William Jennings Bryan beating the drum of populism, cover of 'Puck' magazine, 1901. Credit: Library of Congress.

People’s Choice

A History of Populism

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have packed the stadiums as they make their case for the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nomination. Many pundits have labeled them 21st century “populists.” But invoking the “voice of the people” is a tradition as old as the country itself.

On this episode of BackStory, the hosts trace populism’s influence on American politics—from mob justice in colonial Massachusetts to the White House’s first outsider, Andrew Jackson. BackStory will explore how farmers built a mass movement around monetary reform in the late 19th century and how politicians have capitalized on the tradition of riling up the masses. How have populist movements inspired—and sometimes frightened—the electorate? And how does populism impact our politics today?

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this {article, book, exhibition, film, program, database, report, Web resource}, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. Plenty of voters are fed up with the political establishment. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders say they are, too. But does that make them populists, as many pundits claim?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Trump is the billionaire populist, and then you’ve got Sanders, who’s the socialist populist.

PETER: Trump and Sanders are unlikely political bedfellows. But in the 19th century during the original populist movement, economic distress forged some surprising political alliances.

OMAR ALI: There were these very moving moments of African Americans working with poor white people who were Confederate soldiers.

PETER: Today on BackStory, the history of populism, from the demagoguery of George Wallace to early forms of populist protest, like the smallpox riots in colonial Massachusetts.

PAUL GILJE: You have people throwing rocks and demonstrating against the richer people who could afford inoculation.

PETER: Coming up on BackStory, populism in America. Don’t go away.

Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

Welcome to the show. I’m Ed Ayers, here with Peter Onuf–

PETER: Hey, Ed.

ED: And Brian Balough.

BRIAN: Hey there, Ed. We’re going to begin today with a word that’s awfully popular these days. If you’ve been watching the 24-hour news networks in the last few months, chances are you’ve heard it– a lot.


FEMALE SPEAKER: Yes, absolutely.

FEMALE SPEAKER: That’s kind of the populist thing.

MALE SPEAKER: Most of this country right now is populist on the far right and the far left.

MALE SPEAKER: Populist from the Democrats means grow government. Populist from the conservative side means shrink government.

MALE SPEAKER: Populist range.

MALE SPEAKER: Populist economics.





MALE SPEAKER: What is the opposite of populist? What would be the antithesis of that?

BRIAN: Those are voices from Fox Business, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News using the political buzzword “populist” to describe everything from Hillary Clinton’s economic policies to Donald Trump’s poll numbers. Now, of course, populism isn’t a new idea in American politics. But hearing pundits throw the label on so many politicians and so many policies made us wonder, does anyone even know what it means to be a populist?

The word comes from the Latin for “the people,” so we thought we would ask actual people, or a cross section of locals, tourists, and students in New York City’s Washington Square Park. How would you define populism?

MALE SPEAKER: That is an enormously hard question.

MALE SPEAKER: Populism? I don’t know what that means.

MALE SPEAKER: It’s hard to describe exactly populist. There’s too many definitions.

MALE SPEAKER: I probably come across the term when I’m looking at the New York Times or something, but I’m drawing a blank.

FEMALE SPEAKER: I don’t know. I don’t know what a populist movement is. I can’t define something that I don’t know what the definition is.

MALE SPEAKER: You’re looking for one definition?

BRIAN: Ed, I’ve got to admit, that’s a pretty tough question to come up with one definition. How about an easier question, like what ideas do you associate with populism?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Would it be similar to the colonists and the Loyalists, because the colonists felt like they didn’t have representation?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Maybe what’s popular in [INAUDIBLE] for the most number of people.

MALE SPEAKER: I’m going to say communism, but it sounds like– it doesn’t sound like capitalism to me.

MALE SPEAKER: Well, I think it was mostly a movement of the late 19th century, I guess.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Weren’t they a group of farmers?

MALE SPEAKER: Something like the Tea Party.

MALE SPEAKER: Donald Trump.

MALE SPEAKER: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would be populists since they have a lot of people rallying around them.

PETER: So, populism.

BRIAN: What did you hear, Peter?

PETER: Oh, Bernie Sanders.

BRIAN: Yeah. I heard 19th century farmers, Tea Party.

PETER: How about colonists, Loyalists?

BRIAN: There you go, Ed. You’re all set.

ED: Well, that was very helpful, I thought. In fact, some of those descriptions of populism actually– get this– have a basis in history. There is a tradition of popular discontent that dates all the way back to the patriots, and there was a political party the farmers in the late 19th century called The Populists. But here’s the problem– populism is a very spongy concept, as we just heard. The Oxford English Dictionary defines populist as, quote, support for or representation of ordinary people or their views. But who the ordinary people are and what their views are changes throughout American history.


PETER: So today on this show, we’re going to look at what populism has meant to everyone from colonists to Baby Boomers. We’ll find out what the term has to do with riots in the 18th century and one segregationist during the Civil Rights Movement. We’ll also hear what happened when the people took over a president’s inauguration.

BRIAN: Hey, Peter, Ed, here’s an idea– to begin to try to understand what this phrase populism is all about, why don’t we go back to the real historical movement called the populist squarely at the end of your century, the 19th century, Ed?

