The Populists’ Delayed Victories

in the comments on the previous post, Patrick Prescott made a good point about the Populist party, and how they influenced Federal government policy.  He’s right that the Populist party’s big moment was William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896, but it was first created in 1892.  They laid out the Party’s aims in something called “the Omaha Platform“.  they did not get a lot of what they wanted, but there are two major things in it that stand out (Numbers from the original):

3. “We demand a graduated income tax.”

And in the section titled “Expression of Sentiments”:

8. RESOLVED, That we favor a constitutional provision limiting the office of President and Vice-President to one term, and providing for the election of Senators of the United States by a direct vote of the people.

They would get both the income tax and the direct election of Senators. It has been about a century since both were enacted via the Sixteenth and Seventeenth amendments to the Constitution.  This would have been a few years after the Populist party had disbanded–or, perhaps more accurately, consumed by the Democratic party.

Now, granted; they didn’t get everything they wanted.  Like:

9. RESOLVED, That we oppose any subsidy or national aid to any private corporation for any purpose.

Good luck getting rid of that.

But the point is, some of the demands of a third party composed largely of impoverished farmers were implemented 20 years later, and not merely as laws, but as Constitutional amendments.  Constitutional amendments are not easy to get.

Just as a successful small start-up company gets bought out by a larger corporation, a successful third party gets taken over by one of the major parties.  But it’s still a victory for their ideas–so what if there was no Populist party as such, if the Democrats were accomplishing what the Populists wanted? The Populists set the stage for many of the reforms made in the first half of the 20th Century.


  1. What you’ve seen with the Tea Party is the fringe eating the larger party and getting their agenda pushed by king maker’s money, media lies, and trampling the will of the people. Somewhere this has to end and before we reach a tipping point like France under Louis XVI.

  2. I’m glad you researched the Omaha platform. The problem with crusaders like Bryant is that some of their ideas are good and some are bad. Bryant once gave a two hour speech extolling the virtues of water over alcohol, his temperance stance led to the 1912 drug laws that created what we know as illegal drugs like weed and coke we are still suffering under as well as the short lived prohibition.

    1. Yes. There were a lot of ideas going around then about regulating and managing society and behavior; some good, some bad, as you said.

      Regarding WJB, I often wonder: if he were alive today, would he be a Democrat or a Republican? He had the same sort of religious zealotry we see from the religious right, as demonstrated in the Scopes trial. On the other hand, unlike many of the extremists today, he also believed in social welfare programs and Federal aid to the poor, and was very much against the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?