Populist Party: When the Major Parties Failed the Common Man

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Rural discontent had brewed in the United States since the sharp decline of farm prices in the 1870s. Popular opinion tended to place the blame for the depressed economy on Eastern financial interests. The Greenback Party emerged as a force in national politics, leading the agitation for the currency's expansion. The temporary return of prosperity blunted the Greenback message, but the return of hard times in the 1880s led to emergence of the farmers' alliances.

In December 1890, representatives from a number of the alliances met in Ocala, Florida to examine the issue of united political action. This initial foray into direct involvement came to nothing; allegiances to the Democratic Party still remained strong. Racism, as well as loyalty, played a role; some feared that splitting the Democratic vote would revive the old Republican-black alliance.

Two events in 1890 paved the way for a new political party. First, Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, a totally inadequate gesture toward currency expansion. Second, Republicans in Congress chose to withhold support from a bill to enforce civil rights in the South, thus ending any hope for cooperation between the former slaves and the party of Lincoln. Into this void moved figures like Tom Watson of Georgia, who urged Southern white farmers to overcome their antipathy toward blacks because both groups were suffering at the hands of the same oppressors.

The Populist effort was probably doomed from the start. They advanced a number of stellar ideas, but fell prey to the allure of free silver, an issue that resonated poorly with urban workers whose votes were badly needed. Discontented farmers, despite their enthusiasm, simply lacked the numbers to move the nation.

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