1890-1892: Two Elections, Opposition and the “People’s Party”
The 1889 St. Louis Convention, the first true national convention held by the Farmers Alliance, can be viewed as a microcosm of the movement. It broadcast the ambition of revolutionary ideas and galvanized a multi-million member movement of agrarian producers, from Colorado and the Dakotas to Florida and Virginia. In the wake of the convention, even the most grand of reform concepts seemed possible—this in an era of unremitting monopoly, when even the most basic political / economic reforms seemed a remote interest. And yet beneath the triumphant resolve a crack had developed. Inside of a decade it would sever the movement into factions and drain off its power to check the system that had spawned the revolt. Though the Nat’l Farmers Alliance had been officially recognized, it did so without the united inclusion of the Northern Alliance. From Ohio to Iowa, many Northern representatives had proven leery of the radical schemes brought to the St. Louis podiums by their Southern compatriots. The convention showcased the optimistic potential of this mass movement and the widening fissures that would bring its demise . . . Yet in 1890 there was more than enough cooperative resolve in the air to mask the nature of these differences; and under its banners the Populist cause marched onto the national scene.
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Despite future rifts, the fact that the Populist movement built up such contradictory alliances at all points towards its achievements. Perhaps the most remarkable was that veterans of the Civil War—recent mortal enemies in a time of continued sectional division—stood side-by-side (albeit with differences), as an army of hard-pressed agrarian voters. This alone gives credence to the desperate claims that the Alliancemen / Populists made, that they were willing to look past deep ideological differences to train their ire on the perceived enemies in Washington D.C., and on Wall Street. Another contradictory trait of the Populist era is made more glaring when set aside modern-era perceptions; for it was one of those rare moments when the radical ends of the right-to-left spectrum came together. That such radical economic schemes—which Gilded Age industrialists / bankers / politicians had labeled socialist—could find such fervent support among the naturally conservative, proudly provincial attitudes of rural 19th century America is a scenario that would be hard to imagine today in the one-time Alliance hotbeds of Kansas, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina. But such is the cyclic nature of American ideological thought. Patterns and conditions emerge and disappear only to reemerge. And though history rarely repeats verbatim, present traits often mimic the past . . . There has been a number of recent references to Populism in books, newspapers and news magazines. Without crossing into editorial commentary, some of this is due to the reemergence of traits modern observers say we have seen before: accusations of corporate influence over political legislatures, federal subsidy of large agricultural interests to the detriment of small farmers, “crony-ism,” price-fixing, overproduction and under-consumption, charges of “monopoly” and speculative malfeasance, etc. One specific ideological oddity of late that deserves a second glance is: conservative Libertarians’ disgust with “government treading on civil liberties,” aligning in near perfect union with the equally radical far-left on the issue. Any serious pollster would view a conservative suburban district that’s likely to lean Libertarian as the last place far-left liberals could count on for electoral support; yet these same communities are likely to be rife with demands for government forces to “stay out of its personal business.” In kind, Libertarians would find support difficult to drum up in “liberal” urban-centric districts of smart-growth advocates; yet these same pre-suburb communities are often quick to condemn government officials that “legislate morality.” They are essentially the same demand. Yet they bound into the national discourse from opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s striking in its similarity: that the Populist leaders’ call for radical left-leaning reform was so broadly embraced by an agricultural community that one has to gauge was naturally cautious and conservative—if by no other measurement than the remote character of their lives, this being an era before mass communication . . . Conditions that result in such odd alliances only quantify a vested modern-day interest in the “Populist Moment.” In it lay definitions of our modern-era sociopolitical / economic realities, or least enough mimicry to be relevant.
A small farmer’s life in 1890 was a remote solitary venture. Local lodges, chartered for social or political purposes, were often the only form of camaraderie that existed in such removed regions as: the Black Belt of Georgia and Alabama, the Mississippi Delta or Texas plains. So, it’s little surprise that the Alliance spread so rapidly. Many historians make the case that the groundwork for a mass movement—regional / local organization and participation—was already in place across the South, and the agrarian North / West, in the form of this extensive network of lodges. And the fact that they had been geared by 1890 to function as a local outlet for airing economic grievances goes to suggest that the movement—despite conclusions to the contrary—was driven in part by capitalist / democratic inspirations: in that their platform rose from the demands of the market-consumer and producing class. That such widespread inspiration was then so effectively channeled by its leaders again points to the Populists,’ or more appropriately the Alliance’s achievements—however unrealistic its demands were then labeled by the ruling parties.
