Historians of Populism

The movement that led to the formation of the National Farmers’ Alliance and the People's Party of the 1890s endured in the twentieth century as a popular topic for historians and other scholars. The trend continues in the twenty-first century as new books build upon or challenge the existing historiography. The historians of Populism, from both the previous and the current century, hail from a variety of backgrounds and utilize many forms of historical analysis.

Participants and publicists for the Farmers’ Alliance assembled the first histories of the agrarian movement. W. Scott Morgan published several editions of his History of the Wheel and Alliance between 1889 and 1891. Nelson A. Dunning also edited The Farmers’ Alliance History and Agricultural Digest (1891).

Frank L. McVey wrote the first scholarly work on Populism, The Populist Movement (1896), when the future of the People's Party was still in doubt. McVey opposed the Populist platform of free silver, monetary reform, and cooperative agrarian power and argued that the movement was rooted in the past. McVey portrayed Populism as a “socialistic” reaction to industrialization.

Frederick Jackson Turner, the author of the famous frontier thesis, saw the Populists as representatives of a primitive society, unable to appreciate a developed society. Unlike McVey, Turner viewed the Populists with sympathy because of their close association with the frontier, which he viewed as the wellspring of American democracy.

John D. Hicks and other progressive historians saw the Populists as forward looking and the predecessors of Progressives and New Dealers. Solon J. Buck declared that the Populists were the direct precursors of Progressivism in his work The Agrarian Crusade (1920). Vernon L. Parrington, a former Populist, linked Populism to previous reform movements such as the Locofocos, the early Republican Party, and Greenbackers in Main Currents in American Thought (1930). Hicks, a student of Turner, studied the wheat farmers of the upper Midwest and used economics rather than ideology to explain the appeal of Populism to certain regions. Hicks's The Populist Revolt (1931) established the parameters for the studies that followed.

Beginning in the 1930s, Marxist writers used class analysis to explain agrarian activism. Anna Rochester, in The Populist Movement in the United States (1943), saw Populism as an early attempt to organize by farmers, producers, and the industrial working class. Chester McArthur Destler traced Populism's origins to the Age of Jackson in American Radicalism, 1865–1901 (1946). Other Marxist scholars of Populism included Norman Pollack, the author of The Populist Response to Industrial America (1962), one of the mid twentieth century's most influential titles in this genre.

The rise of fascism and militarism abroad, World War II, and the Cold War caused some scholars to question popular movements and to seek consensus rather than conflict in American history. The Populists, as outspoken dissidents, did not easily conform to the consensus explanation. Richard Hofstadter, in his influential Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955), viewed Populism as dangerous and radical. Hofstadter believed that the Populists were antiurban and existed outside of the American mainstream.

Allan Bogue joined Hofstadter's criticism of the Populists. Bogue's Money at Interest: The Farm Mortgage on the Middle Border (1955) studied mortgages in several states and found not only that interest rates were reasonable but that mortgage companies had tried to avoid foreclosure. Bogue concluded that, despite Populist claims, the eastern money interests did not reap windfall profits at the farmers’ expense and that the agrarian revolt lacked an economic trigger. He attributed the Populist furor at the financial industry to the Jacksonian antibank tradition.

The mid-1960s found scholarly opinions of Populism divided between the defenders of Hofstadter and his critics. Pollack had offered a sympathetic defense of the Populists, arguing that the People's Party was forward-looking, accepted industrialization, and presented a socialist alternative vision for the United States’ future. Pollack attributed consensus historians’ attacks on the Populists to a contemporary fear of popular revolt. O. Gene Clanton continued the defense of the Populists as constructive and progressive in Kansas Populism (1969).

Inspired by the tumultuous 1960s, the “new” social historians of the 1970s and 1980s questioned the consensus historians’ link between democracy and progress and sought to learn more about the average supporter of the Populist movement. Samuel P. Hays, in American Political History as Social Analysis (1980), encouraged historians to look beyond the rhetoric of Populist leaders to examine the lives of the masses. Lawrence Goodwyn, in Democratic Promise (1978), studied Texas Populism and argued the movement grew out of the Farmers’ Alliance's cooperative efforts and its subtreasury plan. Goodwyn asserted that the Populists resisted the era's prevailing commercial order and development.

