved important victories at the state level in the West, often by cooperating or "fusing" with Democrats on a common ticket. More Populists were elected to Congress, and Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska elected Populist governors. Despite consistent Republican opposition, Populists eventually enacted important reforms in several states. They passed laws regulating railroads, banks, stockyards, and insurance companies, protecting labor unions, and improving working conditions. They were also largely responsible for democratic political reforms such as women's suffrage in Colorado and the initiative and referendum in South Dakota.

But most Populist objectives required national, not state, action. To achieve national success, Weaver and other Populist leaders, who had already fused with Democrats in state elections, began pursuing a policy to arrange in 1896 a national fusion based on the issue of free silver.

Their strategy went awry, however, when the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska on a free silver platform. Bryan had worked with Populists in Nebraska, and the fusionists' political logic dictated that the People's Party also nominate him, creating a solid coalition for the silver issue they had labored to promote. Other Populists argued futilely that the party should preserve its independence by adopting a comprehensive reform platform and nominating a Populist rather than being submerged in a Democratic silver campaign.

Not only did Bryan's nomination produce discord, but the fusion campaign tactics further splintered the party and obscured its identity. Subordinating the party and its principles to the Democrats, moreover, brought no reward, for Bryan was soundly defeated by Republican William McKinley. Fusion state tickets did triumph in Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, but these victories were dying gasps, and the disappointing performances of fusionist governors and legislatures further disillusioned the rank and file. Populist candidates lost almost everywhere in the 1898 elections, and wrangling between party o.cials and antifusion Populists split the national party. The gradual return of prosperity further undermined the Populists' appeal, and Republican legislatures in the Plains states provided the final blow by enacting antifusion laws. Disintegrating, the People's Party soon disappeared completely.

See also PROTEST AND DISSENT: Farmers Alliance; Lease, Mary Elizabeth.

Peter H. Argersinger Southern Illinois University

Argersinger, Peter H. The Limits of Agrarian Radicalism: Western Populism and American Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Cherny, Robert W. Populism, Progressivism, and the Transformation of Nebraska Politics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

McMath, Robert C. American Populism: A Social History, 1877–1898. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

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