Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Populism is the idea that there is a selfish oligarchy running the government which must be removed for the benefit of the people. This idea has existed since there were governments led by fallen men and populaces made of fallen men. Populism is an idea that enjoyed prominence during the 1890’s, but has existed for millennia and made many effects.

During the 1890’s there was much unrest; post-war deflation continued, farmers were fearful of exploitation and it appeared that elitists were running the government. First, during the Civil War, paper money was printed to fund the Union Armies. But in 1869, a law was passed required that fiat money be redeemable for gold and silver. This created deflation, a very nice thing for lenders, and a very bad thing for debtors. Banks that lent paper money could now demand gold in return, requiring debtors to pay back more than they borrowed. This caused many problems for farmers and other laborers, prompting ideas of exploitation. What would make more sense than bankers using money they got from workers to pass laws that would milk the workers even more? Things got worse in 1873, when silver was taken off the coinage list. Any cushion for deflation was completely taken away. There was improvement with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which allowed free silver again, but it was too late for many. The second problem was specific to farming, mechanization allowed overproduction and crop prices plummeted. Moreover, farmers had bought their machines with borrowed paper money, so they couldn’t keep up with their debts when deflation happened. The third problem was the cost of shipping. Where there were multiple railroad lines prices would usually be decent, but where a single line was run prices were outrageously high. This clear abuse angered many and further hurt remotely located farmers. These problems caused much instability and unrest.

Because of the problems, the populist People’s Party grew quickly. In 1892 at St. Louis, their first national convention was held. The adopted platform accused America of “rapidly degenerating into European conditions.” General James Weaver was nominated for President and prior Confederate General James Field was chosen as his running mate. The populists hoped that by choosing a Yankee and a Southerner they could transcend the old problems and take on the new ones. However, the democrat candidate Grover Cleveland won. In the next year the Panic of 1893 took the nation by surprise. Some people blame this on over-expanded railroads, but many people blamed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. So Cleveland repealed it, taking away free silver. As can be imagined, the populists were incensed. It was obvious proof of elitism; the powerful ignored the populace’s plight while getting rich without working. The result was a distinct increase in votes for Populist candidates during the 1894 election, even though it was a mid-term election. But the biggest boost was still to come.

William Jennings Bryan, Democratic Presidential candidate at the turn of the 19th century, brought the issues of populism into the national spotlight. He drew into the Democratic Party, “Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He decided to represent the common people and the common people flocked to him. For three months during the campaign he only slept two hours a night. Meanwhile, his opponent never left his front porch. It would seem logical that the person who stumped the nation would win any election over someone who stayed home, but William McKinley was supported by all the Eastern elite. What more proof of an oligarchy did the Populists need when McKinley won? Bryan ran again in several more elections, but never grabbed the highest office in the land. The champion of the people never completely got the people’s respect.

After a short period of fame, the People’s Party fell out of favor because national conditions improved. Gold had been discovered in Alaska, stabilizing the money supply, (Grant) and Theodore Roosevelt was running for Vice-President. Bryan lost again, by a very thing margin. The People’s party jumped high for a short time, but quickly fell flat.

Even if the People’s Party did not last long, the idea it was based on is ancient, and continues to this day. Because all humans, whether governing or governed, are sinful, corruption on both sides is a constant reality. The question of how to act justly when faced with tyranny has faced many populaces, such as Israel upon Solomon’s death.

Then they sent and called him, and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and spoke to Rehoboam, saying, “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you." 1 Kings 12:3-4

The populace was right, in this case. Their freedom had been restricted by Solomon and the people asked his heir to lighten the load. At this point, the populace was acting justly, and giving the new King the chance to also act justly. However, improvement would not happen.

The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, 14 he followed the advice of the young men and said, "My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions." 1 Kings 12:13-15

Rehoboam choose to restrict freedom, putting him in the wrong. Rather than subjecting themselves to what appeared to be a tyrant, many of the Israelites deserted Rehoboam and made Jeroboam their king. Unfortunately, Jeroboam led the people into spiritual slavery by erecting idols. The problem of a populace removing sin in government without going into sin itself has troubled people since ancient times.

The consequences of Populism are broad, but the movements in America are more important to us. The American Revolution had a very good impact on America, because the Founding Fathers acted justly. The British government was clearly wrong, and the Americans did almost everything right. The next populist movement in America would be the one that happened in the 1890’s. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to have had much influence, but it did. When William Jennings Bryan was nominated by the Democrats, he brought the plight of the little people into politics. The thought that the populace is being oppressed by the elite has dominated American politics ever since. Republicans and Democrats accuse each other of being the elite and brag about representing the people. Populism created America, and gives us a dislike of “The Elite.”

To conclude, Populism was prominent in the 1890’s but has a far-reaching history. At various times it has been used justly, and sometimes not. The consequences of this idea are large.


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