1893-1896: Depression, Silver and the “Middle of the Road”
Huzza! Huzza! It’s queer I do declare
We make the food for all the world
Yet live on scanty fare!
Populist Anthem from the 1892 Campaign
It is easy to bend sympathy to the Populist movement; for it contains a piece of David v. Goliath in the story, that underdog role embedded into our national character with the colonists’ defeat of the mighty King George. And considering the depths to which so many small farmers across the country had fallen, set as it was against the searing hardness of the forces arrayed against them, being swayed by the gist of Populist rhetoric is not hard. But a documentary does the record no favors by backing away from an obvious fact: Populists had a great deal to do with doing in Populism. In Populist Heritage, Woodward warns of a tendency amongst social historians that allows “sympathy with oppressed groups to blind them to the delusions, myths and foibles of the people with who they sympathized.” So is true of Populism. Whereas the verve of its educational programs and the boldness of its political / economic forays are shining examples of democracy put to action, the provincial character of utopian, often wild expectations seemed to render the movement an inevitable underachiever. Theories and high hopes seemed to always overreach the abilities of realistic implementation, in turn showcasing a cause unable to mature past its roots.
The “silver panacea” illustrates this failing.
* * *
In the early 1890s natural disasters heaped additional hardship atop the economic desperation southern farmers already faced: floods followed by droughts in Mississippi and Louisiana, hard winter freezes in Florida, a regional yellow fever epidemic. But the crisis that would define the rural strife of the day came in the form of a bank “panic.” Years of rampant speculation inflated a credit bubble, whose empty equity in turn outpaced output and ready cash (so often the cause of swift economic downturns). In 1893 this finally caught up to the national gold reserves, which could no longer sustain the imbalance. The bubble burst in May that year. Economic depression was immediate. For agrarians North / West / South, bad had gone to worse. The bottom fell out of commodities, which sunk small farmers further into an inescapable cycle of debt, Woodward citing in Origins: “it was the farmers and the agricultural masses . . . who suffered most bitterly.” In Promise, Ed Ayers adds specifics to the southern plight: “The countryside, already besieged by the ravages of the Gilded Age, was devastated in the early 1890s. The price of cotton fell relentlessly, reaching a level where it cost more to grow the crop than it was worth” (a historic parallel occurred in the 1920s when a similar “bottoming out” amongst cotton growers prefaced another, more infamous economic disaster). Depression hardened rural conditions. It is hard to blame anyone who might have just given up. Yet quite the opposite occurred. Populist leaders immediately tapped the economic crisis as proof of the institutional corruption inherent in the business practices of the day. Here was irrefutable evidence that northeastern capitalists, Jewish bankers, Wall Street and the old-party politicians in Washington who did their bidding were in derelict collusion against the economic welfare of the nation’s “producers.” The message echoed loud and far. And a prostrate movement, still smarting after a disastrous year, again gained steam.
Populist leaders and the NRPA, with (in Goodwyn’s words) the “thunder of its great journals,” ratcheted up their call for wholesale economic / governmental reform offering: “the innovations of their democratic monetary and social program.” What with the crisis of the era having reared its head, the focus increasingly fell on the monetary and the longstanding backbone of Populist economic reform theory: expanding federal currency. The call for the coinage of silver began to reverberate. Since the earliest days of the Alliance, a bimetallic standard had been at the core of attempts to remake the American economy. It was the Greenbacker theory in coin. But with the spread of Populism to the far west silver mines and the favorable results of People’s Party fusion with Democrats across the northern Plains—which in turn translated into greater political clout than that of southern Populists—“the silver issue” began to overshadow the myriad planks of the Omaha Platform. In The Populist Revolt, Hicks concludes: “The old-time Populist might cherish every line in the Omaha platform, but the free-silver Populist took seriously only the plank that he favored.” This sectional rift vaulted into the open with the argument that ensued, Macune’s National Economist taking up the southern perspective (paraphrased by Hicks): “The enactment of a free-coinage law was deemed desirable . . . because it would demonstrate the inadequacy of the silver panacea and would pave the way to ‘ other and greater reforms’.” No doubt the author of the editorial had the subtreasury plan in mind. Further fuel for proponents of silver, was newly elected President Grover Cleveland’s virulent adherence to the gold standard amidst the storm of calls for bimetallism. A northeastern Democrat, most Populists viewed Cleveland as a political tool of the industrialist elite and railed against the “gold-bug conspiracy.” In despising Cleveland Populists were unified, Tom Watson making open public dissent of the administration his main goal. But the silver issue was another matter. It split southern Populists from those North / West. In hindsight, it seems avoidable. For there were so many issues that all agrarian sections had in common, generally speaking. Case in point: Plains farmers’ supporting governmental regulation of railroads as a way to break monopolies that levied artificially high charges on interstate grain shipments was in essence no different from the subtreasury plan’s call for government owned co-ops along railways. Both sought to return an equitable share of profits to small “producers.” Still, the “silver issue” overpowered all similarities, irritating a single sectional disagreement into a chasm within the movement. Worse yet, it provided a strategy to defeat Populism by its now sworn enemies: southern Democrats and northern Republicans.
Goodwyn documents the widespread partisan sectionalism that opponents heaped on Populists, hammering away with accusations of disloyalty to the white race, while they “waved the bloody shirt.” Sensing blood in the water, this strategy gained stride in 1892. But with the Panic of 1893 settling in, shifting and / or blurring the focus from the old parties’ culpability in the economic turmoil of late was seen as imperative. Goodwyn remarks: “Democrats and Republicans alike invoked the past to avoid the present.” It was a viable strategy. And alongside the long valuable standards of “thug” violence (Populist presses were still being destroyed with a machine-like efficiency) and immovable stolid coercion (Kansan Republicans had refused to yield seats in that state’s house which would have awarded legislative control to Kansan Populists, this despite known cases of Republican vote-tampering in the contested races) the traditional party bosses, and their supporters, were still comfortable in their position. Goodwyn summarizes: “The forces of traditionalism were narrow in outlook, primitive in economic theory, and well protected by an enormous and passive constituency.” That said, the notion—and resulting argument—for and against silver as an economic “silver bullet,” provided old-party regulars a new wrinkle by which to exploit the Reconstruction-era tactic of partisan sectionalism. This could be the death blow they’d been searching for.
