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6.5: Populism

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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In the decades following the Civil War, the prices of agricultural crops fell and life became very hard for farmers in the American West, who struggled to make a living. They established a series of organizations to represent their interests, including The Grange in 1867 and the Farmers’ Alliance in 1876. The most successful organization, founded in 1892 was the Populist Party, a political group intended to promote farmer-friendly legislation. The Populists gained adherents in the South in addition to the West and nominated competitive presidential candidates in 1892 and 1896. However, the party failed to appeal to urban working people and never achieved a majority. As the new century dawned, the Populist Party weakened and eventually disbanded. The documents below show the range of motivations behind Populism, including temperance, economic distress, and racism.

Speech to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union - Mary Elizabeth Lease, 1890

Source: Speech by Mary Elizabeth Lease to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, 1890. Lease became politically involved as a speaker for the rights of workers and farmers. She had powerful voice and charismatic speaking style. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a women’s movement against alcohol.

The mightiest movement the world has known in two thousand years... is sending out the gladdest message to oppressed humanity that the world has heard since John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness that the world’s Redeemer was coming to relieve the world’s misery....

I overheard yesterday morning at the hotel breakfast table a conversation between two gentlemen in regard to Ingalls. “I consider his defeat,” said the first speaker, “to be a national calamity.” “Your reasons,” said the second. “Why, he is such a brilliantly smart man,” he replied. “True,” said the other; “but he must needs be a smart man to be the consummate rascal he has proven himself to be.” And I thought as I heard the remarks, “Our opinion is also shared by men.” You wonder, perhaps, at the zeal and enthusiasm of the Western women in this reform movement. Let me tell you why they are interested. Turn to your old school-maps and books of a quarter of a century ago, and you will find that what is now the. teeming and fruitful West was then known as the Treeless Plain, the Great American Desert. To this sterile and remote region, infested by savage beasts and still more savage men, the women of the New England States, the women of the cultured East, came with husbands, sons and brothers to help them build up a home upon the broad and vernal prairies of the West. We came with the roses of health on our cheek, the light of hope in our eyes, the fires of youth and hope burning in our hearts. We left the old familiar paths, the associations of home and the friends of childhood. We left schools and churches—all that made life dear—and turned our faces toward the setting sun. We endured hardships, dangers and privations; hours of loneliness, fear and sorrow; our little babes were born upon these wide, unsheltered prairies; and there, upon the sweeping prairies beneath the cedar trees our hands have planted to mark the sacred place, our little ones lie buried. We toiled in the cabin and in the field; we planted trees and orchards; we helped our loved ones to make the prairie blossom as the rose. The neat cottage took the place of the sod shanty, the log-cabin and the humble dug-out.

Yet, after all our years of toil and privation, dangers and hardships upon the Western frontier, monopoly is taking our homes from us by an infamous system of mortgage foreclosure, the most infamous that has ever disgraced the statutes of a civilized nation. It, takes from us at the rate of five hundred a month the homes that represent the best years of our life, our toil, our hopes, our happiness. How did it happen? The government, at the bid of Wall Street, repudiated its contracts with the people; the circulating medium was contracted in the interest of Shylock from \begin{align*}\$54\end{align*}$54 per capita to less than \begin{align*}\$8\end{align*}$8 per capita; or, as Senator [Preston] Plumb [of Kansas] tells us, “Our debts were increased, while the means to pay them was decreased;” or as grand Senator [William Morris] Stewart [of Nevada] puts it, “For twenty years the market value of the dollar has gone up and the market value of labor has gone down, till to-day the American laborer, in bitterness and wrath, asks which is the worst—the black slavery that has gone or the white slavery that has come?”....

No more millionaires, and no more paupers; no more gold kings, silver kings and oil kings, and no more little waifs of humanity starving for a crust of bread. No more gaunt faced, hollow-eyed girls in the factories, and no more little boys reared in poverty and crime for the penitentiaries and the gallows. But we shall have the golden age of which Isaiah sang and the prophets have so long foretold; when the farmers shall be prosperous and happy, dwelling under their own vine and fig tree; when the laborer shall have that for which he toils; when occupancy and use shall be the only title to land, and every one shall obey the divine injunction, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” When men shall be just and generous, little less than gods, and women shall be just and charitable toward each other, little less than angels; when we shall have not a government of the people by capitalists, but a government of the people, by the people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.


  1. Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When? Who was the intended audience?
  2. Contextualization: What was happening for farmers at the time this document was written? To what extent were women involved in politics at this time?
  3. Close reading: How did Lease want to make her audience feel? What specific passages show this?

Cross of Gold - William Jennings Bryan

Source: Speech delivered by William Jennings Bryan at the Democratic National Convention in July 1896. It is considered one of the most famous speeches in American history. The passage below is an excerpt.

A 1925 recording of Bryan reading the speech is available at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5354/.

The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain....

We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen....

