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## The Omaha Platform: Launching the Populist Party

Although historians often speak of a “Populist movement” in the 1880s, it wasn’t until 1892 that the People’s or Populist Party was formally organized. The Omaha Platform, adopted by the founding convention of the party on July 4, 1892, set out the basic tenets of the Populist movement. The movement had emerged out of the cooperative crusade organized by the Farmer’s Alliance in the 1880s. The preamble was written by Minnesota lawyer, farmer, politician, and novelist Ignatius Donnelly. Delegates to the convention embraced the platform with great enthusiasm. Many of the specific proposals urged by the Omaha Platform—the graduated income tax, the secret ballot, the direct election of Senators, the eight-hour day—won enactment in the progressive and New Deal eras of the next century. Yet at least one historian has argued that the fundamental cooperative and democratic spirit of the agrarian radicals was lost along the way.

NATIONAL PEOPLE’S PARTYPLATFORM

Assembled upon the 116th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the People’s Party of America, in their first national convention, invoking upon their action the blessing of Almighty God, put forth in the name and on behalf of the people of this country, the following preamble and declaration of principles:

PREAMBLE

The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.

The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bondholders; a vast public debt payable in legal tender currency has been funded into gold-bearing bonds, thereby adding millions to the burdens of the people.

Silver, which has been accepted as coin since the dawn of history, has been demonetized to add to the purchasing power of gold by decreasing the value of all forms of property as well as human labor, and the supply of currency is purposely abridged to fatten usurers, bankrupt enterprise, and enslave industry. A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.

We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, every issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.

Assembled on the anniversary of the birthday of the nation, and filled with the spirit of the grand general and chief who established our independence, we seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of “the plain people,” with which class it originated. We assert our purposes to be identical with the purposes of the National Constitution; to form a more perfect union and establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

We declare that this Republic can only endure as a free government while built upon the love of the whole people for each other and for the nation; that it cannot be pinned together by bayonets; that the civil war is over, and that every passion and resentment which grew out of it must die with it, and that we must be in fact, as we are in name, one united brotherhood of free men.

Our country finds itself confronted by conditions for which there is no precedent in the history of the world; our annual agricultural productions amount to billions of dollars in value, which must, within a few weeks or months, be exchanged for billions of dollars’ worth of commodities consumed in their production; the existing currency supply is wholly inadequate to make this exchange; the results are falling prices, the formation of combines and rings, the impoverishment of the producing class. We pledge ourselves that if given power we will labor to correct these evils by wise and reasonable legislation, in accordance with the terms of our platform.

We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.

While our sympathies as a party of reform are naturally upon the side of every proposition which will tend to make men intelligent, virtuous, and temperate, we nevertheless regard these questions, important as they are, as secondary to the great issues now pressing for solution, and upon which not only our individual prosperity but the very existence of free institutions depend; and we ask all men to first help us to determine whether we are to have a republic to administer before we differ as to the conditions upon which it is to be administered, believing that the forces of reform this day organized will never cease to move forward until every wrong is remedied and equal rights and equal privileges securely established for all the men and women of this country.

PLATFORM

We declare, therefore—

First.—That the union of the labor forces of the United States this day consummated shall be permanent and perpetual; may its spirit enter into all hearts for the salvation of the Republic and the uplifting of mankind.

Second.—Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” The interests of rural and civic labor are the same; their enemies are identical.

Third.—We believe that the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads, and should the government enter upon the work of owning and managing all railroads, we should favor an amendment to the Constitution by which all persons engaged in the government service shall be placed under a civil-service regulation of the most rigid character, so as to prevent the increase of the power of the national administration by the use of such additional government employes.

FINANCE.—We demand a national currency, safe, sound, and flexible, issued by the general government only, a full legal tender for all debts, public and private, and that without the use of banking corporations, a just, equitable, and efficient means of distribution direct to the people, at a tax not to exceed 2 per cent. per annum, to be provided as set forth in the sub-treasury plan of the Farmers’ Alliance, or a better system; also by payments in discharge of its obligations for public improvements.

1. We demand free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold at the present legal ratio of l6 to 1.

2. We demand that the amount of circulating medium be speedily increased to not less than \$50 per capita.

3. We demand a graduated income tax.

4. We believe that the money of the country should be kept as much as possible in the hands of the people, and hence we demand that all State and national revenues shall be limited to the necessary expenses of the government, economically and honestly administered.

