The Greenback Labor Party- Forerunner of the Populists

Greenback Labor Party

The Greenback Party was established in 1875. It got its name for the slang term for paper money– greenbacks– which of course were inflationary. Its main support came from farmers who were suffering from declining farm prices, high railroad rates and the government’s deflationary currency policies. Peter Cooper was the party’s presidential candidate in 1876 but he won only 81,737 votes and was easily beaten by Rutherford Hayes (4,036,298) and Samuel Tilden (4,300,590). However, the party did send 15 representatives to Congress.

In 1878 members of the Greenback Party joined with urban trade union groups to establish the Greenback Labor Party. This indicates that party leaders were trying to unite farmers with urban workers in order to build a broader base of support and increase the chance of success at the polls. James Weaver emerged as leader of the party and was its presidential candidate in 1880. During the campaign Weaver argued that the two major political parties had lost sight of their original democratic ideals of equal opportunity. He also claimed that the maintenance of the gold standard benefited banking interests but was driving farmers out of business. Weaver called for policies where all classes could share in the economic wealth of America.

The Greenback Labor Party program included the coinage of silver on a par with gold, an adequate supply of money, the taxing of government bonds, a maximum eight-hour day, the introduction of graduated income tax and opposition to railroad land grants.

Weaver obtained 308,578 votes but was beaten by James Garfield (4,454,416) and Winfield S. Hancock (4,444,952). Most of Weaver’s support came from the rural West but he was now one of the most important political figures in the United States.

After the election of 1880, the Greenback-Labor Party merged with the Democratic Party in most states. Weaver was against this policy and in 1891 helped establish the Populist Party. The party advocated the public ownership of the railroads, steamship lines and telephone and telegraph systems. It also supported the free and unlimited coinage of silver, the abolition of national banks, a system of graduated income tax and the direct election of United States Senators.

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