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The Populist Movement in the United States

In the 1880s, the most massive and most radical farming movement of the last third of the 19th century entered the political arena of the United States – the populist one. Armed with the democracies of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, populist leaders demanded a radical transformation of American society. The main credo of the radicals at the end of the 19th century – anti-monopoly – was already voiced in the platforms of the parties of Grangers and Greenbackers in the 70s and 80s, but in full force, it manifested itself in the ideology of the Populist Party (Volanto et al. 504). The National Grange movement was founded in the Midwest in the 1860s. Small agricultural producers included in it concentrated mainly on practical tasks: the development of farmer cooperation, the regulation of railway tariffs, and the support of politicians loyal to the movement.

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Populism was preceded by a series of farmers’ organizations that received major support from food producers in the Midwest and cotton and tobacco producers in the South. Through the Farmers’ Alliance, the largest social movement of the 19th century, agrarians tried to defend their material interests (Volanto et al. 505). Farmers, workers, and small owners blamed big businesses, monopolists, and Wall Street for the worsening of their economic situation. Populists believed that the financial problems that hit American agriculture in the last third of the 19th century stemmed from the fact that agricultural prices were falling as a result of a lack of money in circulation.

However, the reasons for the plight of American agrarians were fundamentally different. From 1870 to 1890, the number of farms in America increased, and this increase in the number of farms and their acreage triggered an overproduction crisis that hit American farmers (“The Populist Movement”). Dissatisfaction with the economic situation in the country resulted in the largest radical democratic anti-monopoly movement of populists in the second half of the 19th century and the formation of the People’s Party. The latter could turn the two-party system established in the United States into a three-party one.

In 1886, the American Federation of Labor was formed on the basis of the Federation of Trade Unions and Workers’ Unions of the USA and Canada. In the same year, congress spoke out in support of an independent political movement of workers and the struggle for an 8-hour working day (“The Populist Movement”). The leaders did not encroach on the foundations of the free enterprise system, seeking only the participation of skilled workers in sharing the profits the capitalists received.

Nevertheless, the radical demands of broad layers of farmers and small producers were embodied in the policy documents of the populist movement. These were the so-called St. Louis Farmers Alliance Program of 1889 and the “Okal Program”, developed at a meeting of representatives of the Farmers ‘Alliance and the Workers’ Union in December 1890 (“The Populist Movement”). In May 1891, a convention was held, which was attended by representatives of Farmers’ Alliances and other social movements. These were the Citizens Alliance, “Knights of Labor” from industrial workers, followers of Henry George, etc. (“The Populist Movement”). It was then that the People’s Party was announced. The members of the People’s Party saw the main goal in improving the situation of the working people, which, in their opinion, should be achieved by increasing the state’s regulatory role in the economic sphere.

The Southern Farming Alliance did not allow black membership and was organized under the leadership of whites. Blacks had to create parallel organizations: the National Alliance of Colored Farmers and the Cooperative Union. The Northern Alliance stood firmly for racial equality and a unified organization. The first Colored Alliance was founded in Houston, Texas, in December 1886 (Volanto et al. 506). The Colored Alliance had branches in every southern state in the following years. Hence, the populists of the South and the North had different attitudes towards the admission of blacks into their ranks. Their relations with the proletariat were ambiguous.

Works Cited

“The Populist Movement.” Lumen, Web.

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Volanto, Keith J., et al. The American Challenge: A New History of the US. Abigail Press, 2017.

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