Before Bernie Sanders: A 19th Century Populist’s Run for the Presidency

John Collins

We are nearing a serious crisis. If the present strained relations between wealth owners and wealth producers continue much longer they will ripen into frightful disaster. This universal discontent must be quickly interpreted and its causes removed. It is the country’s imperative Call to Action, and cannot be longer disregarded with impunity.

So begins the preface to A Call to Action—the 1892 political manifesto by James Baird Weaver, the People’s Party’s candidate for president that same year.

The crisis” Weaver was referring to got its start 19 years earlier, when post-war inflation and wild financial speculation (particularly on the part of those trying to cash in on the seemingly ceiling-less railroad industry) resulted in the Panic of 1873, which triggered industrial capitalism’s first global depression. Employment and wages plummeted as American companies defaulted on $1 billion of debt. The collapse, which would be felt for decades, left many, including Weaver, vehemently opposed to monopolies and critical of banking industry policies.

As wars tend to do, the Civil War had lasted longer than either side anticipated. While the Union’s northern manufacturing infrastructure was vastly superior to the Confederacy’s agrarian, cotton-based economy, the economies of both the North and the South suffered greatly. Out of necessity, both sides turned to the printing of unbacked paper money to fund the ongoing conflict. In 1862, for the first time in the nation’s history, Lincoln’s administration began issuing greenbacks” fiat notes deriving their value not from a physical commodity, like gold or silver, but solely from government declaration and a regulated supply. Immediately following secession, the South also began circulating it’s own currency — Confederate dollars known as greybacks.”

When the war was over, the government sought to curb inflation by retiring the notes and returning to the gold standard. The plan was to phase out greenbacks with the intention of making currency once again redeemable. Bankers, who understood that a return to the gold standard would mean the bonds they’d purchased at 50-cents on the dollar during the war could then be redeemed for 100 cents on the dollar at pre-war gold prices, loved the idea. But eliminating the difference between the dollar price of gold and its official value would require drastic deflationary measures.

In his acclaimed historical analysis of this period, The Populist Movement, Lawrence Goodwyn writes: A return to hard money could only be accomplished in one of two ways — both quite harmful to a great number of Americans.” The first deflationary tack considered was taxes. Taxation would quickly drive prices down and the proceeds could be used to pay back bondholders, but it also risked crippling businesses and pushing unemployment, as Goodwyn observes, to socially dangerous levels.” The second method involved achieving contraction by freezing the existing supply of money while the economy grew around it. This is what the government did. Goodwyn writes, To the nation’s farmers, contraction was a mass tragedy which eventually led to the Populist revolt.”

For blacks and whites in the South, post-war agrarian life soon became synonymous with a new form of slavery. The crop-lein system—whereby the economically devastated farmers would obtain the food and supplies needed to work the land from creditors, to be paid back upon harvest — left millions in a perpetual cycle of humiliating poverty and never-ending debt.

Northern farmers also found themselves at the mercy of an increasingly powerful debt industry — exploited by excessive price fixing, hostile bankers and a monopolistic railroad. Ultimately it was the speculative failure of Jay Cooke and Company (the nation’s most prominent investment banking house) to finance the Northern Pacific Railway that provided the domestic catalyst for the 1873 collapse. The fallout affected everyone. In fact,” Goodwyn writes, at one time or another in the decade following the war, portions of every sector of the American population felt defrauded by bankers.”

What began with the cooperative-based Grange movement in 1866, continued to evolve and spread. New political parties emerged. In 1876, the Greenback Party was formed to advocate the end of a metal-backed currency and a return to more equitable soft money” policies. Weaver joined the party and was elected to Congress in 1879 and first ran for president (as a Greenback) in 1880. Weaver was defeated handily and its members dispersed. But the appetite for a grassroots political movement — one that would regulate greed and return the government and the economy to the people — eventually culminated in 1891 in Omaha with the formation of the People’s Party (known as the Populists).

The Populists viewed the rising influence of banks and corporations in the political process as an existential threat. Already a prominent figure on the national stage, Weaver was nominated as their candidate for President. 

