In what passes for political and cultural discourse today, the term “populist” is something of a pejorative, conjuring up images in the mind of the cultural and academic elite of dangerous folks with pitchforks and guns riding about in pick-up trucks looking for an uprising to foment.  This of course is nonsense.  What the tsars of public opinion describe as populism bears little resemblance to the real thing.  The historian Richard Hofstatdter started the whole business of populist as dangerous rube, though he did concede the populists had some good ideas.  Of course, Hofstadter also believed that the more polished and respectable and less hayseed progressives were needed to move the whole business of reform forward to an orderly and respectable conclusion. Contemporary historians tend to emphasize the constituent elements of the larger populist movement; thus, one can find fine work done on the independent black populist movement or the precursors to the populists.  The populist failure as a third party, the populist failure to forge an alliance with industrial labor, the populist failure to alleviate racial tensions and animosities in the South, and the failure of the populists to act as a catalyst for the creation of a European style labor party has captured the interest of left-leaning historians, as one might expect.   

The historian who in my view comes closest to understanding the populist moment in the broader context of American history is Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner observed in The Frontier in American History, “Taken as a whole, Populism is a manifestation of the old pioneer ideals   . . . with the added element of increasing readiness to utilize the national government to effect ends.” Turner understood three things: populism was American and not European, populism was agrarian, and that populists submitted to the political realities following the surrender at Appomattox and would seek not to leave the Union, but to take control of the federal government.  Other historians have plowed the fields of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century American culture, politics, and economics, and the place of the populists within this context.  I wish to re-examine the populists in a broader historical context and according to the model of court versus country which emerged as powerful driver in the sixteenth century conflicts in Britain and in British North America, and remain a good explanatory model for many of the divisions and conflicts that emerge in American history and in contemporary America as well. 

The origins of populism go back to a certain suspicion among the colonial and later settlers of America’s frontiers that the folks back in the political and urban centers of America were out of touch with the realities of, shall we say, country living.  Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, 1676, offers a fascinating study of this phenomena.  To this day, historians dispute the triggers that set the whole rebellion in motion, but we do know that folks in the farther districts were quite upset with the Indian policy and the land policy of Governor Berkeley, and they were not above marching on Jamestown to express their intense dissatisfaction regarding these matters.  People of all races and classes were involved in the uprising.  This had the effect of terrifying what passed for city folk in Virginia.  Virginia’s later passage of a more stringent slave code was viewed by Edmund Morgan as a means to deflect country folk resentment away from the political elite and toward black folks, but it may also have been passed due to the explosion in the number of African slaves being transported to Virginia.   The regulator movements in the Carolinas also exhibited a court versus country dynamic in that country people were once again dissatisfied with the “courts” handling of land policy, the administration of justice, and public finance.

In the eighteenth century, Country Whigs and Country Tories developed a critique of the emerging union between consolidated finance and central government as it took form under Prime Minister Robert Walpole.  In its broad outlines, the argument of the Country Party decried the cozy relationship between financiers, merchants, and the Parliament, and the ability of Walpole and his ministers to manipulate the Parliament through the granting of charters, monopolies, offices, and subsidies.  Lord Bolingbroke, the leading Country Tory of the day, argued for the country gentry and nobility to ascend to leadership positions in Great Britain so as to preserve the country’s virtue.  Since these folks enjoyed a certain self-sufficiency and independence derived from their estates, and were removed from other corrupting urban influences, Bolingbroke believed the landed class would better resist the temptations proffered by Walpole and his associates, and rid the country of both its corruption and the government’s dangerous flirtation with men of capital.

