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THE POPULIST BOMBSHELL OF 1892

The advent of the Populists as a full-fledged party in the domain of national politics took place at Omaha in July, 1892. Nearly thirteen hundred delegates from all parts of the Union flocked to the convention to take part in the selection of candidates for President and Vice-President and to adopt a platform for the new party. The "Demands" of the Alliances supplied the material from which was constructed a platform characterized by one unsympathetic observer as "that furious and hysterical arraignment of the present times, that incoherent intermingling of Jeremiah and Bellamy." The document opened with a general condemnation of national conditions and a bitter denunciation of the old parties for permitting "the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them." Then followed three declarations: "that the union of the labor forces of the United States this day consummated shall be permanent and perpetual"; that "wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery"; and "that the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads." Next came the demands. Heading these were the monetary planks: "a national currency, safe, sound, and flexible, issued by the general Government poly, a full legal tender for all debts," with the subtreasury system of loans "or a better system; free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold at the present legal ratio of sixteen to one"; and an increase in the circulating medium until there should be not less than $50 per capita. With demands for a graduated income tax, for honesty and economy in governmental expenditures, and for postal savings banks, the financial part of the platform was complete. The usual plank declaring for government ownership and control of railroads and telegraphs now included the telephone systems as well, and the land plank opposed alien ownership and demanded the return of lands held by corporations in excess of their actual needs. Other resolutions, adopted but not included in the platform, expressed sympathy with labor's demands for shorter hours, condemned the use of Pinkerton detectives in labor strife, and favored greater restriction of immigration, the initiative and referendum, direct election of United States senators, and one term for the President and Vice-President.

The platform, according to a news dispatch of the time, was "received with tremendous enthusiasm... and was read and adopted almost before the people knew it was read. Instantly there was enacted the mightiest scene ever witnessed by the human race. Fifteen thousand people yelled, shrieked, threw papers, hats, fans, and parasols, gathered up banners, mounted shoulders. Mrs. Lease's little girl was mounted on Dr. Fish's shoulders--he on a table on the high platform. The two bands were swamped with noise.... Five minutes passed, ten minutes, twenty, still the noise and hurrahs poured from hoarse throats." After forty minutes the demonstration died out and the convention was ready to proceed with the nomination of a presidential candidate.

No such unanimity marked this further procedure, however. Just before the convention the leaders of the People's Party had thrown the old parties into consternation by announcing that Judge Walter Q. Gresham, of Indiana, would be offered the nomination. Judge Gresham, a Republican with a long and honorable public record, had been urged upon the Republican party in 1884 and 1888, and "Anti-Monopolists" had considered him with favor on account of his opinions and decisions regarding the operation and control of railroads. Just after the adoption of the platform a telegram from the judge announced that he would accept a unanimous nomination. Since unanimity was unobtainable, however, his name was withdrawn later in the day.

This left the field to General James B. Weaver of Iowa and Senator James H. Kyle of South Dakota. Weaver represented the more conservative of the Populists, the old Alliance men. His rival had the support of the most radical element as well as that of the silver men from the mountain States. The silverites were not inclined to insist upon their man, however, declaring that, if the platform contained the silver plank, they would carry their States for whatever candidate might be chosen. The old campaigner proved the stronger, and he was nominated with General James G. Field of Virginia for Vice-President. Unprejudiced observers viewed Weaver's nomination as a tactical error on the part of the Populist leaders: "Mr. Weaver has belonged to the group of third-party 'come-outers' for so many years that his name is not one to conjure with in either of the old camps;... his name suggests too strongly the abortive third-party movements of the past to excite much hope or enthusiasm. He is not exactly the sort of a Moses who can frighten Pharaoh into fits or bring convincing plagues upon the monopolistic oppressors of Israel. The wicked politicians of the Republican and Democratic parties breathed easier and ate with better appetites when the Gresham bogie disappeared and they found their familiar old enemy, General Weaver, in the lead of the People's movement."

It may be suspected, however, that even with Weaver at its head this party, which claimed to control from two to three million votes, and which expected to draw heavily from the discontented ranks of the old-line organizations, was not viewed with absolute equanimity by the campaign managers of Cleveland and of Harrison. Some little evidence of the perturbation appeared in the equivocal attitude of both the old parties with respect to the silver question. Said the Democratic platform: "We hold to the use of both gold and silver as the standard money of the country, and to the coinage of both gold and silver without discrimination against either metal or charge for mintage." The rival Republican platform declared that "the American people, from tradition and interest, favor bimetallism, and the Republican party demands the use of both gold and silver as standard money." Each party declared for steps to obtain an international agreement on the question. The Republicans attempted to throw a sop to the labor vote by favoring restriction of immigration and laws for the protection of employees in dangerous occupations, and to the farmer by pronouncements against trusts, for extended postal service--particularly in rural districts--and for the reclamation and sale of arid lands to settlers. The Democrats went even further and demanded the return of "nearly one hundred million acres of valuable land" then held by "corporations and syndicates, alien and domestic."

