Why Was the Populist Party Formed?


By Patrick AllittEmory University

The Populists Party was a political movement among farmers in the late 19th century. It came into being as a result of the problems that the Midwestern and Southern farmers faced and brought along a coalition of the two.

a farmer plowing the field
Buying newer farm machineries led the farmers to debt and eventually bankruptcy. (Image: Jason Brubacher/Shutterstock)

Socio-economic Crises for the Farmers

Southern cotton farmers, sharecroppers, black and white alike, were becoming chronic debtors by the late 1880s as prices continued to fall. Midwestern farmers also found conditions turning steadily against them. Railroad shipping rates were too high.

Buying vital new farm machinery was forcing them into debt. Prices for their crops were falling, too, so they could not repay their creditors.

Farmers’ Organizations

The farmers tried to create social and economic organizations to reform their situation.

The Granger movement, founded in 1867, brought together, particularly, the more prosperous farmers for mutual, social, and educational assistance. They’d learned together about new developments in farm science and farm technology, that created a social environment to alleviate the boredom and loneliness that farmers often faced in isolated Plains farms.

In the late 1870s and the early 1880s, some early political parties attempted to transform the economic situation. The Independent National or “Greenback” Party campaigned for inflationary currency legislation. They wanted more paper money to be put out into the economy, to have an inflationary effect that would help farmers.

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The Sub-Treasury Plan

In the 1880s, poor as well as the more prosperous farmers began to organize cooperatives and to set up marketing arrangements, in order to bypass the grain elevator companies.

One of the most ingenious was developed by Charles Macune, and it was called the “Sub-Treasury Plan”. His idea was this: that the farmers could store their crops in government-owned warehouses rather than private ones, and that they could borrow money against the value of their stored crops at a very low interest rate. He proposed one percent, until prices rose on the American or world market, making favorable conditions for them to sell.

 handful of corns
The Sub-treasury plan proposed storing crops in government-owned warehouses. (Image: Mny-Jhee/Shutterstock)

McCune said this would free farmers from dependence on the banks, from dependence on the very lowest sale price at harvest time, and it would get them out of the grip of extortionate middlemen.

However, state and federal governments regularly refused to pass legislation to create such a scheme.

Religious Nuances in Farmer’s Alliances

As the alliance movement began to establish itself, its meetings took on more and more of the character of religious revivals.

These farmers occasionally gathered together for revival services. Now that they began to gather together for political meetings, it took on the same flavor, and very often, there was preaching and hymn singing, and the sociability that went with religious events as well.

Mary Lease

Some of the meetings had charismatic speakers, and one of them was an early Populist, a woman named Mary Lease. She was an Irish immigrant, but also qualified for the bar, and was one of the very first female lawyers in the state of Kansas. It was she who coined the phrase, “Kansas farmers should raise less corn and more hell.”

The people loved her the more for the enemies she made. Her most distinguishing gift was her powerful voice, deep and resonant; its effect was startling and controlling.

‘Sockless’ Jerry Simpson

Another one of the most passionate early Populists was a man whose nickname was “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, a great champion of the Kansas farmers in the difficult conditions they faced.

In one election, he taunted his Republican rival with wearing silk socks, a clear sign that he wasn’t a man of the people. The congressman, the Republican, countered, “It’s better than having no socks at all.” Hence the nickname, “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, but Simpson won the contested seat in Congress and sat in Congress from 1891 through 1895, and again in the late 1890s.

The Formation of the Populist Party

In the South, something similar was happening. Farmers’ alliances, which congealed into the Populist Party, were created.

What’s particularly remarkable about them is that they were racially integrated. Black farmers in many counties in the rural South began to make common cause with white farmers. A Georgia politician named Tom Watson was one of the leading organizers of southern Populists.

The People’s, or the Populists, Party itself was created in 1892, and held its first convention in Omaha. The author of the party’s platform was Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesotan.

An Unexpected Alliance?

The Populist Party was built on an unlikely alliance between these two constituencies, cotton farmers in the South and midwestern grain farmers, unlikely in the South, because it crossed the color line, bringing black and white farmers together.

It was unlikely, also, in that it joined Confederate veterans, white southerners, with old Union army veterans, the midwestern farmers. Their political zeal took on religious overtones for a while, and they enjoyed some local and state-level success in the 1890s.

However, they were never able to build a stable nationwide party structure, and so they were unable to win national elections as they had hoped to do.

Common Questions about the Formation of the Populist Party

Q: When was the Populists Party formed?

The People’s, or the Populists, Party itself was created in 1892, and held its first convention in Omaha. The author of the party’s platform was Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesotan.

Q: Name some of the early Populists.

Some of the notable early Populists were Mary Lease and ‘Sockless’ Jerry Simpson.

Q: Why was the Populists Party an unexpected alliance?

The Populist Party was built on an unlikely alliance between the cotton farmers in the South and midwestern grain farmers. It was unlikely in the South because it crossed the color line, bringing black and white farmers together.

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