The Populist Party
The farmers and the silver producers also wanted Free Silver could not get satisfaction from either the Democratic or Republican Parties. In the early 1890s they moved into politics as a third party: the Populist or People’s Party. The Populist Party entered candidates James Weaver, a former Union officer, and James Field, a former Confederate officer, into the presidential election in 1892 but did not win.
The Omaha Platform
Meeting in convention in 1892, the Populists created a party platform, known as the Omaha Platform, which was revolutionary for its day, rejecting the laissez faire philosophy of government and embracing ideas some considered radical. The Omaha Platform called for:
- The free and unlimited coinage of silver
- A Subtreasury system
- National government storage systems around the country where farmers could bring their nonperishable crops for storage. While the crops were stored, they could get a loan of legal tender paper money for the value of the crops. When farmers repaid the loans, they would get their money back. This would put more money in the economy and keep crops out of the market, which would help overproduction problems.
- A progressive income tax
- There was no income tax at this time. The government received its money from tariffs and the sale of public lands.
- The government ownership of transportation and communication
- This was a radical, socialistic idea. Populists asserted that the railroad, telephone and telegraph systems were so important that they should be owned by the people. This was seen by some as a threat to private enterprise and capitalism.
- The direct election of United States Senators
- At this time, state legislators chose senators. State legislators were susceptible to special interests. Populists asserted that allowing the people to directly vote for senators would create a government that was more responsive to the people.
- Secret ballot
- The imitative would give voters the right to propose legislation.
- The referendum would give voters the power to approve or reject a piece of legislation.
The Populist Party not only had a partly radical platform but also acted boldly in its rhetoric and actions, which included having women address the public at rallies. Mary Lease, who was one of the female Populist speakers, said the government was practically owned by Wall Street and that farmers should “raise less corn and more hell.”
With the threat of the “crazy” Populists looming, the two major parties ran a relatively polite campaign in 1892. The Republicans nominated incumbent Benjamin Harrison while the Democrats nominated New Yorker Grover Cleveland for a second, nonconsecutive term. Cleveland won the election, but the Populists garnered over one million votes. They carried four Midwestern states and earned twenty-two electoral votes.
After their respectable showing in the 1892 election, the Populists believed they were on the political rise, despite the party having serious problems. In particular, the Populists struggled with the fact that their support was highly regional, coming almost entirely from the agrarian South and West. They had no support in the Northeast, where most voters and most electoral votes were located. In the South, Populists split white voters because they tried to appeal to Blacks, angering southern conservative Democrats. The Populist Party also tried to appeal to industrial workers, but unions would not align themselves with the party because of the Populists stand on free silver. Workers did not want the inflation and high prices that the unlimited coinage of silver might bring.
Panic of 1893
Cleveland took office for the second time in 1893. Within a few months, the economy collapsed and the Panic of 1893 ensued. The worst depression in United States history to that point followed, lasting four years, bankrupting thousands of businesses, and causing millions of people to lose their jobs. Although the depression was caused by multiple factors, President Cleveland blamed it on the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the protective tariff.
Cleveland encouraged Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and introduce a new tariff. These moves angered the Populists and many members of Cleveland’s own Democratic party. Neither measure helped nor did the depression end. The public blamed Cleveland, and in 1894 an Ohio quarry owner named Jacob Coxey led a march of unemployed men on Washington, D.C. The “army” protested the government’s refusal to help people during the depression. Coxey wanted the government to give people jobs doing public works. When they reached Capitol Hill, Coxey and his men were arrested for such crimes as trampling the grass.
Cleveland struggled through the rest of his second term, simply trying to keep law and order in the nation. He refused to take any steps to help people who were suffering. As the election of 1896 approached, farmers were furious, the nation remained in depression, and Cleveland and the Democrats were blamed. Democrats were divided and it appeared that they had little hope of winning the election.