The Populist Vision

The Populist Vision

The Populist Vision

The Populist Vision


The Populist Vision is about how Americans responded to wrenching changes in the national and global economy. In the late nineteenth century, the telegraph and steam power made America and the world a much smaller place. The new technologies also made possible large-scale bureaucratic organization and centralization. Corporations grew exponentially and the rich amassed great fortunes. Those on the short end of these changes responded in the Populist revolt, one of the most effective challenges to corporate power in American history. But what did Populism represent? Half a century ago, scholars such as Richard Hofstadter portrayed the Populist movement as an irrational response of backward-looking farmers to the challenges of modernity. Since then, historians have largely restored Populism's good name. But in so doing, they have sustained a romantic notion of Populism as the resistance movement of tradition-based and pre-modern communities to a modern and commerical society, or even a counterforce to the Enlightenment ideals of innovation and progress. Postel's work marks a departure. He argues that the Populists understood themselves as, and were in fact, modern people. Farmer Populists strove to use the new innovations for their own ends. They sought scientific and technical knowledge, formed highly centralized organizations, launched large-scale cooperative businesses, and pressed for state-centered reforms on the model of the nation's most elaborate bureaucracy--the Postal Service. Hundreds of thousands of Populist farm women sought education, employment in schools and offices, and a more modern life. Miners, railroad workers, and other labor Populists joined with farmers to give impetus to the regulatory state. Activists from Chicago, San Francisco, and other urban centers lent the movement an especially modern tone. Modernity was also menacing, as the ethos of racial progress influenced white Populists in their pursuit of racial segregation and Chinese exclusion. The Populist Vision offers a broad reassessment. Working extensively with primary sources, it looks at Populism as a national movement, taking into account both the leaders and the led. It focuses on farmers but also wage-earners and bohemian urbanites. It examines topics from technology, business, and women's rights, to government, race, and religion. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, business and political leaders are claiming that critics of theirnew structures of corporate control represent anti-modern attitudes towards the new realities of globalization. The Populist experience puts into question such claims about who is modern and who is not. And it suggests that modern society is not a given but is shaped by men and women who pursue alternative visions of what the modern world should be.


The global economy of the early twenty-first century has brought speculative booms, spectacular busts, and much questioning about what it all means. One thing is certain: the wrenching changes of the “new” economy bear a striking resemblance to changes Americans have experienced in the past.

This is a book about how Americans responded to the traumas of technological innovation, expansion of corporate power, and commercial and cultural globalization in the 1880s and 1890s. The advent of the telegraph meant that information that had taken weeks or months to cross continents and oceans now traveled at the speed of electric current. The telecommunications revolution and steam power made America, and the world, a much smaller place, facilitating large-scale organization and centralization. Corporations grew exponentially amid traumatic spasms of global capitalist development. Mark Twain called it the “Gilded Age.” The rich amassed great fortunes, a prosperous section of the middle class grew more comfortable, and hard times pressed on most everyone else.

How did those on the short end respond to these changes? They organized protest movements the likes of which the country had never seen before. Populism—made up mostly of farmers but also of wage workers and middleclass activists—provided one of the most intense challenges to corporate power in American history. This book explores how the men and women of the Populist movement perceived and acted on the fast-moving changes of their modern world.

The conclusions drawn provide a cautionary tale about stereotypes of who is modern and who is not. During the Gilded Age, the corporate elite made exclusive claims on modernity. Captains of finance and industry, supported by economists and political scientists from the universities, held that the particular corporate model that they pursued conformed to unalterable laws . . .

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