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Progressive Era: 1891–1920

Populism and the U.S. Presidential Election of 1896

Rural Activism and the Populist Party

In the 1880s, farmers' alliances, which supported farmers' economic rights, developed into the Populist Party.

Rural activism came to a head in the 1880s, having built up from the Granger uprising against the railway monopolies and farmers' coalitions fighting to keep costs down. Prices on agricultural products dropped significantly, but farmers had staked their success on an upswing. They borrowed to build up their equipment and took on more debt than the declining economic climate would allow them to pay back. Landowners in the South also had to adapt their practices to a new model after the Civil War. They offered freedpeople sharecropper contracts. Sharecropping was a form of debt servitude in which a person would rent a plot of land from a large landowner and provide a percentage of the crop to the landowner as payment.

The need to revamp agricultural practices and find a way to combat economic distress resulted in the formation of the Farmers' Alliance. This movement of the 1870s–80s focused on agrarian interests, or interests related to land and farming, and created farmers' cooperatives to advocate for improved economic conditions for farmers. A National Farmers' Alliance (NFA) was formed, as well as a Colored Farmers' Alliance, as Southern African American farmers were banned from being NFA members. Groups of farmers in each chapter of the Farmers' Alliance shared information about successful agricultural practices and developed cooperative storage facilities and mills in order to reduce their costs. They also set up stores to keep costs for necessities down, charging lower prices for goods to farmers. Midwestern and western farmers collaborated on ways to handle drought, which had caused many farmers to leave the Midwest to settle farther west. Farmers' alliances supported the causes that make up populism, a movement that opposes elitism and big business by supporting the rights and concerns of ordinary citizens. Populists supported lower interest rates for loans and a graduated interest rate, among other government interventions. They also hoped to alleviate their debt issues by getting the government to increase the money supply by minting an unlimited number of silver dollars.

Because farmers' alliances operated on a smaller, local scale, the farmers discovered that if they wanted to influence the federal government to take action, they would have to delve into national politics. They felt their interests were being ignored, so they formed the Populist Party in order to get candidates into Congress and state leadership positions. With the formation of the party, the farmers' alliances ceased to operate, although the Grangers still had a small following. The Populist Party, with the help of Democrat William Jennings Bryan, was able to elevate its position on economic and social issues to the national stage.

1896 Election

In the 1896 presidential election, the Populists supported the Free Silver movement and Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who was defeated by Republican candidate William McKinley.

William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate for president in 1896, had already served two terms in Congress by the time he decided to travel the country giving speeches about the need for silver. Although Bryan and the Populists did not agree on all issues, silver was the one major issue that connected them. To further his goals, Bryan assisted prosilver Populist candidates who pushed the Free Silver movement. This movement was championed by the Democratic and Populist Parties to compel the government to release an unlimited supply of silver dollars to increase the currency supply. This was partly a response to the Panic of 1893, an economic crisis that caused hundreds of banks and other businesses across the country to declare bankruptcy. The Panic of 1893 had a negative impact on farmers. It severely restricted access to currency, forcing farmers to agree to banks' high-interest loans in order to purchase farming equipment. Bryan also pushed for an upswing in Democratic convention delegates. The Republican presidential candidate, William McKinley, was a supporter of the gold standard, in which all currency was backed by gold in the U.S. Treasury. McKinley's position lost him support in his own party.

When the Democratic Convention for the 1896 election convened, Bryan was one of the speakers. After a few people spoke against the need for the government to back currency with silver, Bryan delivered what is now referred to as his "Cross of Gold Speech." An eloquent and dynamic speaker, Bryan stated that, rather than wealth trickling down from the rich to the poor, if the common person is able to earn a good living, everyone can prosper. He then tackled the issue of silver, wrapping up his defense with this call to action, using body language to emphasize his point:

"We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying … You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
This intense speech earned Bryan the nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate. Bryan was not, however, able to gain enough votes to beat McKinley in the final election of 1896.

1896 Electoral Map

Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan was defeated by Republican candidate William McKinley despite strong support for Bryan by the Populists and the Free Silver movement.