Populism refers to a United States agrarian movement of the late 19th century that developed mainly in the area from Texas to the Dakotas and grew into a Farmer-Labor political coalition. The populist movement began during the economic depression of the 1870s, when there was a sharp decline in the income of farmers at a time when their living and operating costs were rising. The farmers began to organize early in the 1870s, and, during the ensuing two decades, large numbers of them joined such bodies as the National Grange and the Farmers’ Alliances. The latter were cooperative organizations that hoped to lower farmers’ costs by selling supplies at reduced prices, loaning money at rates below those charged by banks, building warehouses to store crops until prices became favorable, and taking political action to achieve these goals. Alliances were popular in the South, where many farmers existed in an almost endless cycle of debt. In some southern states, alliances even embraced black farmers, who had been ostracized from political life there since Reconstruction. By 1891 the movement had gained sufficient strength to warrant a national political party. The alliances joined with the Knights of Labor and other groups to form the People’s Party, whose members were called Populists.
The principal objectives of the Populists were the free coinage of silver and the issuance of large amounts of paper currency; such inflationary measures tended to raise farm prices and enable the farmers to pay off their debts, most of which had been contracted during the period of inflation following the American Civil War. Populists also sought to replicate their cooperative system on a national scale; to lower transportation costs by nationalizing the railroads; to achieve a more equitable distribution of the costs of government by means of a graduated income tax; to institute direct popular elections of U.S. senators; and to inaugurate the 8-hour workday. The results of the first election in which the Populists took part, that of 1892, were promising; the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, received 1,029,846 votes. Populist influence peaked in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat who sympathized with the Populists’ agenda, won his party’s presidential nomination. The Populists endorsed Bryan, thus sacrificing their independent identity. After he was defeated, the Populist Party faded steadily from the political scene, disappearing about 1908.
Despite the brevity of its existence, the Populist movement exercised a profound influence on subsequent U.S. political life; almost all the original Populist demands, which at one time were widely viewed as radical and contradictory to America’s free enterprise system, were eventually enacted into law giving populism a legal status.