Throughout the South there was a growing movement amongst the conservative Democratic faithful against Grover Cleveland. More naturally inclined to represent the industrial interests of his native North, Cleveland was increasingly viewed by the southern wing of his own party as a weak shill. South Carolina’s Ben Tillman spewed public hatred for the man, threatening to stick him with a pitchfork (and thereby earning his proud moniker: “Pitchfork” Tillman). What was to become an intense dislike led to a willingness among “old party” leaders to use political means against the president. “Silver” provided the Southern Democrats a perfect salient to reduce the “gold-bug” Cleveland, politically—thereby solidifying their own control within the party—and, following in the footsteps of the successful Alliance-Democrat stance of 1890, infiltrate and up-end Populism throughout Dixie. Add to this the powerful draw that adopting the Populist plank on silver would have inducing Southern Populists who had originally split from the “party of their fathers” with reservations to rejoin their former political brethren (and by all accounts this was a large contingent), and what comes clear is a political opportunity for the Southern Democratic leadership that was just too good to pass up. In Origins, Woodward summarizes: “Silver, the minimum agrarian demand, was the only bait that anti-Cleveland Democrats were prepared to use in their trap for Populists.” It was a complex two-for-one strategy. Yet the potential of its results are simple to understand: silver could be enlisted to re-achieve one-party rule in the South.
We can refrain from going into extensive detail on the rural suffering that accompanied the depression of the mid 1890s. Descriptions can only replicate a detached notion of what it was like (occurring in an age before the existence of progressive societal safety nets: unemployment, welfare, Social Security, Medicare, etc.). And aside from long memories of the Great Depression, nothing since can compare. The parallel is appropriately drawn in many histories between the starving peasants of Russia and the rural South at the time. It is also easy to make the case that the state of mass penury instituted a slave labor force throughout the agrarian South in all but name, especially among the black farmers (but not exclusive to black farmers), many of whom were forced back into tenant / sharecropping roles, or simply cut loose. In Promise, Ayers goes into lucid painful detail in the chapter, “Turning of the Tide.” A story from Ella Cole of Dallas will suffice: “Early this morning a tramp called on us and as he looked pale we gave him breakfast and asked him if he didn’t want to work. He cut wood all day and Papa gave him a dollar and asked him to wait for supper. He seemed grateful.” Again, it is hard to condemn those who drifted without much hope. The system(s), indeed, seemed to have failed many. Ayers continues in documenting a Louisiana newspaper at the end of the following year, which printed this epithet: “1894 passed away, regretted by none.”
The paternal label “tramp” found popular use. But as the Great Depression would prove, mass unemployment could hardly be pinned to poor individual choices—as was prevailing sentiment in 1893 (and 1930). Populist leaders got out their megaphones and blasted what they viewed as massive systemic failures, this kind of broadside providing the inspiration for Norman Pollack to observe in The Populist Response to Industrial America, that business methods, from the Populist perspective, were “destroying all but the victors.” By 1894, they seemed to have even destroyed many of those “victors.” Hicks records Governor Lorenzo D. Lewelling of Kansas, a Populist, who described those cast adrift “not as tramps and vagabonds but as poor unfortunates robbed and legislated out of their right to work.” Pollack goes on to summarize the prevailing urgency, stating: “The issue at stake was nothing less than human dignity.” It seemed obvious to those hardest hit that a “producer’s” labor was simply not enough. As the upstart agrarians had been trumpeting since 1886: reform was the only way to achieve equitable fairness. But for the most part this was not heard, or at least not acknowledged. Many of the working class took matters into their own hands. 1894 watched violent strikes break out all across the country, in industrial and agrarian sectors alike. Strikes visited the South in the mines of Virginia and Alabama, and along the docks of Louisiana. Mass unemployment also gave rise to one of the many “armies” that would march on Washington, D.C., over the next fifty years to demand action by the Federal government. Jacob Coxey was a Populist from Ohio and called for those unemployed to band together and march on Washington én masse. And they did; but the eventual number that made it to the capital was not the grand army Coxey must have imagined. Only about 400 or so set up makeshift camps near the Capitol. From there Coxey and his fellow leaders called for increasing the circulation of currency, adding a novel notion into the discourse of relieving the hardship of unemployment during a depression: the Federal funding of public works. It was all for naught, the “army” disbanding after Coxey and his fellow leaders were arrested for the minor slight of trespassing on Capitol grounds.
Though full of and even led by Populists, “Coxey’s Army” consisted mainly of unemployed laborers from the industrial North. But the agrarian-Populist message of equity, fairness and dignity within the economic pyramid was clearly present. Coxey’s motley band resonated with the renewed sense of fight the depression had spread across the Populist South. In Tom Watson, Woodward records John Temple Graves who observed the state of Georgia as being “ripe today with the spirit of revolt!” And it was being put to task; for 1894 brought with it another chance to attain legislative clout through the vote. In each election since the Alliance formed in the 1880s, the stakes had grown steadily higher for the movement. So had the energy of its opposition. Tom Watson in Georgia, and Rueben Kolb in Alabama had both been the victims of transparent graft in 1892. Unbowed, they plowed ahead in the mid-term election year of 1894. Across the country rural desolation spurred People’s Party candidates to action. Yet in the South, the inspiration behind taking a stand seemed as much about gaining a legislative toe-hold as it was a simmering memory. Hicks reminds the reader: “[Populists] knew that the Democrats had defrauded them shamefully two years before.” The sting of that memory did spur many to continue “fighting it straight.” But here the sectionalism that manifested itself from within the silver argument metastasized.
Across the Plains and far West, a strategy that had been tried and had failed in the South was gaining traction. The opposing theories on how best the silver plank fit into the overall Populist strategy solidified into first: those who wanted it to remain one of a number of equally important planks in the still valid Omaha Platform (mainly southerners), and second: those who saw the expansion of currency via the inflationary coinage of silver as the single most important plank—to the potential detriment of all others—for its use in drawing anti-Cleveland Democrats into the moderate Populist fold; and thereby gaining a significant electoral advantage they would not enjoy on their own (mainly midwesterners / westerners). “Fusion” again entered Populist terminology. In 1890, fusion had yielded nothing in the attempted Farmer’s Alliance takeover of the Southern Democratic Party. In light of the transgressions that had occurred since, the notion of Populists fusing with their bitter enemy in the deep South were preposterous—the minor player that was the “Reconstructionist” Republican Party, perhaps; but not the party that sent thugs to break up their printing presses, and assaulted them with rotten eggs. Yet, shedding light on the complex political make-up in this country at the end of the 19th century, this was precisely the action being taken across the Midwest / West. Since having been effectively overshadowed by their political rivals in the early 1890s, Populists in the Plains states had made genuine in-roads with their one-time Democratic rivals. Strong working alliances existed in Nebraska, Iowa and the Dakotas. With agreement on silver, why not (thought Midwestern / Western Populists) expand this fusion nationwide? But from the southern perspective, the silver issue had become an overrated naïve cure-all that would be utilized by Southern Democrats to split the national People’s Party on the issue—then further utilized to rid the South of Populism as a competitor for power, altogether. Ayers writes in Promise: “[Democratic] party members scrambled to adopt the most widely appealing parts of the Populist platform, especially silver.” Norman Pollack records a Topeka, Kansas, newspaper that documented the fear that this “run on silver” stoked in the minds of many long-time Populists—southern, Texan, Kansan or otherwise: “The men who now corner gold, would . . . also corner silver.” Hindsight allows us to view the wisdom of this fear. But in 1894, Western Populists seemed not to care about the “sectional strategy” southerners warned was already in motion. And so lacking a patent hatred for regional Democrats, as did their brethren to the South, they charged down the road to fusion—paved as it was in silver.