Social and economic conditions in Great Britain during Bolingbroke’s time undermined the appeal to public virtue he made to the landed classes.  Many of the nobility and wealthier gentry had considerable economic interests tied up in Great Britain’s mercantile and financial endeavors. If the appeal to the landed folks fell flat in Great Britain, it won adherents in British Colonial America, especially among the planters of the Tidewater. The Country Party worldview provided the leadership of the Southern colonies with a powerful tool to interpret the intentions behind British fiscal and taxation policies in the 1760s.  Thus, the British levying of duties and internal taxes upon the colonies, combined with the collapse of the tobacco price and the drying up of credit, caused many planters to write about the attempts of the “corrupt” British Parliament and the attempts of the British to “enslave” the colonists.  This was not hyperbole; the tidewater planters meant every word.  Moreover, they saw in themselves the virtuous landholders Bolingbroke and other Country Party writers praised as source of virtue in the state.  Those areas of the Southern countryside that supported the American Revolution, opposed the ratification of the Constitution, and supported Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party echoed the themes in their protest against British rule first articulated by the Country Party’s adherents.    

The court versus country dynamic would be crystallized and institutionalized in the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  The fundamental issue separating Hamilton and Jefferson was the former’s conviction that an alliance between capital and government was necessary for the stability and sustainability of the federal government, and Jefferson’s view that such an alliance would lead to a consolidation of both capital and political power that would both threaten the liberties of the states and the citizenry and increase corruption in the body politic.  The first round of the fight between these two outlasted their lives and ended in victory for the Jeffersonian Camp.  By 1848, Hamilton’s national bank scheme was dead and was replaced by the Independent Treasury, protective tariffs were beginning to slowly trend down, federally funded internal improvements were ruled unconstitutional, and the territorial expansion of the United States seemed to secure the agrarian interest well into the future. In large part, this is why the issue of slavery’s expansion into the territories, which was more of a legal abstraction than a concrete reality, blew the Whig Party apart and fed the rise of the Republican Party.  Of course the Republican Party, the new Hamiltonian standard bearers broadly speaking, was a sectional party. But a sectional party that would command a majority of the House of Representatives and the presidency by 1860, and be positioned to control the Senate within a year or two. Given the rancor over the slavery question, and the political realities facing Southerners, it would have been surprising if Southern states did not attempt to secede.

Even if one believes the fairy tale that slavery was the sole, only, and everlasting cause of the War Between the States, it does not negate the fact that the Southern states who seceded, and those forgotten border states who tried to secede, were agrarian societies assaulted by a Republican “court” hell bent on imposing the Hamiltonian program of national consolidation. T’was center versus periphery.  The South’s defeat in the war placed its agrarian society in an extremely vulnerable situation.  The combination of disenfranchisement, the introduction of share-cropping and tenant farming, the destruction of people, land and capital, and the massive increases in property taxes on an already destitute population were devastating in their economic and social effects.  The vast majority of Southerners rejected a “long war” option against the federal nemesis and its military occupation of the region in favor of “Redemption.”  But Redemption was only made possible by the razor thin election of 1876, and the willingness of Republicans to bring a final end to Reconstruction to secure the White House.

The peace effected by the Compromise of 1877 did not last long.  Weather conditions, politics, and economics converged to bestir the country districts, both South and West, in to considerable restlessness and deep discontent.  In the West, unusually wet conditions prevailed in the 1880s just as the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas were settled, giving farmers a false sense of how well watered the region truly was.  In 1887, persistent drought began to rule the weather. Drought, coupled with falling grain prices due to international competition began to tighten credit in the farm districts, and served as a rude reminder how dependent farmers were upon both the grace of God and the almighty loan.  The woes of the agrarian districts of the South we have already cataloged; Southern farmers were also exposed to international competition in cotton production, and more than ever the farmers of the South’s upcountry districts found themselves ever more closely tied into the nexus of credit, finance and international competition. This exposure to the credit markets and international competition explained the continued expansion of cotton production in the South.  Also cotton, unlike most other agricultural commodities, could be held off the market, and it was liquid, farmers often referred to their harvested cotton as “money in the bank.” Given the economic thralldom in which the South was held, the regime of high tariffs, discriminatory freight rates, and tight credit, the money more often than not was found in the banks of Northern financial institutions.