One of the chief reasons that mass organization was so efficient, was the verve of the “reform press.” Charles Macune calibrated the National Reform Press Association as a way to unite the thousands of Alliance publications in a single purpose. This was a time when most anyone with a strong opinion, enough ready energy and the money to purchase a printing press could publish a newspaper; and publish they did. The Populist press provides for interesting reading, splitting its columns and editorials between an eloquent redress of grievances—alongside proactive solutions—and the calculated exaggerations typical of rank partisanship. Regardless, with editorial control in the hands of so many self-styled publishers it was a thorough exercise in free speech—one that was wisely shaped into an editorial juggernaut under the umbrella of NRPA standards . . . The state of the reform press in 1890 is accurately compared to the current state of online publishing via websites and blogs, in that editorial commentary resides within the jurisdiction of those with the time, energy and small amount of money required to maintain an internet uplink. Alongside radio’s early days, these stand as vigorous examples of the democratizing effect of a free press, the vital “cacophony of democracy”—a phrase of commentator Bill Moyers . . . Getting people involved was at the core of the NRPA’s efforts. Yet, of equal importance was indoctrinating the masses. It is clear that the inspiration for many editors was propaganda over education (the same argument can be attached to the Alliance’s lecturing system, which operated with increased vigor during the early 1890s). Whether the aim was “political democracy” (Lawrence Goodwyn’s claim), or manipulation of conservative provincials (the less forgiving position of many noted historians, such as Age of Reform author Richard Hofstadter), the final interpretation—then as now—is likely to be tempered by individual ideological belief . . . That said, the reform press of the early 1890s was a force to be reckoned with. As was typical of the day, newspapers were often ideological “organs.” Many of the Alliance leaders were also full-time editors. L. L. Polk published The Progressive Farmer, Charles Macune: The National Economist, the Texas Alliance: The Southern Mercury. And in their pages they went to war.
The feeling of a mass movement groping through the darkness that would come to typify the Populists by the mid 1890s, was absent as the 1890 elections grew near. As was true of the reform press, the reform movement was then a force to be reckoned with . . . Since the end of Reconstruction, the South had become a land of one-party rule. As discussed in Part I, it was anathema to talk ill of the party of the “solid South.” It was then a natural step, and Macune’s hope, that the Southern Alliance would work to mold the Democratic Party into an engine of agrarian reform—instead of going the more radical route of a mass defection to a third-party, as was then occurring in Kansas. Yet disillusion ran rampant through the Gilded Age South. And it seems it was pronounced in the next-generation agrarians: the sons and daughters of southern Civil War veterans, whose allegiance to the Democratic Party was more traditional than active. The fiery young Georgian, Tom Watson, seemed to epitomize a new overtly critical stance—one that not only questioned the validity of the Democrats’ rule, but entertained the notion of “bolting” to a third-party if need be. Too young to have served in the war and brought up in the desperate rural conditions that had prevailed since, Watson’s background was typical of the small farmer just then reaching middle-age (with little to show for many hard years of farming). It is not difficult to understand why so many held the Democrats in contempt. Many rural individuals like Watson were beginning to ask: what had the Democratic Party done for me? Why do they deserve my unwavering support? As populated as the ranks of the Southern Alliance were with older farmers—almost all of its leaders were war veterans and most were openly skeptical of a third-party—the younger agrarians and their more youthful energy must be considered a Populist fuel. This might even help to explain why the “takeover” of the political machinery of the South proceeded with largely unrealistic, even naïve expectations.
In The Promise of the New South, Ed Ayers provides a summation of the 1890 elections: “It seemed that the order (the Southern Alliance) had taken control of the Democratic party with a bloodless coup. For those who cared to look, though, the signs of trouble were not hard to find.” From Texas to Virginia, the Southern Alliance had sought out candidates sympathetic to their demands. Those that bent-an-ear were lent ardent support in the form of Alliancemen votes. And when those votes were tallied, they’d won sweeping victories. Alliance-backed governors won in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas. Alliance-backed legislators gained a majority in every state of the Old Confederacy east of the Mississippi, except Virginia. It seemed this new order had won convincingly. Yet it was largely a strategic ruse. Democratic Party leaders and its faithful candidates sensed the electoral power of the Alliance maturing into a serious political enemy. To counteract this they simply co-opted the agrarians’ platform, won their seats and then proceeded to turn a blind eye to reform. There was a bloc of “St. Louis platform” candidates who won—such as Tom Watson and Georgia governor-elect William Northen—but they were viewed as outsiders. A majority of the Democrats planned “business as usual” once they reached their respective legislatures. Goodwyn writes: “The party machinery remained in the hands of the old-line regulars, and almost everywhere the controlling mechanisms of the parliamentary process.” Goodwyn continues, pointing out a most important result: “the leverage available through corporate lobbying influences were retained.” In Origins, Woodward describes: “Alliance-Democrats were all dissatisfied as railroads were left untouched, reforms squashed and Redemption politics worked to marginalize the growing movement.” Ayers provides a final succinct summarization: “ . . . they were ineffectual despite their large numbers; they revealed the limits of state-level reform.” The deception was obvious and made quickly apparent. The more radical call for a third-party solution—then being acted on in the West—became louder across the increasingly prostrate agrarian South. This anger was put to immediate use.