The directors of the Populist campaign proved to be no mean political strategists. General Weaver himself toured the country, accompanied by General Field when he was in the South and by Mrs. Lease when he went to the Pacific coast. Numerous other men and women addressed the thousands who attended the meetings, great and small, all over the country. One unique feature of the Populist campaign on the Pacific coast was the singing of James G. Clark's People's Battle-Hymn, and other songs expressing the hope and fears of labor in the field and factory. Everywhere it was the policy of the new party to enlist the assistance of the weaker of the old parties. In the South, the Populists, as a rule, arrayed themselves with the Republicans against the old Democracy. This provoked every device of ridicule, class prejudice, and scorn, which the dominant party could bring to bear to dissuade former Democrats from voting the People's ticket. One Louisiana paper uttered this warning:

"Oily-tongued orators, in many cases the paid agents of the Republican party, have for months been circulating among the unsophisticated and more credulous classes, preaching their heresies and teaching the people that if Weaver is elected president, money may be had for the asking, transportation on the railroad trains will be practically free, the laboring man will be transferred from his present position and placed upon a throne of power, while lakes filled with molasses, whose shores are fringed with buckwheat cakes, and islands of Jersey butter rising here and there above the surface, will be a concomitant of every farm. The 'forty-acres-and-a-mule' promises of the reconstruction era pale into insignificance beside the glowing pictures of prosperity promised by the average Populist orator to those who support Weaver."

The Pensacola Address of the Populist nominees on September 17, 1892, which served as a joint letter of acceptance, was evidently issued at that place and time partly for the purpose of influencing such voters as might be won over by emphasizing the unquestioned economic distress of most Southern farmers. If the new party could substantiate the charges that both old parties were the tools of monopoly and Wall Street, it might insert the wedge which would eventually split the "solid South." Even before the Pensacola Address, the state elections in Alabama and Arkansas demonstrated that cooperation of Republicans with Populists was not an idle dream. But, although fusion was effected on state tickets in several States in the November elections, the outcome was the choice of Cleveland electors throughout the South.

As the Populists tried in the South to win over the Republicans, so in the North and more especially the West they sought to control the Democratic vote either by fusion or absorption. The effort was so successful that in Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, and North Dakota, the new party swept the field with the assistance of the Democrats. In South Dakota and Nebraska, where there was no fusion, the Democratic vote was negligible and the Populists ran a close second to the Republicans.

That the tide of agrarianism was gradually flowing westward as the frontier advanced is apparent from the election returns in the States bordering on the upper Mississippi. Iowa and Missouri, where the Alliance had been strong, experienced none of the landslide which swept out the Republicans in States further west. In Minnesota the Populists, with a ticket headed by the veteran Donnelly, ran a poor third in the state election, and the entire Harrison electoral ticket was victorious in spite of the endorsement of four Populist candidates by the Democrats. In the northwestern part of the State, however, the new party was strong enough to elect a Congressman over candidates of both the old parties. In no Northern State east of the Mississippi were the Populists able to make a strong showing; but in Illinois, the success of John P. Altgeld, the Democratic candidate for governor, was due largely to his advocacy of many of the measures demanded by the People's party, particularly those relating to labor, and to the support which he received from the elements which might have been expected to aline themselves with the Populists. On the Pacific coast, despite the musical campaign of Clark, Mrs. Lease, and Weaver, California proved deaf to the People's cause; but in Oregon the party stood second in the lists and in Washington it ran a strong third.

More than a million votes, nearly nine per cent of the total, were cast for the Populist candidates in this election--a record for a third party the year after its birth, and one exceeded only by that of the Republican party when it appeared for the first time in the national arena in 1856. Twenty-two electoral votes added point to the showing, for hitherto, since 1860, third-party votes had been so scattered that they had affected the choice of President only as a makeweight between other parties in closely contested States.

A week after the elections General Weaver announced that the Populists had succeeded far beyond their expectations. "The Republican party," he asserted, "is as dead as the Whig party was after the Scott campaign of 1852, and from this time forward will diminish in every State of the Union and cannot make another campaign.... The Populist will now commence a vigorous campaign and will push the work of organization and education in every county in the Union." There were those, however, who believed that the new party had made a great mistake in having anything to do with either of the old parties, that fusion, particularly of the sort which resulted in combination tickets, was a compromise with the enemy, and that more votes had been lost than won by the process. This feeling found characteristic expression in an editorial in a Minnesota paper:

Take an audience of republican voters in a schoolhouse where a county fusion has taken place--or the press is full of the electoral deal--and the audience will applaud the sentiments of the speaker--but they wont vote a mongrel or democratic ticket! A wet blanket has been thrown!

"Oh," says someone, "but the democratic party is a party of reform!" Well, my friend, you better go down south and talk that to the peoples party where they have been robbed of their franchises by fraud and outrage!

Ah, and there the peoples party fused the republicans!!!

Oh whitewash! Where is thy lime-kiln, that we may swab off the dark blemishes of the hour!! Aye, and on the whited wall, draw thee a picture of power and beauty Cleveland, for instance, thanking the peoples party for all the favors gratuitously granted by our mongrel saints in speckled linen and green surtouts.

As time gave perspective, however, the opinion grew that 1892 had yielded all that could possibly have been hoped. The lessons of the campaign may have been hard, but they had been learned, and, withal, a stinging barb had been thrust into the side of the Republican party, the organization which, in the minds of most crusaders, was principally responsible for the creation and nurture of their ills. It was generally determined that in the next campaign Populism should stand upon its own feet; Democratic and Republican votes should be won by conversion of individuals to the cause rather than by hybrid amalgamation of parties and preelection agreements for dividing the spoils. But it was just this fusion which blinded the eyes of the old party leaders to the significance of the Populist returns. Democrats, with a clear majority of electoral votes, were not inclined to worry about local losses or to value incidental gains; and Republicans felt that the menace of the third party was much less portentous than it might have been as an independent movement.