For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s

For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s

For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s

For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s


For the People offers a new interpretation of populist political movements from the Revolution to the eve of the Civil War and roots them in the disconnect between the theory of rule by the people and the reality of rule by elected representatives. Ron Formisano seeks to rescue populist movements from the distortions of contemporary opponents as well as the misunderstandings of later historians.

From the Anti-Federalists to the Know-Nothings, Formisano traces the movements chronologically, contextualizing them and demonstrating the progression of ideas and movements. Although American populist movements have typically been categorized as either progressive or reactionary, left-leaning or right-leaning, Formisano argues that most populist movements exhibit liberal and illiberal tendencies simultaneously. Gendered notions of "manhood" are an enduring feature, yet women have been intimately involved in nearly every populist insurgency. By considering these movements together, Formisano identifies commonalities that belie the pattern of historical polarization and bring populist movements from the margins to the core of American history.


Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

“A spectre is haunting the world—populism”: That ominous observation could have been uttered at various times in recent years, but it opened a now classic 1969 book of essays by an international group of scholars seeking to define populism and to identify its specific national, as well as cross-cultural, features. While the authors of Populism: Its Meaning and Na tional Characteristics generally viewed their subject negatively, through lenses shaped by the excesses of anticommunist hysteria in the 1950s or of the New Left in the 1960s, their critiques of populist social movements and political parties now appear tame compared to the widespread and intense association of populism, over the past two decades and more, with extremism, specifically extreme right radicalism. This association has been particularly intense in Europe since the 1980s, while in the United States populism possesses a more mixed history and legacy. Although North American populism emerged most prominently as an expression of reformist and progressive farmers’ movements, recently populist impulses in the United States have tended more often to promote the ascendancy of conservative and reactionary leaders and policies.

Yet across the globe during the last two decades of the twentieth century a bewildering variety of new populist protest movements and political parties emerged to challenge traditional parties, ruling elites, and accepted social norms. They sprang from many kinds of social groupings and from diverse points on the political spectrum. in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and North America, populist discontent has erupted intermittently. the end of the Cold War, notably, unleashed a torrent of popular movements opposed to politics-as-usual. Some promoted more democracy, pluralism, and economic opportunity; some unleashed intolerance, bigotry, and xenophobic nationalism; and others mixed together some combination of these impulses. Indeed, a central argument of this . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.