In December 1890, the Southern Alliance held a convention in Ocala, Florida. In the spirit of the Texas Allliance’s 1886 convention at Cleburne, this convention served up the “Ocala Demands.” Building on the popularity of the Nat’l Alliance’s St. Louis platform, the throngs at Ocala voted to hold up what had become the definitively Southern “subtreasury” plan as a required position for its future candidates. This would be the “Alliance yardstick.” From then on the Southerners would measure the faithfulness of potential candidates by a “yay” or “nay” on Federal economic reform . . . In the midst of deliberations at Ocala, the defiant Texan William Lamb began to rattle the chains for a third-party. Goodwyn summed up his fellow Texans’ feelings, referencing a state Alliance proclamation: “If the party (Southern Democratic) was not willing to try and cope with the furnishing merchant and crop lien, it did not care about the people.” They were fed up with small steps towards improving rural conditions. Many were now calling for more drastic action. The aftermath of the 1890 elections defined the Democrats’ attempts to short circuit agrarian revolt, chiefly the call for radical economic reform. And though the “yardstick” echoed long and far as the most substantial of the “Ocala Demands,” a direct vote on a third-party was put off until 1892. It was already a contentious issue within the Southern Alliance, setting up an internal conflict between the radical William Lamb and the more moderate—on the third-party issue—Macune. But the strong showing of independent Populist candidates out West was telling. In Kansas they had all but taken over, Jay Burrows of the Kansas Alliance having proclaimed: “we sent the plutocrats a grim warning . . . the twin of this oppression is rebellion . . .” Confidence was spreading. A new party seemed only a matter of time. And though Ocala was purposefully indecisive on the issue, developments over the next two years would prove decisive.
Any movement seems to spin off its opportunists. The Populist movement had plenty. But the most influential and in the end damaging was South Carolina’s Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman. Much attention is rightly focused on Tillman. Yet in the end he and his supporters’ contributions to the Populist movement were nil. Tillman was typical of the Alliance-backed candidates that ran for governor in 1890. From the “rural hills” of north / west South Carolina, Tillman’s acceptance of the Alliance platform was useful only in how it helped him defeat the aristocratic Charlestonians. Tillman was an intimidating figure and induced violent support from a rural constituency that marched in lockstep with him through the primary, and onto the governorship in Columbia (it should be noted that with one party ruling much of the South the primaries in national elections served as the election, the actual election little more than a formality—North Carolina’s active Republican Party made that state an exception). But once Tillman arrived in the South Carolina capitol it became obvious that the Alliance cause was secondary to his “personal program.” Ben Tillman would soon enough go on to adopt a more lucrative political opportunity: “race-baiting”—embedding himself into the ranks of dangerous men that would collectively define Southern politics at the turn-of-the 20th century via their violent installation of unquestioned white dominion under one-party rule.
Such was the nature of many of the Alliance-backed Democrats that subsequently turned their backs on the Alliancemen / Populists’ call for reform. And though this spread much additional disillusionment amongst the Populists, it provided an equal amount of impetus. The symbolic defeat of 1890 served to “gut check” the resolve of everyone involved. If they were onboard, it was to be a thick fight. Many were still game. The deliberate cunning of the Democrats faithful to the established order of this new “industrialized” South, only went to show that the agrarians would not be broken so easily. The defiance that thundered out from Ocala only reinforced this fact. In the end, the elections of 1890 simply proved that both sides were serious.
If 1890 had provided the Populist movement a dose of hard reality, 1891 brought it in torrents. As the decade proceeded the rural economic situation grew more grim. On top of the institutional conditions of rising interest rates, mortgages / liens and pricing collusion that had spawned this concerted economic and increasingly political uprising, the state of the nation’s economic health had begun to deteriorate. In Promise, Ayers writes: “. . . the depression that was to eventually wreck the entire country (“officially” beginning in 1893) had already begun in the South.” Prices were bottoming out. Again the charge of overproduction was levied by New South leaders. But on small farms churning out large yields, penury income could not be reconciled. How was it that such fantastic crops returned a deepening debt, worse than the previous year? All of this has everything to do with the remorseless systematic peculiarities of saturated marketplaces. With a surplus the advantage is to the consumer; and as was the case with the agrarians, systematically against the glut of individual producers. Common sense on a layman’s level would see large yields as a good thing; but then so followed the complexities of this profit / lending / banking structure that the average farmer simply could not comprehend. Ayers quotes an anti-Populist Mississippi editorial: “Not one of them were ever inside a bank, and know as little as to how they are managed as a hog does about the holy writ of God.” Inequity was everywhere obvious; yet many farmers chose not to understand the system from within—a daunting enough task for those educated in economics—relying instead on half-formed general attacks. In Populist Heritage, Woodward wrote: “Baffled by the complexities of monetary and banking problems, Populist ideologues simplified them into a rural melodrama with Jewish international bankers as the principal villains.” There is plenty of evidence in the Gilded Age to non-ethical commercial practices, particularly with regard to producing class agrarians (Tom Watson having proclaimed: “. . . when I am addressing people who bend over the cotton rows to pick out six cent cotton which costs them eight cents, there is no need to dwell on the topic”). But the spirit of reform founded in educational and legislative cures that had molded the movement into a force to be reckoned with, was running headlong into the abject desperation that this slow steady economic decline was then introducing. Reform spirit was giving way to reactionary politics; and this was met head-on by reactionary forces looking to safeguard the status quo. It was the introduction of a new more dangerous phase and the self-destructive loss of focus that would eventually do in the Populist “revolt.”
