While the Populist movement was initially a southern phenomenon directly connected to the abuses of the crop lien system, during the 1880s the movement spread to other parts of the country, particularly to the Great Plains. No Plains state played a more prominent role in the Populist movement than Kansas. The principal motivation for Kansas farmers was not the same as for tenant farmers in the South, however. During the late 1870s, Kansas experienced an agricultural boom. Prices for such commodities as wheat and corn rose, land prices increased, and railroad tracks expanded. For the many farmers who migrated to Kansas in the 1870s, getting a piece of the economic pie meant getting land, and getting land meant going into debt. As long as prices remained strong, however, all was well.
In the early 1880s, however, the expansion bubble burst. Commodity prices fell rapidly. Wheat, for instance, dropped from $1.19 per bushel in 1881 to $0.49 per bushel by 1894. By the early 1890s, the typical Kansas farmer was paying more to produce a crop of wheat or corn then that crop would pay at harvest time. As commodity prices dropped, land values fell. By the early 1890s most farmers owed more on their mortgages than their property was worth. By 1890, Kansas had a per capita debt that was four times the national average, while the assessed value of its property was only approximately 50 percent of its mortgaged value.
The state of Kansas entered the Union as a fiercely Republican state. In the 1880s, Kansas was still solidly Republican. To economically distressed farmers, however, the Republican leaders of Kansas appeared tone deaf to their plight. For this reason, many Kansas farmers became attracted to the monetary theories of the Greenback Party and the cooperative ideas of the Farmers’ Alliance. The latter organization had attempted to mitigate agrarian distress by uniting farmers into cooperatives, the primary purpose of which was to unite farmers as sellers and purchasers, getting them fair value for crops and cheaper credit from lenders. The first real Alliance activism in Kansas occurred in Cowley County (southeastern Kansas) and was largely brought about by the efforts of Henry Vincent, who with his brothers edited The American Nonconformist and Kansas Industrial Liberator. By December 1888, the larger Southern Alliance moved into Kansas, establishing the Kansas State Alliance and electing former Greenback Party member Benjamin Clover as president. The Kansas State Alliance absorbed many of the other Alliance organizations and, by 1890, could boast a membership of 100,000 members and 2,000 suballiances.
As staunchly Republican as most of the farmers of Kansas were, by 1890 there was also considerable enthusiasm for independent political action. Career politicians, such as Republican U.S. Senator John J. Ingalls, seemed indifferent to the suffering of the agrarian economy. Farmers wanted relief from usurious banking practices, protection from steep railroad rates, and an expanded money supply, preferably paper based, to counteract the deflation caused by the return to the gold standard. A March 25, 1890, convention in Topeka led to the formation of the People's Party State Central Committee. When the state central committee gathered again in Topeka in the summer of 1890 to contemplate a course of action, delegates decided to call for a separate convention to meet in in the same town on August 13, 1890, with the task of nominating Alliance candidates for state and congressional offices.
The Topeka convention endorsed the public ownership of transportation and communication, the unlimited coinage of silver, an equitable taxation system, the use of paper (fiat currency), and a prohibition against alien ownership of railroads. In an eventful campaign that featured charismatic speakers such as Mary Elizabeth Lease, a lawyer and wife of a Wichita druggist, and “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, a colorful farmer who resided in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, and was the Alliance candidate for the 7th congressional district, Alliance candidates shocked Republicans. While gubernatorial candidate John Willits was defeated, Alliance supporters captured five of eight congressional seats as well as taking 96 of 125 seats in the lower house of the state legislature. The latter victory would allow Alliance candidate William A. Pfeffer, the editor of the Kansas Farmer, to succeed incumbent John J. Ingalls in the U.S. Senate.
The Kansas success created momentum for national independent political action that helped create the National People's Party in 1892 and led to the drafting of the Omaha platform and the nomination of former Greenbacker and Union General James B. Weaver as a presidential candidate. Weaver carried five states, including Kansas. The Populist groundswell also led to the election of a Populist governor in Kansas, Lorenzo Lewelling, as well as several state executive offices. While continuing to send five of eight Populist congressmen to Washington, the Populists lost their majority in the state house to the Republican Party, largely as the result of electoral fraud.
While Populists controlled the state government from 1893 to 1895, divisions over such issues as prohibition and woman suffrage divided the movement. Also a contributing factor to party divisions was poor appointments made by Governor Lewelling. Finally, purists within the People's Party resisted the fusionist arrangement with the Democratic Party in the 1894 elections. In the elections of 1890 and 1892, Democrats and People's Party candidates had often collaborated, agreeing on supporting a single candidate for congressional or state house seats. When this cooperation ended, the People's Party was supplanted by the Republican Party in the fall 1894 elections.
See also: American Non-Conformist ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Greenback Party ; Lease, Mary (1850–1933) ; Lewelling, Lorenzo D. (1846–1900) ; Peffer, William A. (1831–1912) ; People's Party ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Populism
Argersinger, Peter H. The Limits of Agrarian Radicalism: Western Populism and American Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
Clanton, O. Gene. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890–1900. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Davis, Kenneth S. Kansas: A Bicentennial History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976.
Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.