- The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism by Walter Nugent
Fifty years after the publication of the first edition of The Tolerant Populists, Walter Nugent and the University of Chicago Press offer this second, anniversary edition “to do some unfinished business” (xi). Readers of the original, 1963 edition of the classic work on the history and character of Kansas Populism may wonder, at first, what unfinished business Nugent refers to. The Tolerant Populists is widely accepted as a definitive, highly influential work that prompted a major shift in the historiography of the Populist movement. Seeking, in 1963, to “revise without rancor” (xvii), Nugent challenged the assertion that “the original, 1890s Populists were nativists and anti-Semites and also the root of the anti-Semitism and nativism of twentieth-century America” (ix). He did so by focusing on Kansas, “the heartland of Great Plains Populism” (25), and by examining an array of primary source material.
In his analysis of Kansas elections, 1888–1900, Nugent used nearly two hundred newspapers as well as an impressive variety of other printed material and ephemera on the Populist movement. He concluded that “In the case of Kansas, the largest of the wheatbelt Populist states” (173), characterizations of the Populists as nativist, anti-Semitic, chauvinist, and conspiracy-minded were not borne out by the facts and “should be replaced with a viewpoint so much in contrast as to be practically the opposite” (174). The Kansas Populists, Nugent found, were eager to include foreign-born peoples in the effort to use government to end political corruption and curb unregulated economic power. Although he was not the first historian to make these arguments, Nugent propelled the historiographical debate on Populism forward by providing the first book-length, primary-source-based work countering depictions of 1890s Populists as intolerant demagogues. After several decades, as Nugent writes, “the verdict was clear that the nativism and anti-Semitism accusations were not sustained” (xi). [End Page 119]
What unfinished business, then, does Nugent tend to in this anniversary edition? Not a great deal. The second edition differs from the first only in terms of corrections of anachronisms and the addition of a second preface. Nugent admits that if writing The Tolerant Populists today, he would pay greater attention to issues of race and gender, yet no such revisions are made. Instead, Nugent focuses the thrust of the new preface on urging a “rehearing and reawakening” of “the message of the real Populists” in light of today’s “Second Gilded Age” (xi, xv). Whether the fiftieth-anniversary edition inspires readers to follow in the footsteps of the 1890s Populists or not, The Tolerant Populists remains required reading for anyone interested in understanding the nature of the Populist movement and its impact on the history of the Great Plains.
University of Nebraska– Lincoln