Women maintained a highly visible role throughout the life of the movement, especially out West. As mentioned, Kansan Mary E. Lease was a firebrand—equal to her male counterparts William Lamb, James “Cyclone” Davis, Tom Watson, fellow Kansan Jerry “Sockless” Simpson or then emerging Populist star: Minnesota’s Ignatius Donnelly. Her oratory rolled out riotous thundering indictments: “Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags.” Along with Kansans Annie Diggs, Sarah Emery, and Texan Bettie Gay, Lease and many other women held respected leadership roles—as well as filling out local suballiance membership rolls by the thousands. Their position was generally accepted . . . Yet by 1891 it was coming clear that the Colored Farmers Alliance was fast losing support among whites. That year African-American farmers staged a strike in east Texas and Arkansas on behalf of higher cotton prices. They were met not with negotiators, but with violent white reprisal. Increasingly blacks were becoming disillusioned with a movement then drifting towards a more reactionary, and soon enough, desperate stance. The early 1890s would bear out this sinking hope, Ayers stating that in the end black farmers “did not think they could count on white fairness . . .” In Populist Heritage, Woodward observes a great deal of the movement’s white farmers as being “heir to all the superstition, folklore and prejudice that is the heritage of the ill-informed.” During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the need to dismantle such attempts at black liberty in the South were taken to with rabid force. The misguided expediency of cultural survival drove white politicians / businessmen / farmers / residents to violently intimidate black farmers into submission; and set against the institutional trait of white-on-black prejudice inherent in the South’s rural regions at the time, this fear eventually manifested itself amongst many white Populists as a distrust of their “colored brethren.” Despite the admirable attempts of many Populist leaders to discredit such a retrograde reverse, before the turn of the century the situation would become much worse. The increasingly manic exhortations of certain leaders turned raging demagogues—such as Tom Watson—led the way towards a violent backlash from white New South Democrats and Southern Populists alike. By the 1896 election—the last real stand of Populism on a national scale—the Colored Alliance as an organization of strength had ceased to exist.
1891 also introduced a trait that would ripple through every subsequent election in which the Populists would poll competitive numbers: rigged / “hijacked” elections, in which ballot boxes from tight-race districts were stolen or “stuffed” with the votes of county residents who had been long dead. Intimidation was used to keep voters away, while bribes and liquor were liberally employed—often resulting in the dark comedy of cattle-like lines of drunken men being led to the polls, under armed guard, to vote én masse for a particular candidate. This would become an epidemic problem. The charge of Democrats using poor illiterate blacks in such a way would eventually be held up as case-in-point for virulent white Populists to turn on the “separate yet equal” Colored Alliance. But in the early 1890s, it was still the ruling Democrats that induced such widespread intimidation—violent threats aimed at white and black Populists alike . . . An example of the depths to which Southern Democrats were willing to go occurred in Mississippi that year. The New South merchants and their politicians in “town and city” had been cast as enemies of the rural agrarians since day one of the movement. With a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs, the fight for control of the Magnolia State became a bitter contest. With national Populist leaders—such as Polk—descending on the state to fan flames, the established powers soon took matters into their own hands. They charged the Populists with desecrating the sacred trust of white supremacy and soiling the sacrifice of their Confederate forbears, playing on all the easy stereotypes that “town and city” could make against the rural revolt (“hayseeds, rednecks and yaller-heels!”). The “subtreasury” was especially shouted down, Alliance lecturers made out to be traitors. In the end, voter registration rolls were stolen from county courthouses, polling stations were locked down by well-placed Democratic election managers and Populist press outlets were raided. Most notable of the latter was Frank Burkitt’s newspaper. The most visible Allianceman / Populist in Mississippi, his press was destroyed, his offices burned to the ground. Election results served up predictable victory for the ruling Democrats, despite loud outcries of foul play—some of which were even acknowledged by old-line regulars, given the visible depths to which the elections had been hijacked. Nonetheless, the broken Populists would never again poll a serious challenge in the state, leaving the rural majority of its residents—even more so broken by decades of the crop lien—to fall back into the ironclad Democratic fold.
