Birth of the People’s Party Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Agrarian unrest increased in the decades following the Civil War in the United States. It finally gave rise to a grassroots populist movement that created the People’s Party. The party’s presidential candidates could not raise the funds necessary to mount a serious challenge to more conservative politicians, however.

Summary of Event

Political activists completed the organization of the People’s Party of the United States of America, also known as the Populist Party, at the nominating convention held in Omaha, Nebraska, July 4-5, 1892. The formation of a new political party had been discussed for several years in a series of farmer-oriented conventions. Representatives of the powerful Northern and Southern Farmers’ Alliances, together with certain labor groups, such as the Knights of Labor Knights of Labor , and some smaller organizations of farmers, met at St. Louis in December, 1889, to consider merging and cooperating in political action. At that time they were unable to effect a union of their organizations, but they did discover that many of their political demands were identical. Farmers and workers both agreed that fundamental changes needed to be made in American banking practices, as well as in regulating railroads and in providing for the arbitration of labor disputes. People’s Party[Peoples Party] Populism;People’s Party[Peoples Party] [kw]Birth of the People’s Party (July 4-5, 1892) [kw]People’s Party, Birth of the (July 4-5, 1892) [kw]Party, Birth of the People’s (July 4-5, 1892) People’s Party[Peoples Party] Populism;People’s Party[Peoples Party] [g]United States;July 4-5, 1892: Birth of the People’s Party[5820] [c]Government and politics;July 4-5, 1892: Birth of the People’s Party[5820] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 4-5, 1892: Birth of the People’s Party[5820] Donnelly, Ignatius Field, James G. Polk, Leonidas LaFayette Watson, Thomas Edward Weaver, James Baird

These political demands were enunciated further at another convention held at Ocala, Florida, in December, 1890. Then, at the National Union Conference held in Cincinnati in May, 1891, Ignatius Donnelly Donnelly, Ignatius —leader of the Minnesota Alliance and a noted author—demanded the immediate formation of a third party, but Leonidas LaFayette Polk Polk, Leonidas LaFayette —president of the Southern Alliance Southern Alliance and editor of the influential Progressive Farmer—wrote a letter advising delay. Polk was backed by James B. Weaver Weaver, James Baird from Iowa. A compromise was reached whereby an executive committee was to begin preparations for establishing a new party, but formal organization would be delayed until after a reform convention met in St. Louis in February, 1892. The vast majority of delegates to this convention were representatives of the Farmers’ Alliances, but a substantial number of seats were reserved for representatives from certain labor unions.

The convention met, heard speeches, adopted a platform, and adjourned. By arrangement, the delegates remained in their seats and reorganized as a political action group. They accepted a motion to appoint a committee to confer with the executive committee that had been appointed at Cincinnati regarding the calling of a national nominating convention. The combined executive committee, in the patriotic mode of the time, adopted plans to authorize 1,776 delegates to meet in a nominating convention on July 4, 1892, in Omaha.

The strength of the People’s Party centered in areas where commercial farming of staple crops, such as cotton and wheat, was dominant. These farmers believed that they were at the mercy of monopolies and speculators, and they demanded government legislation regarding the control of money, transportation, and land. The years following the end of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) had proved financially devastating for the nation’s farmers as the money supply of the country contracted. The war had contributed to widespread inflation and the depreciation of the value of the dollar. Bankers had pushed for the return to a hard money standard and for holding the supply of money in circulation constant to prevent further inflation. Although the complexities of monetary theory were difficult for people to understand, the result was easily seen: With the supply of money held constant, the more farmers, as a whole, produced, the less each individual farmer would be paid.

By 1892, several previous attempts at forming a third political party had been made. The National Labor Union National Labor Union of 1871, the Greenback Party Greenback Party , and the Union Labor Party Union Labor Party had all been inspired by difficulties caused by monetary policies. Each of these parties had appealed to slightly different segments of the population. The People’s Party would come the closest to uniting rural farmers with urban labor interests. Still, sectional differences delayed the formation of the party for several years. The Southern Alliance Southern Alliance believed that it could capture the Democratic organization, while many Northern Alliance groups wanted to form new parties.

