Daily Archives: March 19, 2009

Populists and Deja Vu

The term “populist” has seen a recent resurgence due to the public outcry over the AIG bail-outs and the attendant million dollar bonuses given to executives who were partly responsible for our current economic crisis. The word populist was coined in the late 19th century and derives from the Latin word populus (meaning “people”). Most of the 1880’s Kansans who identified with the Populist party were Republicans who became disenchanted with the Republican Party’s support of the ubber rich like the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. The Populist party was made of, and supported the interests of, the “common man”.

In the early 1880’s there was an economic boom due to high farm produce prices and ideal weather conditions. In response to this boom, many farmers obtained mortgages to buy more land and equipment. In the mid 1880’s severe drought and grass hopper plagues reduced the former green territory to a virtual waste land. The market prices for corn, wheat and other crops collapsed, leaving farmers unable to pay their mortgages – many returned east during this period and by the end of the 1880’s Kansas had lost half of its former population; thus, the saying of the time: “In God we trusted. In Kansas we busted”. In 1887 the total mortgage amounts due in Kansas equaled twice the assessed value of all of the land in the state. [Is this starting to sound familiar?].

While wealthy east coast Republicans were forming monopolies, trusts, and cartels to reduce competition and enrich themselves further, farmers sense of competition contributed to their financial ruin. As early as the 1870’s midwest farmers sought to involve themselves in organizations such as “Patrons of Husbandry (the “Grange”) and the results of these organizations efforts led to State regulation of railroads. However, the Supreme Court in 1886 gutted these efforts by prohibiting states from regulating interstate railroads and the farmers were back where they started.

The financial struggles through the 1880’s led to the formation of the People’s Party which enjoyed huge electoral success in the 1890’s Kansas. The following preamble to the platform of the People’s Party describes their concerns:

“We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench . . . The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrated in the hands of capitalists . . . The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented in history of the world, while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty” (People’s Party, 1892).

If you’ve read Thomas Franks’ What’s the Matter with Kansas? You’ve had an introduction to Kansas Populists. For further reading check out this source which I used for this blog entry:

Risjord, N.K. (2005). Representative Americans: Populists and Progressives. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: Lanham, Maryland.

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