Hicks records an 1892 edition of the western Populist paper, the Rocky Mountain News, which implored the movement’s ranks: “Don’t answer the call of goldbug tools, but keep in the middle of the road.” Yet by 1894, it seemed to many Southern Populists that their midwestern / western brethren were heeding the silver version of the “goldbug call.” It is worth repeating the perceived benefit of the “silver plank.” Placing the ability to issue money in the hands of the government, the Populists argued, would undercut a stranglehold that entrenched industrial captains held over the National Banks. Giving this power to the Federal government meant that elected officials, not an unregulated Wall Street “cabal,” would control the amount of currency in circulation thereby increasing resources for fair-interest loans and the payment of past debt on behalf of the hard-pressed small farmer. More equitable conditions would then deliver the Populists’ sought after redistribution of income in a manner inclusive of the “producing many,” not just an exclusive club dominated by wealthy bankers and merchants (the root of contention obvious amongst the lenders whose loans under this plan would be paid back in deflated currency). And so did the Omaha Platform resolution: “We demand free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold . . .” ascend the flagpole. To many, repeated defeats of their platform on the whole had made this the only flag worth saluting. For most southerners, though, it was still one amongst the many. And with the 1894 elections imminent, this narrow fixation on silver was viewed as increasingly counterproductive amongst the veteran Populists of Dixie.
Interestingly enough, another brand of fusion had risen from the 1894 campaigns of People’s Party candidates. Republicans, often black and operating within minute spheres of power across the South, still maintained a brave toehold in many districts. In North Carolina they were a force to be reckoned with. The young Marion Butler, who stepped in to lead the Tarheel Populists with the death of L. L. Polk, seized on an opportunity. Both Ed Ayers and C. Vann Woodward point to the necessity of Butler’s Populists aligning with that state’s Republicans in order to reign in the divide-and-conquer election fraud underlining the strategy of white Southern Democrats at the time. Working in concert would make the graft at least twice as hard to accomplish. Yet as Ayers wrote, it was a “wary truce.” A good deal of the Republican crossover in North Carolina, and the South generally, can be given up to the Republican desire to repudiate the Cleveland administration in a mid-term election. There’s little doubt that this style of fusion was born of circumstance. Regardless, that November it would bear fruit, Butler’s coalition sweeping into power in North Carolina—Butler himself being sent to the U.S. Senate. Elsewhere throughout the Old Confederacy, the conditions for Populist success were mixed. The depression had not let up. Mass hardship was still prevalent. Yet despite this—and the fact that a number of brazen People’s Party / radical candidates were effectively heaping blame on Democrats—the ruling party machinery remained confident, embarking on an all out attack. They turned to hard—and hardly democratic—measures to ensure political survival. Transparent ballot-stuffing, the cunning disenfranchisement of Populist voters by election “managers” and the abuse of poor dependent blacks lined up and forced to vote Democrat—often multiple times in the same election—would, outside of North Carolina and uncontested races, go largely unrestrained in November, 1894. This overt graft in combination with the deeply ingrained rural “racephobia” of the day made the 1894 election a symbolic final straw, giving rise to a later-day Populist scapegoat for all their troubles: “the negro vote.” It is accurate to say that the appalling march towards Jim Crow disenfranchisement evolved, in part, out of the racism of defeated Populists in the mid 1890s, an indefensible fact that has driven many noted historians—such as Richard Hofstadter—to disregard the movement’s many successes in light of its admitted failures.
Ever since the “Tillman Democrat” James Hogg had defeated Populist Thomas Nugent in the 1892 Texas gubernatorial race, Texas Populism—despite the continued broadside attacks of the Southern Mercury and its ardent lecture circuit—had been in slow decline. The elections of 1894 would poll respectable numbers for the People’s Party in Texas, but would yield little in the way of legislative power. It is symbolic that the demise of the agrarian revolt in Texas, spiritual home to the Farmer’s Alliance, prefaced the unraveling of the movement as a whole. But that may not have seemed acute in 1894. As mentioned, two hotly contested / highly contentious races in the South provide ample evidence that those running still viewed the future as up for grabs. Proving the complexity of the shifting political allegiances of the day, Alabama Populists fused with the few Republicans left in that state so as to again support Jeffersonian Democrat, Rueben Kolb (the “J.D.s” affiliated with traditional Democrats in name only), in his second run for governor. In Georgia’s bitterly partisan Tenth District (the greater Augusta region), the increasingly vocal movement firebrand Tom Watson again locked horns with sitting congressional representative, James Black. This race, having boiled over into street fights two years earlier, threatened to melt down entirely in 1894. The outcome of both races underline what movement candidates were up against, Woodward writing matter-of-factly: “The 1894 election in the Deep South proved one of the most violent and overtly fraudulent . . .” Watson carried nine of eleven counties in Georgia’s 10th, but was nonetheless counted out with haste (more votes than the city of Augusta had voters were later found tallied for James Black). The charge of rigging the votes of southern blacks—most often by leveraging economic and physical threats—was widespread. Hicks analyzes: “No doubt negro votes were purchased by both parties, but the Democrats were the better provided with funds and furthermore they held control of the election machinery.” In Alabama, it became clear that a Rueben Kolb victory was being stolen as the highly suspect returns rolled in. It was only through Kolb’s selfless deference, issuing calls for calm, that “sure rebellion” amongst his supporters was quelled; this despite what was surely white hot anger at being cheated again.
Similar documented cases of “engineered” election results are found in abundance throughout the considerable literature devoted to the political / economic strife of the 1890s. And it can be accurately said that no group implemented it to better effect on the political process, in regards to their own self interests, than the hard-line leaders of the Southern Democratic Party. People’s Party candidates were polling impressive popular vote totals. In 1894, they took nearly half the total votes cast in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Colorado, Nebraska, Texas—and with 54% over half in North Carolina. With the possible exception of T. R.’s “Bull Moose” Progressives in the 1910s, no other third-party since before the Civil War (when it was common to have six or seven tickets in a presidential election) had fielded so consistent and coordinated a string of candidates. Vote totals alone make the case, impressive despite the fraud (and realizing the fact they were likely higher). Still, the inevitable Populist victories that such grassroots popularity delivered—from local to state to national—yielded little real power. This was never more obvious than after the 1894 results were in. Ed Ayers makes the call, one sample applicable to the entire South: “In Texas, too, a stronger Populist vote proved to no avail.” Many Democrats had barely squeaked by, others having lost outright. Yet what could have been viewed as at least a partial repudiation—certainly groundswell support for the Populist movement—translated into neither where it mattered: the parliamentary process. From local offices to the halls of Congress, the Democrats held a firm controlling grip on the reigns of power across the South. It was now clear that this wasn’t simply due to overwhelming popular sentiment for their legislative agenda. It was win at all cost, using any means necessary. Whether detrimental to the state of American democracy, or not, was immaterial. This certain “southern strategy” was delivering predictable victories. And in the end it proved one thing: that Southern Democrats were dead serious about maintaining the status quo. They were as set in their determination to destroy this new / alternative order, as the Southern Populists were on destroying the old one (ironic, since it was a “New South” Populists were fighting). And with 1894 now behind them, they set out to do just that—once and for all. The time had come to fully embrace “silver.”
