Populist Party Platform, 1892 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The People’s Party–widely known as the Populist Party–grew out of the agrarian crisis of the late nineteenth century. Many American farmers faced serious problems resulting from declining commodity prices, rising debt, and transportation issues. The People’s Party stemmed from the Granger movement and the regional Farmers’ Alliance. In February 1892, leaders from various reform organizations met in St. Louis, Missouri, to discuss forming a new party. They issued a call for a national convention, held in July 1892, in Omaha, Nebraska, to create the party. While the party’s platform addressed some of the concerns of the urban poor and the labor movement, most of its planks dealt with agrarian issues, including monetary and banking issues; government land policies; and transportation and farm-commodities storage issues.

Summary Overview

The People’s Party–widely known as the Populist Party–grew out of the agrarian crisis of the late nineteenth century. Many American farmers faced serious problems resulting from declining commodity prices, rising debt, and transportation issues. The People’s Party stemmed from the Granger movement and the regional Farmers’ Alliance. In February 1892, leaders from various reform organizations met in St. Louis, Missouri, to discuss forming a new party. They issued a call for a national convention, held in July 1892, in Omaha, Nebraska, to create the party. While the party’s platform addressed some of the concerns of the urban poor and the labor movement, most of its planks dealt with agrarian issues, including monetary and banking issues; government land policies; and transportation and farm-commodities storage issues.

Defining Moment

The People’s Party had only a brief moment on the national political scene, but the movement encapsulated the problems facing rural Americans (and some urban workers) in the late nineteenth century. Farmers struggling with mortgage debt, falling commodity prices, and transportation issues came to believe both that they were at the mercy of social and economic forces beyond their control and that the American economy was controlled by a conspiracy of the wealthy and the powerful, who had little incentive to change the status quo. These issues, as well as the perception that neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties cared about the concerns of farmers, led to a sense of crisis. The Populists sought to address these issues by creating a new political party. Farmers had first tried to address some of their concerns through the Granger movement. The Grange began primarily as a social organization, but turned to politics when economic conditions for farmers deteriorated in the 1870s. Rather than form a third party, they backed Democratic or Republican candidates who promised to address farmers’ concerns, and in many farm states, Grange backing was integral to candidates’ election to local or state offices. The People’s Party also had roots in the Farmers’ Alliance. Like the Grange, the alliances initially had little to do with politics; they simply aimed at creating cooperative purchasing and marketing associations for farmers. But like the Grange, the Alliances eventually began to back candidates who seemed sympathetic to farmers’ needs. When the People’s Party announced its platform at the Omaha Convention in July 1892, outsiders considered many of the group’s proposals radical. In 1896, when the Populists “fused” with the Democratic Party by endorsing William Jennings Bryan, whom the Democrats had already nominated for president, many of the Populist’s other goals were eclipsed by the issue of “free silver,” the focus of Bryan’s campaign against the Republican candidate William McKinley. Bryan’s defeat in that election marked the beginning of the Populists’ decline on the national scene. While the Populists never succeeded as a national party and never elected anyone to national office, many of the reforms for which they advocated were enacted during the Progressive Era.

Author Biography

At the preliminary meeting in St. Louis in February 1892, the group appointed a committee on resolutions to draft planks for a potential party platform. The preamble to the platform, the most-often quoted portion of the document, was largely the work of Ignatius Donnelly, a journalist and political activist with a long career in third-party politics promoting reform causes. He was born on November 3, 1831, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in 1857 moved to Minnesota, where he held several elected offices, including lieutenant governor and a seat in the US House of Representatives from 1863 to 1869. He was a candidate for the Populist presidential nomination in 1892, but his many idiosyncrasies made him too great a risk. He died on January 1, 1901.

Document Analysis

The Populists had three major concerns: currency and monetary policy, transportation issues, and federal land policies. In this political tract, they call for the “free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1, a policy often dubbed “free silver.” Congress had ended the production of silver dollars in 1873, but the Populists wanted the government to resume coining silver dollars and to return to an 1830s policy that had pegged the value of silver at one-sixteenth that of gold. They believed that resuming silver coinage would increase the money supply, benefitting debtors. In the 1890s, the market price of silver was far lower than one-sixteenth the price of gold, so this policy would have increased the price of silver, appealing to people in mining states where silver production was important, as well as to debtors; however, its inflationary underpinning frightened middle-class and wealthy people with assets.

The Populists also call for a graduated (progressive) income tax, meaning that tax rates should increase with the level of income. No federal income tax existed at this time, and on the state and local level, real estate taxes were often a major component of government revenues; thus, the tax burden fell heavily on farmers. Transportation costs and service issues also presented problems for farmers. The Populists advocate government ownership of the railroads, arguing that “the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.” Since communication services also had great impact on all the people, the Populists argue that the government should also operate telephone and telegraph services.

Land issues were also of major importance to the Populists. The federal government had given huge land grants to western railroads; the Populists want the remnants of these grants returned to the government. They also call for an end to absentee “alien ownership” of land–foreigners should not be allowed to own land in the United States unless they actually became residents.

In the section of the document entitled “Expressions of Sentiments,” the Populists list items not formally part of the party platform but “expressive of the sentiment of this Convention.” Some deal with direct democracy issues such as initiative and recall and electing US senators by a direct vote of the people (rather than by the legislatures of the states, as provided for in the Constitution prior to ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913). Populists express support for the concerns of urban workers and demand “further restriction of undesirable emigration.” The secondary status of these issues in the platform underlines one of the problems the Populists faced: while they exhibited some concern for the needs of urban workers, they were not able to attract large numbers of the laboring class to support their party. The Populists advocated primarily rural, agrarian issues in an urbanizing nation in which the cities were increasingly the center of power and influence.

Essential Themes

Scholars consider the 1892 Populist platform one of the most comprehensive reform agendas in American history. The central theme evident in the preamble is the sense of crisis, connected to which is the notion of a suspected conspiracy among the wealthy, big business, and corrupt politicians that greatly endangered the American economic system, according to the Populists. “The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few,” the preamble asserts. A key element of this “vast conspiracy against mankind,” according to the preamble, was the federal government’s refusal to coin silver dollars.

In this document, the Populists also stress that the will of the people had been ignored. Republicans and Democrats had not addressed many of the issues that concerned the average worker, focusing instead on a fight over the protective tariff. To give real political power to the people, the Populists called for several “direct democracy” reforms.

In many ways, the Populists were ahead of their time, although scholars have often framed their movement as seeking to restore a lost agrarian ideal. On the national scene, the Populists failed and faded into obscurity. But as historian Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, third parties are not necessarily failures, even if they lose at the ballot box. If sound, their policies will be adopted by one of the major parties, and eventually reforms may result. Indeed, many of the reforms the Populists called for in 1892 came to fruition within the following two or three decades in the Progressive Era.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. Print.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Vintage, 1955. Print.
  • Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Rev. ed. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998. Print.
  • Stock, Catherine McNicol. Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996. Print.
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