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The Greenback and the Populist Political Parties, Essay Example

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The inflation of the Civil War, the depression of the 1870s, and the national recession of 1873set the stage for the Greenback Party and its more important descendent, the Populists. The Greenback Party was formed in 1874 and its key issue was inflation. It is notable how quickly constitutional approval of redistribution through inflation produced a party dedicated to exactly that aim. The Greenback Party appealed to poor farmers in the south and west who had dollar-denominated debts that had become increasingly more onerous with the deflation of the 1870s. The Supreme Court had accepted the government’s right to inflate in 1871. The Grant administration had used that power to increase the value of currency in a move that was seen as supporting relatively wealthy creditors. The Greenbacks wanted to use the power of the government to redistribute towards debtors and their support came primarily from poor, indebted agriculturalists.Weakest in the South, the party grew stronger in the central and western United States and made its biggest gains, thanks to working-class supporters, in the East. But after the 1878 elections, the party’s internal divisions, especially between western agrarians and eastern labor activists, pulled it apart.

After 1880, the Greenback Party dissolved but its supporters gradually formed a more important political movement: The Populists. Throughout the 1880s, farmers’ groups, which eventually referred them as the People’s Party, had been politically organizing. By 1890, Populists had taken control of the Kansas state legislature and elected their first senator. In 1891, in a fusion of farmers’ alliance and the Knights of Labor, the Populist Party was itself formed. This party, even more than the Greenback-Labor party, represented the first major party in U.S. history dedicated to redistribution from rich to poor.

Almost twenty years later, the next battle to unite farmers and workers emerged. This time the Populists, again stressing the evils of a corrupt financial system, turned to workers for support. In much of the South and West and in mining areas in Illinois and Ohio, working people joined the Populist crusade. Wage earners actually dominated the movement in states like Montana and Colorado and wooed farmed to join them. The leaders of the Knights of Labor, a wilting organization by the early 1890s, threw their fortunes together with the People’s Party, founded in 1892.

The Populist’s party platform of 1892 included provisions for a graduated income tax, more generous pensions, public ownership of railroads, and expropriation of land held by foreigners. But their primary focus was on inflation, and the first two demands of their 1892 platform were that “the amount of circulating medium is speedily increased”. This monetization of silver would have significantly inflated the currency and would have reduced the real value of existing nominal debts, important to the people with debts whom the Populists saw themselves as representing. As if to underscore their debt to the Greenback Party, they nominated the Greenbacks’ old warhorse, James Weaver, in the 1892 election.

Since the Populists’ policies were pro-poor and inevitably pro-black, the Populists looked to black votes. This alliance between white and black Populists led southern Populist politicians to urge interracial tolerance and to attack racism. Tom Watson is one of the leading politicians of Populists Party.  However, as Populists’ policies aided the blacks and as Populists actively reached out for black support, the enemies of Populism turned to race hatred. Anti-black hysteria was furthered by politicians and the press who sought to use racial antagonism as a means of distracting class-based politics.

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