The seemingly deflated, increasingly anxious factions of the Alliance-inspired agrarian revolt had reached a critical juncture. With those factions beginning to splinter at the very core of the movement, Populist activist Henry Demarest Lloyd delivered a fiery / anxious speech. His was an attempt to keep the brethren focused on message, on the true overall goals embedded in the Omaha Platform. Lloyd implored the faithful to plow ahead: do not sell out. Norman Pollack records Lloyd, who thundered: “If the People’s Party goes backward it is not a revolution, and if it is not a revolution it is nothing.” That echoing refrain: “revolution,” was now the fight at hand. Would the movement deal, or stick to a fervent radical platform? Fusion with the Democrats on silver? Or an unwavering “middle-of-the-road” stand demanding institutional economic reform? The answer was forthcoming, showing itself in the first visible fracture over the issue.
Herman Taubeneck had taken the regional interests of his native Northwest with him in his ascent to The People’s Party chairmanship, having pushed aside the more radically-motivated wing of the party in the process—a move that surely cast him in a suspicious light with many southerners. The regional interests of Taubeneck and his supporters put a shoulder behind silver coinage as a cure-all, much to the dismay of movement veterans and Southern Alliancemen / Populists in general. Yet he and his supporters within the party moved forward regardless, fading the Omaha Platform on the whole from their inspiration in seeking out sympathetic Democrats throughout the High Plains and Far West. An enthusiastic coalition developed quickly. It was fusion. . . . . Southerners and a majority of the Populist press railed against Taubeneck and the “fusionists.” Goodwyn records Texan Thomas Nugent, who summarized the thinking of silver-only detractors, explaining that silver coinage would “leave undisturbed all the conditions which give rise to the undue concentration of wealth.” Reform was to be general and pervasive, or the agrarian goals first mapped out at Cleburne, reinforced at Ocala and etched in stone at Omaha would fade unrealized before the unchecked concentration of industrial wealth and power. This fracture went public at the Kansas City Convention of the NRPA in early 1895. The leaders of the progressive press denounced fusion and the “narrow-minded silverites” that were driving it. Goodwyn writes: “To the editors, fusionists seemed to be . . . self-interested opportunists who would sell out the cause of the people for another term in office.” . . . . The lack of regional sectionalism in lieu of the larger goals of reform had been a hallmark of the “Populist moment,” one of its true successes. But in 1895, under the cloak of the silver argument, sectionalism had reappeared—and in its more dubious form. It now threatened to tear the movement apart.
Populist sympathizers in the far West saw a “rush to silver” for its potential boon to the mining industry, a gold rush so to say. High Plains / Northwest Populists, such as Illinoisan Taubeneck, saw fusion with the more moderate / more reform-minded wing of the Democratic Party (then coalescing behind emerging star: William Jennings Bryan) as an opportunity to utilize a broad national organization in their fight against the “goldbug” patrons of the industrial northeast. But these regions, though suffering sectional-centric economic problems of their own, fell outside the daily shadow of the crop-lien and irredeemable mortgage rates that held Southern Populists and those farmers on the Great Plains in virtual bondage. The acute slide away from the individually owned / operated self-sustaining farm—the mythic Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian culture—to the hard profit-driven reality of tenant-oriented dependence that had spread like a flu across a region broken by war, systemic penury and grappling with the contradictions of an industrial future, created circumstances unique to the southerners in the movement. Fellow Populists to the West had the perceived “luxury” of focusing on one issue in the hopes of incremental reform. But the stakes were just too high in the South. There, the only hope was to remake the economic / governmental / agricultural system from the ground up. There was a finality to it, a prevailing “do-or-die” belief that this was their last chance to save even a small sliver of the future for themselves. Southern Populists needed to attack the “sickness,” not just treat a symptom. Add in the unique sectional circumstance of “the Democrat is our enemy,” and the divide comes clear.
The northern and southern wings of the Farmer’s Alliance had never fully gelled under the banner of the National Alliance when first raised in 1889. Though dealt with diplomatically at the time, the differences behind that original rift cast a glaring light on a deep-rooted institutional schism at the Populist movement’s core: the radical view v. the moderate view. In retrospect, historians—operating from behind their own ideological filters—can speculate on the possible success of either view had it alone driven the movement. Yet the reality was two internal views at odds with each other, over no less than core principles. This made for an unsteady alliance under the best of conditions. As recent political alliances show, this is sustainable—but tenuous. In the late 1880s / early 1890s, the tenuous Populist coalition worked and much was achieved. Yet it unraveled just as quick. It would have been hard enough for the Populists to unseat the entrenched powers with united singular focus, let alone public internal dissent. But it was the latter that lit the political stage on which the great agrarian revolt found itself in 1895. And those differences would play themselves out under the banner of the national People’s Party on its long hard march to the 1896 presidential election.
