Middle-of-the-Road Populists

Also called “mid-roaders,” these Populists, led by famed orator Thomas E. Watson, avoided joining with major parties of the time and preferred to independently pursue the People's Party's goals. The term middle of the roaders is not reference to a moderate political platform but rather a reflection of the group's desire to remain separate from both the Democratic and Republican parties. In fact, they were considered more radical than their partisan counterparts. Generally, westerners were fusionists as they shared the prosilver stance of Democrats. Fusionists were Populists who wished to join with the Democratic Party to benefit from their greater following and their mutual interest in the free silver policy issue. Conversely, the mid-roaders, comprised primarily of southerners, advocated pressing forward with a hard Populist stance to build on the growing strength of the party rather than diluting their principals by joining another party. These issues were significant as they could divide an already small third-party movement.

The middle-of-the-road Populists became most well known during 1896 after internal turmoil within the People's Party. However, the term appeared as early as 1892 in a campaign song published by Denver's Rocky Mountain News, which went as follows:

Side tracks are rough, and they're hard to walk
Keep in the middle of the road;
Though we haven't got time to stop and talk
We keep in the middle of the road.
Turn your backs on the goldbug men,
And yell for silver now and then;
If you want to beat Grover, also Ben,
Just stick to the middle of the road.

Don't answer the call of goldbug tools,
But keep in the middle of the road;
Prove that the West wasn't settled by fools,
And keep in the middle of the road.
They've woven their plots, and woven them ill,
We want a Weaver who's got more skill,
And mostly we want a Silver Bill,
So we'll stay in the middle of the road. (Haynes 469 )

There was a shared concern by fusionists and mid-roaders that the existence of the People's Party ticket during the 1896 presidential election would only cut into the Democratic votes and ensure the victory of Republican candidate, William McKinley, the “gold bug.” However, middle-of-the-road Populists also feared that joining with the Democratic Party would diminish the Populist platform and would lead to followers being absorbed into the Democratic Party by default.

The conflict between the mid-roaders and fusionists came to a boil leading up to the national convention as even the date of the People's Party national convention became a point of contention. The fusionists had a strong voice within the organization and scheduled the convention to occur after the Democratic and Republicans national conventions to capitalize on the popularity of William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee. The Populists’ convention occurred in St. Louis during July 24–26, 1896. Middle-of-the-road Populists struggled but lost as the majority of Populists also endorsed William Jennings Bryan as the People's Party candidate. One of the most vocal supporters was Herman Taubeneck, who served as the national chair of the party from 1892 to 1896 and was also an ardent Silverite. Mid-roaders argued against selecting Bryan as the nominee for numerous reasons, but among them was that Arthur Sewall, the Democratic vice-presidential choice, was a wealthy Maine banker who took a hard antilabor stance. Tom Watson, editor of the People's Party Paper, was likely the candidate the mid-roaders would have chosen. While he did not receive the presidential nomination, he was selected as the vice-presidential choice by Populists to replace Sewall.

As was protocol at the time, presidential candidates did not attend the convention and instead awaited news of their nomination. As Watson was not there, he could not discuss this melding of parties. He accepted the nomination under the false notion that Bryan would accept Watson's nomination and run on a dual Populist-Democratic ticket. However, this was not the case, leaving Watson and other mid-roaders in a difficult situation as Watson would not campaign for Bryan because of the deceit, but he also refused to step down. Some mid-roaders such as famed lecturer Mary Lease of Kansas, fearing a loss to Republicans, came to terms with this disappointment and begrudgingly campaigned for Bryan while using the election as a platform to spread awareness to the larger Populist movement.

The Democratic Party, however, took a conservative turn shortly after, allowing both branches of Populists to consider rejoining. The fusionist wing of the party offered an olive branch, which led to a united call for both groups to meet in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 22, 1903. During this meeting, it was agreed that the alliance with the Democratic Party would be dissolved in favor of pursuing an independent ticket.

The discovery of gold in the Yukon, coupled with increased imports of agricultural products from Europe, simultaneously helped improve the position of the farmer and diluted interest in the People's Party. By the 1904 election, only 200 delegates attended the Populists’ convention. In 1908, an even smaller delegation appeared to renominate Thomas E. Watson for the presidency and to select Samuel W. Williams of Indiana as the vice president. The biggest shared sentiment, however, among the attendants was that this was the end of the party. The Populists were able to poll for their candidates and found only 28,131 votes, nearly 17,000 of which came from Georgia. Ultimately, the concerns of the middle-of-the-road Populists proved correct. It was the willingness to band with the Democratic Party that led to the quick downfall of the Populists, as their party platform and membership was largely absorbed by the Democratic Party.

Rahima Schwenkbeck

See also: Agricultural Newspapers and Farmer Unrest ; Bryan, Williams Jennings (1860–1925) ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Lease, Mary (1850–1933) ; McKinley, William, Jr. (1843–1901) ; Sewall, Arthur M. (1835–1900) ; Silver Republicans ; St. Louis Convention of 1896 ; Taubeneck, Herman E. (c. 1855–unknown) ; Williams, Samuel W. (1851–1913)


Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Haynes, Frederick Emory. James Baird Weaver. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1919.

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

Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

McMath, Robert C., Jr. American Populism: A Social History: 1877–1898. New York: Hill & Wang, 1992.