Populists Were Not Always a Fringe Group

Time to show today’s populists--Democrats, Republicans and Tea Partiers--a bit more respect.

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By John A. Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The op-ed pages are replete with talk about Populism these days, both pro ( E.J. Dionne in Monday's Washington Post) and con ( David Brooks in today's New York Times.)

As I happen to have spent a considerable amount of time studying the Populist revolt of the 1890s, in the course of digging up details about Clarence Darrow's little-known role as a Populist firebrand, I thought I might offer a taste of the flavor of the era, and side with E. J. in defending the movement.

The Populists were angry folks, and though some pushed for an alliance of black and white farmers in the South, others were racist and anti-Semitic. In the years after World War II, such mass movements were viewed by influential American historians--most notably Columbia University's Richard Hofstadter--as uncomfortably akin to the rise of fascism. Subsequent generations of college students, schooled on Hofstadter's The Age of Reform, came away quite leery of the Populists. It is only in recent years that historians like Charles Postel and Michael Kazin have helped repair the Populists' reputation.

The movement was rooted in the farms, in the Granges and the Farmers' Alliances that were created to unite farmers and give them more political and economic muscle in the decades after the Civil War. Monopolistic railroads had squeezed rural areas with extortionate shipping rates, and Eastern financiers had sold Washington on a policy of tight money, based on the gold standard, that was especially tough on the mortgaged farmers, who borrowed money to buy land and seed and run their households while they waited for the harvest.

The economic Depression of the 1890s fueled the movement which, in 1892, officially declared itself the People's Party. Its presidential candidate carried six states, winning more than a million votes, and the Populists, as they were called, elected three governors and five senators.

We all know about William Jennings Bryan and the "Cross of Gold" speech. But it wasn't just about the gold standard. Among other reforms, the Populists called for direct election of U.S. senators, a graduated income tax, limits on corporate power and government regulation of railroads and utilities.

Liberals of the day were tantalized by the potential of linking urban workingmen with farmers from the Plains and the miners of the West. But Populism was not an easy sell in the cities. Radicals and reformers might embrace the cause, but investors and bankers feared inflation, and Democratic royalists and the Republican Party proved quite adept at persuading even union workers that their jobs and savings would be lost in an unstable, loose-money economy.

Chicago became a crucial testing ground. And Darrow helped lead this battle in the summer and fall of 1894.

In September, the Chicago People's Party, which Darrow and his friends helped organize, held its first big rally at the Central Music Hall. Several thousand members hooted and stomped the downtown streets in a torchlight parade, and union chief Eugene Debs and Ignatius Donnelly, a national Populist leader, gave speeches. A week later, Darrow chaired another big rally, where he read this verse from the poet William Morris:

O why and for what are we waiting? While our brothers droop and die,
And on every wind of the heavens a wasted life goes by.
How long shall they reproach us where crowd on crowd they dwell,
Poor ghosts of the wicked city, the gold-crushed hungry hell?

In October, it was Darrow's turn to headline the card. Men shouted, women fainted and thousands of latecomers battled with police before being turned away from the sold-out Auditorium.

"It was an audience of plain people, orderly, earnest and grave of face," the Tribune reported, with more than a few "well-dressed comely women" drawn by Darrow's reputation, who came to hear his speech. Inside, 7,000 were entertained by the Ladies Zither Club Orchestra; then Darrow took the podium. The seats and aisles could not hold the great crowd; 600 people climbed the stage, and gathered around and behind him.

"It is never easy for any of us to change our political and social relations," Darrow began, "and it is with much reluctance and hesitation that I come here this evening to state in as plain a way as I can, why, from my standpoint, those who entertain opinions and views such as I hold should no longer affiliate themselves with either of the two great political parties."

"This meeting is but one of the evidences of the prevailing discontent and unrest in the industrial and social world today," he said. "I shall not quote statistics. Every person of common observation knows … that the struggle for existence has grown fiercer and harder day by day, that the great army of unemployed has rapidly increased each year, that the number of men and women anxious to fill any public or private place for the smallest pay keeps wages at a starvation rate."

Darrow roughed up the Republicans some, then turned, with relish, to the Democrats and Grover Cleveland.

"I amongst the rest fondly believed that some of the pledges made in the Democratic platform would be kept. We trusted them with our aspirations, with our votes, with the political destiny of this country," Darrow said. "We trusted that they would make some effort to correct some of the abuses that had built up a country of masters and slaves."

But "if the Administration of the Democratic Party has stopped long enough in its allegiance to Wall St. to give the workingman the slightest attention, to give the workingman one scrap of legislation, I have failed to find that act," Darrow told the crowd, to growing cheers. "The demands of the East were complied with, and the interest of the millions who labor with their hands were trampled upon for the benefit of the few who own the property and credits of the world."

And then, in closing, Darrow expressed the fragile hopes of his fellow Populists.

"It may be that the platform of the party is not perfect. I presume that it is not. We may be out upon the sea in a leaky boat manned by visionists and cranks, that will sail but a little way before it meets the rocks and sinks forever from the sights of man," he said. "But as for me, I would rather sail upon a raft out into the wildest and most tempestuous sea, beneath the blackest skies, moved only by the desires and hopes of those on board than to rest securely in the staunchest ship, anchored to the creeds and errors of the past. The anchored ship must stand and rot."

"It may be that we are dreamers…it may be that the land we seek is a far-off Utopia which lives only in the imagery of enthusiastic minds," he admitted.

"But not all ideals are simply visions. We have made them real in the past, we will make them real in the days to come."

The Populist coalition was shaken by internal bickering: the single taxers and agrarian capitalists clashed with the socialists; collectivists with free silverites, and trade unionists nursed their suspicion that the farmers, when good times returned, would desert the cause. The party finished third in Chicago in the 1894 elections. But two years later they were back, to fuse with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and nominate William Jennings Bryan for president.

Yup, 30 years before they squared off at the Scopes Monkey Trial, Bryan and Darrow were allies. Bryan led the Democratic and Populist tickets that year, and Darrow ran for Congress as a "Popocrat," as the fusion movement was known. Both lost, rather narrowly.

Some say the Democrats co-opted the People's Party, for after Bryan's defeat, it faded away. But Populist ideals were now rooted in the Democratic platform, and they would meet with tremendous success in the 20th century.

Bryan "preached that the national state should counter the overweening power of banks and industrial corporations by legalizing strikes, subsidizing farmers, taxing the rich (and) banning private campaign spending," Kazin writes in A Godly Hero, his biography of Bryan. The Great Commoner, as he was called, "did more than any other man … to transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants."

Some fringe group. Some dreamers. We may want to show today's populists--Democrats and Republicans and Tea Party members--more respect.