ED: Yeah. It actually was a period that took over 25 years to grow. And like today’s things, which seem to grow like mushrooms, this Populist Party–

PETER: It had roots.

ED: All across the South, all across the West– places you wouldn’t expect to see a radical movement. But this is the largest third party political revolt in American history with the Populists, or as they call themselves, the People’s Party. And the basic idea was that they believed that they were the real producers of the nation, they were feeding the nation, and yet the money system in particular was rigged against them so that what they grew was worth less every year, and no politicians were listening to them.

BRIAN: Even though they were the majority. And they were, right?

ED: Exactly. And so all their agenda grows out of these linked concerns. So they want to have a warehouse built in every county in the country so that they can store their crops and sell them when prices is advantageous. They want to have direct election of senators so that people will listen to the majority of the voice. They’re interested in instituting an income tax so that the people who are preying on the producers will find themselves carrying their share. And unfortunately, sometimes they’re looking for somebody to blame for all this. A lot of times, it’s the politicians, the Democrats and Republicans. But other times, it’s immigrants, it’s African American people, it’s anybody.

BRIAN: Jewish bankers, I know.

ED: Jewish bankers figure prominently in a lot their cartoons, Brian. So you can see, it’s a deep, broad, dynamic movement that puts a lot of really important things on the table that we’re still wrestling with today.

BRIAN: And they thought history was on their side, right?

ED: They did think history– that’s another reason they were befuddled. And Peter–

BRIAN: I’m looking at you, Peter.

ED: They say that we are the great American tradition.

PETER: Well, it’s a sense of righteousness that we are the people articulating our power to rule and govern ourselves. We declared independence. It wasn’t Thomas Jefferson. And it was the people who mobilized against British rule in places like Boston. The Boston Tea Party is a good example.

BRIAN: So you’re talking about mobs.

PETER: Exactly. But this was a mob with dignity, a mob with a higher purpose, and that was to enable the people. They represented– they embodied– literally embodied– to govern themselves.

ED: And that sounds so good. So Brian, you may be wondering, why the heck don’t we still have the Populist Party today? And ironically, they found a charismatic leader, William Jennings Bryan, who led them right into the Democratic Party, and they watered down all that array of demands that they had to just one thing– let us have silver instead of gold base for our currency, and it will raise the value of our crops. And they gave away everything else. William Jennings Bryan loses, and the Populist movement just disappears.

So that’s how people on the street can be so confused today. There was a populist moment. It was powerful. But it died very quickly, and the two big parties took over again.

BRIAN: Yeah. And I’d also underscore Peter’s point about a tradition of this in American history. But you know that tradition really did continue into the 20th century? We don’t have any capital P Populist Party that challenges the two parties, effectively.

But we do have populist movements. And we have a couple of them– in fact, several of them– during the great economic crisis of the 1930s. We have Huey Long, the senator from Louisiana, and his share our wealth, hearkening right back to demands–

ED: Critics call it share your wealth.

BRIAN: Hearkening right back to the calls for a progressive income tax. And of all things, we have old people deciding that they’re actually the people. Hundreds of thousands of them join these clubs call the Townsinites, and they create clubs. This is not just AstroTurf–

ED: So what is it that they have in common? What’s the common theme across this, Brian?

BRIAN: The common theme is that they feel they represent the good people of the country. And they feel that the political system– just like in Peter’s period and in your period– is not representing the will of a vast segment of the population.

The one thing that really changes in the 20th century is I noticed for both of you guys, leaders were not terribly prominent in these movements. And as you move across the 20th century, more emphasis on the leader.

ED: Townsinite– sounds like they’re focusing on the leader, right?

BRIAN: Less actual grassroots 25 years of organizing and mobilizing in local communities till you arrive at Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump being labeled a populist. But where are the clubs? Where are the movements? Where’s the long-term set of grievances and people interacting with each other the way they did in the capital P movement?

PETER: And Brian, one change I think that’s taken place, though– and I think we can identify elements in populism throughout the history of the populace tradition– I noticed this in what Ed said and what you said about the earlier 20th century. It’s not against government, necessarily. Because the American Revolution, which populists today celebrate as their ultimate source of inspiration, was a revolution to create a new government and to use that government in order to correct inequities, market failures, market distortions to enable people to live lives of dignity, to retire in comfort. These are all demands on the state, and that seems to be fading away in modern populism.

ED: But here’s the commonality– the phrase is “make America great again” from all of these, across all the centuries, including up to today, they’re making the same–

BRIAN: Take our country back.

ED: There used to be a time when we had it. Somehow, we’ve lost it.


BRIAN: It’s time to take a short break, but stay with us. When we get back, the people party at the White House and get a little out of hand.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.

BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re looking at the media’s favorite buzzword with an hour on populism in American history.

PETER: So Ed, that was a great discussion of populism in the late 19th century that you gave us before the break. I’d agree that there is a tradition in populism– popular discontent and anger– that goes back to the mob violence of the 18th century before the revolution and throughout American history, in fact. To help make that point, I’ve enlisted an old friend of mine, Paul Gilje, who is the world’s leading expert on rioting and mob action in American history. Paul, welcome to the show.

PAUL GILJE: Well, thank you, Peter. It’s fun to be here.

