American farmers began to organize as political factions in the late 1800s. In the 1870s, they formed the National Farmers’ Alliance, the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, and the Southern Alliance. This agrarian movement culminated in the formation of a new national political party made up of agricultural leaders and the elevation of the free silver coinage issue to a major party platform.
Creation of Third Party
This movement began having an impact on American politics in the 1880s with the election of six governors, three senators and 50 congressmen. They decided to create a national farm and labor party devoted to agrarian issues. The Populists formed the People’s Party in 1891 to activate in elections. The party platform called for government ownership of major sectors in the economy, including railroads, telegraphs and telephone systems. As a major third party, it provided a challenge to the Republican and Democratic candidates in the south and west parts of the U.S.
Early Political Success
The People’s Party gained some momentum in the 1892 elections, especially in the Western states. The national candidate was James Weaver, who drew more than one million votes and won Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Kansas. Despite this success, the Populists threw their support to the Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election because he shared their views on the promotion of silver coinage.
The United States experienced its worst economic depression in history during the Panic of 1893. In response to the rise in unemployment, Populist Jacob Coxey organized a march on Washington D.C. The purpose of the march was to demand jobs from the government through make-work projects such as road- and bridge-building.
The Populists were able to make silver coinage a prominent national issue in the 1890s. Living in a time of deflation and high unemployment, the Populists advocated the free coinage of silver as a way to inflate the money supply.
Election of 1896
The Democrats responded to the incredible support for the free coinage of silver by nominating William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in the 1896 election. The Republican candidate William McKinley advocated a gold standard, as did the previous Democratic President Grover Cleveland. Bryan lost the election of 1896, however, and the Populists lost their political footing in American politics with his defeat.