Populism 101

— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 18 May 2010, was last revised on 1 June 2013. © Govinthenews Vol. 1:5(8).


What does Populism mean? What is its history? How is it manifested today?

Its Permanent Hold on the Soul of American Politics

Populism separates “the common people” from “the elites.” Today the term “Populist” denotes a person, group, or ideology that enjoys popular appeal and is distinct from, and at odds with, “the establishment.” In American history populism served, from 1891 to the first few years of the 20th century, as the banner for a significant political movement that sought to help farmers, minorities, and what would be called today blue-collar workers, improve their lot in life. The Populist Party’s candidate for president in the 1892 election was James B. Weaver, a Union general in the Civil War and an opponent of the gold standard and national banks. Since this man played so pivotal a role in the, albeit short-lived, populist movement, it is proper to examine his background in some detail.

Weaver was a successful lawyer and active abolitionist who, at the onset of the Civil War, enlisted as a private in the Second Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry. He did not remain a private, but made the rapid advancement in rank suggestive of a talented militarist and a strong leader. After receiving a commission as a lieutenant in 1861 he soon fought at the battle of Fort Donelson and the Battle of Shiloh. Then, just prior to fighting in the Second Battle of Corinth, he was promoted to major; shortly after that battle was over, he was promoted to colonel. By the time the war ended, he had reached the rank of brevet brigadier general.

After the war, Weaver joined the Republican Party. In Iowa, he was elected district attorney. Later he was appointed as a federal assessor of internal revenue by President Andrew Johnson. When Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1869 Weaver had mixed feelings. He knew Grant as a brilliant strategist, having served directly under him at the battle of Fort Donelson. An ardent champion for minority rights himself, he knew Grant supported the rights of African Americans. The problem was Grant’s well-known tolerance for corruption. That knowledge kept Weaver from cultivating a stronger tie with him, and from advancing within the Grant administration and the Republican Party that was, by that time, firmly under Grant’s control.

During the eight years of U.S. Grant’s presidency Weaver mulled over the changes needed to bring the nation back to the standards expressed in its founding documents. He championed reforms that would reward working farmers and small businessmen and stymie the designs of big business to unfairly exploit their workers and the citizenry at large. The slate proposed by the Greenback Party, which included a bi-metal monetary standard, an eight-hour work day, taxation on the interest from government bonds, and a graduated income tax, resonated with his own.

Weaver joined the Greenback Party and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on the Greenback ticket in 1878. In 1880 he was nominated as the Greenback Party candidate for president.  In that election, Republican James Garfield received 4,454,416 votes, to Democrat Winfield Hancock’s 4,444,952. Weaver, as a third party candidate, received a paltry 308,578.

Eventually the Greenback Party was absorbed into the Democratic Party, despite Weaver’s strong opposition. He knew the Democrats controlled the south using such tactics as violence and election fraud, and supported white supremacist groups that disenfranchised African Americans. Thus, he could have nothing to do with such a political enterprise. To counter the pernicious influence of the Democrats, in 1891 Weaver and others founded the Populist (or “People’s”) Party. In 1892 he was nominated to serve as that party’s candidate for U.S. president. In the campaign that followed his strategy was to form alliances with southern African Americans. That policy angered southern Whites, and led to a series of violent, intimidating confrontations. In the election Weaver and his running mate, former Confederate general James G. Field from Virginia, received over 1 million votes, and won the four states of Kansas, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada. It was one of the best showings by any third-party presidential candidacy in U.S. history, but did not come close to winning the election.

In the election of 1896 the lessons of 1892 were still fresh in the minds of Populist Party members, including Weaver. Rather than front their own candidate and lose again, they threw their support behind William Jennings Bryan, who ran on the Democratic ticket. Weaver believed he had secured Bryan’s promise to choose Populist Party faithful Tom Watson, who at the time appeared to be cut from the same cloth as Weaver, as his running mate. Bryan, however, reneged and picked Arthur Sewall, a Maine conservative who, among other things contrary to populist agenda, opposed trade unions.

Bryan’s support from the Populist Party withered to nothing, and he lost the election to William McKinley. In coming years the Populist Party fell into disarray and lost its bearings altogether. By 1904 it no longer laid claim to inclusive populism at all, and by 1908, it was no more than a memory. Tom Watson, who left politics for a time after the 1896 election, ran for president on the Populist ticket (by then “populist” in name only) in 1904 and 1908, but failed to rally serious support in either campaign. As time went by, however, he became an important, and curiously enigmatic, force to be reckoned with in Georgia politics.

Watson, a prolific writer, published his first book, a two-volume history of France, in 1899. In the first twelve years of the 20th century he wrote biographies of Napoleon (1902) and Thomas Jefferson (1903), a novel (1904), “Bethany; A Story of the Old South.” and a biography of Andrew Jackson (1912). He established the Jefferson Publishing Company and produced both a magazine and a weekly newspaper that for a time enjoyed wide circulation in the South and as far north as New York. Via these outlets, he used his capacity as editor to publish controversial material that, especially after 1904, spewed what can only be described as religious (anti-Catholic and antisemitic) and racial bigotry.

Up to 1904 Watson had appeared to be a strong and faithful supporter of African American enfranchisement in the South. As the influence and popularity of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois,  and other African American personalities rose, he began to resent them to the point that he pushed for African American disenfranchisement with vigor. Under his influence, the Populist Party had ceased to be a racially inclusive movement, though it still championed the cause of downtrodden whites. When he ran as a Populist candidate for president in 1908, he did so as an avowed white supremacist…

Populist cartoons ran in papers across America during the height of the populist movement. It is from historical documents such as these that many, including Worth Robert Miller, professor of history at Missouri State University, obtain clues to the nature of the populism movement of that period. It is appropriate to say “Of that period,” because populism as a primal construct within the human thinking process, has likely existed from the beginning of sentient humanity.

Miller notes that although the People’s party of the 1890’s rose and fell “in the winking of an eye,” it

“…permanently touched the soul of American politics by agitating issues that have never lost their vitality; namely who should rule and who should benefit from the fruits of modernization.”

This suggests that the Populist Party, and its remnant history, form the foundation for today’s populist causes. It seems likely, however, that the roots of populism run much deeper. Perhaps they reach as far back as the most ancient of psyches that characterize this animal we call man.


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