It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came.

We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!....

You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country....

Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.


  1. Sourcing: Where is Bryan speaking? What is the purpose of his speech?
  2. Context: Based on the speech, how do you think farmers and workers were feeling about business and industry? Find a quote to support your answer.
  3. Close reading: What is the main point of his speech?
  4. Close reading: What makes the speech so powerful? Pick the line that you think is most powerful and explain your choice.

Section Questions:

  1. How are Bryan’s speech and Lease’s speech similar? How are they different?
  2. Why do you think speakers like Lease and Bryan were so popular with farmers in the 1890s?

A White Man’s Day – Raleigh News and Observer

Source: The following article appeared in the Democratic newspaper, News and Observer, on October 21, 1898.(Figure below).

The article describes a speech by Democratic Senator Ben Tillman who was convincing the large crowd to vote Democratic in the upcoming election.



Eight to Ten Thousand People Out.


....Senator Tillman spoke for an hour and a half. There has been no speaker here since Vance who so moved the multitude. Several times he was about to conclude, but the crowd insisted that he go on. They would have heard him as long as he could speak. He has a very remarkable manner. He is altogether out of the common. His thoughts come clear and logical; he has a ringing voice and imperious gesture; his sentences are well constructed; his illustrations striking and picturesque and bearing the flavor of wholesome country life; his delivery deliberate in the main, but running into great rapidity of utterance at the climaxes.

He said he had never before heard of a State in such a condition of political chaos as North Carolina at the time. In his own State of South Carolina the blacks outnumbered the whites as three to two; whereas in North Carolina there were but half as many blacks as there were whites. In the face of these facts he could not conceive of anything short of idiocy on the part of the whites why they did not use their large majority to prevent negro domination at the very outset. It if were not idiocy, and he knew that the people of North Carolina were far removed from that, then the conclusion was inevitable that the trusted servants of the two wings of what was once Vance's Democracy, namely the Democrats and the Populists, must have been faithless to their duty. They should have found a way to unite at all hazards, in the face of the dreadful reality of negro domination, and in order to prevent the exposure to the world of their noble commonwealth in the pitiable way which the exigencies of the present moment have forced. He blamed both Democrats and Populists for their continued division, but made a telling appeal to the Populists to waive all question of who was to blacme for the failure to co-operate, and to re unite with the majority party of the anti Republicans. When they had restored white rule, they would have ample time to settle their factional differences. By taking his advice the Populists would re-inforce the silver wing of the Democracy and help keep the goldbugs from influencing Democratic party policy....

The speaker apologized for having to say such plain things about his hospitable entertainers, but he was invited to come as an expert to diagnoze the disease of the North Carolina patient and his task would be useless if he failed to use the surgeon's knife unflinchingly. But the multitude assured him that that was precisely what they wanted him to do, and they yelled with delight at every cut into the sore of machine politics. It was evidently an audience of sound minded and sound hearted citizens, bent on hearing advice from the leading political doctor of our day and section. If there were any present whose toes were trod on, they have discreetly kept quiet.


  1. Sourcing: What party does Tillman represent?
  2. Sourcing: Who is he trying to convince to vote Democratic?
  3. Close Reading: What are two things that Tillman promises will happen if the Democrats win?

How Long Will This Last? – Raleigh News and Observer

Source: The following political cartoon appeared in the Democratic newspaper, News and Observer, on August 13, 1898.(Figure below).

Pant leg is labeled, “THE NEGRO.” Figure being stepped upon is labeled, “WHITE MAN.” “A SERIOUS QUESTION –HOW LONG WILL THIS LAST?"

Populist Speech - Gov. Daniel Russell

Source: The following speech was published in a Populist newspaper on October 26, 1898. In this speech, Republican Governor Russell declares that he wants the election to be peaceful.(Figure below).

...WHEREAS, it has been made known to me, by the public press, by numerous letters, by the oral statements of divers citizens of the State and by formal written statements, that the political canvass, now going forward, has been made the occasion and pretext for bringing about conditions of lawlessness in certain counties in this State, such, for example, as Richmond and Robeson Counties....

Now, therefore, I, Daniel L. Russell, Governor of the State of North Carolina, in pursuance of the Constitution and laws of said State, and by virtue of authority vested in my by said Constitution and laws, do issue this my proclamation, commending all ill-disposed persons whether of this or that political party, to immediately desist from all unlawful practices and all turbulent conduct, and to use all lawful efforts to preserve the peace; and to secure to all the people the quiet enjoyment of all their rights of free citizenship....

And I do further commend and require that all persons who may have entered this State from other states, in pursuance of any unlawful purpose instantly to disperse and leave this State upon pain of being arrested and dealt with according to law.


  1. Governor Russell says that there’s been violence. What party do you think is behind the violence?
  2. Who do you think is being attacked? Why would those people be attacked?
  3. Do you think this speech had any effect on the violence? Why or why not?

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