PETER: So Paul, my working premise is that there’s a connection between what you have studied at such great length and what’s happening today. What do you think?

PAUL GILJE: I think the key connection that you’re thinking about– the reason why thinking about populism today will set off a little light bulb off the top of your head– was that I think a lot of the populist upsurge that you see in politics today is a function of frustrations with the normal channels of government. That frustration in early America often took the form of mob action.

PETER: So, Paul, give us an example of rioting in the colonial period.

PAUL GILJE: Well, we can talk about the smallpox riots in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1774. We all think of smallpox vaccination as being a major medical innovation. And this is occurring in the 18th century. The problem was that vaccination in these days was to get a small case of the smallpox. You essentially cut your skin, and you put a little pustule in it, and then you get a mild case. Well, then you become contagious.

And so what you have right on the eve of the Revolutionary War– you have people throwing rocks and demonstrating against the richer people who could afford inoculation for fear that people who get inoculated would carry the disease and spread the disease.

PETER: It’s a great point. So there is a class dimension to this, Paul.

PAUL GILJE: Yes. And they felt that the government should step in and prevent this sort of inoculation. And instead of the government, the crowd stepped in.

PETER: Where politics fails, according to the people, and they get angry and they demand action.

PAUL GILJE: Right. Essentially, the magistrates– who would be the local officials in a community like Marblehead– were not preventing these people from getting vaccinated. So the people got frustrated with the magistrates– who, by the way, were rich people who might be getting vaccinated themselves. So what do you do? You don’t want to catch smallpox. And so the people rushed in the street, demonstrated, teared down a couple outbuildings connected to these rich people. They also did things like burned clothes that were hung up on the line. They did things that they thought was going to protect them from infection.

PETER: Paul, this is a fascinating example, these smallpox riots. But mobs were rioting throughout this period, culminating in the Revolution. But rioting didn’t stop just because Americans won their independence, did it?

PAUL GILJE: No, rioting continues. And if you were to ask me– and I say this with a wince on my face– what is my favorite all time riot–

PETER: Yeah.

PAUL GILJE: And it’s a wince–

PETER: You don’t condone them. I understand that.

PAUL GILJE: Rioting is a violent– can often be a violent activity. And of course, the riot I’m thinking about, or the series of riots I’m thinking about, are the Baltimore Riots of 1812. And the Baltimore Riots of 1812 began where there was a newspaper which was publishing articles against the entry of the United States into the War of 1812.

And the people of Baltimore felt that this violated the community’s interest. And so they go to this office, and they tear the building down.

PETER: Hey, how about free speech, Paul, freedom of the press?

PAUL GILJE: Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? The community felt there shouldn’t be free speech if you’re opposing this war, which eventually, a small group of militia intrude themselves, and they take these people who had published this newspaper, and they put them in jail for safekeeping.

And then the next night, the mob attacks the jail. And the mayor, who supports the war, steps in front of the mob, and he says to the mob, guys, you can’t do this. You can’t break into the jail. And somebody turns to him and says, Mayor Johnson, I know you very well– identifying this personal connection– and he says, there are times when the laws of the land must sleep and the laws of nature and reason prevail.

And then the crowd bursts into the jail, and there is no reason. They tear these guys apart. They beat these people to a pulp. They take pen knives and stick it into their cheeks, and they take hot candle grease and drip it into their eyes. And one guy who was being held in the jail who had been a Revolutionary War general says, gentlemen, gentlemen, stop, stop! You can’t do this! And they just beat him to a pulp, and he’s killed. And I think that the Baltimore Riots represent a transition from an 18th century form of rioting to a 19th century form of rioting in which riots becomes increasingly violent.

PETER: Paul, Paul, this is very upsetting. Now, this is nothing like what’s happening now, but there is an anger with your political opponents or with the government, and also a sense among populists that they do represent the people in some kind of fundamental, essential way.

PAUL GILJE: Yes, I think you’re right. I think that a lot of the frustration today is this sense that the government is the enemy, at least that’s certainly the frustration that exists on the right. What I find ironic about this is that, in many ways, it’s the emergence of the federal government especially which helps guide the transition for more violent expressions in popular disorder to less violent expressions of popular disorder in the 20th century. And what I find ironic is that these people, who believe that they are speaking for the people, by attacking the government, they’re in a sense attacking the very safeguard which has created a much more peaceful and much more benign kind of community that allows for more open political expression of all kinds and of all stripes.

PETER: Paul Gilje is a historian at the University of Oklahoma. He’s the author of many books, including The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763 to 1834.


BRIAN: America’s early tradition of mob violence instilled a fear of the people among the country’s political elite. Career politicians viewed the masses as dangerous, and they thought the government should be in the hands of what they called the natural aristocracy.

But that began to change in the 1820s when General Andrew Jackson rode into politics. He argued that the power of the government shouldn’t reside with politicians but with the people. Billing himself as a Washington outsider, the war hero catered to white male working class voters. Jackson humbly bowed to crowds, and his supporters threw massive rallies in his honor.

Jackson’s appeals to the working class helped them capture the White House in 1828. But outgoing president John Quincy Adams and his supporters feared the potential downfall of the republic. The reins of power, after all, would be in the hands of the uncouth masses. For proof, Jackson’s opponents looked no further than day 1 of his presidency and a legendary White House party.

