Capital Concerns Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In this section we explore a few key economic issues along with the rise of the Populist Party, which emerged in response to them. The section begins with a resounding cry of frustration, “Wall Street Owns the Country,” by a Populist leader. The piece offers a view into the partly anti-capitalist attitude underpinning this short-lived but influential American political party. In point of fact, it was not capitalism per se that the Populists objected to but rather the arrangement of the capitalist system. The system seemed to favor bankers and speculators and looked askance at the likes of food producers–farmers–and their business needs. The United States during this period, despite its urban industrialization, was a predominantly rural, agricultural nation. And yet the capitalists in the cities, the Populists complained, reaped most of the benefits of economic growth. One can discover what the Populists desired by examining the party’s 1892 political platform, which is included here.

In this section we explore a few key economic issues along with the rise of the Populist Party, which emerged in response to them. The section begins with a resounding cry of frustration, “Wall Street Owns the Country,” by a Populist leader. The piece offers a view into the partly anti-capitalist attitude underpinning this short-lived but influential American political party. In point of fact, it was not capitalism per se that the Populists objected to but rather the arrangement of the capitalist system. The system seemed to favor bankers and speculators and looked askance at the likes of food producers–farmers–and their business needs. The United States during this period, despite its urban industrialization, was a predominantly rural, agricultural nation. And yet the capitalists in the cities, the Populists complained, reaped most of the benefits of economic growth. One can discover what the Populists desired by examining the party’s 1892 political platform, which is included here.

Monetary issues were also significant at this time, and were central to the Populists’ support of the “Free Silver” movement, which called for the free and unlimited coinage of silver as a means of addressing deflation and bolstering food prices to benefit farmers. An act of Congress toward that end, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, was passed in 1890; but many felt that the law did not go far enough. Conservatives, however, worried that it went too far. Thus, in 1893, President Grover Cleveland, a conservative, pro-business Democrat, put his weight behind an effort to repeal of the act in light of a financial panic–the Panic of 1893–that was then unfolding. We include here both Cleveland’s argument before Congress and an assessment of the “political causes” of the panic.

Finally, we hear from one of the top industrialists at the turn of the century, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, in an essay called “The Gospel of Wealth,” lays out the virtues of being blessed with wealth, particularly when it has come through hard work and individual effort. At the same time, he notes, wealthy individuals owe a debt to society and should, therefore, pursue philanthropic endeavors to benefit all.

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