The Populist Movement in the Northwest


The Populist, Progressive, and Socialist Movements grew in strength during the period from about 1880 to 1916, but were co-opted by the adoption of many of the reforms.

Populism was born amid the general despair of the Panic of 1893 and the four year depression that followed. Populists in all three Northwest states supported reforms such as government ownership of utilities and railroads, a graduated income tax on the rich and measures to stem the tide of the depression including the free coinage of silver. In the Northwest the populist movement seemed to gain momentum from the Anti-Chinese sentiment of the 1880s. Oregon elected a populist Democrat in 1886, Sylvester Pennoyer. Pennoyer used anti Chinese sentiment to propel his campaign. In Washington similar tactics won control of Seattle’s municipal government in 1886.

National Populist Politics

General James B. Weaver was the Populist candidate for President in 1892 and won the state of Idaho with 55 percent of the vote although he received only nine percent nationwide. He won 22 electoral votes of the 444 possible. The free coinage of silver was, however, the driving force behind the populist movement and its national advocate, William Jennings Bryan. In 1896, Bryan ran for President as the candidate of both the Democratic and Populist Parties but lost to William McKinley. In that same year Idaho elected a Populist governor, Frank Steunenberg. Meanwhile, Washington voters elected twenty-three Populist legislators in 1894, all but eliminating the Democratic Party in the state. In the years that followed, however, the Populists were defeated and the Republicans gain almost total control of the state governments in all three Northwest States.

The Progressive Movement in Oregon

The Progressive movement was born out of the fire of the Populist Party. It never became a national party like the Populist Party but progressive principles were endorsed by a variety of candidates, primarily within the progressive wing of the Republican Party, the more “liberal” party as compared with the Democratic Party at the time. Within the Northwest, the Progressives had many heroes, notably William S. U’Ren of Oregon, who, although he served but a single term in the state legislature, was influential in Oregon politics for a number of years and was a strong advocate for progressive reforms such as direct election of U. S. Senators and the President, the initiative, referendum, and recall, measures widely copied in other states, including Washington and Idaho.

The Progressive Movement in Washington

In Washington, Progressives elected in 1908 a Governor, Marian Hay and a Congressman from Spokane, Miles Poindexter, who was later, in 1910 elected to the U. S. Senate. Poindexter was an outspoken member of the Progressive Republican block known as “insurgents,” who revolted against the leadership of the Republican Congress between 1909 and 1912. In 1912, he supported the progressive Roosevelt over Taft. He was reelected in 1916 and unsuccessfully ran for President in 1920, losing the Republican nomination to Warren Harding. Poindexter was instrumental and gained national recognition in the Senate fight against the League of Nations. His ideas and beliefs supported the “red scare” of 1919-1920. When he ran for President in 1920, it was a anti communist, pro business platform. He had lost his progressive vision. In 1922 he was defeated by a Progressive Democrat, Clarence. C. Dill also of Spokane.

Roosevelt and the Progressives

Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party in 1912. Despite the fact that Roosevelt won every primary Taft was nominated after dozens of ballets because he had the support of the party. Roosevelt felt the nomination had been stolen form him so he ran for president as a Progressive, splitting the Republican vote and handing Wilson the victory. A forth candidate in this election was the socialist Eugene Debs who was running for the fourth time and received about seven percent of the vote. Wilson won with forth-two percent of the popular vote but 435 of 531 possible electoral votes.

Eugene Debs and the Socialists

Eugene Debs received about 12 percent of the popular vote in Washington State during the election of 1912 but the state was still won by the Progressive, Roosevelt, which demonstrates how the Northwest differed from the national pattern with respect to both the Populist and the Progressive movements. The Northwest seemed to be more progressive than the rest of the country, perhaps because of their frontier heritage, or their sense of independence.

The Legancy of the Populists and Progressives

By 1920, many reforms had been adopted: Women had the right to vote, the political process was democratized by the direct election of Senators, a graduated income tax had been adopted, working conditions were safer and more sanitary, child labor was outlawed, the condition of women workers was improved, the general level of public health had improved with regulations for many industries especially those that dealt with perishable foods, and commissions had been establish to regulate railroads and other public transportation and services. The Populists, Progressives, and Socialists seldom took power, but they did not need to. When their programs gained the acceptance of a sufficient number of people to make them politically popular, the politicians, being politicians, got the reforms passed.


  1. Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest, An Interpretive History, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996)