The preface of A Call to Action continues:

The sovereign right to regulate commerce among our magnificent union of States, and to control the instruments of commerce, the right to issue the currency and to determine the money supply for 63 million people and their posterity, have been leased to associated speculators. The brightest lights of the legal profession have been lured from their honorable relation to the people in the administration of justice, and through evolution in crime the corporation has taken the place of the pirate; and finally a bold and aggressive plutocracy has usurped the Government and is using it as a policeman to enforce its insolent decrees. It has filled the Senate with its adherents, it controls the popular branch of the National Legislature by cunningly filling the Speaker‘s chair with its representatives, and it has not hesitated to tamper with our Court of last resort. The public domain has been squandered, our coal fields bartered away, our forests denuded, our people impoverished, and we are attempting to build a prosperous commonwealth among people who are being robbed of their homes — a task as futile and impossible as it would be to attempt to cultivate a thrifty forest without soil to sustain it.

The corporation has been placed above the individual and an armed body of cruel mercenaries permitted, in times of public peril, to discharge police duties which clearly belong to the State. Wall Street has become the Western extension of Threadneedle and Lombard streets, and the wealthy classes of England and America have been brought into touch. …

The few haughty millionaires who are gathering up the riches of the new world, make use of certain instruments to accomplish their selfish purposes. The people are beginning to understand what these instrumentalities are, and are preparing to resist their destructive force. The purpose of this book is to make clear the great work which lies before us. It must be thorough and complete in order to be permanent. The magnitude of our task will appear as we advance in the struggle.

We have made no attack upon individuals, but have confined our criticisms to evil systems and baleful legislation. …

James B. Weaver, the People’s Party candidate for president, who was was born in Ohio in 1833 and raised in Iowa, worked as a mail carrier before studying law. In the years leading up to the Civil War, he began parting ways with his Democratic upbringing, particularly on the issue of slavery, and eventually joined the movement that would become Lincoln’s Republican Party. He fought for the Union and when the war ended in 1865, he became the editor of a politically charged Bloomfield, Iowa newspaper, the Weekly Union Guard. After failing to gain the Republican nomination to elected offices and alienated from the conservative wing of the party, in 1877 he switched to the Greenback Party and in 1878 was elected to Congress with Democratic Party support. (Full disclosure: He is the author’s great-great grandfather.) (Photo: Bri​tan​ni​ca​.com)

Improved methods of piracy and the evolution of greed

The elements of character which go to make up the highwayman are: physical courage, disregard of moral obligations, aversion to labor, a high estimate of the value of money, a low estimate of the value of human life, stolid indifference to human suffering and defiant disregard of the law. This type of person takes his life in his hand, lives on a war footing with society and looks upon Government simply as an organized police force and as his natural enemy. His only restraint is fear, and even this enhances his cruelty. Such characters infested human society at very early periods, becoming more numerous as society itself became lawless and anon diminishing as soon as tranquility returned and justice was rigidly administered among men. When such characters become numerous and confederate in large numbers they are called brigands. …

Doubtless the love of money — avarice — is the supreme, all-swaying passion of the highwayman. It is but natural that he should be universally feared, detested, and dealt with without mercy.

Robin Hood, the famous English outlaw and his accomplices, of the thirteenth century; Rob Roy, the Scotch robber of the seventeenth century, who, in order to avenge the loss of his lands, led the life of a marauder for many years; Fra Diavolo, the noted brigand of Italy, and Jesse James of our own period, though differing greatly in character, are among the noted robbers of the world. Some of them occasionally exhibited humane traits of character. …

Traditions of an occasional noble deed or sentiment may be found clinging to the biography of nearly all the great professional robbers of the world. Outraged nature seems to have made an effort to hide the nakedness of their crimes. …

Piracy was an organized industry in some parts of the world and ravaged commerce upon the high seas for more than two thousand years. …

This scourge did not abate until the feudal system was destroyed and respect for human rights restored; a striking illustration of that truth, ever uppermost in human history, that if a Government expects its subjects to be peaceful and law abiding it must first compel the wealthy and the powerful to refrain from depredating upon the weak and destitute. In no age of the world have the rights of either person or property been secure where the laws were so framed or administered as to permit idleness to plunder industry. Men will impatiently submit as long as there is hope of redress, but expiring hope always lights up her departure with the torch of revolution. …

