Towards the end of the 19th Century, agricultural discontent was growing among the nation’s farmers. In the South, cotton that was selling for roughly 30 cents per pound after the Civil War was, at times, worth under six cents in the 1890’s. Wheat from the Midwest that had sold at $1.50 per bushel after the Civil War brought in 60 cents in the 1890’s. The nation’s agricultural base was tired of getting the raw deal from politicians, and finally made their voice heard through the Populist Party. When it first stepped onto the public stage, the party was very successful. However, the success was relatively short lived. While a number of factors contributed to the demise of the Populist Party, the failed election of 1896 played an integral role in its fall due to its inability to find a strong figurehead.
The Populist Party formed from Alliances that had come from farm radicalism. Many of the Alliances were statewide, and most formed in the late 1870’s. Eventually, using the success of minor farm groups who had won elections, the Populist Party formed from southern and western farmers. Although there was a large group of northerners that was sympathetic to the party, it still tended to vote Republican.
The party’s first convention, held in Omaha, Nebraska, brought in a variety of groups, including the Knights of Labor. The People’s (Populist) Party was trying to attract anyone and everyone to join its cause. General James B. Weaver of Iowa was nominated for President, and his running mate was a Confederate veteran. The party’s platform was very widespread, and it bordered on socialistic. The platform included graduated income tax, national ownership of utilities, a subtreasury, and bimetallism. To please industrial workers, the party also advocated eight hour workdays, restriction of “undesirable” immigration, and it also shunned Pinkerton detectives.
The party’s main supporters were still, however, the farmers. In order to raise prices on agricultural products, it supported unlimited coinage of silver, increasing the amount of money in circulation, and also allowing the holding of agricultural products off the market in times of low prices.
In the 1860’s, the amount of silver it took to make a silver dollar was actually worth more than $1, which made coining the metal unprofitable. However, with the discovery of a large number of silver deposits in 1874, it again became plausible to coin the money. However, the Coinage Act of 1873 demonetized the metal and put the U.S. on the Gold Standard. This “Crime of ’73” infuriated inflationists and silver miners, who demanded a return to bimetallism.
In 1878, the Bland-Allison Act made for the purchase of $2-4 million of silver per month, at market value. The government always bought the minimum, however, and this did very little to the economy. In 1890, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act required 4.5 million ounces of silver to be bought monthly, but even this was not enough to save the plummeting value of silver. As no one was happy with the compromises, Grover Cleveland repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, which reverted the country back to a gold standard, and caused the southern and western democrats to split from the party. These issues were still present for the election of 1896.
The Democratic nomination for President, William Jennings Brian, was also supported by the Populists. While they feared losing their individual identity, they had no candidate of their own that could win the election. As a matter of fact, a pure Populist nominee would ensure McKinley’s election. In an attempt to preserve the party’s identity, the Populists nominated a vice-president separate from the Democrats’.
Although Brian managed to win the South, the Plains states, and the Rocky Mountains, McKinley pulled out the rest, and won with 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 176. Brian lost in the popular votes by fewer than 600,000 votes.
The lost election spelled the end of the Populist Party. In addition to the lost presidential election, the party also lost many local and state elections. The South divided again, because their support of blacks went against their white supremacy beliefs, which caused a great rift. In addition, the western farmers’ agendas were quite different from those of the southerners, which caused another split in the already wounded party. It was just a matter of time before the party faded into obscurity.
The Populist Party, while short-lived, did bring a number of issues to America’s attention. The silver debates, agricultural economy, and many other arguments brought forth by the populists were still argued after their demise following the Election of 1896. Without the populists, the gold standard may have remained longer, and we may have even retained it today. The populists challenged things everyday Americans took for granted, and taught us a valuable lesson. Things can be changed, and those changes, while hard to bring about, can be for the betterment of the entire nation.