When the populist eruption broke onto the scene of American politics, it was primarily a movement of Southern agrarians.  Nearly all of the leadership of the movement and the Populist Party were farmers or had significant ties to the land.  The foremost example of the latter was Tom Watson, a lawyer, a newspaper editor, and a farmer.  The widespread expansion of the telegraph and railroad brought the South’s rural districts direct daily exposure to the new industrial world, just as the local bankers, supply merchants, and country stores integrated the rural South into the credit nexus of late nineteenth century America.  This exposure to modern industrial America was subtle; daily life still followed many of the patterns established in the antebellum period.  Rural churches, many still served by itinerant preachers, were the central focus of community life, and not just the spiritual life of rural communities.  Often, they served as local meeting places were affairs temporal were addressed, the forerunner of the Populist Party, the Farmers’ Alliance, held local chapter meetings in these churches.  The courthouse and the local country store also served as an important center of community life. Even as the new industrial world made its presence felt in the rural South, the communities therein were still homogeneous in culture and conducted their relations on a personal, face-to face basis.

Rapidly, exposure turned into intrusion as the world of the rural South found the conditions of its daily life being more and more influenced, and in some aspects determined by people and conditions far removed from their communities. The proponents of the industrialized New South began to reach their country cousins via city dailies and county weeklies.  The pressing need for marketing facilities for crops and credit brought the people of the rural South into confrontation with more impersonal interactions with larger organizations who provided, or did not provide, these services.  Monetary and price deflation, in part a result of policies engineered in faraway New York and Washington D. C., squeezed many Southern and Western farmers out of profitability.  The Coinage Act of 1873, which ended bi-metalism and the production of silver dollars by the United States Treasury, combined with increased industrial and agricultural production resulted in widespread deflation. Crop prices, however, fell faster than the manufactured goods farmers relied upon to stay in business.  As farms in the South and West underwent a slow but sure mechanization trend, the effects of crop price deflation on many farmers’ profit margins made the purchase of innovative capital goods like the Deere plow, grain drills, new mechanized reapers and binders, and the first steam tractors an impossibility.

Not every farmer in the South and West went under, many weathered the challenges of the late nineteenth century and a few even prospered.  What did reign supreme in the rural areas of the South was prevalent insecurity.  People witnessed their indebted neighbors, folks with whom they attended church, to whom they may have been related by blood or marriage, whose lives they shared on a daily basis go under. Many of these people who lost their farms were good farmers, this reality undermined the old assurance that farming brought security and self-sufficiency.

The country response to what was viewed as the predations of the “court” was to bind together in organizations and oppose the far away metropolitans who rural people believed exercised an inordinate and malicious influence upon their lives. Cooperative organizations, such as The Patrons of Husbandry and others, began to spring up throughout the rural South and West. The cooperative movement attempted to pool resources to purchase the latest technology for common use, share best agricultural practices, and assist distressed neighbors. The creation of the Farmers’ Alliance in 1875 followed a similar cooperative pattern Ranchers in Lampas, Texas acted in cooperation to round up strays, hang horse thieves, and seek other avenues for mutually beneficent action.  Under Charles Macune, the son of a Methodist minister, the Farmers’ Alliance developed into a political and cooperative organization, and by the 1880s they actively sought alliances with the farmers’ alliance organizations in the North and the Knights of Labor.  At the same time black farmers founded the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union, which was especially influential for a time in Texas and North Carolina. In the 1880s, Farmers’ Alliance candidates were successfully contesting state elections in the South and West.

