|about search site map editors donate contact help|
by Rebecca Edwards
The Populist movement of the 1890s can serve, for historians, as a window on both old and new. In the names of Jefferson and Jackson, Populist leaders invoked a mythic agrarian past; their platforms also prefigured major reforms of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Thus the People's Party deserves attention not only as an "agrarian crusade," but as a reflection of the many issues brought forward in the 1890s by industrialization, social dislocation, and political change.
In the 1970s and 1980s, historians of Populism focused most of their attention on the grassroots movement that gave rise to the party. In _Democratic Promise_, Lawrence Goodwyn described Populism's "movement culture" as rooted in the cooperative economic ventures of the Southern Farmers' Alliance. Robert McMath's history of the Alliance stressed cooperatives as its key achievement. Steven Hahn (_The Roots of Southern Populism_) argued that Populist farmers, trapped by an increasingly ruthless economy, used cooperatives to sustain a pre-capitalist economic vision. Sociologist Michael Schwartz (_Radical Protest and Social Structure_) entirely dismissed the People's Party as an elitist corruption of Alliance goals and ideals.
These historians sought to explain a social movement they admired. As such, their work serves as a collective critique of _The Age of Reform_, in which Richard Hofstadter argued that Populism was a brand of "cranky pseudo-conservatism" with nativist and antisemitic overtones. Norman Pollack and Gene Clanton, in particular, have joined Goodwyn and others in defending Populists' ideas, but historians are now moving beyond the question of whether Populists were conservative or radical. In fact, the movement encompassed contradictory themes. Michael Kazin's recent book, _The Populist Persuasion_, traces Populist antecedents of such diverse twentieth-century figures as John L. Lewis, Father Coughlin, and George Wallace.
Historians are also beginning to consider Populism more carefully as a _party_. Emphasis has shifted somewhat from the questions, "where did Populism come from, and what did it represent?" to the question, "what happened to it in the electoral system?" Pioneers in this area include J. Morgan Kousser and Peter Argersinger. According to Argersinger, Democrats and Republicans used antifusion laws and ballot "reforms" to exclude and defeat the Populist insurgency. Kousser shows how Southern Democrats used disfranchisement laws to accomplish the same purpose.
The most innovative recent work in this vein is Jeffrey Ostler's _Prairie Populism_. Ostler notes that Populism developed its strongest base in virtual one-party states, where traditional opponents (Republicans in the South, Democrats on the Plains) were weak. He argues persuasively that in Midwestern states such as Iowa, responsive Democrats managed to absorb protopopulist sentiment and build their own farmer-labor coalitions. These Democrats did not need to co-opt the People's Party-- as their compatriots did in many Southern states-- because economic depression hit their region later, and they had time to react before the new party even formed.
By showing that strong Populist impulses existed beyond Populist country, but with different timing and in different institutional forms, Ostler opens up new possibilities. We can, for example, reconsider the significance of Populists' alliance with Democrats in the 1896 presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan. Goodwyn, and before him C. Vann Woodward, argued that fusion on the silver-currency issue distracted Populists from their true goals. James E. Wright and Robert W. Larson have since demonstrated that Populism in the Rocky Mountain states was much more than a silver-miners' crusade. Ostler's work suggests that the silver issue was crucial, from an early date, in the Midwest. Thus the silver issue, and cooperation with Democrats, made strategic sense for some Populists but not others. The internal tensions that beset Populism were not a simple matter of South and West. State and local party structures represented diverse constituents and faced wildly varied responses from local opponents.
Some of Populists' ideological contradictions--nativism and racial tolerance, socialist influences and anti-statism--can be placed in broader crosscurrents of national debate. An admirable effort in this direction is Michael Lewis Goldberg's _"An Army of Women": Gender Relations and Politics in Kansas Populism, the Woman Movement, and the Republican Party_. Goldberg is one of the few historians to consider the gendered history of Populism in a sophisticated way. (The best previous treatment is in Mari Jo Buhle's _Women and American Socialism_). Goldberg describes Populist women's efforts to cooperate with sympathetic temperance advocates and suffragists, an alliance that quickly foundered. Goldberg concludes that Kansas Populists' ability to build coalitions was limited by the very conditions they protested--a growing disparity between the experiences of rural Americans and those of the urban middle class.
For use in the classroom, Robert McMath's _American Populism_ is a readable and up-to-date overview of the topic. McMath offers background coverage on agriculture, third-party organizing, and the Knights of Labor, and his introduction neatly summarizes major historiographical debates. Edward Ayers' _Southern Crossing_ places the Southern Alliance and People's Party in the context of economic, social, and cultural changes in the New South. Nell Irwin Painter's _Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919_ treats Populism briefly in relation to economic protests during the depression of 1893.
Those interested in the movement's legacy may enjoy Kazin's _Populist Persuasion_. His treatment of the People's Party is cursory, and he hardly mentions the movement's internal conflicts. Nevertheless he offers insights into Populist rhetoric and style. Kazin suggests that the People's Party was the first national political movement connecting "faith in social progress" with "defense of the hard-working people." He may claim too much, but his analysis of diverse forms of populism in the twentieth century is a fitting tribute to the complexity of the original Populists.
Return to the H-SHGAPE Home Page
For comments or suggestions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org