HARRY WATSON: The inauguration of Andrew Jackson is one of the great pieces of American political folklore. It’s the sort of thing that if you don’t remember anything else about Andrew Jackson, you probably remember all the stories about the bash as the White House.

JASON OPAL: There was a huge crowd that came to see Andrew Jackson, this controversial popular champion, actually being sworn in, like is it actually going to happen kind of thing.

HARRY WATSON: My name is Harry Watson. I’m a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

JASON OPAL: My name is Jason Opal. I teach history at McGill University here in Montreal, Quebec, and I’m just finishing a book on Andrew Jackson.

HARRY WATSON: The inauguration was held on March 4, 1829. All the reports are that thousands upon thousands of people poured into the city. All social classes were represented, taking up all the available hotel rooms. They were sleeping in their wagons and everything else.

JASON OPAL: That day, people came in to see their great hero. They would frequently say, Jackson is a general. He’s on the field of battle for the people.

HARRY WATSON: And they all jammed into the area in front of the US capitol. He read his inaugural address, which almost nobody could hear.

JASON OPAL: He give a boring speech that’s very, very vague, and he rode a horse back to the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue.

HARRY WATSON: At the White House, the custom was to have a reception after the inauguration, and everyone expected that the people who would attend were people from the natural aristocracy– office holders, judges, congressmen, that sort of thing. And all those people did come. But it didn’t stop there.

JASON OPAL: A huge throng of people just went into the White House who had not been personally invited but who felt personally invited, because Andrew Jackson is their personal her. And that’s really the key– they feel a personal connection to him. And there’s a real electric energy between Jackson and the people.

HARRY WATSON: There was no guard to hold them back. There were no police. Nobody had planned for 20,000 people. And that sounds like an awful lot. It sounds like an exaggeration to me. But still, the crowd took over the house.

They all wanted to see him, of course, so they stood on the chairs and they ruined the upholstery and they tracked mud all over the carpets. The china crashed to the floor, the glasses crashed to the floor. And the people who were there said that poor President Jackson was almost squashed to death by the press of people trying to come in and shake his hand.

JASON OPAL: Jackson himself was a very frail person, fairly old man. He had terrible injuries, most of which were from duels, actually.

HARRY WATSON: And it was so bad that President Jackson had to be helped out, some say through a window, and hustled back to his hotel. And then the stewards, the people who were in charge of giving the party, had to carry the alcoholic punch out on the lawn so that the crowd would stream out there to get its free drinks and the house could finally be restored to order.

JASON OPAL: And this is much exaggerated. I think people say– one person said it’s kind of like the storming of the Bastille Prison or it’s like the French Revolution. No. Some carpet was damaged, and some furniture was damaged. Things got rowdy, but nothing too crazy. But the reason it becomes so significant is that some of Jackson’s opponents–

HARRY WATSON: Said oh my God. Civilization was teetering and on the verge of collapse. The rabble have really roused.

From then on, the enemies of populism– that is, the rule of the ordinary folks– have pointed to Jackson, and especially this chaotic party, as a demonstration that the popular will by itself is not the way to run anything.

JASON OPAL: But I think this is the whole thing in the larger conversation about populism– so what? So people went into the White House and had a good time. Then they went home, and the next day, they were hung over. So what? Are they really more powerful? This is why, to some extent, I’m skeptical of something that’s mostly about a style, how someone addresses you, and not how public resources are going to be used, how the government is actually going to function.

BRIAN: In the end, the republic didn’t collapse as Jackson’s opponents had feared. But at the same time, the people didn’t exactly rule the White House either. The white working class men who helped vote Jackson into office still faced economic difficulties in the years ahead. Governing on behalf of the masses, it turned out, wasn’t as clear cut as speaking for them.


PETER: We had help on that story from Harry Watson, a historian at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He’s the author of Liberty and Power: the Politics of Jacksonian America. We also heard from historian Jason Opal at McGill University and author of the forthcoming book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the Ordeal of American Nationhood, 1760s to 1830.

ED: We’re going to return now to the populists at the end of the 19th century. And we thought we’d take a moment to explain why their signature issue was, of all things, monetary policy, especially the place of silver in the economy. Now, this is hard to explain, so we’re fortunate that back in the 1960s, a teacher named Henry Littlefield had a brilliant idea. He would use the Wizard of Oz, the novel, to explain populism to his glassy-eyed summer school students.

Littlefield saw all kinds of connections between Oz and the populists. Now, to be honest, it’s not clear that L Frank Baum actually meant his children’s book to be a populist parable, but that’s beside the point. As BackStory producer Kelly Jones found out, the Wizard of Oz is still a helpful tool to explain the ins and outs of populist economics.

RANJIT DIGHE: Once you start looking for parallels, it just becomes a matter of seek and you shall find.

KELLY JONES: This is Ranjiy Dighe, an economic historian at SUNY Oswego who wrote a book comparing populism and The Wizard of Oz. Parallels between the two begin on the very first page of the novel in bleak and dismal Kansas.

FEMALE SPEAKER: When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great grey prairie on every side.

