- Populism and Imperialism: Politics, Culture, and Foreign Policy in the American West, 1890-1900 by Nathan Jessen
This book deals with the decade corresponding to the rise and decline of Populism, and focuses on Nebraska, Colorado, and Washington. This is an interesting selection of states, as it includes Nebraska, a typical agrarian Great Plains state, and Colorado, both a Plains state and a mountain region, adding the impact of the silver mining interests. The inclusion of Washington, a distinctly different subregion of the West, allows comparisons to the others. Jessen's research is solidly based on reputable secondary sources and a wide range of primary sources such as politicians and journalists from these three states. Some of Jessen's material reinforces our general understanding of Populists—for example, the ambiguity of their confidence in the federal government—wanting federal regulation of big business and yet fearful of the growth of federal power.
On other matters, Jessen adds some new insights—arguing, for example, that parts of the Populists' agenda were never very popular in the West. Much of the book focuses on the impact of foreign policy on the fortunes of the Populists' reform agenda. Jessen contends that most of what has been written about the anti-imperialists focuses on elites from the Northeast, and western resistance to expansionism has largely been ignored. The Spanish American War, and the subsequent debate over American imperialism, added a complicating factor that doomed the Populists' chances for victory in 1900.
While the debate over imperialism caused schisms among the reformers, most western Populists opposed expansionism and tied imperialism to the "money power" of the industrialists, warning that the forces that kept colonial peoples in a subservient state of dependency might be used to control the farmers and workers in the United States. Jessen concludes that these new issues contributed to the defeat of Populism in 1900. Opponents of the war and of President McKinley's policies left themselves open to charges of being unpatriotic and lacking support for the American fighting men. Many western politician and journalists [End Page 327] abandoned or toned down their support of reform to avoid these charges, leading to a Republican victory in many parts of the West that had supported Bryan in 1896. This is a solid book that will inform research and teaching on both the western Populists and the debate over imperialism.
University of Jamestown