The Populists and what they stood for

The Populists (or People’s Party) burst onto the political stage in the election of 1892. They supported increasing the power of the working class and the farmers against the interests of the wealthy, who were more politically powerful– even before 19892, money was the lifeblood of politics.

Their first statement of goals was the Omaha Platform of 1892. Make sure you are familiar with the contents of this document.

Why were each of these items important to the Populists?

Public ownership of the railroads, steamship lines and telephone and telegraph systems: this would stop the practice of unfair rates for small farmers versus the volume discounts secured by large landholders and other sorts of political corruption that the railroads had certainly practiced. Rightly or wrongly, the farmers blamed the railroads for much of their problems. The costs of shipping in general cut into the farmers’ livelihoods. In general, the monopolies of the telephone and telegraph companies also was seen as a threat to their economic wellbeing.

Free and unlimited coinage of silver: From this website: “Before 1873 anyone who brought 3.7125 grains of silver to the mint could receive a legal-tender silver dollar, and the campaign for free silver fought for a return of these conditions.

“Between the mid-1830s and 1873 the market price of silver exceeded the mint price of $1.29 cents per ounce; therefore, very little silver found its way to the mint. Silver dollars had largely disappeared from circulation when Congress enacted the Coinage Act of 1873, an act that made no provision for the coinage of silver, and put the United States on an unofficial gold standard. Proponents of free silver later condemned the act as the “Crime of ’73.”

“The deletion of the silver dollar drew little attention at the time, but the United States was already in the clutches of a deflationary downswing that would last three decades. From 1870 until 1896 prices plunged 50 percent, a deflationary wave that hit hard at farmers in the West and South, where debt incidence stood at high levels.

“These groups quite rightly saw that a return to free and unlimited coinage of silver would raise the domestic money stock, raise prices, and reduce their debt burden. Much of the populist flavor of the free silver movement came from the hopes it lifted among large numbers of low-income farmers.

“Silver prices felt an added deflationary force because the world was rushing toward a gold standard that left little role for silver as a monetary metal. Major silver discoveries in the American West further depressed the market for silver. From 1850 until 1872 the market price of an ounce of silver stood above $1.32, clearly above the mint price, but the price had slipped to $1.24 by 1874, and from there it tumbled to $0.65 by 1895. Silver-mining interests in the United States saw free silver as a way of increasing the demand for silver, and putting a floor under silver prices. They would have been delighted to sell silver to the Treasury for $1.29.”

Abolition of national banks: The populists say the national banks as the bastion of the wealthy. They wanted to see the federal government directly take over the control of the money supply (and of course, adopt inflationary policies). This was eventually accomplished during the Progressive era with the creation of the Federal Reserve System in the early 20th century.

Graduated income tax: From the founding of the US, the main source of revenue for the government were tariffs and excise taxes. These kind of taxes are often referred to by economists as “regressive” because they take up a larger proportion of poor people’s incomes than of wealthy people’s. Tariffs and excise taxes caused the prices of goods to increase, hurting the poor more than the rich. Therefore, the Populists proposed a graduated (meaning increasing in steps or increments”) income tax to take the place of tariffs. An income tax had been levied to attempt to pay for the Civil War (by both the Union and the Confederacy), but the Supreme Court in 1895 had declared an income tax unconstitutional. Therefore this would require a constitutional amendment to achieve.

Direct election of Senators: Since the founding of the US, Senators had been elected by the state legislatures. Remember, too, that Senators served the longest term of any federal elected officials– 6 years. The Populists argued that Senators were therefore interested less in the interests of the people of the states than with remaining in the good graces of the major corporations in their states, who often exercised undue influence over state legislatures– think of the power of McDonnell Douglas and Anheuser Busch back when they both had their headquarters in this state.

Although the Populists did not achieve many of their aims, they did lay the groundwork for the passage of the income tax in the 16th Amendment and the direct election of senators in the 17th Amendment, both in 1913 during the Progressive era.

Read the following websites:

http://www.columbia.edu/~rr91/1052_2002/lectures_2002/populist_movement.htm

http://lhs.lexingtonma.org/Teachers/David/LI%20US%20history/liusreview_gildedage.html

And for those of you conspiracy theorists, this makes me laugh– a claim that the 16th Amendment was never really ratified.

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