Despite the continued rise of electoral strength across the region, Mississippi foretold a probable future for Southern Populists. The Democrats controlled everything, including heart and minds. Though tempting given their despair, many Southern Alliance members just could not muster the conviction necessary to break from the ruling Democratic Party. In the end, this fear would win out amongst a majority. . . Out west a number of states had polled solidly Republican since the return of “Grand Old Army” veterans had infused those regions with nationalistic loyalty to the Party of Lincoln. In those states, a similar power struggle was being played out—with similar results. The northern Republican majorities—who were no less in the pockets of Wall Street in the view of Nat’l Alliance leaders—were beginning to feel the Populist pressure. The example of the third-party takeover in Kansas was enough for Republicans all up and down the Plains to assert their dominance over this upstart agrarian party. The emotional tactic of stoking lingering sectional loyalty had been used to great effect in Mississippi. It was put to use in the North, as well. Referred to as “waving the bloody shirt,” Republican legislators invoked the sacrifice of their Northern Union veterans, damning those who would go against the G.A.R.’s own party. Though drowning real issues in emotional backlash was not a tactic new to politics in the 1890s, it was used without compromise and with great effect against the agrarian revolt on the Plains—as well as down South. By 1891, many influential state Alliances—such as in Iowa and more notably Nebraska—were being plowed under.
Still, the Populists pressed on towards a third-party, fueled by a muddy mixture of vigor and anxiety. By the spring of 1891 many felt that continuing to work through the existing machinery—South and North—was going to get the movement nowhere. A national convention was called and held at Cincinnati in May, 1891. Its entire purpose was to decide the amorphous third-party question. Though this was a national convention, it was attended by few Southerners. Despite the obvious “blind eyes” of Alliance-backed Democrats, many regional leaders in the South were still lukewarm toward the idea of a complete split. Yet for those on the fence, the convention at Cincinnati served up that which they needed to hear. This new party fully endorsed the Alliance platform. It measured up to the “yardstick” . . . That summer the Southern Alliance met in the northern city of Indianapolis, perhaps as a show of sectional agrarian unity. There, L. L. Polk was re-elected its president. His favorable endorsement of the Cincinnati resolutions set up the coming split, despite many claims that Polk himself was still lukewarm to a third-party. Yet as the days crept closer to the local / state / presidential elections of 1892, it became obvious that a large number of Southern Allianceman would be supporting, campaigning for and voting the various People’s Party tickets . . . Polk’s summation to the energized throngs at Indianapolis well described the history and future of the movement at that critical point: “. . . Southern in origin, national in purpose, radical in ideology.”
Goodwyn quotes a Kansas Republican who had marveled during the 1890 election campaigns that: “the air is full of lightning.” The quote shows a piece of fear alongside the need for political self-preservation in the opponents of “Populism-rising” in the West. Yet it is significant for its contrast when placed alongside the Southern front of Populism; for there was no such trepidation throughout the states of the Old Confederacy, Woodward stating in Origins: “It would have been difficult to find a climate more hostile to the cultivation of radical movements than the South in the 1890s” . . . 1892 was a presidential election year. And in the South two things were obvious: this election was to be a watershed, and a war. Populism was now more than just loud powerless “belly-aching” for economic / governmental reform. It had grown into a political entity with cross-cultural ties to Union veterans, agrarians of the North / West, women, and the most radical: colored farmers. 1890 had shown how committed Southern Democrats were to preserving their electoral power. 1892 would show that they were equally committed to preserving the culture of “white supremacy” built to support it. Woodward aptly portrays both sides of this complex fight in his 1930s treatise on Tom Watson, stating first that the tactic of uniting black / white farmers under Populism arose out of the agrarian leaders’ perception that the system fostering race hatred was the same one used to keep farmers in economic shackles. It was a vicious cycle that would circumvent any attempt at reform as long as it went unquestioned. And it was this drive towards political if not racial equity amongst the Populist ranks—however unsuccessful it actually turned out to be—that drove the ruling Democrats to view the rift less in economic terms (as they had in 1890) and more for its “drastic” cultural implications. The Populists, as the Democrats viewed it, were now shaking down the very foundations of the “solid South.” The revolt itself had proven the South to be anything but (use of the phrase more a political strategy to maintain the status quo—in its own right, a regional condition maintained only through coercive rule). But so were the charges levied; and Populist candidates, and the legions of Alliance agrarians, were branded traitors to their homeland, enemies of Dixie no less than Grant or Sherman had been. In essence, the example set in Mississippi had been exported across the entire South . . . Though Northern Republicans from Illinois to the Dakotas and down across the Plains to Colorado would “wave the bloody shirt” and declare their own war on the Alliance / Populists, the unique and hostile unrest that came home to roost in the South was as much a product of the “culture war” as the political war. It would showcase all the inherent turbulence and the dangerous finality of desperate reactionary attitudes put to use for political purposes.