The memory of the Civil War remained strong, and Democratic politics had different connotations in different regions. Still, both groups experienced considerable success with their respective strategies in the off-year election of 1890. In the South, four governors and forty-four congressmen who were committed to Alliance principles were elected as Democrats; in the states of the Great Plains, the Populists as an independent party gained the election of two U.S. senators. By 1892, many southern farmers were disillusioned with the concessions made by the national Democratic Party and were more willing to join a third party movement. The Southern Alliance Southern Alliance members were, however, never united on the new strategy. For example, African American farmers who were active in the Southern Alliance had always strenuously opposed cooperating with the Democrats, while white farmers generally supported cooperation.

The 1892 Omaha nominating convention of the People’s Party accepted the report of its platform committee. Donnelly’s Donnelly, Ignatius ringing denunciation of the corruption of the two major parties, Congress, the state legislatures, and the bench was adopted as the preamble to the platform. The body of the platform called for an inflated currency Currency;U.S. (specifically, “free silver,” or the unlimited coinage Coinage, U.S. of silver and gold and a “circulating medium” of not less than fifty dollars per capita), a graduated income tax, the establishment of postal savings banks, the nationalization of the railroads, and the prohibition of alien ownership of land. Finally, the committee presented several resolutions that it did not consider as an integral part of the platform. These resolutions included demands for the secret ballot, the initiative and referendum, direct election of senators, and one-term limitations on the presidency. Expression of sympathy for labor and a demand for the restriction of “undesirable immigration” were also included in the attached resolutions.

William Jennings Bryan.

(Library of Congress)

The majority of the thirteen hundred delegates who attended the Omaha convention probably favored Judge Walter Q. Gresham as their presidential candidate. Gresham would have given a degree of respectability to the new party, and he was believed to be sympathetic to most Populist views. The judge refused to allow his name to be put in nomination, however, and James B. Weaver Weaver, James Baird , an Iowa Alliance leader who had been the Greenbacker presidential candidate in 1880, was nominated on the first ballot. A southerner was needed to give the ticket balance, and James G. Field Field, James G. , a former Confederate officer from Georgia, was nominated. The first Populist presidential ticket had been formed.


In the presidential election of 1892 Presidency, U.S.;election of 1892 , Grover Cleveland collected 277 electoral votes to 145 for the Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison; the People’s Party garnered only 22, all in the western states. The Populists polled 1,041,028 popular votes compared to Cleveland’s winning total of 5,556,543. In 1894, the Populists increased their combined popular vote to 1,471,600.

The presidential election year of 1896 Populism;and election of 1896[Election of 1896] saw the People’s Party fuse with the Democratic Party, which had nominated William Jennings Bryan Bryan, William Jennings [p]Bryan, William Jennings;and Populists[Populists] . Bryan, who shared many Populist views, especially in regard to the importance of “free silver,” was also nominated by the Populists, although they chose a different vice presidential candidate, Thomas E. Watson Watson, Thomas Edward , in an attempt to maintain their separate party identity. William McKinley, the Republican candidate, easily defeated the Democratic-Populist ticket. Backed by business interests with deep pockets, the Republicans were able to outspend both the Democrats and the Populists. Standard Oil Standard Oil alone contributed $250,000 to the campaign, an immense sum for that time. Bryan was forced to campaign by commercial carrier, subject to the tight structure of standard railroad timetables, while McKinley enjoyed a private train. It is thus not surprising that the Populists failed to win as a third party and that they failed when they supported Bryan. Their appeal to the American populace was never sufficient to build a strong base for a major party.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Argersinger, Peter H. The Limits of Agrarian Radicalism: Western Populism and American Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. Intriguing analysis of why rural concerns failed to galvanize the American populace as a whole.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crossen, Cynthia. “The Man Who Made Political Campaigns All About the Money.” Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), March 24, 2004, p. B1. Describes the introduction of new methods of fund-raising in American campaigns. Focuses on Marcus A. Hanna’s fund-raising and promotional efforts on behalf of William McKinley during the presidential campaign of 1896, in which he defeated the Democratic-Populist ticket.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. A condensed version of Goodwyn’s larger work, Democratic Promise, intended for a general audience. Democratic Promise, a massive scholarly work, is considered the definitive history of the Populist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffiths, David B. Populism in the Western United States. Lewiston, Idaho: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. Good discussion of the Populist movement in the western states.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMath, Robert C. American Populism: A Social History, 1877-1898. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. An accessible overview of Populism and the People’s Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ostler, Jeffrey. Prairie Populism: The Fate of Agrarian Radicalism in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, 1880-1892. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993. Detailed history of Populism in the prairie states.

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Categories: History