By 1892 the Populist Party burst onto the national scene and became the main torchbearer of the country’s resistance to the court.  The ideas that animated the party and informed the actions and policies of the Populist Party came from a number of sources.  From the Jeffersonian tradition the Populists received their view of farming and labor as wealth producing activities, while holding finance and credit in suspicion for not producing tangible wealth. Like Thomas Jefferson himself, the Populists viewed farming as an important locus of virtue.  The Jacksonian tradition reinforced the Populists’ fear of national banks and financiers, and their willingness to use political means on the federal level to limit the influence of these institutions and people.  The Populist Party’s Omaha Platform made wise of language that hearkened back to concepts that traced back to Country Party.  Over and over again the Platform expressed concerns with the injustice, the corruption of morals, the need for virtue, the fear of financial and economic enslavement, the country as the locus of public virtue, all concepts that the Country Party, the Southern patriots of the American Revolution, Jefferson and Jackson’s people, John C. Calhoun and his people, and many Confederates supported.  In addition, strong religious overtones from the evangelical tradition exerted their influence, as one minister declared that Populism stood for the “morals of Christ and politics of Thomas Jefferson.”

The policies of the Populist Party reflected many of the old country concepts as they were expressed through time, but Populists also embraced the notion of wresting control of the federal government from the court and using its powers to benefit the country.  Some Populist policies echoed those of the old Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, in particular the independent federal sub-treasury system.  A unique feature of the Populist version of the subtreasury was that farmers would be given storage facilities for their crops at the sub treasuries and could borrow up to 80% of the value of their store crop from the sub treasury.  The Populist support for ending protective tariffs was also centered in the Jeffersonian and Southern political tradition. Populist monetary policy was a mixed bag, most favored a re-monetization of silver and a few favored a fiat paper currency.  In other policy areas the Populists launched a campaign of direct action by the federal government on consolidated capital.  They supported a graduated income tax, government ownership of railroads, telegraph and telephone, and the direct election of senators.  Populists believed this last reform would combat the influence of railroad executives over the selection of senators by state legislatures.  The Populists also believed, and not without reason, that many state legislative assemblies were controlled or heavily influenced by the railroad companies.  Additional democratic reforms favored by the Populist Party included the recall of lawmakers, and the right of the people to influence legislation or directly legislate via petition and referendum.   

Many of the policies of the Populists favored the very government consolidation seen as dangerous to public virtue and opposed by the heirs to the principles of the Country Party. Indeed, how could the Populists who looked to the Jeffersonian tradition for inspiration advocate for such policies?  This is a fair question.  The Jacksonian heritage the Populists also drew from was more open to aggressive federal action than the Jeffersonians.  The settlement of Appomatox, as well as the influence of the railroads in the state legislatures, made appeals to state sovereignty moot in the view of many Populists.  At work too was a certain amount of political naivete on the part of many Populists.  Both the Democrats and Republicans had powerful incentives to undermine the Populists by all means fair and foul, and Populists over estimated their ability to capture the federal government and to overcome the significant divisions within their own ranks.  Nor did the Populists foresee the problem of regulatory capture that has married large capital to large government in seemingly perpetual union. It was the combination of internal divisions, effective political campaigning by the Democrats and Republicans, and co-option of many of the policies of the Populists by progressives in both the Democrat and Republican parties that led to the Populist Party’s demise. The Populist legacy is often measured by the policies of the party that were incorporated into the political life of America.  There were successes here: the graduated income tax, petition, recall, referendum, and direct election of senators.   None have had the specific effect hoped for by the Populists, namely limiting the influence of wealth and consolidated capital in the councils of the nation, and holding politicians directly accountable to the people.  Perhaps the true legacy of the Populist party was that it was the last great agrarian revolt, the last mass resistance offered by the country against an urbanized court of political and financial consolidationists.  As such it does still loom large in the minds of our political and financial elite.  Populist remains a pejorative term, and continues to operate as an expression of the fear the elite has of rural folk and the common person when they do not mind their political place.  Given the economic, cultural and political destitution of the rural South, and rural America in general, such a seemingly irrational fear on the part of the elite class is perhaps evidence the old conflict between court and country still plays a formative role in the political imagination of America    

John Devanny

John Devanny holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina. Dr. Devanny resides in Front Royal, Virginia, where he writes, tends garden, and occasionally escapes to bird hunt or fly fish..

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