5. We demand that postal savings banks be established by the government for the safe deposit of the earnings of the people and to facilitate exchange.

TRANSPORTATION—Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people. The telegraph, telephone, like the post-office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the government in the interest of the people.

LAND.—The land, including all the natural sources of wealth, is the heritage of the people, and should not be monopolized for speculative purposes, and alien ownership of land should be prohibited. All land now held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs, and all lands now owned by aliens should be reclaimed by the government and held for actual settlers only.

EXPRESSION OF SENTIMENTS

Your Committee on Platform and Resolutions beg leave unanimously to report the following:

Whereas, Other questions have been presented for our consideration, we hereby submit the following, not as a part of the Platform of the People’s Party, but as resolutions expressive of the sentiment of this Convention.

1. RESOLVED, That we demand a free ballot and a fair count in all elections and pledge ourselves to secure it to every legal voter without Federal Intervention, through the adoption by the States of the unperverted Australian or secret ballot system.

2. RESOLVED, That the revenue derived from a graduated income tax should be applied to the reduction of the burden of taxation now levied upon the domestic industries of this country.

3. RESOLVED, That we pledge our support to fair and liberal pensions to ex-Union soldiers and sailors.

4. RESOLVED, That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.

5. RESOLVED, That we cordially sympathize with the efforts of organized workingmen to shorten the hours of labor, and demand a rigid enforcement of the existing eight-hour law on Government work, and ask that a penalty clause be added to the said law.

6. RESOLVED, That we regard the maintenance of a large standing army of mercenaries, known as the Pinkerton system, as a menace to our liberties, and we demand its abolition. . . .

7. RESOLVED, That we commend to the favorable consideration of the people and the reform press the legislative system known as the initiative and referendum.

8. RESOLVED, That we favor a constitutional provision limiting the office of President and Vice-President to one term, and providing for the election of Senators of the United States by a direct vote of the people.

9. RESOLVED, That we oppose any subsidy or national aid to any private corporation for any purpose.

10. RESOLVED, That this convention sympathizes with the Knights of Labor and their righteous contest with the tyrannical combine of clothing manufacturers of Rochester, and declare it to be a duty of all who hate tyranny and oppression to refuse to purchase the goods made by the said manufacturers, or to patronize any merchants who sell such goods.

Source: The World Almanac, 1893 (New York: 1893), 83–85. Reprinted in George Brown Tindall, ed., A Populist Reader, Selections from the Works of American Populist Leaders (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 90–96.

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Arts and humanities US history The Gilded Age (1865-1898) The Gilded Age

## The Gilded Age

• Introduction to the Gilded Age
• The Gilded Age and the Second Industrial Revolution
• Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age
• Misunderstanding evolution: a biologist's perspective on Social Darwinism
• Misunderstanding evolution: a historian's perspective on Social Darwinism
• America moves to the city
• Gilded Age politics: patronage
• The Knights of Labor
• Labor battles in the Gilded Age
• The Populists
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• Immigration and migration in the Gilded Age
• Continuity and change in the Gilded Age
• Practice: The Gilded Age
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The South after the Civil War

Arts and humanities US history The Gilded Age (1865-1898) The Gilded Age

# The Populists

In the late nineteenth century, a new American political party sprung up to defend the interests of farmers.

## Overview

• The Populists were an agrarian-based political movement aimed at improving conditions for the country’s farmers and agrarian workers. The Populist movement was preceded by the Farmer’s Alliance and the Grange.
• The People’s Party was a political party founded in 1891 by leaders of the Populist movement. It fielded a candidate in the US presidential election of 1892 and garnered 8.5% of the popular vote, which was a substantial amount of support for a third party.
• The Populists allied with the labor movement and were folded into the Democratic Party in 1896, though a small remnant of the People’s Party continued to exist until it was formally disbanded in 1908.