KELLY JONES: This was the scene in the late 1800s. The US has experienced three economic depressions in quick succession, and western farmers suffered the most.

FEMALE SPEAKER: The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass with little cracks running through it.

KELLY JONES: Drought and pests destroyed farmer’s crops. What they could produce wasn’t very valuable, because overproduction in the east brought prices down nationwide. To top it off, farmers were deeply in debt. They took out loans to buy land and equipment when times were good, and at fixed rates. But when the prices fell, the national interest rate plummeted. Farmers’ rates didn’t change, though, so their debts soared.

RANJIT DIGHE: They’re paying back those loans in dollars that are worth a lot more than the ones that they borrowed and spent already.

KELLY JONES: Long economic story short, depression and deflation tore through the nation like– well, a twister.

Farmers and other members of the emerging populist movement thought that if they could just reverse the deflation, the economy would recover.

RANJIT DIGHE: If money were showered above from a helicopter, people would scoop up all that money and they would try to spend it, and that would raise the price of just about everything. That would bring you an inflation.

KELLY JONES: One 19th-century version of a money-showering helicopter was what populists called the free coinage of silver.

RANJIT DIGHE: Yeah, let’s talk about silver.

KELLY JONES: In the 1880s 1890s, the basic unit of currency was gold– an ounce of gold, actually, or an oz of gold, abbreviated, if you will. Anyway, the country was on the gold standard. But gold was scarce. Populists figured a second monetary standard backed by a more plentiful raw material would expand the money supply. So they called on the government to start coining silver as well as gold, which leads us to the next big parallel between Oz and the populist movement– the magic of bimetallism.

RANJIT DIGHE: Dorothy gets these silver shoes from the Wicked Witch of the East.

KELLY JONES: That’s right– silver shoes. No ruby slippers here. Those only appear in the movie.

Dorothy, who represents the average American, has to walk to the political seat of Oz via that yellow brick road. That’s the only way she can get back to Kansas– or end deflation.

So silver shoes on a yellow gold road. That’s bimetallism. That’s having gold and silver together. And they’re more powerful together than they would be individually as a monetary standard.

KELLY JONES: But bimetallism had its critics, embodied by one of the wicked witches.

RANJIT DIGHE: The Wicked Witch of the East represents Wall Street and these evil, soulless corporate interests who the farmers definitely thought of as their enemy.

KELLY JONES: That’s because Wall Street rejected bimetallism as a reckless solution that would make prices spike uncontrollably. In the story, western farmers take the shape of the scarecrow duped into thinking he doesn’t have a brain.


The Tin Man stands for industrial workers who faced an almost 25% unemployment rate in the early 1890s. And then there’s the lion who, coincidentally, rhymes with William Jennings Bryan.

RANJIT DIGHE: The politician who ran for president three times, most notably in 1896 on a platform of free coinage of silver, and really became identified with that movement.

KELLY JONES: Bryan was a Democrat, not a populist. But the populists nominated him for president because he was an ardent silverite.

RANJIT DIGHE: So lions are known for their roar. Bryan was known for his oratory. He gave a speech at the Democratic Convention in 1896, which is known as the Cross of Gold speech.

WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: We will fight them to the uttermost.

RANJIT DIGHE: He mostly talked about how the gold standard was crippling this economy, and he famously concluded you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.

KELLY JONES: Today, one way the government fights deflation is by printing more money. But that was a radical idea in the 1890s– too radical for populists. They were deeply suspicious of fiat money, or currency that isn’t tied to something physical, like precious metals.

So back in Oz and marching together under the banner of bimetallism, Dorothy and her crew set off for the Emerald City– which, int he book, isn’t actually emerald. The wizard forces everyone to wear green sunglasses, which give the all-white city a green tinge.

RANJIT DIGHE: If you take off the glasses, then suddenly it’s no longer emerald, just like our fiat money of the 19th century. If everybody decides, these are pieces of paper, these don’t represent real value, then suddenly, our monetary system breaks down.

KELLY JONES: In the end, a bimetallic heroine kills the Wicked Witch of the West, who stands for the draught, with a bucket of water, thus bringing the crops back to life. The wizard takes off, leaving Oz in the hands of Dorothy’s capable companions.

RANJIT DIGHE: And it’s a happy ending. We don’t see exactly how they do ruling the Land of Oz, but you’re left to expect that it’s going to be good.

KELLY JONES: Except that’s the Hollywood ending. The book and the movement didn’t turn out so well. Deflation finally ended after the 1896 election with huge discoveries of gold in Alaska and the Yukon.

RANJIT DIGHE: So the free silver issue pretty much disappears with the discovery of all this gold, and it’s barely heard from again.

KELLY JONES: In the book, as Dorothy flies home to Kansas, her silver shoes slip off her feet and are lost forever in the desert. After losing the presidency to Republican William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan toned down his passion for silver.

RANJIT DIGHE: If Bryan runs in 1900, it’s not a very compelling issue. He still talks about it, but it doesn’t get a lot of traction.

KELLY JONES: Lost his roar. Sorry.

RANJIT DIGHE: Or he had to roar about something else. He was still roaring, but I don’t know how many people were listening.


