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symbol of the People's Party

People's Party

aka Populist Party

The People's Party grew out of dissatisfaction with the way Democrats and Republicans alike were dealing with the financial crisis then affecting poor, white cotton farmers in the South (especially in North Carolina, Alabama, and Texas) and drought-stricken wheat farmers in the Plains (primarily Kansas and Nebraska).

William PefferIn December 1888, the National Agricultural Wheel and the Southern Farmers' Alliance met at Meridian, Mississippi, and agreed to merge as the Farmers and Laborers Union of America. The agreement was ratified by 1889, except in Texas and Arkansas; those two states finally agreed to the merger in 1890 and 1891, respectively. Populists won control of the Kansas and Georgia legislatures in 1890, and William Peffer (right) and Tom Watson became the party's first U.S. Senators, for Kansas and Georgia, respectively.

1892 People's Party campaign posterThe People's Party was officially founded with merging of the Farmers' Alliance and Knights of Labor in 1892. The party's first national convention was held in Omaha, Nebraska, that same year, and drafted a platform that advocated the public ownership of railroads, steamship lines, and telephone and telegraph systems; the free and unlimited coinage of silver; the abolition of national banks; a system of graduated income tax; and, the direct election of Senators. It also nominated former Union General James B. Weaver (from Iowa) for President and former Confederate General James G. Field (of Virginia) for Vice-President. The ticket won 1,027,329 popular votes and carried Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nebraska, and also received electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota, but the presidency was won by Democrat Grover Cleveland.

left: 1892 People's Party campaign poster

The party's decline began following the 1892 election. Some of the party's problems stemmed from fraud, intimidation, and violence by Southern Democrats, but most of them arose from within the party itself, as its membership began to split into two main factions. One faction, known as "fusionists," sought a merger with the Democratic Party and was willing to compromise on most issues. The other faction, known as "mid-roaders," strongly opposed merger with any other party and was not open to compromise on any issue. Although this faction publicly advocated staying the "middle ground" between Democrats and Republicans, it was actually far to the right and left of both. The rift between the fusionists and mid-roaders even extended to the choosing of a date for the 1896 People's Party National Convention. The mid-roaders wanted the convention to be held before those of the Republicans and Democrats, but the fusionists wanted it to come after. The fusionists ultimately won, and the convention was scheduled for July 24-26, in St. Louis; the Republican Convention was held in St. Louis June 16-18, and the Democratic Convention in Chicago July 7-11.

Fusionists still held most of the power when the People's Party met in St. Louis, and were successful at getting the majority of the delegates to agree that the party's interests would be best served by supporting the Democratic candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, leader of the free-silver movement. The fusionists thought they had an agreement with Bryan whereby he would name Tom Watson, editor of the People's Party Paper, as his running mate, but Bryan instead chose Arthur Sewall. Many in the People's Party refused to campaign for Bryan, while many others simply agreed to not campaign against the ticket; few in the party enthusiastically backed the Bryan-Sewall ticket, which ultimately lost the election to William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

1904 People's Party campaign posterThe People's Party was never a major force again after 1896. In 1900, the party nominated Wharton Baker and Ignatius L. Donnelly for President and Vice-President, but the ticket fared badly, losing to everyone. Thomas Watson was the party's nominee in 1904 and 1908 (with Thomas Tibbles and Samuel Williams as his running mate, respectively), but he finished way out of the running in both, with only 117,183 and 29,100 votes, respectively. Although many of the People's Party ideas were gradually adopted nationwide (the direct election of U.S. Senators being the most notable), and People's (Populist) Party candidates continued to win scattered state and local elections for a few more years, the party itself completely disbanded as a national entity after 1908.

right: 1904 People's Party campaign poster

SEE ALSO
Knights of Labor
Grover Cleveland
William Jennings Bryan
William McKinley
Theodore Roosevelt

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This page was last updated on 06/07/2017.