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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 happiest 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.

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.... We endured hardships, and dangers; hours of loneliness, fear and sorrow... We toiled in the cabin and in the field; we helped our loved ones to make the prairie blossom...

Yet, after all our years of toil and deprivation, dangers and hardships, our homes are being taken from us by an infamous [wicked] system of mortgage foreclosure. 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, siding with Wall Street, broke its contracts with the people.... As Senator Plumb [of Kansas] tells us, “Our debts were increased, while the means to pay them [cash] was decreased.”

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. 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 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 corner store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day...is as much a businessman as the man who [works on Wall Street].

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

It is for these that we speak. We are fighting in the defense of our homes and our families. 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 us.

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 this 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 Listen.


Tillman said that he could not understand why whites in North Carolina did not use their large majority to prevent negro domination. He blamed both Democrats and Populists for their continued division, but appealed to the Populists to re-unite with the Democrats. When they had restored white rule, they would have plenty of time to settle their differences. By taking his advice the Populists would reinforce the silver-backed dollar and help keep the Republican goldbugs from making policy.

The crowd yelled with delight at every attack on the Republicans.


  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).

I have been told that several political meetings have been broken up by armed men, using threats, intimidation, and, in some cases, actual violence; that in other cases property has been actually destroyed, and citizens fired on, that several citizens have been taken from their homes at night and whipped; that in several counties peaceful citizens have been intimidated and terrorized by threats of violence to their persons and their property, until they remove their names from the voter registration.

Therefore, I, Daniel L. Russell, Governor of the State of North Carolina, by virtue of authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws, will 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, to leave this State upon pain of being arrested and dealt with according to law.

By the Governor,


Guiding Questions:

  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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