ED: BackStory producer Kelly Jones brought us that story. She had help from Ranjit Dighe, a Professor of Economic History at the State University of New York Oswego and the author of The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory.

PETER: It’s time for us to take another break. When we get back, was 1960s segregationist George Wallace a populist?

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re spending the hour today exploring the history of populism in America.

Now, if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders supposedly carry the torch for modern day populism, as Chuck Todd of Meet the Press declared this summer–

CHUCK TODD: They are surging in the polls thanks to two very different strains of a classical American political movement– populism.

ED: The two candidates also carry the torch for a particular aspect of populism.

MALE SPEAKER: Sanders’ supporters are likely to be white. Trump’s supporters are also more likely to be white.

ED: This is a longstanding trend, and most Americans today who know anything about 19th century populism probably think of it as a white movement. But historian Omar Ali says that African Americans had their own populist movement– the Colored Farmers’ Alliance. Black populism developed in the South after the failure of reconstruction. And when black farmers and sharecroppers later joined forces with poor whites, they created a movement that almost upended Southern politics.

MALE SPEAKER: It was an independent black political movement that lasts over the course of basically 1886 to about 1900. What they did is they basically built off of institutions that were created during Reconstruction– the black church, mutual aid organizations, fraternal orders. So they basically want to teach better farming techniques, better household maintenance.

ED: So they’re helping themselves rather than asking or demanding something from white people.

OMAR ALI: That’s right. That’s right. They’re helping themselves. And in some ways, they were very self-conscious and deliberate in not being demanding of anybody except themselves, because at a basic level, it was a way of keeping themselves protected from attacks. Just the fact black people coming together as an independent grouping could be seen– and was seen, at times– as a threat.

ED: So the populism both of white and black takes a long time to marinate, grows up in the South in the 1870s and 1880s, as you’re telling us. But then they realize as they’re going to accomplish some of the things they want to accomplish, they’re going to have to enter the political world, right?

OMAR ALI: That’s right. By 1890, it becomes clear that this self-help strategy can only take you so far. There’s only so much that we can do, black people are saying, cooperatively within our own communities. They said, OK, let’s work with these white populace and see if we can challenge the Democratic Party in the South.

The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln. It was the party that African Americans mostly affiliated with. So in some ways, there were these fusions that took place– African Americans working in the Republican Party in alliance with the People’s Party. And that’s what happens in North Carolina, is they basically are able to take over government, which was extraordinary.

The state legislature in 1894 and then the governors in 1896, they try to institute some things– funding for public education. They get rid of or they try to get rid of certain obstacles in terms of the voting process. But it’s a really short period that they’re really in power.

ED: Who opposed that? That sounds great.

OMAR ALI: The Democratic Party. It was the party of white supremacy, but it was the party of the upper class’s interests. And so poor and working class white people joined for this very brief moment with African Americans to oppose that politic.

ED: So they do this remarkable thing– they fuse, they unify, they win. And then what happens?

OMAR ALI: So they take over, and this was seen as an incredible threat to the status quo, and the white establishment would not allow this to be repeated. So soon thereafter, there’s a coup d’etat, essentially, in 1898. The local government in Wilmington, North Carolina has a violent overthrow of the government there. They basically intimidated and threatened elected officials to either resign or they just killed them.

It was called a riot, the Wilmington Riot of 1898, but really, it was a massacre and an attack on the black community. And it signals the end of block populism in North Carolina, although black populism continues in other places, like in Texas, for a couple more years. But basically, the story is all but over in North Carolina in 1898.

ED: So what you’re saying is it’s not that populism had this streak of intolerance or intrinsic failure as much as it was a threat to the people who ran things. And they were just determined that you wouldn’t have an alliance of poor people across racial lines.

OMAR ALI: That’s right. That’s right. I think what we learn by studying this period is that history can go in different directions. And there are these very moving moments of African Americans working with poor white people who were Confederate soldiers, and they respected each other to some degree on the ground.

And those efforts to try to bring poor people together across the racial divide were killed off by propaganda, by violence. And I think that it’s helpful to think of these movements as part of deep underground wells of democracy, if you will, that every once in awhile come out of the ground. And this was one of those moments. And it would continue in the South. It wasn’t completely killed off.

ED: And I think that these are some of the tributaries that flow into the Civil Rights Movement, which is also if you try to think of things that seem unlikely in American history– that the people who had the least political power and had been at the brunt of all this violence somehow find it within themselves to mobilize for the greatest moral revolution in American history. I think there’s a direct connection to the civil rights struggle.

OMAR ALI: This is what you see. Jim Crow, the concept of legal disfranchisement and segregation of African Americans, is a direct response to populism. It’s really, in some ways, trying to make sure that never again will we have black people and white people come together in the political arena. And so I think that there’s more opportunities to learn about possibilities by looking at these failed movements.

This was a movement that clearly failed at that moment, and there was a lot of fear, and so it went really underground.

ED: Omar Ali is a historian at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and author of In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886 to 1900.

BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And today, we’re talking about the history of American populism.

PETER: Hey, guys. We got a call from Denver, and it’s Heather. Heather, welcome to BackStory.

CALLER: Thank you. It’s fun to be here.

PETER: You got a question for us. Lay it on.

