The Gilded Age was a period in which although the standard of living rose for Americans industrialists grew more and more powerful. Tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie became household names and although wealth grew overall for the people, a lot of it became concentrated at the top. In the meantime, the Panic of 1873 produced a six-year depression in the United States and further economic troubles in the 1880s caused the price of food to drop: farmers in Kansas burned their corn in 1885 as its value was even less other fuels (Glasner & Cooley). Crop failures compounded this problem and farmers increasingly sought government intervention. The “Crime of ‘73”, or the Fourth Coinage Act, was often brought forth as a grievance and it was charged that those who pushed this law deceived the public into demonetizing silver. That aspect of the law was neither hidden nor emphasized by its proponents. Although the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 had established bimetallism, it was a compromise legislation and pleased neither the deflationary gold standard supporters of the east nor the inflationary free silver proponents of the west. Farmers Alliances were formed to lobby for such intervention, but they ultimately had limited impact. In 1890, these groups sought to be more effective so they gathered to issue the Ocala Demands, which included abolition of national banks, free and unlimited coinage of silver, making all land ownership held by Americans, a progressive income tax, direct election of senators, and government ownership of communication and transportation if strict regulation does not work. That year, the People’s Party (or Populist Party) was born and won eight House seats and one Senate seat in the midterm elections. A newly elected senator, James H. Kyle, would switch parties to Populist during the session.
A major Populist leader to rise in the South was Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, a journalist and one-term representative who initially supported black suffrage to unite poor whites and poor blacks to fight the Southern elites. The masthead of his newspaper in 1894 declared that the paper “is now and will ever be a fearless advocate of the Jeffersonian Theory of Popular Government, and will oppose to the bitter end the Hamiltonian Doctrines of Class Rule, Moneyed Aristocracy, National Banks, High Tariffs, Standing Armies and formidable Navies — all of which go together as a system of oppressing the people” (Watson). He also ran for president for the party three times, 1900, 1904, and 1908.
By 1892, the economy was declining, and many farmers were deep in debt. The party’s first convention was in Omaha, Nebraska, and the platform they crafted included government ownership of railroads, telephones, and telegraphs, strict merit based civil service, free and unlimited coinage of silver, a progressive income tax, and no subsidy or assistance to a corporation under any circumstances. They did shockingly well for their first presidential election, with Iowa’s James B. Weaver winning the electoral votes in six states and contributing to the defeat of Benjamin Harrison as three of the states that turned Populist had voted for him in 1888, with none of the states that had voted for Cleveland then doing so. They also picked up three more seats in the House. The nation’s fortunes fell in 1894 with the economic depression in play and although the Populists gained a Senate seat, they lost four seats in the House to Republicans as Republicans gained 110 total seats.
Populists would have 22 seats after the 1896 election and gain yet another Senate seat. While a presence in the legislature, they supported immigration restrictions and had a mixed record on American imperialism. In 1897 they voted 3-0 in the House and 2-0 in the Senate for a bill that would require immigrants to pass a literacy test to be admitted. In 1898, they split evenly in the House on annexing Hawaii and one Populist senator voted against. On February 3, 1899 Populists voted 3-0 in favor of the Treaty of Paris, which granted the US the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam and freed Cuba of Spanish control. However, by the Roosevelt Administration they seem to have turned against such policy.
The successes of the Populists would be short-lived: in the 1898 midterms with William McKinley being satisfactory for many rural people and the economy recovering, the Populists lost 17 House seats and one Senate seat. This midterm they would never recover from and support for the party faded as economic times increasingly improved. The 1900 election would be the last time they won seats in the House or the Senate.
The Conspiracy Theory: Bankers and/or Jews Conspire to Control the Monetary System
Although casual anti-Semitism was not uncommon in the United States, such conspiracy theories, as noted by Ben Macri (2000), “it was the Populist party who used anti-Semitism most distinctively”. One of the party’s leading activists and spokespeople, Mary E. Lease, was most famous for telling Kansas farmers to “raise less corn and more hell”. However, she was also an anti-Semite. Lease was quoted by the New York Times as saying in a speech, “We are paying tribute to the Rothschilds of England, who are but the agents of the Jews” and for her President Cleveland was “the agent of Jewish bankers” (Singer). This went beyond her speeches. In The Problem of Civilization (1895), she wrote “Our commercial system would be sadly disturbed if our government granted a monopoly of gallons, bushels and yards to a company of Jews. Then the man who conducts a wholesale or retail business would be compelled to hire a bushel, gallon or a yardstick from the Hebrew before waiting upon his impatient customers. Hunger, haste and pressing necessity alike would have to wait the pleasure and interest of the Jew” (Singer).
