The Agrarian and Populist Movements

Economic Conditions

Decreases in crop prices and crop failures in the 1880s bred economic discontent among farmers that led to the formation of the Populists.

Learning Objectives

Assess the economic conditions that led to discontent in the 1890s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Low inflation and a scarcity of paper money increased farmers’ debt burden during the 1880s, while decreasing real wages and crop prices.
  • The Populist Party emerged out of the Farmers’ Alliances and the agricultural distress of the 1880s.
  • Supporters of the Populist Party and many Democrats favored silver, while Republicans and financial interests advocated the gold standard.
  • In 1896, the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, argued against the nation crucifying itself on a “cross of gold.”
  • The improvement of U.S. finances in 1897 and the Spanish American War in 1898 drew attention away from Populist issues.
  • Under the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, the government increased its purchasing of silver while depleting its stock of gold.

Key Terms

  • gold standard: A monetary system in which the value of circulating money is linked to the value of gold.
  • Panic of 1893: An economic depression in the United States, beginning in 1893 and marked by the collapse of railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing, which set off a series of bank failures.
  • McKinley Tariff: An act of the U.S. Congress, framed by Representative William McKinley and designed to protect domestic industries from foreign competition, that raised the average duty on imports to almost 50 percent.

Agricultural Distress

The economic transformation taking place during the Gilded Age created prosperity and new lifestyles for some, but these changes also had a widespread negative impact in areas dominated by farming. Although crop diversification and the greater focus on cotton as a cash crop offered some potential for farmers to get ahead, other forces worked against that success. For instance, while technology greatly increased the amount a farmer could harvest, it also created large surpluses that could not be sold. Farmers struggled due to debt and falling prices. The crop failures of the 1880s greatly exacerbated the situation.

During the late 1880s, a series of droughts devastated the West. To make matters worse, the McKinley Tariff of 1890 was one of the highest the country had ever seen. This was detrimental to American farmers, as it drove up the prices of farm equipment. By 1890, the level of agrarian distress was at an all-time high.

Agrarian Movements

This high level of agricultural distress led to the birth of several farmer movements, including the Grange movement and Farmers’ Alliances. The Grange was a secret order founded in 1867 to advance the social and economic needs of farmers. In addition to farming practices, the Grange provided insurance and aid to its members. The association grew swiftly during early years, and at its peak, had approximately 1.5 million members. The original objectives of the Grange were primarily educational, but these were soon de-emphasized in favor of an anti-middleman, cooperative movement. Collectively, Grange agents bought everything from farm machinery to women’s dresses, and purchased hundreds of grain elevators, cotton and tobacco warehouses, and even steamboat lines. They also purchased patents to enable the Grange to manufacture its own farm machinery. In some states, these practices led to ruin, and the name, Grange, became a reproach.

The Farmers’ Alliances were political organizations with elaborate economic programs. According to one early platform, the alliance’s purpose was to, “unite the farmers of America for their protection against class legislation and the encroachments of concentrated capital.” Their program also called for the regulation—if not the outright nationalization—of the railroads; currency inflation to provide debt relief; the lowering of the tariff; and the establishment of government-owned storehouses and low-interest lending facilities. These requests were known as the “Ocala Demands.” From these elements, a new political party, known as the “Populist Party,” emerged.

The Populist Party and the Currency Question

The pragmatic portion of the Populist platform focused on issues of land, railroads, and money, including the unlimited coinage of silver. During the Civil War, the United States switched from bimetallism to a fiat money currency to finance the war. After the war, the government passed the Fourth Coinage Act in 1873 and soon resumed payments without the free and unlimited coinage of silver. This put the United States on a monometallic gold standard. This angered proponents of the free coinage of silver known as the ” Silverites.”

To understand exactly what is meant by “free coinage of silver,” it is necessary to understand the way mints operated in the days of the gold standard. Essentially, anyone who possessed uncoined gold, such as successful prospectors, could bring it to one of the U.S. Mints and trade it for its equivalent in gold coins. Free silver advocates wanted the mints to accept silver on the same principle, so that anyone would be able to deposit silver bullion at a Mint and in return receive nearly its weight in silver dollars and other currency.

