Populist party, in U.S. history, political party formed primarily to express the agrarian protest of the late 19th cent. In some states the party was known as the People's party.
Formation of the Party
During the Panic of 1873 agricultural prices in the United States began to decline. The economic welfare of farmers suffered badly; many believed that the management of currency was at fault and that the government's currency policy was determined by Eastern bankers and industrialists. After attempts at independent political action failed (see Greenback party), loosely knit confederations called Farmers' Alliances were formed during the 1880s. Separate organizations were founded in the North and South, and Southern blacks organized their own alliances.
The Farmers' Alliances agitated for railroad regulation, tax reform, and unlimited coinage of silver and attempted to influence the established political parties. Growth was so rapid, however, that interest in a third party began to increase; in 1891 delegates from farm and labor organizations met in Cincinnati. No decision was made to form a political party, but when the Republican and Democratic parties both straddled the currency question at the 1892 presidential conventions, a convention was held at Omaha, and the Populist party was formed (1892).
The party adopted a platform calling for free coinage of silver, abolition of national banks, a subtreasury scheme or some similar system, a graduated income tax, plenty of paper money, government ownership of all forms of transportation and communication, election of Senators by direct vote of the people, nonownership of land by foreigners, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours, postal banks, pensions, revision of the law of contracts, and reform of immigration regulations. The goal of the Populists in 1892 was no less than that of replacing the Democrats as the nation's second party by forming an alliance of the farmers of the West and South with the industrial workers of the East. James B. Weaver was the Populist candidate for President that year, and he polled over 1,041,000 votes. The Populist votes in the 1894 congressional elections increased to 1,471,000 as the party gained momentum.
In 1896, while the Republican party adhered to the "sound money" platform, the Populists kept intact their platform of 1892; the Democratic party, however, adopted the plank of free coinage of silver and nominated William Jennings Bryan for President. Although the Populists tried to retain their independence by repudiating the Democratic vice presidential candidate, the Democratic party, helped by the eloquence of Bryan, captured the bulk of the Populist votes in 1896. The 1896 election undermined agrarian insurgency, and a period of rapidly rising farm prices helped to bring about the dissolution of the Populist party. Another important factor in the failure of the party was its inability to effect a genuine urban-rural coalition; its program had little appeal for wage earners of the industrial East.
See R. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955, repr. 1963); N. Pollack, ed., The Populist Mind (1967) and The Just Polity (1987); C. Beals, The Great Revolt and Its Leaders (1968).