- The Populist Vision
For the better part of a century scholars have remained fascinated by the American Populist movement, and for good reason. One of the most successful third-party endeavors ever, the Populists brought a sweeping late nineteenth century reform agenda regularly realized after the party had long faded. In a splendid contribution to Populist historiography, Charles Postel revisits the farm reform movement and asks us to consider their largely successful reconciliation with the changing modern world around them. While previous historians have examined what the Populists opposed, notably monopolistic power, Postel is instead interested in what farm reformers were for. Rather than typifying a backward-looking traditionalism skeptical of modernity, he argues, Alliance members and later Populists embraced the contemporary and progressive policies, thoughts, and values that surrounded them as the nation moved toward the twentieth century.
Born from the frustrations of late nineteenth century farmers and out of farm and labor reform organizations such as the Grange and Knights of Labor, the Farmers' Alliance movement voiced a growing agrarian discontent. Led in its formative years by the capable, business-minded Charles Macune of Texas, the National Alliance saw unprecedented growth, despite exclusion of non-whites, during the 1880s. This organization caused optimism about the place farm reformers would hold in modern America. Far from disinterested intellectually—as Alliance members have been cast by previous historians—Postel argues that farm reformers embraced education and science as means of bettering their lot. Hence Alliance organizers like Leonidas Polk advocated for an agricultural college, newspapers, and grassroots educational societies for farmers. Lectures, the press, and the schoolhouse all helped farmers think of themselves as active participants in broader business and world affairs. And rural women joined the Alliance for many of the same reasons as male members, but appreciated that unlike other national organizations, the Alliance also gave rights to women within its ranks. With over 250,000 female members of the Alliance by 1890, women hoped they could begin to challenge traditional notions of the woman's sphere in the home and employment. Membership aside, the Alliance also worked to create cooperatives to further challenge trusts. From wheat to beets, farmers hoped to enter into cooperative agreements for warehousing, grain elevators, and other agricultural necessities to create a "Farmer's Trust." A model for many other Alliance cooperatives, the Texas Farmers' Alliance Exchange boasted a solid-brick headquarters built four stories high—a symbol of the exchange's voluminous role in agricultural trade it ironically, as some pointed out, formed a monopoly not unlike those it opposed. From these business endeavors and interactions with cooperatives, Postel contends, Alliance activists were almost unavoidably drawn into politics.
In Part II, Postel examines the rise of the Populist Party of the 1890s. Inspired by antipartyism and political forefathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson that fought "the interests," Populists hoped for unparalleled regulation of America's railroad and banking systems, as well as an extension of democracy in the form of direct election of U.S. senators and the Australian ballot. Yet as Postel explains, both a Populist oligarchy ran affairs and the race issue plagued the young party. The Populist Party was, after all, for whites only and while many African-American farm reformers optimistically sided with the party, Postel reveals the trepidation many Populists held at the idea of racial mixing and how black hopes for a truly egalitarian party were quashed. While [End Page 289] racial integration into the party proved problematic, organizers did make an earnest effort at including "labor" Populists and other "nonconformist" refomers that came from Single Tax, Bellamy Club, or cooperative colony backgrounds. And while others have been quick to characterize the Populists as filled with pious Christians, Postel finishes by explaining how their ranks were instead populated by religious innovators, notably liberal Christians, non-Christians, and even non-Western religious thought. The Populists had, indeed, inherent ties to Protestantism, or at the least moral law. But, typical of the Populist embrace of progressive ideas, the party had agnostics, spiritualists, theosophists, and more. For Postel, the party...