Another group of historians used an ethnocultural interpretation inspired by the works of Paul Kleppner's The Cross of Culture: A Social Analysis of Midwestern Politics, 1850–1900 (1970) and Richard Jensen's The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–1896, which attributed Gilded Age political affiliation to religious practices. The ethnocultural interpretation acknowledged a conflict, albeit not one based on economics. Peter H. Argersinger studied Kansas and rejected ethnocultural interpretation in favor of economics in Populism and Politics: William Alfred Peffer and the People's Party (1974). James Edward Wright studied Colorado and argued that ethic motivations trailed economic considerations in The Politics of Populism: Dissent in Colorado (1974).

In the twenty-first century, Charles Postel challenged the argument that the Populists fought progress. In The Populist Vision (2007), Postel argues the Populists embraced modernity and sought to promote innovation. Matthew Hild's Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists, Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South (2007) returned attention to state- and regional-level studies. Hild studied Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas and found that laborers, rather than farmers, proved more important to Populist political strength than the organizational framework created by the Farmers’ Alliance. Connie L. Lester, the author of Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers’ Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870–1915 (2006), made the rise of the People's Party in Tennessee part of a long struggle for economic security by that state's farmers.

Historians of Populism often use biographies to explore the movement's leaders. C. Vann Woodward's Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938) was among the earliest. Stuart Noblin wrote Leonidas LaFayette Polk: Agrarian Crusader (1949). More biographies appeared in the 1960s including Destler's Henry Demarest Lloyd and the Empire of Reform (1963), Martin Ridge's Ignatius Donnelly: The Portrait of a Politician (1962), and Michael J. Brodhead's Preserving Populist: The Life of Frank Doster (1969).

State and local studies provide another common framework for historians of Populism. A. M. Arnett inaugurated this approach with The Populist Movement in Georgia (1922). Roscoe Martin, a political scientist, published The People's Party in Texas (1933). The 1960s and 1970s brought a surge of state and regional studies including William Ivy Hair, Bourbonism and Agrarian Protest: Louisiana Politics, 1877–1900 (1969); Mary Ellen Glass, Silver and Politics in Nevada: 1892–1902 (1969); and William Warren Rogers, One-Gallused Rebellion: Agrarianism in Alabama, 1865–1896 (1970). Argersinger measured the influence of Kansas Populists on the national movement in Populism and Politics: William Alfred Peffer and the People's Party (1974). Worth Robert Miller, in Oklahoma Populism (1987), found that settlers from Kansas imported Populism into the new Oklahoma territory. Jeffrey Ostler used a comparative approach in Prairie Populism (1993). Ostler argued that a competitive two-party system hampered the development of the People's Party in Iowa and the lack of such a system fostered its growth in Kansas and Nebraska.

The significance of the influence of the silver issue on the movement in the mining states of the mountains interested Thomas A. Clinch, in Urban Populism and Free Silver in Montana (1970); Wright, in The Politics of Populism: Dissent in Colorado (1974); Robert W. Larson, in New Mexico Populism (1974); and Joseph Gaboury, in Dissension in the Rockies: A History of Idaho Populism (1988).

Analysis based on race, class, and sex emerged as an interpretative force in the late twentieth century. Michael Lewis Goldberg, in An Army of Women (1997), considered the gendered history of politics in Gilded Age Kansas.

Other scholars examine the prevalence of populist movements throughout American history or of populist movements other than the agrarian Populism of the 1890s. Political scientist Margaret Canovan included American politicians such as Huey Long and Jimmy Carter in her international study Populism (1981). Michael Kazin unearthed a pervasive American populist impulse in The Populist Persuasion: An American History (1995). American populism exists on both the political Left and Right. Leon Fink explores a leftist populist movement in Workingmen's Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (1983). Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons examine the other end of the spectrum in Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (2000).

Future historians interested in populism will find that the terms populism and populist remained common in the twenty-first century. Scholarly works are starting to appear that study the first decade of the new millennium. John Lukacs, in Democracy and Populism (2005), condemned populism and the politicians that embraced the label. Lukacs accused President George W. Bush of provoking the war in Iraq in an effort to gain popularity.

Historians’ perceptions of populism, especially the agrarian Populist movement of the 1890s, changed throughout the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century as scholars developed new interpretative frameworks. Progressive, Marxist, consensus, revisionist, ethnocultural, race, and gender historians all debated the subject. Populism promises to remain a favored subject regardless of whatever historiographical trends emerge.