The main gist of the Populist narrative from this point on consolidates around that “long hard march.” In all the various sources utilized for this essay virtually every event that occurred, or factor that contributed to conditions post-1894 is defined by how it affected the results of 1896. It is commonly accepted that the 1894 elections were the “high-water mark” of Populism. With this in mind, it is no stretch to label the 1896 presidential election—soon to pit “prairie Populist” Democrat William Jennings Bryan (nominated only after a set of schizophrenic and contentious conventions) against “industrial” Republican William McKinley—as the last-stand of Alliance-inspired Populism. Yet only those Populists who objected to fusion seemed to believe it, or care, as it turned out. Hicks summarized the position nearly forty years later, writing in The Populist Revolt that fusion with Democrats over silver “might mean the shipwreck of the Populist Party.” Goodwyn documents the charge of silverites / fusionists as “platform wreckers,” Ayers adding that in the eyes of those ardent Omaha Platform supporters “the rush to silver was a lemming-like rush to disaster.” These were not the voiced sentiments of individuals who felt they could compromise. Compromise to them meant political death. And so, the very notion was jettisoned from the predominant position of Southern Populism. . . . . As fusion took hold the argument grew only more shrill. In an interesting twist, it had also become clear that the divisions were no longer confined to the Populists. As Woodward records in Origins, the Nat’l Democratic Party had begun to splinter over “ silver / bi-metallism” and other issues, as well. Their reasons were different and more distinctly political. But similarly, the difference of opinion aligned North / West v. South: those who believed in the economics of bi-metallism and those who saw it solely for the political benefit of defeating Populism, with the larger goal being the re-establishment of one-party rule. (There was also a number of “Gold Democrats,” who were mainly industrialists.) This additional “infighting” only worked to compound the existing public lack of unity amongst all those who would oppose the McKinley ticket in November 1896. As Woodward notes, many would later claim that the fractured Democrats ultimately poisoned the “Populist well” as much if not more than any internal dissent within The People’s Party. Given their now patent hatred of the Democrats, here was only one more reason for southerners to fervently stand their ground on party independence. Hicks summarizes this increasingly independent-minded / southern / anti-silver Populist position: “The Democratic Party was not to be trusted. If it swallowed some of the People’s Party ‘fallacies’ now, it was with a view to swallowing the People’s Party later on.” Woodward records Tom Watson, who claimed: “[it is] not so much free silver they want as it is the death of the People’s Party.” If the Taubeneck-led coalition wanted to fuse with pro-silver Western Democrats, who in turn would be obliged—for the purpose of ‘party unity’ in defeating McKinley—to embrace the disingenuous “pro-silver” Democrats from the South, fine. But for those of The People’s Party in the “middle-of-the-road,” fusion sold out everything the Farmer’s Alliance had once stood for. Southern Populists had dabbled with fusion in 1890; and it had left an alkaline aftertaste. In 1896, it was to be the entire platform or nothing. It was “do or die.” And with the campaigns fast approaching, Tom Watson became de facto leader of the “mid-roaders”—if for no other reason than his piercing denunciations of fusion and the Democrats who had so often cheated him. In Tom Watson, Woodward documents James Creelman, a reporter for the New York World, who wrote of Watson: “he tears up words by their roots, with some of the soil clinging to them.” A regional character within the movement to that point (he never actually held a membership in the Farmer’s Alliance), his stand vaulted him into the national spotlight. Inside the robust lyrical quality of Woodward’s classic narratives, one can picture the vein-bulging red-faced Watson spitting fire, imploring: “fuse with no enemy, compromise no principle, surrender no vital conviction.” His inspiration was a shared inspiration having risen from, in Goodwyn’s words, the “shared heritage” of Southern Populists. They had to maintain their radical stand. They must keep to the middle of the road.
One of the tragic results of this “last-stand” mentality was the complete disregard it cast across, arguably, the most radical piece to the Populist puzzle: equity for black farmers. As mentioned, the Colored Farmer’s Alliance was by this point a mere shadow of its once robust self, shut out by not only the established powers in the South—but, increasingly, by the very movement that had spawned it. Francis Simkins, writing on the deteriorating conditions of the late 1890s, put it well in his 1947 History of the South: “Populist principles . . . proved less fundamental to Southern farmers than their inherited aversion to Negro rule.” Though few black Alliancemen were involved in the Reconstructionist Republican legislatures referred to, they nonetheless bore the brunt of a white conservative backlash against blacks asserting their new freedoms in any way, shape or form. Black Alliancemen (really, African-Americans in general) were forced to operate within an untenable set of conditions. On one side they had the Democrats: who had only just begun their tyrannical campaign to re-establish white supremacy via any means necessary. On the other side they had the Populists: who were abandoning the black farmers in droves on the general stereotypical charge that it was manipulation of Negro votes that had lost them every election since 1890. That Southern Democrats, having fully utilized said manipulation of black voters in order to help defeat Populism only to then strip blacks and poor whites via the cultural tragedy of Jim Crow, is of course a hypocritical record with few equals in our history. Yet it’s an equal let-down that Southern Populists were implicit in this societal reversal. The late ‘80s / early ‘90s, when most any measure of systemic reform seemed possible—when political rights for black farmers was desirable, the Colored Alliance a worthy ally at the polls—was on the eve of 1896 a thing of the past. Into the void poured the natural inclination towards white-on-black bigotry inherent of the day. . . . . It’s the promise that Populism once advanced having simply collapsed on such primal hatred and fear that makes many want to disregard the movement in its entirety. It’s not hard to see why many historians allowed reactions, however well-supported intellectually, to write off the early record of Populism in lieu of the widespread “Jew-baiting,” “xenophobia,” and later “Negrophobia,” that would create a withered hate-filled corpse of the movement by 1900. But Woodward provides insight as to why the Populism revolt, now over a century old, should still be recognized at least as often for its true aims. In Populist Heritage, Woodward writes: “. . . it would at times be a welcome relief to renounce the whole Populist heritage in order to be rid of the repulsive aftermath.” But Woodward reminds us that all popular socio-economic / cultural / political movements in our country’s history have had “their share of the irrational,” and “the retrograde.” And so followed Southern Populism, distinct within the national movement on the racial front. It became a casualty not only of the entrenched political / economic powers of the time, but its own social weaknesses. Perhaps no other source utilized for this essay captures the essence of the late 1890s “retrograde” better than Ed Ayers,’ The Promise of the New South. Even the title hints at opportunities lost. As he so often does, Ayers gives us a single quote that summarizes an entire era: “The decade of the ‘90s had shattered the carefully tended illusions of white and black docility—and it was put down violently by the Democrats and white supremacists.” This “illusion” had been slowly coming apart since Lincoln had first issued the Emancipation Proclamation after the Battle of Antietam in 1862. But in the early ‘90s it seemed that the upstart Populists had planted a first step towards bridging that canyon-sized gap. It would not last. Such progressive notions of the future had run into a battle-hardened past, which at the moment still held reign over the South’s present-day affairs. The inevitable future of a racially / culturally integrated America was to be pulled under by narrow fear as the late 1890s labored towards a new century of unprecedented progress. The Populist narrative would become a footnote, its southern slant aptly summarized in the career of Tom Watson: a one-time tireless activist for colorless agrarian rights, eventually transformed into one of the country’s most visible racists.
The picture at this point leads the reader to believe that the Populist case was closed before the election year of 1896 was even underway. The case is easy to make. Despite the all-American underdog image of William Jennings Bryan railing against the establishment in his famed “Cross of Gold” speech that summer at the Democratic nominating convention in Chicago—Bryan to be awarded the de facto title: “anti-establishment” presidential candidate—most era historians generally agree. The bickering alliance of moderate / radical Populists and Democrats that would come to define this “anti-establishment wing,” seems in retrospect fodder for the campaigning machine of Mark Hanna and the unified well-funded McKinley Republicans.