The Populists showed impressive strength in the West and South in the 1892 elections. It was the currency question, however, pitting advocates of silver against those who favored gold, that soon overshadowed all other issues. Agrarian spokesmen in the West and South demanded a return to the unlimited coinage of silver. Convinced that their troubles stemmed from a shortage of money in circulation, they argued that increasing the volume of money would indirectly raise prices for farm products and drive up industrial wages, thus allowing debts to be paid with inflated dollars.

Conservative groups and the financial classes, on the other hand, believed that such a policy would be disastrous. They insisted that inflation, once begun, could not be stopped. Railroad bonds, the most important financial instrument of the time, were payable in gold. If fares and freight rates were set in half-price silver dollars, railroads would go bankrupt in weeks, putting hundreds of thousands of men out of work and destroying the industrial economy. They claimed that the gold standard was the only currency that offered stability.

The financial panic of 1893 heightened the tension of this debate. Bank failures abounded in the South and Midwest. Unemployment soared and crop prices fell sharply. The crisis, and President Cleveland’s inability to solve it, nearly broke the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party, which supported silver and free trade, absorbed the remnants of the Populist movement as the presidential elections of 1896 neared. The Democratic convention that year was witness to one of the most famous speeches in U.S. political history. Pleading with the convention not to, “crucify mankind on a cross of gold,” William Jennings Bryan, the young Nebraskan champion of silver, won the Democrats’ presidential nomination. The remaining Populists also endorsed Bryan, hoping to retain some influence by having a voice inside the Bryan movement. Despite carrying most of the South and West, Bryan lost the more populated, industrial North and East—and the election—to the Republican William McKinley whose campaign slogan was “A Full Dinner Pail.”

The following year, the country’s finances began to improve, mostly from restored business confidence. Silverites, who did not realize that most transactions were handled by bank checks, not sacks of gold, believed the new prosperity was spurred by the discovery of gold in the Yukon. In 1898, the Spanish-American War drew the nation’s attention further away from Populist issues. If the movement was dead, however, its ideas were not. Once the Populists supported an idea, it became so tainted that the vast majority of American politicians rejected it; only years later, after the taint had been forgotten, was it possible to achieve Populist reforms, such as the direct popular election of senators.


Free silver: A 1896 Republican poster warns against free silver. A man holding a baby and a woman carrying a basket of food read “Vote for Free Silver” posters outside the Democratic Campaign Headquarters. They carry out the following conversation: “‘What awful poor wages they have in all those free silver countries, John!’ ‘That’s so, wife, but the politicians say it will be different in America.’ ‘I wouldn’t take any chances on it, John, It’s easy to lower wages and hard to raise them. Politicians will tell you anything. We know there was good wages when we had protection. We could never buy clothes for the children on what they given in free silver countries, could we?”

The Granger Movement

The Granger movement was founded in 1867 to advance the social and economic interests of rural farmers.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the origins and development of the Grange

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Grange is a fraternal organization for American farmers that encourages farm families to band together for their common economic and political well-being. Causes championed by the Grange included reducing railway freights and tariffs.
  • Grangers advocated for laws including the Cooperative Extension Service, Rural Free Delivery, and the Farm Credit System.
  • When the Grange first began in 1867, it borrowed from Freemasonry some of its rituals and symbols, including secret meetings, oaths, and special passwords.

Key Terms

  • Granger Laws: A series of laws passed through political agitation by Grange members in Southern states of the United States after the American Civil War.
  • Farm Credit System: A federally chartered network of cooperatives and related service organizations that lends to agricultural producers, rural homeowners, farm-related businesses, and agricultural, aquatic, and public utility cooperatives in the United States.
The text of the stamp reads "1867-1967: National Grange. U.S. 5 Cents." The stamp shows a young man standing in front of a farm, holding a scythe and looking off into the distance.

Grange stamp: A 1967 U.S. postage stamp honoring the National Grange.

The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, commonly called the “Grange,” is a fraternal organization for American farmers that encourages farm families to band together for their common economic and political well-being. Founded in 1867 after the Civil War, it is the oldest surviving agricultural organization in America, though now much diminished from the more than one million members it had in its peak in the 1890s through the 1950s. Grange membership has declined considerably as the percentage of American farmers has fallen from a third of the population in the early twentieth century to less than two percent today.

