- Historic Sites
The Party Of The People
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
In 1896, however, he was best known for a stem-winding speech in favor of the free coinage of silver at an artificially high price, which concluded: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” He focused so tightly on attacking the gold standard that the Republican opposition crucified him , as an economic nitwit who would open the door to runaway inflation and make every contract in the nation worthless. (Since the 1930s every major nation in the world has gone off the gold standard without civilization collapsing, but that is another story.)
It was a bitterly fought campaign, and Bryan lost decisively, but he returned for two more unsuccessful presidential runs. It was otherwise with the Populists. They were virtually destroyed after being caricatured in the press as loonies howling for simple-minded economic cure-alls. Certain vulnerable leaders and practices were singled out for attention and became stereotypes. Men like the Kansas congressional candidate Jerry Simpson, known as Sockless Jerry because he disdained to wear silk hose like his patrician opponent. Women like Mary Elizabeth Lease, who famously but unprovably told farmers that they needed to raise “less corn and more Hell.” And the Populist governor of Kansas described by the young Emporia editor William Alien White as “an old mossback Jacksonian who snorts and howls because there is a bath-tub in the State House.” What ridicule left undone, returning prosperity finished, and the Populists disappeared back into the two-party structure.
Forgotten in the heat of combat—and by an America getting ever farther from its agrarian roots—were serious Populist proposals for agricultural credit and crop-storage systems that were later adopted in modified form by the New Deal. Likewise Populist efforts to recruit women candidates and to build collaboration between black and white farmers in the South, though that effort was tragically reversed after 1896.
Populism was a normal response to economic distress, and Populists were both rational and tolerant.
Populist rhetoric also opened the party to attack by mid-twentieth-century historians. Populist campaign talk—as superheated as most—spoke of dark conspiracies between Wall Street and foreign bankers, often referred to as “Shylocks” and “Rothschilds,” to force the gold standard on the world and cut pounds of flesh from helpless debtors. And Georgia’s Thomas Watson, the Populists’ last presidential nominee (in 1904), became a virulent Jew- and Catholic-baiter as well as a white supremacist in his later years. So in the 1950s historians like Richard Hofstadter and Oscar Handlin argued that the Populists were among the forerunners of fascism, anti-Semitism, isolationism, Red hunting, and other forms of political paranoia.
Those views have since been modified or refuted by such scholars as Walter Nugent and Lawrence Goodwyn. Nugent, in a close study of Kansas Populists, demonstrates that Populism there was a normal response to economic distress and that the thousands who voted and held office under Populist banners were as rational and as tolerant of their neighbors of all faiths as were Republicans and Democrats—maybe more so.
The intent here is not to thump the tub for the Populists but to note the importance of historical context and the stubborn longevity of old bromides. The Populists fought their 1892 and 1896 campaigns in a hurting, angry, divided country that had learned how to produce plenteous wealth but not quite how to deal with the threat to popular government created by the inequality that came with the new industrialism. I trust the problem sounds familiar in 1992. The Populists addressed themselves brazenly to this issue with accusations and proposals, good or bad, that scared a lot of people for reasons that were good or bad. It isn’t surprising that their opponents counterpunched by identifying the word populism with class hatred and envy or mindless truckling to the masses with shirt-sleeve talk and pretty promises.
But there’s no reason for the word to be used that way now any more than to employ the term Wall Street as merely an alternative name for organized greed, or banking as a synonym for licensed theft. Knowing in advance that the cause is probably lost, I suggest that Populist be capitalized only and used with proper respect for historical accuracy. And for that matter, with respect for rank-and-file Populists, who, as much as any of the makers of our past, deserve serious attention.