The Growth of Populism

It was only a matter of time before Western farmers would attempt to use their numbers to effect positive change.

In 1867, an organization was formed called the Patrons of Husbandry also known as the Grange, to address the social isolation of farm life. The local Grange sponsored dances and gatherings to attack the boredom of daily life. Politics and economics were discussed in these settings, and the Grangers soon realized they shared similar problems.

After identifying railroads as chief villains, they lobbied state legislatures for regulation. By 1874, several states passed the Granger Laws, establishing maximum shipping rates. They also pooled their resources to buy grain elevators so they could enjoy a break on grain storage.

Beginning in 1889, Northern and Southern farmers’ alliances championed the same issues as the Grangers. Members of these alliances won seats in state legislatures across the Great Plains to strengthen the agrarian voice in politics.

The farmers wanted to create inflation as it helps debtors. To create inflation, farmers suggested that the money supply be expanded to include dollars not backed by gold. The Greenback Party and the Greenback-Labor Party each ran candidates for President in 1876, 1880, and 1884 under this platform, but were not able to muster national support for the idea.

Inflation could also be created by printing money that was backed by silver as well as gold. This idea was more popular because people were more confident in their money if they knew it was backed by something of value.

The Populist Party grew from the remains of the Greenback-Labor Party. They were demanding both the free coinage of silver, as well as calling for a host of other reforms. They demanded a graduated income tax, whereby individuals earning a higher income paid a higher percentage in taxes. They wanted political reforms as well, and demanded a constitutional amendment allowing for the direct election of senators.

They demanded democratic reforms such as the initiative, where citizens could directly introduce debate on a topic in the legislatures. They also called for the secret ballot and a one-term limit for the President.

Populist ideas were now being discussed at the national level. When the Panic of 1893 hit the following year, an increased number of unemployed and dispossessed Americans gave momentum to the Populist movement. A great showdown was in place for 1896.

Source: The Growth of Populism
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