Ignatius Donnelly, a former Minnesota Republican representative who drafted the Omaha Platform, wrote, “A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism” (Pfaelzer). He also wrote Caesar’s Column (1890), which featured anti-Semitic tropes including a “Shylock” villain and that an upper echelon of Jews controlled the world. However, his protagonist appears to be Jewish as well.
Another prominent populist figure who engaged in anti-Semitism was William Hope “Coin” Harvey, who wrote a popular pamphlet titled “Coin’s Financial School” in 1894, which sold a million copies and advocated for a return to bimetallism and called for free coinage of silver. He also wrote A Tale of Two Nations, in which a London banker, Baron Rothe (a clear stand-in for the Rothschild family) conspires to keep the gold standard and has a Jewish henchman who pursues a Christian girl who has her eyes set on a Nebraska representative who fights against the gold standard (a stand-in for William Jennings Bryan, who served two terms in the House from Nebraska). As Richard Hofstader noted, “While the jocose and rather heavy-handed anti-Semitism that can be found in Henry Adams letters of the 1890’s shows that this prejudice existed outside Populist literature, it was chiefly Populist writers who expressed that identification of the Jew with the usurer and the `international gold ring’ which was the central theme of American anti-Semitism of the age. The omnipresent symbol of Shylock can hardly be taken in itself as evidence of anti-Semitism but the frequent references to the House of Rothschild make it clear that for many silverites the Jew was an organic part of the conspiracy theory of history” (Macri).
It is true, however, that not all Populists were anti-Semites, but the same goes for people who joined up with the American Party in the 1850s and being anti-Catholic: Millard Fillmore accepted the nomination for president despite him not sharing the party’s anti-Catholic views. There were also some among the Populists who embraced anti-Catholicism, including its three-time presidential candidate, Thomas E. Watson.
The Democratic Party’s pick of William Jennings Bryan was a victory for the Populist Party as someone who embraced many of their views was nominated by one of the major parties. That year they made the fateful decision to nominate Bryan themselves. While the Democratic Party shifting to the left was a victory for the Populists, their endorsement of Bryan had eliminated their independence and doomed the party to decline. Although in the short run, the Populist Party’s causes failed, numerous ones would be adopted in the future. The income tax amendment was ratified in 1913 as was the direct election of senators amendment. Much of the economy, including railroads, would be temporarily nationalized for World War I but was returned to private ownership on favorable terms for railroads with the Esch-Cummins Act. The New Deal would bring monetary policy in a more inflationary direction and would provide extensive aid to farmers but didn’t adopt “free coinage of silver”.
An averse consequence of the rise of the Populists is that it produced for a short time a Republican-Populist coalition in the South, which freaked out the Democrats as they had proven great threats in Alabama and North Carolina, winning Congressional seats and even in the latter case winning the governorship and legislature. Exclusively white Democratic rule was at risk, and this motivated the adoption of new “Jim Crow” constitutions that were ratified to prevent a recurrence of a multi-racial coalition.
Connections to Later Politics
There are two people who embraced the Populist Party who had input in the politics surrounding fascism and World War II. Milford W. Howard of Alabama, who served in Congress from 1895 to 1899, managed to get an interview with Benito Mussolini in the 1920s, after which he subsequently embraced fascism and wrote Fascism: A Challenge to Democracy in support. Howard would also be one of the founders of The Awakener, a magazine that at least initially was a pro-fascist outlet. Elmer J. Garner, a journalist who headed up a Populist newspaper in Kansas, in his older days blasted FDR for having Jewish advisors and attributed his foreign policy to their influence. He would be indicted at the Great Sedition Trial in 1944 only to die two weeks later. However, unlike Howard, he never explicitly embraced fascism.
Commonalities Between Populist Parties
Of the three parties I covered, they all had the following in common:
- Conspiracy theories.
- They were short-term as parties, carrying influence between 10-15 years.
- Some ideas of theirs were later embraced by at least one of the two major parties.
- Many members moved into one of the major parties.
What should this tell us about Trumpism? Trumpism as a phenomenon in the Republican Party (and among some independents) may have a few more years yet, and Trump won’t be worshiped in the long term, but some of the themes and policies that were initially unique to Trump stand a good chance of being seen in a future Republican administration. Look for a sustained hardliner stance on immigration policy.
Glasner, D. & Cooley, T.F. (1997). “Depression of 1882-1885”. Business cycles and depressions: An encyclopedia. New York, NY: Garland Pub.
Macri, B. (2000). Anti-Semitism. Vassar.
Pfaelzer, J. (1984). The utopian novel in America 1886-1896: The politics of form. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Populist Party Platform (1892).
Singer, A.J. (2020, November 22). The Devil and Mary Lease. History News Network.
Watson, T.E. (1894, June 22). People’s Party Paper, vol. 3 no. 40. President People’s Paper Publishing Association.