In the South, of course, the battle was internal—and therefore more dramatic and contentious. Outside of North Carolina, the Republican Party was not a player. It was within the factions of said “anti-establishment wing,” where the southern front of this war was fought. The irony of the “anti-establishment” label associated in any way with the Southern Democrats is not lost. They were the establishment in the South. To seat a Democrat friendly to New South business and Old South social mores in the executive branch that November was certainly a goal. But equal was the desire to bury the legislative / socio-economic disruptions caused by the upstart agrarians. Ben Tillman barked from his South Carolina throne for Southern Populists to get on board with silver fusion or get out of the way. Knowing that “on board” meant the complete unconditional submission of The People’s Party to the established powers, Populist candidates and the NRPA set out to expose the silverite / fusionist movement as the watered-down sell-out they felt it was. They labeled the rush to silver a “shadow movement.” . . . . For “mid-roaders,” the campaign season would be spent—most of it, in fact—publicizing this charlatan cause within, and pushing for the more radical wide-ranging reforms embedded in the Omaha platform (regulation, co-ops, the subtreasury, etc.). Public mudslinging was their only option. The silver compromise would eviscerate Alliance-inspired Populism. They would have to win this battle within if they were to ever work the system to the benefit of the agrarian condition. Ed Ayers records in Promise: “. . . the silver crusade was merely a shadow movement, a weak and derivative caricature of the real spirit of the agrarian crusade.” This, the mid-road Populists knew. With no reason to have faith in compromise they had to feel as if they were between a rock and a hard place: side with their moderate brethren and risk assimilation and defeat, or side with the hated Democrats and be assured of it.
With his focus on Midwestern Populism, Norman Pollack’s work naturally leads him into the heart of “fusion.” In detail, he records both sides of the aisle. Pollack notes a statement issued by a Western suballiance in the mid-1890s: “Free silver would not lower rents, would not reduce transportation tribute, would not curb the power of the Standard Oil trust [etc.] . . .” Iowan James Weaver, fill-in presidential candidate with Polk’s untimely death in 1892, was a fusion booster from day one. With the party’s nominating convention drawing near he countered this criticism. Pollack writes: “Weaver saw fusion not as the submergence of Populism into the Democratic Party, but the uniting of all radical groups into a new party.” This view seems Charles Macune inspired. The problem was Weaver’s—and his fellow North / West Populists’—inability to view fusion from the southern perspective. In the South, where the majority of Populists were radicals, the very notion was treason to the cause. Pollack notes the following proclamation, which though made by a Nebraskan, sums up the “mid-road” stance: “Let there be no barter and sales of principles for temporary victory.” With Bryan’s name floating ever more frequently as a potential Democratic presidential nominee, suspect Populists made their voices heard. Colorado governor and Populist radical Davis Waite stated: “It is not so much names as principles that we need.” So many midwestern voices (Ignatius Donnelly and Clarence Darrow, being two more) were giving vent to the destructive pitfall sure to result from fusion, a specter that had united the movement’s southern front since 1894. And yet so many more were praising the “silver panacea” and inter-party alliance it had spawned. Southern Populists had the toll of the death knell ringing in their ears. Perhaps they had a more focused view of fusion’s results. Perhaps they were simply fighting for a way of life that’d already become irrelevant to the industrial future. Pollack claims: “Populism did not adjust to industrialism; hence the movement occupied an untenable historical position.” Perhaps. But it seems just as easy to support the view that the movement failed itself at the most critical times. Democracy-in-action is hard labor, requiring a daily conscious effort. Its continued success becomes an even taller order when placed alongside the inevitable appearance of human error, irrational reaction and ego that wanders each and every sociopolitical movement. Great ideas are often swamped by mediocre ones. In 1896, fusion on silver was a mediocre idea. Alliance-inspired Populism was driven by the desire for capitalistic equity. In those terms, fusion guaranteed little reward for the risk. Moderation would not straighten out the economic inequity that had cemented agrarian despair. It was radical reform or historical oblivion. . . And with the two “anti-establishment” parties polarized over the issue, their faithful filed into Chicago (Democrats) and St. Louis (Populists), and each of those city’s respective convention halls to nominate presidential tickets. The settings would prove electric.
With the Republicans having nominated William McKinley in late June—their wagons circled around preserving the traditional gold-standard—Democrats trumpeted their view of silver, and fusion, as an answer to the “industrialist’s ticket.” Fusion, it was proclaimed, was a “compromise to win.” But what this meant to silver Democrats was exactly what the Southern Populists had foreseen: absorption of The People’s Party into the Democratic fold. Their convention clearly showcased an expectation for all other “anti-establishment” politicos / activists to line up behind Bryan (as well driving off the remnants of Cleveland-Gold-Democrats wary of the western silverites, who held their own makeshift convention later that summer and nominated a competing ticket which polled poorly that November). They did indeed hold far greater electoral weight; but mid-road Populists weren’t in this for “temporary victory.” A sell-out was a sell-out, no matter how it was arranged. Their case-in-point was the nomination of Arthur Sewall for vice-president, who—though a Democrat—was an eastern capitalist from Maine. The choice met the visible contempt of mid-road Populists. Despite Bryan’s famous speech decrying the “goldbugs” and uplifting the rights of the nation’s “producing class.” . . . . “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” . . . . Populists who still traced the lineage of the agrarian movement back to Omaha, Ocala and Cleburne, realized the imperative need to publicly assert their party’s independence.
That opportunity came two weeks later. The 1896 People’s Party convention opened July 22, in the familiar surroundings of St. Louis, Missouri. All accounts describe the convention as a public slug fest. And though such highly-charged, emotional, even contentious debate is the very fuel of democracy, it was more the dysfunction within the leadership of the great agrarian crusade that was put on display at St. Louis in July, 1896. All it took was the opening gavel to light the fuse of the powderkeg that silver-inspired fusion had become. The more radical mid-roaders looked to set the tone right away by attempting to block the fusionists’ planned nomination of Bryan / Sewall as the Populist, as well as the Democratic ticket. But a power outage in the convention hall halted all initial proceedings, including all protest. This was, of course, viewed by the mid-roaders as a trick to keep their views bottled up. By the time the convention was gaveled back into session the following day, the fusionists had taken the initiative and thereby fueled suspicion that the outage had been a hoax. Attempts were made to put the nomination of Bryan / Sewall to an immediate vote. In Tom Watson, Woodward notes the belief of many radicals that Democratic managers had infiltrated the convention leadership and were driving the rapidity of the vote. The mid-road radicals on hand—who had begun calling themselves: “heavyweight Populists”—were seething with the notion that they were being strategically pushed aside. They were up to the task and countered the fusionist leaders by first blocking the vote, and then offering champion of the mid-road cause: Tom Watson, in place of Sewall, as vice president. The uproarious support that followed gives evidence that the core of the convention was more aligned with the radicals than the fusionists. In spite of this, the Bryan / Sewall ticket continued to go to the floor. Each time it was blocked, while the call for Watson grew more shrill. Arguments on the floor erupted into shouting matches, even fist-fights. Both sides drew back into tight uncompromising pockets of partisanship and spent the rest of the convention sniping at and fighting with each other. Though Watson was not on hand, the mid-road radicals exhibited his unyielding enthusiasm for “straight Populism.” They were as fervent in blocking Bryan / Sewall, as the fusionists were in jamming through the vote. The whole convention was a chaotic mess, the end result being that no official ticket—or multiple “official” tickets, depending on how it’s viewed—came out of St. Louis. The fusion wing of The People’s Party backed Democrats Bryan / Sewall, while the radical wing—a vast majority of which were southerners—advanced the split-party ticket of Democrat Bryan / Populist Watson. Woodward sums it up succinctly, in noting that the St. Louis Convention of 1896 “proved to be the road . . . to the Waterloo of Populism.”