In early 1892, the Populists geared up for the long year ahead by holding a national rally in St. Louis. In The Populist Revolt, Hicks records a banner viewed hanging inside the convention hall; it read: “We do not ask for sympathy or pity. We ask for justice.” Goodwyn records the damning preamble delivered by Minnesota’s Ignatius Donnelly, who thundered: “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes . . . while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty.” The stakes were as high as they’d been in a generation. Not only were economic conditions deteriorating throughout the rural interior (alongside the existing state / local / national leadership proving purposefully absent to address the farmers’ lobby), but with the failed experiment of “Alliance Democrats” in the South—and Alliance-friendly Republicans in the North—the reputation of the Farmer’s Alliance as a force for reform was now by default pinned to this nascent political party operating outside an entrenched system set on destroying it. The chance of gaining a landmark electorate victory in the presidential race seemed remote. But a solid electorate “showing” across the board was crucial to the movement’s long-term survival. Credible legislative progress could only follow credibility at the polls. To those involved, 1892 would prove the most important presidential election—to that point—since the Civil War.
Unity would be required to combat the entrenched opposition. At St. Louis the very thing that would surely disrupt unity—sectionalism—reared up only to be diplomatically calmed. Northern representatives viewed government regulation of railroads as the foremost plank (price-gouging along private rail lines being the main source of penury amongst hard-pressed western farmers, it was argued), while the Southerners still held to the ardent belief that the “subtreasury plan” (and its notion of increasing the circulation of revenue) would assuage the farmers’ plight. Both sides cared little for the others’ main reform issue; yet both issues were endorsed and a compromise reached, for the time being. The potential for future sectional discord within the movement aside, it became obvious—as campaigns gained stride—that the greatest unifying asset Populism had was the North Carolinian, L. L. Polk. A proven Alliance leader and a Confederate veteran (who held Unionist views) were undeniably solid traits when placed alongside the man’s willingness to smooth sectional differences in favor of national agrarian unity. A Southerner at the head of the national ticket would go far in the difficult task of winning over the South; and as summer, and the nominating convention—to be held at Omaha, Nebraska—neared, the ticket of Polk as president and Iowan James Weaver (a Union veteran) as vice president emerged as the likely, and strongest choice.
Utilizing fate to define coincidental historical occurrences is often inadequate in lieu of more factual / circumstantial explanations. Yet it’s hard not to see the hard reality of fate at work on June 11, 1892, when arguably the most complete leader the Alliance / Populist movement had ever put forth in Leonidas Lafayette Polk—clear choice as the emerging party’s presidential nominee—suddenly died. He was only 55 years old. The news careened through the movement like a shockwave; but the impact was most devastating to Southern Populists, Goodwyn writing: “[Polk’s] loss altered the thrust of Populism—how much will never be known—but enough . . . to camouflage . . . the movement’s strength across the South.” On June 12th, Populists from the cotton belt to the wheat belt to the western mines woke up asking themselves, “now what?”
The answer was to go right on fighting: “fight it straight,” as Texas Populists would soon refer to it. The opposition was saturating party organs with partisan editorial. Populist opponents leveled blistering, humiliating, often silly attacks. Ed Ayers documents one such opposition account of a Populist candidate in Texas: “His mouth stuck out like one of those spoonbill fish until he had a political spasm and he fizzled . . .” In the wake of Polk’s death Democrats across the South went to work. They claimed that they were the true friends of Southern yeomen, while well-placed election managers worked to make sure the polls brought victory when all was said and done. It is nearly impossible to imagine an election like the one held in 1892. The degree to which election fraud and strong-arm tactics had on the outcomes that year is debatable; what is not, is that both were transparent and widespread. With election machinery in the hands of the ruling Democrats the South became a front line of controversy, the regional prejudice and motivation behind it well summarized by Francis Simkins: “the Democrats in the South made it clear—through fraud economic ostracism and murder—that white unity would not be threatened.” Under this canopy, the Southern Populists were forced to operate . . . Though stung by the sudden loss of Polk, the political movement as a whole still had legs. And the determined ranks poured into Omaha on July 4, 1892, to announce to anyone listening that they still had plenty of fight left.