Jeff Wells

See also: Agricultural Wheel ; Bush, George W., Populist Rhetoric of ; Gilded Age ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Greenback Party ; Knights of Labor ; New Deal ; Populism ; Progressivism ; Railroad Regulation ; Subtreasury Plan

References

Arnett, A. M. The Populist Movement in Georgia: A View of the “Agrarian Crusade” in the Light of Solid-South Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1922.

Berlet, Chip, and Matthew Nemiroff Lyons. Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford Press, 2000.

Bogue, Allan G. Money at Interest: The Farm Mortgage on the Middle Border. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1955.

Brodhead, Michael J. Preserving Populist: The Life of Frank Doster. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1969.

Buck, Solon J. The Agrarian Crusade. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1920.

Canovan, Margaret. Populism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Cantrell, Gregg. Kenneth and John B. Rayner and the Limits of Southern Dissent. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1993.

Clanton, O. Gene. Kansas Populism, Ideas and Men. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1969.

Clinch, Thomas A. Urban Populism and Free Silver in Montana, A Narrative of Ideology in Political Action. Helena: University of Montana Press, 1970.

Destler, Chester McArthur. American Radicalism, 1865–1901. New London: Connecticut College Press, 1946.

Destler, Chester McArthur. Henry Demarest Lloyd and the Empire of Reform. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963.

Dunning, Nelson A. The Farmers’ Alliance History and Agricultural Digest. Washington, DC: The Alliance Publishing Company, 1891.

Durden, Robert. The Climax of Populism: The Election of 1896. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966.

Fink, Leon. Workingmen's Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Gaboury, William Joseph. Dissension in the Rockies: A History of Idaho Populism. New York: Garland, 1988.

Gaither, Gerald H. Blacks and the Populist Revolt: Ballots and Bigotry in the “New South.” Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977.

Glad, Paul W. McKinley, Bryan and the People. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1964.

Glass, Mary Ellen. Silver and Politics in Nevada: 1892–1902. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1969.

Goldberg, Michael Lewis. An Army of Women: Gender and Politics in Gilded Age Kansas. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Hahn, Steven. The Roots of Southern Populism, Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850–1890. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Hair, William Ivy. Bourbonism and Agrarian Protest: Louisiana Politics, 1877–1900. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Hays, Samuel P. “New Possibilities for American Political History: The Social Analysis of Political Life.” In Samuel P. Hays, American Political History as Social Analysis. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980.

Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People's Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1931.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.

Holmes, William F. “The Demise of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance.” Journal of Southern History 41 (2): 187–200.

Jensen, Richard. The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–1896. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York: Basic, 1995.

Kleppner, Paul. The Cross of Culture: A Social Analysis of Midwestern Politics, 1850–1900. New York: The Free Press, 1970.

Larson, Robert W. New Mexico Populism: A Study in Radical Protest in a Western Territory. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1974.

Lester, Connie L. Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers’ Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870–1915. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.

Lukacs, John. Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Martin, Roscoe. The People's Party in Texas: A Case Study in Third-Party Politics. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1933.

McMath, Robert, Jr. Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

McVey, Frank L. “The Populist Movement.” Economic Studies 1 (3): 131–209.

Miller, Worth Robert. “A Centennial Historiography of American Populism.” Kansas History 16 (1): 54–69.

Miller, Worth Robert. Oklahoma Populism: A History of the People's Party in the Oklahoma Territory. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Morgan, W. Scott. History of the Wheel and Alliance. St. Louis: C.B. Woodward, 1891.

Noblin, Stuart. Leonidas LaFayette Polk: Agrarian Crusader. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1949.

Nugent, Walter T.K. The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Ostler, Jeffrey. Prairie Populism: The Fate of Agrarian Radicalism in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, 1880–1892. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

Parrington, Vernon L. Main Currents in American Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927.

Pollack, Norman. The Populist Response to Industrial America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962.

Postel, Charles. The Populist Revolt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Ridge, Martin. Ignatius Donnelly: The Portrait of a Politician. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Rochester, Anna. The Populist Movement in the United States: The Growth and Decline of the People's Party—A Social and Economic Interpretation. New York: International Publishers, 1943.

Rogers, William Warren. One-Gallused Rebellion: Agrarianism in Alabama, 1865–1896. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.

Thomas, John L. Alternative America: Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Henry Demarest Lloyd, and the Adversary Tradition. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1983.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Problem of the West.” Atlantic Monthly 78 (467): 289–297.

Woodward, C. Vann. Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1938.

Wright, James Edward. The Politics of Populism: Dissent in Colorado. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.