The dysfunction displayed by the Populists at St. Louis must be considered in evaluating the state of the movement at the time. The best its leaders could yield was a public shouting match full of red-faced diatribes, fighting in the aisles and guns being drawn. If those just becoming acquainted with the agrarian movement had only this to go on, they might believe the charge leveled by Republican Theodore Roosevelt that the “anarchist” Populists wished for nothing short of complete “subversion of the American Republic.” In wake of the St. Louis debacle, it’s no wonder that many looked to other ballots that November. . . . . Even though Watson had been informally nominated as a vice presidential candidate, the mere existence of Democrat Bryan—the heralded choice of silverite / fusionists—on the same ticket was enough for most Southern Populists to proclaim that they’d been sold out. Further complicating the issue was the fact that Bryan said nothing publicly about the alternate Populist ticket, despite stating flatly to fusionist leaders in a letter kept secret that he would accept no VP candidate but Sewall. Keeping the buzz of the Watson nomination to a minimum outside of Populist circles was no doubt on the mind of the Bryan campaign. As Hicks writes in Revolt, “[Bryan] never accepted or rejected the Populist nomination [of Bryan / Watson].” Politically shrewd this allowed the more powerful Democrats to advance Bryan / Sewall as their ticket without question, while fusionist Populists—wittingly or as a planned strategy—slid that many more votes to Bryan by keeping alive the possibility of the Populist Watson as Bryan’s VP. In evaluating the history, the scenario seems a complicated game of “bait-and-switch.” But so is much of politics, the great irony here being that most era historians believe Bryan himself had been served up as a decoy by his own party. As Woodward wrote in Tom Watson, the Democratic Party “sacrificed Bryan in the effort to destroy Populism.” Powerful Democrats across the Old Confederacy—most of them untouchable, often employing bands of rabid vigilante-style loyalists—certainly endorsed such a scheme. Regardless of who ruled from Washington D.C., they still ruled the South. If sacrificing the 1896 presidential election brought them closer to one-party rule, then so be it.
Where did all of this leave Southern Populism? The free coinage of silver, fusion with Western Democrats, compromise of the Omaha platform, moderation of the radical stance, all of this had watered down the agrarian crusade to where it must have seemed unrecognizable as such to the old-time Alliance-Populist; or more accurately put: the brand of Populism that emerged with The People’s Party had veered significantly from its roots. The heady force that was the Farmer’s Alliance had—not long before—seemed unstoppable, the achievement of its goals eventual: lecturing, educating, proclaiming, swinging voters, seeking to enforce its legislative agenda, and issuing the first real concepts for alleviating the rapidly deteriorating conditions at the agrarian core of the nation. Yet in the fall of 1896 its political spawn found itself on death’s door, victim to an internal implosion. (The same can be said of the Farmer’s Alliance itself, its dues-paying members having dropped just as rapidly as they had inflated in the late 1880s; it was a shadow of its former self by the mid 1890s.) A case can be made that the deep depression of the early-mid 1890s required a more anxious expedient response, and that the desperate unwise “non-Alliance” style actions of Populist leaders reflects that. But the campaign to destroy the agrarian revolt—in the South, at least—pre-dates even that. As soon as the movement came up against the power structure in the region, and the lockstep cultural clampdown it relied on, Populism was lined up for elimination. As stated, Populists had much to do with doing in Populism. But outside forces, led by Southern Democrats, sped up the steep decline that drove the Populist Revolt into the ground. Its abrupt end was punctuated by Bryan’s defeat in November, 1896.
Bryan / Watson—which was never officially endorsed by anyone—was to reside alongside the official Democratic ticket: Bryan / Sewall, and the official Republican ticket: McKinley / Hobart on ballots that November. Where Bryan / Watson did appear (mainly in the South), it was more often confusing than clear as an alternate choice. In more than one district, Bryan / Watson was simply listed as Bryan / Sewall, or left off altogether by well-positioned Democratic election managers. By all accounts, it was yet another debacle of an election in the South. As had become customary, coercion, intimidation and violence were used to force votes. The routine occurrence of whites lining up poor blacks to vote for their candidate—most often with the help of liquor, or at gunpoint—was so rampant as to fully install the mentioned slide towards institutional racism amongst those Southern Populists who would continue to operate in political circles after 1896. The root of their blame was misguided to say the least; but their scapegoat was had simply in the form of poor defenseless black men (and every angry irrational backlash needs its defenseless victim, it would seem). Southern Democrats proved quick in expressing fervent agreement with many a Populist’s demand that blacks be stripped of their right to vote so as to avoid this ballot-stuffing epidemic in the future. Hicks writes of the motivation within the “backlash,” stating that disenfranchisement would “eliminate . . . all danger that negro voters might play an important part in Southern politics.” . . . . The fact that McKinley / Hobart won the 1896 election seems of little consequence to the direction then unfolding in the South; for Democrats were now firmly in control. Jim Crow would seep out of the re-establishment of one-party rule and white supremacy, the end of 1896 closing the door not only on Populism as an active sociopolitical / economic force, but an era of possibility dating back to the end of Civil War. The hope that had flared for African-Americans freed from slavery had slowly dimmed with the close of Reconstruction in the 1870s. A measure of hope for economic equity had risen only to once again dim with the rise and fall of the Farmer’s Alliance. This time, the shadow it cast would extend over generations.
On the campaign trail, Woodward documents an often shaky, wrung-out Tom Watson having once said of the Democratic Party: “They say they want fusion. So they do. It is the fusion that the earthquake makes with the city it swallows.” Despite his calls for “straight Populism,” to stick to the middle-of-the-road, his prediction came true. Following the disaster of The People’s Party in November, 1896, Goodwyn records an updated observation of Watson’s: “Our party, as a party, does not exist anymore. Fusion has well nigh killed it.” As mentioned this loss drove the mid-road Populist out onto a much more narrow, much more dangerous route, a route defined by a brand of unapologetic bigotry so dangerous that Atlanta newspaper editor Ralph McGill would go on to label Watson one of the four most dangerous racists the South had ever produced in his 1959 work: The South and the Southerner. . . . . The hope that folded under with a return to one-party rule in the South sequestered small-farm white agrarians to a status quo defined by debt and, for many, tenancy, while it put down all vestiges of black autonomy—often violently; Ayers summarizing: “The decade of the ‘90s had shattered the carefully tended illusions of white and black docility.” Arguably the most radical of all the notions advanced by Alliance-inspired Populism, its failure—both within the movement and on a larger cultural scale—was punctuated by the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, NC, during which a mob of white vigilantes descended on that city’s successful black communities and laid it to waste, killing those who fought back indiscriminately. Latter-day Populists had as much to do with fanning these flames as anything, leading many noted historians—from Hofstadter, to Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Metaphysical Club: Louis Menand—to accurately depict the unfortunate depths to which they went in scapegoating the “negro vote.” And in this lay a deep tragedy for progressive reform. The grassroots democracy-in-action that lit up the demands first laid out at Cleburne, Texas, and were reaffirmed, tweaked and strengthened in towns and cities across the South in the years that followed, had collapsed in a fratricidal morass of blame, disillusion and virulent hatred.
