The populist movement was a coalition of American agrarian reformers in the South and Midwest during the 1890s. It is a movement that developed from alliances amongst farmers as a result of poor credit facilities and falling crop prices. The Populist Party was organized to advocate for various measures to aid farmers. Among their demands were a graduated income tax, an increase in the circulating currency, direct election of senators, a tariff for revenue only, and government ownership of the rail.
After the Civil War, most American farmers experienced a number of problems. Due to foreign competition and domestic overproduction, prizes of agricultural commodities had steadily declined. The farmers kept complaining of high rates charged by railroads and grain elevator operators. Moreover, the tariffs were high, which made the goods too expensive to be bought, for example farm inputs and machinery. Many of these farmers incurred a lot of debts because they had to borrow money so as to pay for equipment or land. This forced them to favor keeping the money in circulation high; through unlimited coinage of silver or printing greenbacks (Lester, 2006).
Just after the civil war, farmers began to organize themselves. The Grange was also called the Patrons of Husbandry. It was established in the year 1867 for the purpose of sponsoring social and educational programs for farmers. It later encouraged cooperatives owned by farmers. Politically, the Grange was successful in securing legislation in various states so as to regulate warehousing and railroad rates. Many of the Grangers were in support of the Greenback Labor party.
However, the Grange started to decline in 1870s. This was when new farmer groups called the Farmers' Alliances were created. By the year 1890, there were the Southern Alliance and the Northwestern Alliance, which had close to three million members all over the nation. However, while the Alliance movement wanted women to participate more in public matters, the Southern Alliance seem to be segregated.
It is then that African-American farmers formed the National Colored Farmers Alliance. Their representatives met with the Southern Alliance and the Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association to come up with a platform known as the Ocala Demands. Together, they demanded for national banks to be abolished, direct election of senators, creation of federal sub-treasuries for the provision of low-interest loans against their crop value, an end to very high tariffs, unlimited coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, as well as, strict control over transportation and communication. It is notable that the Southern Alliance remained intact in the Democratic Party.
The head of the Farmers alliance was called Charles Macune. He was also the editor of its theoretical publication known as the National Economist. Macune formulated the sub-treasury plan that helped in maintaining the integrity of the Alliance, in addition to addressing the tight credit that led to the collapse of its cooperative warehouses. As a Democrat, Macune was opposed to the formation of the People's Party and the bimetalism which led to the 1896 fusion of the Populist and Democratic parties (Lester, 2006).
Mary Elizabeth Lease was best known for working with the Populist Party; she drummed up support for their cause. The Populist Party, at a convention, adopted a party program known as the Omaha Platform. The convention was held in Omaha, Nebraska in the year 1892. It was written by Ignatius Donnelly. It sought to restore the government to the people.
It offered to sympathize with workers, and shorten the hours of labor. The Populist Party demanded for the enforcement of the eight hour law and penalty clause is added to it.They also condemned the then American labor, which opened venues for criminal behavior classes of the world and demanded for further restriction of any undesirable emigration. They also demanded that revenue from a graduated income tax be applied to the reduction of taxation, which had been levied on the domestic industries. They advocated for silver to monetize for use in the United States..
In the events of the depression, working conditions of many workers deteriorated. They staged numerous strikes to address their concerns. The Pullman Strike, for example, was among Pullman's workers against a reduction in their wages. The homestead strike was between Steel workers, the Carnegie Steel Company and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. There were proactive attempts to break the Union (Lester, 2006).
In the year 1896, the issue surrounding the presidential campaign revolved around whether it was important to have a gold or silver monetary standard. Among the Republicans, William McKinley of Ohio was nominated on the platform. He supported the gold standard, as well as, high tariffs. On their part, Democrats were split between those in favor of a silver standard, and those supporting currency based on gold.
William Jennings Bryan was nominated as a Democrat. He supported the use of silver. He was famous for his speech 'Cross of Gold'. By selecting Brian nomination, there arose a serious problem on the side of Populists. Party heads came to the realization that the Republicans would win because the candidate would split the silver vote. However, the Populist Party decided on Bryan as their presidential candidate and Tom Watson of Georgia, as their candidate for vice president (Miller, 1993).
The Republicans were way ahead in drumming up support for McKinley. They campaigned that a vote to him was a vote for prosperity. On the other hand, the Democrats discovered that Bryan was not appealing to factory workers, immigrants, and the middle class. The victory by McKinley was decisive because it was the first instance since 1872 that a presidential candidate won more than half of the vote. In 1900, Bryan ran against McKinley for a second time and was defeated. The party seemed to be losing it.
Besides his program, there were other numerous circumstances that made McKinley's administration become successful. The panic that was experienced in 1893 came to be forgotten as a result of restored prosperity, an increase in farm prices, and the excitement of striking gold in the Klondike. Moreover, Americans were turning their attention to the idea of expansion overseas.