American farmers faced a myriad of problems in the late nineteenth century. Agricultural prices steadily declined after 1870 as a result of domestic overproduction and foreign competition. The high rates charged by grain elevator operators and railroads to store and ship crops were a constant source of complaint, while high tariffs made the goods farmers had to buy, such as farm machinery, more expensive. Forced to borrow money to pay for their land or equipment, many farmers were in debt and favored keeping the amount of money in circulation high, either through printing greenbacks or the unlimited coinage of silver.
The Grange and Farmers' Alliances. Farmers began to organize soon after the Civil War. The Patrons of Husbandry, or the Grange, was established in 1867 to sponsor educational and social programs for farmers and later encouraged farmer‐owned cooperatives. In the political arena, the Grange successfully secured legislation in several states to regulate railroad and warehousing rates, and many of its members supported the Greenback Labor party. As the Grange declined in the late 1870s, new farmer groups known as Farmers' Alliances came to the fore. By 1890, the two largest were the Northwestern Alliance and the Southern Alliance, which, despite their regional names, had more than three million members nationwide. Although the Alliance movement encouraged the participation of women, who were among some of its most outspoken leaders, the Southern Alliance was segregated. As a result, African‐American farmers in the Deep South formed the National Colored Farmers Alliance. Representatives of this organization met with the Southern Alliance and the Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association in Ocala, Florida, in December of 1890 to develop a platform that became known as the Ocala Demands. These demands called for the abolition of national banks, the creation of federal sub‐treasuries that would provide low‐interest loans to farmers against the value of their crops, the unlimited coinage of silver, an end to high tariffs, strict control over transportation and communication, a graduated income tax, and the direct election of senators.
The Southern Alliance stayed within the Democratic party, and following the 1890 elections the Alliance gained control of eight state legislatures, elected four governors, and sent forty‐four representatives and two senators to Washington. In the Plains, the Alliance ran third‐party candidates with very similar results. Kansas and South Dakota had senators who were Populists, as the new political movement was called, and both houses of the Nebraska legislature were in their hands as well. These victories soon led to the creation of a national party.
The Populist party. The Populist, or People's, party was officially organized in St. Louis in February 1892 and held its first nominating convention in Omaha in July. Dominated by farmers, the party also reached out to labor and reform‐minded groups and reflected this broader constituency in its platform. In addition to restating the Ocala Demands, the platform called for an eight‐hour workday and immigration restriction, strongly condemned the use of Pinkerton detectives against strikers, and supported such political reforms as the secret ballot, initiative, and referendum. The Populists took a somewhat more radical stand on government ownership, implying that the railroads should be nationalized without delay.
In the 1892 presidential race, the Populists nominated James B. Weaver, a former general in the Union army who had previously run for president as the Greenback Labor party's candidate. Although he received more than 1 million popular votes and 22 in the electoral college (including Kansas, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada) Weaver and the Populist party lacked support in key areas. Southerners did not back Weaver because he had fought for the North during the Civil War and because of the fear that a Populist victory would lead African‐Americans to demand their full civil rights. Nor was the party's appeal to labor groups very successful, because higher agricultural prices meant higher food prices and lower tariffs meant more competition from abroad, which could result in layoffs. Although the Populists elected five senators and ten representatives, Democrat Grover Cleveland took the White House for a second time.
The crisis of the 1890s. Cleveland had barely taken office when the nation was hit by the worst economic crisis in its history up to that time. Triggered by the bankruptcy of several railroads and the failure of a British bank that caused many British investors to exchange their American stocks for gold, the Panic of 1893 led to a depression that lasted for four years. The nation's gold reserves fell dramatically between January 1892 and March 1893, 600 banks had closed their doors by the end of the year, more than three million people — about 20 percent of the workforce — were unemployed, and wheat and corn prices fell precipitously.
Cleveland failed to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster. To stop the drain of gold, the President asked for and received the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. This stopped the issuance of silver certificates that were redeemable in gold, but it did not solve the problem. The federal government was forced to secure a loan from a banking syndicate headed by J. Pierpont Morgan to buy 3.5 million ounces of gold in order to meet the Treasury emergency. Throughout the crisis, Cleveland maintained that boom‐and‐bust cycles were inevitable and that little could be done about them. Indeed, he strongly believed that responsibility for the social costs of depression did not fall to the government, at any level. Jacob Coxey, a Populist from Ohio, disagreed. He led a group of 400 men on a protest march to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1894 and demanded that the federal government set up a $500 million public works project for the unemployed. Coxey's Army quickly disbanded when Coxey and other leaders were arrested for trespassing.
The election of 1896. The Democrats were certainly hurt by the Panic of 1893; both the Republicans and Populists gained seats in the 1894 congressional elections. As the country anticipated the presidential campaign of 1896, it was clear that the main campaign issue would be whether to have a silver or gold monetary standard. The Republicans nominated William McKinley of Ohio on a platform supporting the gold standard and high tariffs. Democrats were split between the silverites, who supported a silver standard, and the goldbugs, who supported currency that was based on gold. Silverite William Jennings Bryan, a former Congressman from Nebraska, guaranteed himself the Democratic nomination through his famous “Cross of Gold” speech before the convention. The selection of Bryan created a serious problem for the Populists. Party leaders realized that running their own candidate would split the silver vote and hand the election to the Republicans. At the same time, “free silver” was just one plank in the Populist program and backing the Democrats would mean a loss of independence and identity. Ultimately, the Populist party decided to nominate Bryan for president as well and made Tom Watson of Georgia its candidate for vice president.
The Republicans dramatically outspent the Democrats in promoting their campaign and trumpeted that a vote for McKinley was a vote for prosperity. Meanwhile, the Democrats discovered that Bryan had very little appeal among immigrants, factory workers, and the middle class. McKinley's victory was decisive; for the first time since 1872, a candidate for president won more than 50 percent of the vote. By committing the 1896 campaign platform to the single issue of free silver, the Populists lost momentum on their other reform proposals. When Bryan ran against McKinley for a second time in 1900, the Populists again endorsed him and shared his second defeat. By this time, the party was no longer winning state and local elections and was clearly in decline.
Circumstances more than his program made McKinley's administration a successful one. Certainly the high rates of the Dingley Tariff did little to solve the country's economic ills, but an increase in farm prices, the excitement of finding gold in the Klondike, and restored prosperity helped the Panic of 1893 fade into a bad memory. Americans were also turning their attention to a new issue — the idea of overseas expansion.