Populism and the Omaha Platform of 1892

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The Omaha Platform of the People’s Party identified the two major political parties with corruption and indifference toward farmers and working class Americans.

On July 4, 1892, the newly formed People’s Party adopted the Omaha Platform, a statement of resolutions designed to eliminate the problems faced by American farmers and factory workers. The observations found in the document’s Preamble could well be made at other times in American history such as the Great Depression and the current economic recession. According to the populist views, “We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder…” The Omaha Platform was radical, yet it correctly depicted national conditions “for which there is no precedent.”

Plight of the Farmers in the Gilded Age Leads to the Omaha Platform of the People’s Party

The period of the 1890s saw a significant drop in agricultural prices, most notably in wheat and cotton. Although railroad freighting rates had also been lowered, farmers in the West as well as the South were hit hard by decreasing prices, rising labor costs, and increased competition in foreign markets. They perceived that government was corrupt and in close partnership with business leaders and bankers. The conclusion, as stated in the Omaha Platform, was that from the “prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes – tramps and millionaires.”

Remedies Proposed by the Omaha Platform

A key demand of the platform was for a safe national currency “without the use of banking corporations…” This included the free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold as well as a graduated income tax. The People’s Party called for the nationalization of railroads and communications industries such as the telegraph and telephone.

The platform also addressed electoral concerns, demanding a secret ballot and fair elections untainted by corruption or bribery. Another resolution in the platform supported “liberal” pensions for former Union soldiers, although this clause may have been added in order to entice the votes of the many war veterans living in Northern states.

The People’s Party in the South Involved Blacks and Whites

There had been great reluctance among Southern populists to bolt the Democratic Party in favor of the People’s Party. Populist leaders preferred to work within the established party to achieve reformist goals. When it became apparent that Democrats in the South were using the populists to gain votes but failing to support reform measures, Southern populists joined their western counterparts. What was very significant in the South, however, involved the unity of blacks and whites in working toward populist reforms. In some jurisdictions, blacks actually achieved electoral victories in local elections, largely with the help of white populists.

State of the Nation in the Omaha Platform Favored the Wealthy and Upper Classes

The Preamble of the platform outlines the American state of affairs in 1892: “Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress…” Newspapers were “muzzled” or “subsidized,” meaning that the only media outlets were controlled by the very people intent on protecting their lucrative positions of power and wealth.

The platform addressed union organizing and efforts to hinder this practice. “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up the fortunes of the few.” Sounding much like contemporary critics, the committee writers referred to “homes covered with mortgages” and the evils of the big banking interests that managed the economy in order to maximize profits for the very few.

Lessons of the Omaha Platform Address On-Going Political Reform

The People’s Party did not last, although populism would continue into the next century, transformed by new issues or finally addressing issues originally raised in 1892 like the national income tax or electoral reform. The People’s Party may well have opened the door to political centrism, the mugwumpery of the early 20th Century. Another important lesson must be that when national conditions become intolerable to everyday Americans, they will appeal to the ideal of recreating a “more perfect union” representative of the people.

Sources:

  1. “The Omaha Platform,” National Economist (Washington, DC: July 9, 1892)
  2. Page Smith, The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era (New York: Penguin Books, 1984)
  3. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (on-line edition)
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