The original objectives of the Grange were primarily educational, but these were soon overborne by an anti-middleman, cooperative movement. Grange agents bought everything from farm machinery to women’s dresses, and purchased hundreds of grain elevators, cotton and tobacco warehouses, and even steamboat lines. They formed mutual insurance companies and joint-stock stores. Cooperation was not limited to distributive processes. They purchased patents so that the Grange might manufacture its own farm machinery. In some states, the outcome was ruin, and the name Grange became a reproach. Nevertheless, these efforts in cooperation were exceedingly important both for the results obtained and for their wider significance.


President Andrew Johnson commissioned Oliver Kelley to go to the Southern states and to collect data to improve Southern agricultural conditions. In the South, poor farmers bore the brunt of the Civil War and were suspicious of Northerners such as Kelley. Kelley found he was able to overcome these sectional differences as a Mason. With Southern Masons as guides, he toured the war-torn countryside in the South and was appalled by the outdated farming practices. He saw the need for an organization that would bring people from the North and South together in a spirit of mutual cooperation, and after many letters and consultations with the other founders, the Grange was born. The first Grange was Grange #1, founded in 1868 in Fredonia, New York.

Political Advocacy

In addition to serving as a center for many farming communities, the Grange was an effective advocacy group for farmers and their agendas, which included fighting railroad monopolies and advocating rural mail deliveries. In the middle of the 1870s, the Granger movement succeeded in regulating the railroads and grain warehouses. The birth of the Cooperative Extension Service, Rural Free Delivery, and the Farm Credit System were largely due to Grange lobbying. The peak of their political power was marked by their success in Munn v. Illinois, which held that the grain warehouses were a, “private utility in the public interest” and therefore could be regulated by public law. However, this achievement was overturned later by the Supreme Court in Wabash v. Illinois.

Other significant Grange causes included temperance, the direct election of senators, and women’s suffrage. Susan B. Anthony’s last public appearance was at the National Grange Convention in 1903. During the Progressive Era of the 1890s to the 1920s, political parties took up Grange causes. Consequently, local Granger movements focused more on community service, although the state and national Granges remain a political force.

Rituals and Ceremonies

When the Grange first began in 1867, it borrowed from Freemasonry some of its rituals and symbols, including secret meetings, oaths, and special passwords. Small, ceremonial farm tools are often displayed at Grange meetings. Elected officers are in charge of opening and closing each meeting. There are seven degrees of Grange membership. The ceremony of each degree relates to the seasons and various symbols and principles.

The Farmer’s Alliance

The Farmers’ Alliance was an organized agrarian economic movement among U.S. farmers that flourished in the 1880s.

Learning Objectives

Examine the origins of the Populist Party

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Farmers’ Alliance was an organized agrarian economic movement among American farmers.
  • The Farmers’ Alliance included the Northern or Northwestern Alliance, the Southern Alliance, and the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union.
  • The Northern or Northwestern Alliance sought to protect farmers from industrial monopolies and promote regulations on commerce and tax reform.
  • Branches of the farmers’ movement formed the Ocala Demands in 1890.
  • The Ocala Demands included a call for the abolition of national banks, an increase in circulating money, free silver, industrial regulations, a graduated income tax, lower tariffs, and the direct election of U.S. senators.
  • When the alliance failed to create lasting economic reform, it transformed into the Populist Party.

Key Terms

  • Crop-Lien System: A credit system, widely used by farmers in the United States in the South from the 1860s to the 1920s, in which sharecroppers and tenant farmers who did not own the land they worked obtained supplies and food on credit from local merchants.
  • Ocala Demands: A platform for economic and political reform adopted by members of the Farmers’ Alliance in December 1890, in the Marion Opera House in Ocala, Florida. The platform was later adopted by the People’s Party.

The Farmers’ Alliance was an organized agrarian economic movement among American farmers that developed and flourished in 1875. The movement included several parallel but independent political organizations: the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, comprised of white farmers of the South; the National Farmers’ Alliance, comprised of white and black farmers of the Midwest and High Plains (where the Granger movement had been strong); and the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union, comprised of African-American farmers of the South.

