PEOPLE'S PARTY PLATFORM
Farmers as a group did not share in the general prosperity of the latter nineteenth century, and believed that they had been marked out as special victims of the new industrial system. Beginning in the 1870s, they attempted in a number of ways to mount an effective political campaign to rectify what they saw as the corruption of government and economic power, which they attributed to big businesses and railroads. In fact, much of the farmers' plight was due to factors unrelated to industrialization, such as fluctuations in international markets for corn and wheat. But perceptions are often more important than reality, and American farmers believed that the democratic system of their forebears was being subverted.
The most successful of the agrarian political movements was the People's Party, or the Populist Party, which after the 1892 presidential campaign appeared to have the strength to become a potent force in American politics. Its strength lay primarily in the southern and midwestern states, the agricultural heartland of the nation, although its leaders tried to reach out and attract eastern workers.
The People's Party platform of 1896 is notable for several reasons. First, it summed up two decades of resentment by farmers against a system that they believed ignored their needs and mercilessly exploited them. But it was not just big business to which they objected. The Populists worried that the alliance between business and government would destroy American democracy, and the various proposals they put forward had two aims. The goal was not just to relieve economic pressure on agriculture, but also to restore democracy by eliminating what the Populists saw as the corrupt and corrupting alliance between business and government.
Although considered radical at the time, many of these proposals, such as the direct election of senators and the income tax, would move into the political mainstream and be adopted over the next few decades. The platform in many ways set the reform agenda of the country during the years prior to World War I.
The Populist Party disappeared after the election of 1896, absorbed for the most part into the Democratic Party.
For further reading: John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt (1931); Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955); and Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Movement (1978).
PEOPLE'S PARTY PLATFORM (1896)
The People's Party, assembled in National Convention, reaffirms its allegiance to the principles declared by the founders of the Republic, and also to the fundamental principles of just government as enunciated in the platform of the party in 1892.
We recognize that through the connivance of the present and preceding Administrations the country has reached a crisis in its National life, as predicted in our declaration four years ago, and that prompt and patriotic action is the supreme duty of the hour.
We realize that, while we have political independence, our financial and industrial independence is yet to be attained by restoring to our country the Constitutional control and exercise of the functions necessary to a people's government, which functions have been basely surrendered by our public servants to corporate monopolies. The influence of European moneychangers has been more potent in shaping legislation than the voice of the American people. Executive power and patronage have been used to corrupt our legislatures and defeat the will of the people, and plutocracy has thereby been enthroned upon the ruins of democracy. To restore the Government intended by the fathers, and for the welfare and prosperity of this and future generations, we demand the establishment of an economic and financial system which shall make us masters of our own affairs and independent of European control, by the adoption of the following declarations of principles:
1. We demand a National money, safe and sound, issued by the General Government only, without the intervention of banks of issue, to be a full legal tender for all debts, public and private; a just, equitable, and efficient means of distribution, direct to the people, and through the lawful disbursements of the Government.
2. We demand the free and unrestricted coinage of silver and gold at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1, without waiting for the consent of foreign nations.
3. We demand that the volume of circulating medium be speedily increased to an amount sufficient to meet the demand of the business and population, and to restore the just level of prices of labor and production.
4. We denounce the sale of bonds and the increase of the public interest-bearing debt made by the present Administration as unnecessary and without authority of law, and demand that no more bonds be issued, except by specific act of Congress.
5. We demand such legislation as will prevent the demonetization of the lawful money of the United States by private contract.
6. We demand that the Government, in payment of its obligation, shall use its option as to the kind of lawful money in which they are to be paid, and we denounce the present and preceding Administrations for surrendering this option to the holders of Government obligations.
7. We demand a graduated income tax, to the end that aggregated wealth shall bear its just proportion of taxation, and we regard the recent decision of the Supreme Court relative to the income-tax as a misinterpretation of the Constitution and an invasion of the rightful powers of Congress over the subject of taxation.
8. We demand that postal savings-banks be established by the Government for the safe deposit of the savings of the people and to facilitate exchange.
Railroads and Telegraphs
1. Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the Government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people and on a non-partisan basis, to the end that all may be accorded the same treatment in transportation, and that the tyranny and political power now exercised by the great railroad corporations, which result in the impairment, if not the destruction of the political rights and personal liberties of the citizens, may be destroyed. Such ownership is to be accomplished gradually, in a manner consistent with sound public policy.
2. The interest of the United States in the public highways built with public moneys, and the proceeds of grants of land to the Pacific railroads, should never be alienated, mortgaged, or sold, but guarded and protected for the general welfare, as provided by the laws organizing such railroads. The foreclosure of existing liens of the United States on these roads should at once follow default in the payment thereof by the debtor companies; and at the foreclosure sales of said roads the Government shall purchase the same, if it becomes necessary to protect its interests therein, or if they can be purchased at a reasonable price; and the Government shall operate said railroads as public highways for the benefit of the whole people, and not in the interest of the few, under suitable provisions for protection of life and property, giving to all transportation interests equal privileges and equal rates for fares and freight.
3. We denounce the present infamous schemes for refunding these debts, and demand that the laws now applicable thereto be executed and administered according to their intent and spirit.
4. The telegraph, like the Post Office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the Government in the interest of the people.
The Public Lands
1. True policy demands that the National and State legislation shall be such as will ultimately enable every prudent and industrious citizen to secure a home, and therefore the land should not be monopolized for speculative purposes. All lands now held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs should by lawful means be reclaimed by the Government and held for actual settlers only, and private land monopoly, as well as alien ownership, should be prohibited.
2. We condemn the land grant frauds by which the Pacific railroad companies have through the connivance of the Interior Department, robbed multitudes of bona-fide settlers of their homes and miners of their claims, and we demand legislation by Congress which will enforce the exemption of mineral land from such grants after as well before the patent.
3. We demand that bona-fide settlers on all public lands be granted free homes, as provided in the National Homestead Law, and that no exception be made in the case of Indian reservations when opened for settlement, and that all lands not now patented come under this demand.
We favor a system of direct legislation through the initiative and referendum, under proper Constitutional safeguards.
Direct Election of President and Senators by the People
We demand the election of President, Vice-President, and United States Senators by a direct vote of the people...
We favor home rule in the Territories and the District of Columbia, and the early admission of the Territories as States.
All public salaries should be made to correspond to the price of labor and its products.
Employment to Be Furnished by Government
In times of great industrial depression, idle labor should be employed on public works as far as practicable.
Arbitrary Judicial Action
The arbitrary course of the courts in assuming to imprison citizens for indirect contempt and ruling by injunctions should be prevented by proper legislation.
We favor pensions for our disabled Union soldiers.
A Fair Ballot
Believing that the elective franchise and an untrammeled ballot are essential to a government of, for, and by the people, the People's party condemns the wholesale system of disfranchisement adopted in some States as unrepublican and undemocratic, and we declare it to be the duty of the several State legislatures to take such actions as will secure a full, free and fair ballot and an honest count.
The Financial Question "The Pressing Issue"
While the foregoing propositions constitute the platform upon which our party stands, and for the vindication of which its organization will be maintained, we recognize that the great and pressing issue of the pending campaign, upon which the present election will turn, is the financial question, and upon this great and specific issue between the parties we cordially invite the aid and co-operation of all organizations and citizens agreeing with us upon this vital question.
Source: National Party Platforms, 1840-1972 (Johnson and Porter, eds., 1973), 104.
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