Lecture 5: The Populist Revolt


The People's Party, or Populist Party, was a third-party movement of the 1890s whereby farmers organized to pursue their own political interests. Although the Populists came to power only briefly and regionally, they were important to the American political tradition—for reasons explained in this lecture.



Third-party movements in the U.S. are difficult, because they run up against a constitutional system that favors the two-party system.

Origins of the Populist Revolt

The Populist Revolt of the 1890s was rooted in the farm problems of the era, such as middle men, deflation, and debt.  The Grange was an earlier attempt to organize farmers and promote their interests.  The Farmer’s Alliance followed the Grange, but unlike its predecessor, the Alliance entered partisan politics in 1890.

The People’s Party

The People’s Party, or Populist Party, made its bid for political power in the 1890s.  A farm-based party, it did rather well in the election of 1892.  In subsequent campaigns the Populists became known for their charismatic campaign style and for their challenge to industrial power.  In time the issue of silver coinage, intended to solve the problem of deflation, took over the Populist movement.  In 1896 the Populists, emphasizing the silver issue, threw in with the Democrats to support William Jennings Bryan for the presidency—but lost.

Legacies of Populism

Although they failed to achieve power, the Populists left important legacies for the American political system: their rhetoric, their redefinition of the national issues, and their assertion of the tradition of agrarian radicalism.

Epilogue for Dorothy

Is there a connection between Lyman Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz and the Populist movement?

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“The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People in America”

Sovereignty is where power comes from, where the power lies. It seems appropriate that in connection with lecture material on the People's Party, we should read about the sovereignty of the people.


·         Tocqueville says, "The people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe." If that were so, then why did the Populist movement arise outside the regular political parties?

·         Tocqueville also says that "the wily and despotic of every age" would abuse the idea of "the will of the nation." What is he talking about here?


George Mason University presents The Cross of Gold, by William Jennings Bryan

Film Review

A Corner in Wheat

Short silent film by D. W. Griffith that raises powerfully populist themes about monopoly and agriculture.

Book Review

Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of OZ

Decide for yourself if Baum is writing about Populism.

Kazin, A Godly Hero

Biography of William Jennings Bryan, political crusader and religious fundamentalist.