One of the goals of the organization was to end the adverse effects of the crop-lien system on farmers in the period following the American Civil War. The Farmers’ Alliance also generally supported the government regulation of the transportation industry, establishment of an income tax in order to restrict speculative profits, and the adoption of an inflationary relaxation of the nation’s money supply as a means of easing the burden of repayment of loans by debtors. The Farmers’ Alliance moved into politics in the early 1890s under the banner of the People’s Party, commonly known as the “Populists.”

Political Activism

The political activism of the alliances gained strength in the late 1880s as the organization merged with the nearly 500,000-member Agricultural Wheel in 1888. In the South, the agenda centered on demands for government control of transportation and communication in order to break the power of corporate monopolies. The Southern Alliance also demanded reforms of currency, land ownership, and income tax policies. Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance stressed the demand for free coinage of large amounts of silver.

Political activists in the movement also made attempts to unite the two alliance organizations, along with the Knights of Labor and the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union, into a common movement. The efforts and unification proved futile, however, and the Southern Alliance organized on its own, eventually reaching 43 states. The alliance movement as a whole reached more than 750,000 members by 1890.

Formation of the Populist Party

A pamphlet on the left reads, "Farmers' Alliance Picnic! The members of the Farmers' Alliance of Dover Township will hold a picnic in Moon's Grove on Wednesday, Aug. 28..." A pamphlet on the right reads, "'Truth Against the World' People's Party Picnic! At Coberly's Grove..."

Farmers’ Alliance pamphlets: The Populist Party grew directly out of the Farmers’ Alliance. For both groups, social events helped cement political ties.

The alliance failed as an economic movement, but it is regarded by historians as engendering a “movement culture” among the rural poor. This failure prompted an evolution of the alliance into a political movement to field its own candidates in national elections. In 1889–1890, the alliance was reborn as the Populist Party. The Populist Party, which fielded national candidates in the 1892 election, essentially repeated in its platform all of the demands of the alliance.

The Ocala convention was part of a trend in the farmers’ movement to move from its fraternal and mutual-benefit roots toward an increasingly political and radical position. Convention delegates hoped that future political gains would lead to major economic and political reforms. The convention produced the “Ocala Demands,” which included a call for the abolition of national banks, an increase in circulating money, free silver, industrial regulations, a graduated income tax, lower tariffs, and the direct election of U.S. senators.

In 1892, the Farmers’ Alliance founded the People’s Party, and the Ocala Demands were incorporated in the party’s Omaha Platform. As the focus of the farmers’ movement shifted into politics, the Farmers’ Alliance faded away.

The Populist Movement

The Populist Party arose after the Granger movement and Farmers’ Alliances began to decline.

Learning Objectives

Explain the rise and fall of the Populist Party

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Populists focused on railroads, silver coinage, crop prices, and inflation.
  • The Populist Party supported Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election.
  • Frances Willard chaired the first convention of the Populist Party, also called the “People’s Party,” in 1892 in Omaha, Nebraska.
  • The party’s Omaha Platform called for the end of national banks, the establishment of a progressive income tax, the direct election of senators, an eight-hour working day, and government control of all utilities, including railroads.
  • By 1900, the Populist Party was in decline.

Key Terms

  • William Jennings Bryan: A leading American politician from the 1890s until his death who was a dominant force in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and was supported by the Populists in the 1896 presidential election.
  • populism: A political position that holds antielitist appeals against established interests or mainstream parties.

Populist Party logo: This image shows the Populist Party logo of a bell.

The Populist Party, also known as the “People’s Party,” was a short-lived political party in the United States established in 1891 during the Populist movement. It was most important from 1892 to 1896, then rapidly faded away. Based among poor, white cotton farmers in the South (especially in North Carolina, Alabama, and Texas) and hard-pressed wheat farmers in the plains states (especially in Kansas and Nebraska), the party represented a radical crusading form of agrarianism and hostility to banks, railroads, and elites in general. It sometimes formed coalitions with labor unions, and in 1896, the Democrats endorsed the party’s presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan. The terms “populist” and ” populism ” are commonly used for antielitist appeals against established interests and mainstream parties.