John D. Hicks records a number of events—including the Wilmington Riot—that underlined the completeness with which this collapse had occurred, such as the one-time Populist strongholds of North Carolina and Kansas going solidly to Democrats and Republicans, respectively, in the 1898 elections. As the St. Louis convention had showcased the movement’s dysfunction in 1896, the 1898 convention in Cincinnati showcased a literal lack of interest, as few major movement leaders even bothered to show up. Hicks notes that those same leaders “ . . . conceded freely that the Populist party as a great and independent organization was a thing of the past.” . . . . Any discussion of why the Populist movement lost its relevance so rapidly, must extend to external conditions. Though the well-discussed internal conditions cannot be overstated, by the mid-late 1890s the depression that had decimated an already weakened agrarian community had subsided. In fact, the economy as a whole was doing quite well by the end of the decade—this leading to an increase in available currency. This mattered little to those who could justly claim that the mechanisms of wealth consolidation and monopoly had been left unchanged, and that a greater circulation of currency simply meant capitalist leaders would be slightly more well off. But the fact that the economy in general was on the upswing as the century came to a close took the edge off the desperation that had consumed the nation’s “producers” in 1893. If the overall agrarian condition had not improved, the availability of credit had; and despite the further accumulation of debt which that might entail, perhaps better days might follow. Economic lows will always fan the flames of reform, even revolt. But the perception of economic prosperity—whether real or marketed as such—will more often than not extinguish it. Such was the case in the late 1890s. The disappointment many an old soldier of the Alliance / Populist cause must have felt is well summarized in the following quote by Francis Simkins: “The agrarian revolt in the South merely served as an awkward interlude in the forward march of business”—in that as the new century neared many, after more than a decade of potential and promise in the trenches of their reform movement, found themselves right back where they’d started. It must have seemed like business as usual in this New South. Still another factor in diluting public awareness of the Populist cause was the Spanish-American War. The declaration of war in 1898 swamped what little discussion of reform still remained in legislative halls, dousing the thinned ranks of those calling for said reform in the process. The war and the tide of nationalism that accompanied it is accurately viewed as the final nail in the coffin of the “Populist moment,” Woodward recording the jaded words of Tom Watson, who questioned the necessity of the “splendid little war,” scoffing: “Politicians profit by the war. It buries issues they dare not meet.”
The fall of Populism in the South was as precipitant as its rise was meteoric. But it was the fall that hurt. This pain was expressed in the words of a Texan who would later recall the glum mood that hung over the agrarian community following the 1896 elections: “we [were] wrecked and castaway on strange shores.” Some strange days were certainly in store for the South ~
Sources, Afterword & Credits ›
It is interesting that so many of the numerous histories of Populism have been written from the perspective of a specific region of the country. Given the sheer complexity of understanding the movement’s many fronts—despite its similarities—along with documenting the general social / economic / political realities of the time, providing adequate coverage is difficult; it’s outright daunting. My own introduction to Populism was in researching and writing a history of Greene County, Georgia. My sources (primary and published) all approached the period from a Southern perspective. From the following list Ed Ayers, Steven Hahn and C. Vann Woodward were my distinguished predecessors in focusing on the Southern viewpoint. However, Norman Pollack’s view was almost entirely from the Midwestern / Western view. Though recording the Southern view quite thoroughly, John D. Hicks—a history professor at the University of Nebraska at the time of his book’s publication in 1931—wrote with a bend towards the Western perspective in what is the classic history of Populism. In my mind the signal history is Lawrence Goodwyn’s 1978: The Populist Moment. Its objectivity and relevant insight are approached by others; yet Goodwyn’s work is the complete package. His vast grasp of all sections is evident. It is the one book above all others that I would recommend to the interested.
As customary, our Almanack articles / histories are written from the perspective of the history-enthusiast. Still, I was careful to note sources on direct quotes and general lines of thinking should this history find itself useful in a basic research role. In addition, I’d like to point out that despite the Texas Handbook being the only online source actively used in my own background research, there are scores of well-written / informative histories, papers and dissertations online.
In closing I reiterate: my choice for focusing on Populism in the South was due mainly to a more thorough understanding of its perspective above other sections. However, this is placed alongside my unwavering belief that in the South the movement’s heart and soul was born, came of age and subsequently perished.
Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South—Life After Reconstruction. New York, Oxford University Press: 1992.
Cooper, Jr., William J. and Thomas E. Terrill. The American South—A History. New York, McGraw Hill, Inc: 1991.
Coulter, E. Merton. A History of the South—Volume VIII: The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877. Baton Rouge, LA, Louisiana State University Press: 1947.
Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment—A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York, Oxford University Press: 1978.
Hahn, Steven. The Roots of Southern Populism—Yeomen Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890. New York, Oxford University Press: 1983.
Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt—A History of the National Farmer’s Alliance. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press: 1931.
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression, America 1929-1941. New York, Times Books—Random House: 1984, 1993.
Pollack, Norman. The Populist Response to Industrial America—Midwestern Populist Thought. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 1962.
Simkins, Francis. A History of the South. New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 1953.
Woodward, C. Vann. A History of the South—Volume IX: Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Baton Rouge, LA, Louisiana State University Press: 1951.
Woodward, C. Vann. Tom Watson—Agrarian Rebel. Savannah, GA, The Beehive Press: 1973 (originally published in 1938).
Woodward, C. Vann. The Burden of Southern History—Revised Edition. New York, The New American Library—A Mentor Book, 1968 (reprint of 1960 LSU Press publication).
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present—Revised and Updated Edition. New York, Harper Perennial: 1995 (originally published in 1980).
Additional Credits ›
Lyrics from “The Farmer is the Man,” traditional American folk song: Songs of Man—The International Book of Folk Songs. New York, Bonanza Books. (also credit Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the U.S.)
The Handbook of Texas Online website: its chapters devoted to “People’s Party,” the “Southern Mercury,” and the “Farmer’s Alliance.”
Part I: Not a Revolt, A Revolution
Part II: Fighting It Straight
Part III: Sold Out «
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