Let us endeavor to briefly point out the exact period when the modern world became inoculated with the virus which is now threatening the destruction of free government and even civilization itself. …

But when piracy received its fatal blow at the close of the 16th century, it was immediately succeeded at the opening of the seventeenth by a still greater scourge, the corporation — a pirate in fact. Piracy and brigandage were lawless, but the corporation sprang into existence bearing a commission from the State, its creator, which authorized it to rob legally both by sea and by land.

By the late 19th century, millions of working people felt that the economic and political system was rigged against them. Bank-backed monopolies fixed prices for goods and transportation that far exceeded rural incomes, fueling a crippling cycle of insecurity and debt. Here, a struggling farmer is shown dwarfed by greedy, malevolent and industrial entities. (Photo: https://​ejas​.revues​.org/​10086)

The scourge within the United States

The framers of our Constitution and those who influenced early legislation in this country had been educated under the influence of British institutions. They had long been familiar with the accepted dogma that the power to create corporations was a prerogative of the crown. The transition was easy to that cognate fiction, that the power to create incorporated trade associations was a prerogative inherent in Government, without a regard to whether it was a monarchy or a republic. An error more fatal and unaccountable never enslaved the minds of a free people. It is as unphilosophic as it is vicious in consequences.

An incorporated trade association does not result from the operation of any law of nature nor from the exercise of any of the natural powers belonging to humanity. No number of men, in the absence of statutory authority, can confer upon themselves the powers and immunities of a corporation. They may associate in business as partners, but the death of one of the members, in the natural order of things, works a dissolution of the association. Each member of the firm is personally responsible, where company property cannot be found, for all the debts of the co-partnership. If then it be true that a corporation does not spring from any law of nature and cannot, in the absence of statute, be brought into being by agreement among individuals, whence is the boasted prerogative of the Crown or of the legislature to create a corporation derived? How can man confer upon the legislature a power, not even the germ of which exists within himself? By nature he has the right to trade, to associate and to organize Civil government; but he can never, in business affairs, span the chasm of death, escape individual responsibility, nor confer upon the legislature a power which he does not himself possess. The corporation, then, exists beyond the domain of nature, is in conflict with the limitations of human life, and is a remnant of usurpation and kingcraft which lingers in modern society to make war upon the individual and to eat up his substance. It exists by bold, daring usurpation and not of right.

The Government of the United States is one of enumerated powers. The Constitution does not even vaguely hint at the power of Congress to incorporate a trade association, or to grant a charter for such purpose. Driven from the field of expressed power, how can the authority of Congress be implied, when the individuals from whom the Government was derived have no such power to surrender and make no pretense even of doing so? The Declaration of Independence declares that governments derive their just powers” from the consent of the governed. No other power could, of course, be so derived. But Congress, following the example of the British crown, entered upon the exercise of this usurpation at its first session under the Constitution. This shows how deeply the despotic current had eroded its way into every stratum of Anglo-Saxon life. It proves that even the grand men of the Revolution were not on their guard against some of the most dangerous foes of Free Government. They threw off the form of tyranny, declared for a republic and then allowed institutions which were of the very essence of despotism and which gave life and vigor to tyranny to remain. They declared that all men were created equal” and, strange to say, proceeded at the very first session of Congress to pass laws to create inequalities and to give certain associations of individuals advantages with which they were never, either collectively or individually, endowed by the Creator. …

Though the People’s Party lost, Weaver managed to win 5 states (Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and North Dakota) and 22 electoral votes — the most electoral votes won by a third party since the Civil War. The impressive third-party turnout illustrated the bipartisan frustration of the period and the extent to which Populist rhetoric resonated with voters at the time. (Image: com​mons​.wiki​me​dia​.org)

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John Collins is the editor of Rural America In These Times. He lives between Minneapolis and La Pointe, Wisconsin, a village on Madeline Island in Lake Superior.
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