Unofficial, but known since the 1891 Nat’l convention in Cincinnati, the “People’s Party” was officially recognized as the political arm of the Alliance-inspired agrarian movement at the 1892 nominating convention in Omaha. Hicks records a vivid description comparing the revolutionary mood in the convention hall to “the enthusiastic Bastille demonstration in France,” going further to write: “there was something at the back of all this turmoil more than the failure of crops or the scarcity of ready cash.” And it was true. Revolution was in the air. But a reshaping of the federal government and the institutional reform required to effect lofty cooperative / monetary balance, required more than fervor. Chants and podium theatrics were well and good to harden the resolve of conventioneers; but it was in the planks of the party’s platform where success or failure would reside . . . The Confederate / Union veteran ticket of Polk-Weaver was replicated in reverse, with James Weaver as president and Virginia’s James Fields, as vice-president. But the ticket lacked the fiery presence of Polk; and the platform message that followed the People’s Party candidates onto the campaign trail that summer / fall lacked similarly. In hindsight Omaha seems a turning point, as all the movement’s success slowly began to give way before its failures. The long-held hope of Alliance leaders to unite urban workers with rural agrarians—six years having passed since their bold support of the Knights of Labor against the industrialist Jay Gould—had never materialized, failing in all attempts to cultivate the organizational / ideological common ground required to bind the two (in fairness, the labor movement that would help define the progressive themes of the early 20th century had not matured in step with the agrarian movement, largely due to the unmitigated power of industrialist leaders during the late 19th century). This unrealized goal worked to temper what could very well have been an overwhelming electorate bloc (again, it’s interesting to speculate on the radically different legislative outcomes that would have been implemented: would the New Deal, for instance, have just been “more of the same?” would the Great Depression have even occurred?). Goodwyn provides an apt summary of the failed rural / urban “producing class” union: “Alliance organizers looked at urban workers and simply did not know what to say.” In his work: The Populist Response to Industrial America, Norman Pollack points directly to the ineptitude of movement leadership when it was most critical, documenting Henry Demarest Lloyd—himself a Northern Populist leader—who proclaimed: “Once again in history the people are ripening faster than their leaders” . . . Equal in importance to the distance between the urban / rural working class, was this growing sectional gap within Populism itself. Since the earliest days of the Farmer’s Alliance, representatives from the North and South had advanced different agendas revolving around the specific requirements of getting their sections’ respective crops to market. But it was now becoming clear that sectional discourse over how to solve the “money question” was opening a chasm inside the movement. One of the keystones of this political foray: the Greenbacker-inspired foundation of reforming monetary circulation to ease penury in the farmers’ fields, was being poorly dealt with by leaders lacking the skill-set for serious compromise; and as the 1890s advanced, this sectional disagreement would slowly shear the movement along this point, factional dissent rising up to obscure unity. Such unrealized goals seem to reside just beneath the surface of the “Omaha platform,” showcasing to historians (from the 1930s on) the weaknesses prefacing the vacillations / frustrations that would undermine the movement’s meteoric rise . . . And in 1892, the fervent, organized and relentless resistance of the entrenched political parties didn’t help the fledgling People’s Party in its attempts to mete out lasting administrative / ideological solutions.
Hicks reiterates the motivation of “white supremacy” that drove the bitter partisanship flaring up across the South: “They [Populists] became in the eyes of their Democratic neighbors not merely political apostates but traitors to civilization itself . . .” People’s Party candidates from the North fanned out across the South, drawing a focused ire. At a campaign stop in Georgia, presidential nominee Weaver was pelted with eggs by an opposition horde. Hicks records Mary Lease (who was traveling with him), as noting: “[General Weaver] was made a regular walking omelet by the Southern chivalry of Georgia.” In a few states the Democrats used the specter of the Republican Party—which had little strength across the South (but for North Carolina), yet still embodied the despised freed black / Union-installed legislatures of Reconstruction—sweeping in and returning to power as a result of the Populists splitting the white vote in the South. Such manic doomsday scenarios were leveled against the new party’s “transgressions” in successful attempts to taint the Populist notions of “socialistic cooperatives” and “equality for blacks.” Ben Tillman again used his considerable cunning to co-opt the Alliance platform, gain re-election as a Democrat, turn on and then crush the disorganized remnants of Populism in South Carolina. A similar strategy was pursued by Democrats in Florida and James Hogg, Democratic nominee for governor of Texas. Accounts of violence, or violence narrowly averted on the campaign trail were widespread. In Tom Watson, Woodward relates an incident during Watson and Democratic opponent Major James Black’s contest for the Tenth District seat in east Georgia. Though Watson challenged Black to public debates, they more often occurred via proxy. At one such “meeting” Georgia Alliance leader, C. H. Ellington, jumped up from his seat and interrupted Black, who was in the midst of a verbal attack at the podium: “The next moment pistols and knives were drawn and the adherents of the two parties stood before one another at bay . . .” The next day Ellington and a local Democrat fought with fists in the streets of Watson’s hometown of Thomson. This was the standard not the exception, with aggressive tactics most often perpetrated by Democrat-backed mobs. The 1892 election became, in reality, a localized / personalized civil war. Any means would be utilized to force victory, as the actual election would reveal.