The party flourished most among farmers in the Southwest and Great Plains, and made significant gains in the South, where it faced an uphill battle given the firmly entrenched monopoly of the Democratic Party. Success often was obtained through electoral fusion with the Democrats outside the South, and through alliances with the Republicans in Southern states such as Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Political Platform

The drive to create a new political party out of the movement arose from the belief that the two major parties, Democrats and Republicans, were controlled by bankers, landowners, and elites hostile to the needs of the small farmer. The movement reached its peak in 1892 when the party held a convention chaired by Frances Willard (leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union) in Omaha, Nebraska, and nominated candidates for the national election.

The party’s platform, commonly known as the “Omaha Platform,” called for the abolition of national banks, a graduated income tax, direct election of senators, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours, and government control of all railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. In the 1892 presidential election, James B. Weaver received 1,027,329 votes. Weaver carried four states (Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada) and received electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota as well.

Populism and Race

Some Southern Populists, including Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, openly talked of the need for poor blacks and poor whites to set aside their racial differences in the name of shared economic interests. Regardless of these rhetoric appeals, however, racism was present in the Populist Party. Prominent Populist Party leaders such as Marion Butler, a U.S. senator from North Carolina, at least partially demonstrated a dedication to the cause of white supremacy, and there appears to have been some support for this viewpoint among the rank-and-file of the party’s membership. After 1900, Watson himself became an outspoken white supremacist and became the party’s presidential nominee in 1904 and 1908, winning 117,000 and 29,000 votes.

National Election

Photograph of Williams Jennings Bryant

William Jennings Bryan: In 1896, the 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan was the chosen candidate resulting from the fusion of the Democrats and the Populist Party.

By 1896, the Democratic Party took up many of the Populist Party’s causes at the national level, and the party began to fade from national prominence. In that year’s presidential election, the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, who focused on the free silver issue as a solution to the economic depression and the maldistribution of power.

The Populist movement coincided with the Third Great Awakening, characterized by pietistic Protestant denominations, and Bryan was a devout Presbyterian who was a strong supporter of temperance and opposed Darwinism. His campaign kicked off in October 1921, when the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, invited Bryan to deliver the James Sprunt Lectures. At the presentation’s heart was a lecture entitled, “The Origin of Man” in which Bryan asked, “what is the role of man in the universe and what is the purpose of man?” For Bryan, the Bible was absolutely central to answering this question, and moral responsibility and the spirit of brotherhood could only rest on belief in God.

The Populists had the choice of endorsing Bryan or running their own candidate. After great infighting at their St. Louis convention, they decided to endorse Bryan but with their own vice-presidential nominee, Thomas E. Watson of Georgia. Watson was cautiously open to cooperation, but after the election, he recanted any hope in the possibility of cooperation as a viable tool. Bryan’s strength was based on the traditional Democratic vote (minus the middle class and the Germans); he swept the old Populist strongholds in the West and South, and added the Silverite states in the West, but he did poorly in the industrial heartland. He lost to Republican William McKinley by a margin of 600,000 votes, losing again in a 1900 rematch by a larger margin.


Fusion with the Democrats was disastrous to the Populist Party in the South. The Populist/Republican alliance that had governed North Carolina fell apart in the only state in which it had enjoyed any success. By 1898, the Democrats were using a violently racist campaign to defeat the North Carolina Populists and GOP, and in 1900, the Democrats ushered in disfranchisement. Populism never recovered from the failure of 1896. For example, Tennessee’s Populist Party was demoralized by a diminishing membership, and became puzzled and divided by the dilemma of whether to fight the state-level enemy (the Democrats) or the national foe (the Republicans and Wall Street).

In 1900, while many Populist voters supported Bryan again, the weakened party nominated a separate ticket of Wharton Barker and Ignatius L. Donnelly, and disbanded afterward. Populist activists either retired from politics, joined a major party, or followed Eugene Debs into his new Socialist Party.

In 1904, the party was reorganized, and Thomas E. Watson became the nominee for president in 1904 and in 1908, after which the party disbanded again.