## Agrarian activism in the United States

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the nation’s farmers began to organize to defend their interests against what they perceived to be the interests of the Eastern establishment and banking elite. As the number of landless tenant farmers rose, and as the debts of independent farmers skyrocketed due to burdensome loan terms and interest rates from banks, discontent among the nation’s agrarian workers burgeoned.
In 1876, the Farmer’s Alliance was established in Texas with the goal of ending the crop-lien system that had thrown so many farmers into poverty. The crop-lien system operated in the cotton-growing South, among sharecroppers and tenant farmers, both white and black, who did not own the land that they worked. These workers took out loans to obtain the seed, tools, and other supplies they needed to grow the cotton. After the harvest, they were required to pay back the loans in the form of cotton crops. When cotton prices tanked, these workers were sometimes left with nothing after their crops were collected by creditors.

${}^{1}$

Print showing the Farmer's Alliance flag, which features the motto, "The most good for the most people."

Flag of the Farmer's Alliance. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Farmer’s Alliance was not the only organization that sprang up to defend the nation’s agrarian workers. The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, known as the Grange, was founded in 1868 in New York to advocate on behalf of rural communities. From 1873 to 1875, local chapters of the Grange were established across the country, and membership skyrocketed.

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This was partly due to the Panic of 1873, a financial crisis that resulted in a number of bank failures and the bankruptcy of several of the nation’s railroads. The Panic of 1873 depressed wages for workers, and the prices of agricultural products plummeted, saddling farmers with massive amounts of debt that they had little hope of paying off.

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## The People’s Party

In 1891, the People’s Party (also known as the Populist Party, or the Populists) was formed as a political party representing the interests of the nation’s agricultural sector. The Farmer’s Alliance was a major part of the Populist coalition.
The People’s Party nominated James B. Weaver, a former US representative from the state of Iowa, as its candidate in the 1892 presidential election. Campaigning on a platform designed to strengthen farmers and weaken the monopolistic power of big business, banks, and railroad corporations, the People’s Party garnered 8.5% of the popular vote, carrying the states of Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, and Nevada.

Photograph of William Jennings Bryan.

William Jennings Bryan was the presidential candidate for the Democrats in 1896. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Because of the mass appeal of the Populist movement, the Democratic Party began to champion many of its policy goals. In the 1896 presidential election, the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan as its candidate, and the Populists agreed to support him. The People’s Party was thus folded into the Democratic Party and began to fade from the national scene.
The effect of the fusion of the Populist Party and the Democratic Party was a disaster in the South. Though there had always been conflict within the Populist movement about whether African Americans should be included, the Democratic Party in the South was unabashedly racist. Though Bryan performed strongly in the areas of greatest Populist influence, he lost the election to Republican William McKinley.

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The People’s Party continued to function and fielded candidates in both the 1904 and 1908 presidential elections, but the heyday of the party’s influence was over. Although the People’s Party was formally disbanded in 1908, the Progressive movement would take up many of the goals and causes of Populism, including anti-trust legislation, greater federal regulation of private industry, and stronger support for the nation’s agricultural and working classes.

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## What do you think?

What were the nation’s farmers so upset about?
What sorts of policies did agrarian activists champion?
How would you measure the achievements of the Populist movement?
Notes
1. For more, see Harold D. Woodman, New South, New Law: The Legal Foundations of Credit and Labor Relations in the Postbellum Agricultural South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995); and Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
2. For more on the Granger movement, see D. Sven Nordin, Rich Harvest: A History of the Grange, 1867-1900 (Baton Rouge, LA: Mississippi State University, 1974).
3. For more on the Panic of 1873, see M. John Lubetkin, Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006).
4. For more on the election of 1896, see R. Hal Williams, Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010).
5. For more on Populism, see Lawrence Goodwin, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); and Robert C. McMath, Jr., American Populism: A Social History, 1877-1898 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).

## The Gilded Age

• Introduction to the Gilded Age
• The Gilded Age and the Second Industrial Revolution
• Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age
• Misunderstanding evolution: a biologist's perspective on Social Darwinism
• Misunderstanding evolution: a historian's perspective on Social Darwinism
• America moves to the city
• Gilded Age politics: patronage
• The Knights of Labor
• Labor battles in the Gilded Age
• The Populists
This is the currently selected item.

• Immigration and migration in the Gilded Age
• Continuity and change in the Gilded Age
• Practice: The Gilded Age
Next tutorial
The South after the Civil War
Labor battles in the Gilded Age
Immigration and migration in the Gilded Age
Up Next

Immigration and migration in the Gilded Age