CALLER: OK. Well, I’ve been reading a book called Railroaded by Richard White. It’s about the transcontinental railroads. In the late 19th century, the railroad corporations were the big bad guys.

But what I found out is that sometimes they supported populist candidates if they thought that the populist policies would hurt their rival corporation– kind of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So I’m wondering, how long can a populist movement actually stay populist before it gets co-opted by the powerful?

PETER: How about it? Genuine populism out there, guys.

ED: Yeah. The populism that Heather’s actually asking about did start in an authentic way, and it took it a long time to develop. And I think it’s been a major topic of the discussion of the history of populism about exactly when did populism lose its soul. And people see it at different times for different subjects– from the perspective of African Americans, it lost its soul pretty quickly. They really start excluding African Americans. And from the viewpoint of women, they were excluded pretty early on.

So Heather, I think the question is as soon as populism stopped being a self-help movement and went into the political sphere, it was very hard for it to resist the siren of political seduction.

BRIAN: And Heather, let’s take the other side of your equation. I agree with it. Those corporate interests, they’re not one set of interests. Let’s go back to your topic of railroads. If you were a department store that was beginning to get into shipping goods around the country and beginning to take advantage of postal delivery to rural areas, you didn’t want high railroad rates. You wanted to bust those railroads. The whole notion that there was one corporate interest, I think, is one of the great myths of American history.

ED: Or as Heather points out, that there was even one railroad interest.

BRIAN: Or there was even one railroad interest.

ED: You want to about a cutthroat business– these people would do anything for a comparative advantage.

BRIAN: Yeah. And smart businessmen always played popular opinion in ways that were going to help their bottom line.

PETER: And the same goes for smart politicians. At the beginning of American national history, I think a lot of populist movements as we know them begin with fractures in the elite– that is, between Loyalists and Patriots in the run-up to the Revolution. There was popular action on the streets, Heather, directed toward a variety of things, from whore houses and to other issues that got the people riled up. But the savvy Patriot leaders saw that this was a force that could be turned against the British imperial regime.

So I think we have to look at it more as an interactive phenomenon– maybe not from the very beginning, because there’s local grassroots mobilization, as Ed is suggesting. But it is always vulnerable to appropriation and co-optation?

CALLER: Well, do you think that a really populist movement can’t really get anywhere until it somehow gets into the power structure?

ED: I think– to go back to the case of the railroads, Brian’s point of view about shippers– also, if you’re a voter, what you want is the darn railroad to come to your county, because if it doesn’t, you have no prospect of economic prosperity coming forward. So I think that the paradox here is that populism– which we see as opposed to interests– has to become popular in order to accomplish its goals. And as soon as it does, it enters a sphere that it doesn’t control.


PETER: Hey, Heather, you happy?

CALLER: I’m happy.

PETER: That’s what we look for at BackStory.

BRIAN: That was terrific.

CALLER: OK, great. Thanks a lot, guys. Bye.

PETER: If you have a question for us about an upcoming topic, leave a message on Facebook or our website, backstoryradio.org. You can also tweet us at backstoryradio. We have shows coming up on the history of disability America and the legacy of the Confederacy.


BRIAN: We’re going to end the hour with the 2016 presidential campaign and Republican candidate Donald Trump. In some ways, Trump embodies a uniquely 21st-century style of populism. His success is fueled as much by reality TV and the 24-hour news cycle as it is by his anti-immigrant message.

DONALD TRUMP: The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.

BRIAN: Even Donald Trump’s bravado has a history. He’s the latest figure in one strand of populism– that of the rhetoric-fueled angry populist.

JAMELLE BOUIE: They’re everywhere in American history, and they tend to pop up wherever there’s rapid social change or economic dislocation.

BRIAN: This is Jamelle Bouie, Chief Political Correspondent for Slate. He says Donald Trump bears a strong resemblance to one 20th-century populist demagogue in particular– that’s Alabama’s George Wallace. Wallace became a national political figure during the Civil Rights Movement.

JAMELLE BOUIE: It’s actually a little funny to me for how important Wallace was how little a lot of people know anything about him. But Wallace was governor of Alabama. He famously in his inauguration speech– in 1963, I believe– famously said–

GEORGE WALLACE: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.

JAMELLE BOUIE: And to people who know anything about Wallace, I think that is the thing that they know– an explicit champion of the anti-integration white South. But I think less known about Wallace is how he parlayed reaction to civil rights tapping into broader anxieties and fears among a lot of Americans into a pretty successful third party campaign in 1968 and a reasonably successful campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1972.

BRIAN: Yeah. And it’s important to remind folks that Wallace got on the national political map by registering with alienated voters in places like Wisconsin, which are certainly not south of the Mason Dixon line.

JAMELLE BOUIE: That’s right. Not just Wisconsin, but also California. Early on in his ’68 campaign, no one thought he’d be able to get the 100,000 signatures necessary to get on the Democratic primary ballot, but he managed it. His appeal really did extend throughout the United States– Wisconsin, California, Maryland.

But one thing I had forgotten– just how much Wallace’s appeal was stylistic. A lot of his strength, especially on the campaign trail on his presidential campaigns, was really just his ability to entertain people. He was a showman. He could build an intimate connection with the crowds he spoke to.

