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Populism

Quenemo Glee Club pamphlet in Kansas MemoryFarmers in Kansas experienced a series of difficult years from the late 1880s to the early 1890s. Droughts caused crop failures and many farmers faced debt and the loss of their farms to foreclosure. A number of farmers left the state during those years. Those who stayed asked the state government for assistance.

The Farmers’ Alliance movement was growing in the South and Midwest. The group promoted higher prices for produce and felt that the government’s responsibility was to represent farmers rather than big business. In their view, railroads, banks, and other businesses received more support from government.

Out of this dissension came the People’s Party, a reform movement with roots across the country but particularly strong in Kansas. These “Populists” wanted to change the monetary system to make currency more readily available; to create income tax with a sliding scale based on earnings; to put railroads, telegraph, and telephones under government control; to prevent foreign ownership of land; and to overhaul the election process, giving the public more control.

Champions of populism wrote newspaper articles and toured the country delivering lectures on the reform movement. Mary Elizabeth Lease and Annie Diggs, both of Kansas, became popular advocates of the People’s Party. Though the two women disagreed on certain principles, they each helped place Populist candidates in office. Lease became one of the best-known Populists in the state. She believed in racial and gender equality and claimed, “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.” Diggs wrote for Populist newspapers and “became convinced that the reforms which we sought were after all economical rather than moral questions.”

To place the Populist message in the hands of the public, the party distributed books, pamphlets, and broadsides. These materials included essays on party platforms, treatises on financial reform, campaign brochures, notices of lectures, songs of protest, and banners to promote the party agenda. Several Populist presses printed the materials in the state. At lectures, rallies, and campaign events, Populists gave away and sold their literature.

As a result of the efforts, Populist candidates in the South and Midwest won elections in 1890. The party took control of the Kansas legislature when 92 Populists were voted into office. Two years later more candidates from the People’s Party were elected. These Populist candidates included Governor Lorenzo Lewelling and all other statewide officials. Jeremiah Simpson of Medicine Lodge was elected in 1890 to serve in the U.S. Congress. He earned the nickname “Sockless Jerry” for criticizing the extravagance of his opponent’s stockings. William Peffer of Topeka was the first Populist to serve as U.S. senator. Peffer, who served one term, had been involved with the national organization of the People’s Party and believed that government’s role was to “serve all the people, not only a few.”

Both the Republican and Populist parties claimed victory in the Kansas House elections in 1892. A number of contests were still being disputed when the legislative session began in January 1893. The conflict between the parties reached a crisis when the Populists locked themselves in the House Hall. The Republicans used a sledgehammer to break down the doors to the hall. The governor requested support from the state militia. After a three-day standoff, Governor Lewelling was able to negotiate an agreement with the Republican speaker of the house, which amounted to a Populist surrender. The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the Republicans.

William Allen White, the outspoken editor of the Emporia Gazette, sternly criticized the Populists in an editorial in 1896. “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” became popular with the Republican Party and was reprinted in national newspapers. By the late 1890s Kansas Republicans had regained control of the legislature and state offices.

Entry: Populism

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2010

Date Modified: June 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.