In Origins, Woodward describes the 1892 election season as a “brutal replay” of Reconstruction, in which the tactics of “boycott, social ostracism, foreclosure of mortgages, discharge from jobs, withholding of credit and supplies” were utilized to “calibrate” the vote of Southern farmers. He goes on to include transparent violence as a “tactic” used to effect by Democrat-backed thugs. Frank Burkitt was knocked unconscious from a podium while speaking in Mississippi. Rueben Kolb (Populist-backed nominee for governor of Alabama) and others were literally run out of towns by such mobs while campaigning in the “Heart of Dixie.” Woodward records the Virginia Sun, which documented the smoking turmoil of the election and its aftermath as a “bacchanalia of corruption and terrorism,” Woodward reiterating the opinion of 1930s Populist historian, Alex Arnett, who went so far as to call the election in Georgia: “a solemn farce.” In every source one can dig up—putting the rampant accounts of violent threats / attacks aside for a moment—ballot fraud was prevalent to a ridiculous, appalling degree. Hicks writes on the Southern Democrats’ use of rigged elections, with apparent sarcasm: “. . . all these means had been employed in time past to save society from the rule of the ignorant and the vicious; the same high end would have to justify the same low means once again.” Reuben Kolb had guided the third-party split with Alabama’s traditional Democrats. Most accounts claim, based on the make-up of the electorate, that Kolb’s “Jeffersonian Democrats” (aligned with the People’s Party) would have carried the state with ease. Yet they were victims of widespread electoral theft. Kolb immediately contested the election and claimed the governor’s chair. A bitter partisan war ensued, including stand-offs between armed supporters. Both sides claimed victory, but the traditional conservatives held the state’s election machinery and its courts. A Populist memoir written some years later by Joseph Manning, paraphrased the Alabama Democrats having put it to Kolb and his Jeffersonians in so many words: “Yes, we counted you out. What are you going to do about it?” The same was true across the South, Ayers recording an Arkansas newspaper that published this: “. . . the Arkansas Bourbons (a derisive label dropping reference to the pre-revolution monarchy of France, that was fixed to the South’s ruling conservatives), like the Alabama Bourbons, enjoy the rare distinction of being able to carry elections without votes.” Ayers also aptly illustrates what was becoming a major point of contention; and would lead to the infamy of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement of Southern blacks, referencing a congressional investigator who claimed: “Negroes who had been dead for years . . . showed up in Democratic tallies.” White Populists across the South, from its leaders on down, would not forget this—and would begin the long downward slide away from a tolerant movement designed to address agrarian indignities, no matter the farmer’s ethnicity, to one reliant on an easier scapegoat for their failures than the untouchable, entrenched political / economic powers. The movement that once offered so much promise to black farmers, once politicized, began to fall on the darkness of prejudicial hate.
In all, the Weaver-Fields ticket won the electoral votes of only four states—all on the western Plains; even then, the support shown hinted an ulterior motive that would soon become clear. People’s Party candidates won control of the state senate in Minnesota and claimed a narrow congressional majority in Kansas (Kansas Republicans contesting the election and scotching the strength of the new majority in a “legislative war”). But this was all Populist candidates would achieve on their own. Valid or not, Republicans in the North and Democrats in the South swept up; and in the Old Confederacy, where Alliancemen / Populists had arguably invested the most (and subsequently had the most to lose), this election posed an uncomfortable question: could the movement survive without simply co-opting similar tactics? Popular appeal was still strong, and Alliance rolls did not show any mass exodus of members. But it was clear, the future would be do-or-die for the nascent third-party. Sectional opposition had been thrown at the People’s Party from the outside. Sectional disagreement was now rattling chains within. All this squared up to a movement—once intently focused and proactive in its reform ideals—drifting on currents not of its own choosing. Ed Ayers illustrates one of the most crucial of the movement’s failures as the inability to progress beyond its initial demands: lien / mortgage reform, currency equity, railroad and banking regulation. At Cleburne in 1886, St. Louis in 1889 and Ocala in 1890—during the co-op’s short life in Dallas and the breaking of the “jute-bag” trust—this “uprising” had shown will, progressive creativity, determination and a conviction to see the thing through. But in the wake of the disastrous elections of 1892, that momentum seemed lacking . . . Like they had at Ocala two years before, the Nat’l Alliance held a post-election convention in Memphis. And yet the only thing of real significance to come out of the convention was the eruption of a verbal battle between Henry Loucks and the Alliance’s one-time mastermind, Charles Macune. Both sought control of the organization; but in the end Macune—one of the Alliance’s most creative functional minds—was voted out. Though he continued to be a voice for reform well into the 20th century, his tenure with the movement he helped spawn was over. In retrospect this incident seems to foreshadow a dissolving central leadership and the sectional dissent that would rend the movement from within. But at the time, many simply saw it as their duty to plow ahead despite the red flags. Perhaps “fighting it straight” was all they would need to recapture the electricity that had poured out of the convention halls of St. Louis and Ocala . . . Perhaps the “Populist Moment”could be saved yet.
NEXT » Part III: Sold Out
Part I: Not a Revolt, A Revolution
Part II: Fighting It Straight «
Part III: Sold Out
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