BRIAN: Wallace actually had a sense of humor. I want you to listen to this clip. He’s talking to the National Press Club. And as you know, that club had a long history of excluding women.

GEORGE WALLACE: But you ladies and gentleman take heart– gentlemen– I reckon there’s some ladies here. I see by paper that not many ladies are here. You’re having the same fight we’re having in some quarters. But it’s very bad for the folks trying to destroy your traditions and your customs. But you’ve got to get in the mainstream.

JAMELLE BOUIE: And it’s interesting that even the press that covered him– quite a few of the journalists who were around him may have despised his politics, but liked him personally very much.

BRIAN: He connected with people.

JAMELLE BOUIE: Right. There was something very endearing about him.

BRIAN: And what about reading the people or blowing with the political winds, if you will?

JAMELLE BOUIE: Again, this is another similarity between the two figures. But early on in Trump’s rise in the Republican primary, you had Republicans like Jeb Bush say openly and with a lot of irritation that Trump was no conservative. Now Trump says, no, I’m a Republican. I’m a conservative just like everyone else in this race.

And it’s very clear that he, more than anything, is an opportunist. And you can say the same about Wallace. Wallace started his career as basically a New Deal Democrat, someone who wanted to use government at the national and at the state level to–

BRIAN: He was labeled a progressive.

JAMELLE BOUIE: Right. He was a progressive. But when he saw where the wind was blowing, when he saw how audiences reacted to pro-segregation messages in the wake of Brown v Board, his broader national message was very much taking those segregationist and anti-civil rights themes and taking the explicit racial element away from them and leaving something that’s still very clearly read as anti-black resentment but didn’t read as racist in the same way.

GEORGE WALLACE: And I think the climate in our country of those in the top echelons of our government kowtowing to those who have openly and willfully violated the law has made it, of course, unsafe for the average citizen to walk the streets of the large cities of our nation and in the parks.

BRIAN: If you think, along with many others, that Donald Trump is perhaps burning bright now but he’s going to flame out, we certainly know that George Wallace was not elected president in ’68 or ’72. I’m curious to know, given the similarities between Wallace and Trump, what contributions Wallace made to the politics of his time, and what do you think the long-term impact of Trump is going to be even if he doesn’t get the nomination?

JAMELLE BOUIE: So Wallace’s long-term impact– and really, the immediate mark he made in the ’68 race– was that he signaled to Richard Nixon, who by this point was the Republican nominee, that there was something to this message of civil rights resentment, that if you could further drain it of its racial content and turn it into something still evocative of those anxieties, you could succeed, you could win votes.

So Wallace in 1964 was attacking civil rights protesters as lawless, as people who had no regard for rule of law and law and order. Nixon in 1968 is pretty much lifting that language wholesale.

ED: And Nixon ran a series of television ads that year where, for instance, he showed a middle class white woman walking down the street at night, and then you heard footsteps.

MALE SPEAKER: Crimes of violence in the United States have almost doubled in recent years. Freedom from fear is a basic right of every American. We must restore it.

BRIAN: And you hear vote for Nixon. He’s tough on crime.

JAMELLE BOUIE: Right. And so the question, I think, for 2015 and 2016 is, who is Nixon? Who is the figure who sees Trump’s appeal to nativist elements of the Republican Party, nativist elements of the American electorate? And we’ll try to co-opt them in some way, shape, or form.

BRIAN: So who’s the next Donald Trump according Jamelle Bouie?

JAMELLE BOUIE: I think Cruz might try to play the role. But Cruz, unlike Nixon, doesn’t have that kind of broad appeal in the Republican Party. And so my hunch is that Trumpisms, such that it exists, may be marginalized with Trump. But I’ll add as a caveat that Trump may have mobilized or energized a new segment of voters, and who knows what they’re going to do.

BRIAN: Janelle Bouie is the Chief Political Correspondent for Slate. We’ll link to his article, “Our George Wallace,” on our website.


PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. Tell us what you think of this episode on our website. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org. While you’re there, weigh in on our upcoming shows on the history of disability and on the memory of the Confederacy. Leave a message or send email to backstory@virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Bruce Wallace. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We have help from Melissa Gismondi. Special thanks this week to Quentin Taylor at Roger State University and to our voices of the people– George Jaknowitz, Jacob Linden, Margaret [? Arapour, ?] Max Reddick, Ziggy Benheim, Christian [? Goler, ?] Kevin Coleman, Alicia [? Sidassi, ?] Sia [? Bahau, ?] and Natalie Risk. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

ED: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund– cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel. History– made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


MALE SPEAKER: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

View Resources

Populism Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

By examining how populism was used during the 1960s and 1970s in speeches and campaign ads, students can analyze the significance of the past to their present situation. In addition, students can also evaluate the content of President Nixon and President Trump’s speeches to practice historical empathy as a means for gaining insight as to why certain Americans feel marginalized and attracted to messages of American restoration and hope. Additionally, examining George Wallace’s shift in strategy based on audience from 1963 to 1968 can encourage students to investigate the role purpose and intention play in historical change and consequence. The sources included align with the BackStory segment, “Populists at the Podium,” which is found in the BackStory episode, “A History of Populism.”