In the wake of a national economic depression (the Panic of 1893), the Populist Party tossed its support behind Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Urged on by James B. Weaver (see A Call to Action), the Populists understood that electoral success was far more likely with Bryan than with a third-party candidate. Many feared that running a Populist candidate would only split the free silver vote and hand the presidency to the Republicans.
The 1896 Populist Party Platform adopted in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 24, largely resembled the platform of 1892 in its basic principles and policy proposals. Of particular note here, however, is the final paragraph of the platform, which suggests that the present election will turn on the financial question and invites the cooperation of all parties, organizations, and citizens that agree with the Populists on these issues. The platform thus acknowledges that Populist electoral success, especially in 1896, might hinge upon cooperation with other interests and parties.
Source: National Party Platforms, compiled by Kirk Harold Porter (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 196–200, available online at the Hathi Trust Digital Library: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015014290145;view=1up;seq=218.
The People’s Party, assembled in national convention, reaffirms its allegiance to the principles declared by the founders of the Republic, and also to the fundamental principles of just government as enunciated in the platform of the party in 1892.
We recognize that through the connivance of the present and preceding administrations, the country has reached a crisis in its national life, as predicted in our declaration four years ago, and that prompt and patriotic action is the supreme duty of the hour.
We realize that, while we have political independence, our financial and industrial independence is yet to be attained by restoring to our country the constitutional control and exercise of the functions necessary to a people’s government, which functions have been basely surrendered by our public servant to corporate monopolies. The influence of European money-changers has been more potent in shaping legislation than the voice of the American people. Executive power and patronage have been used to corrupt our legislatures and defeat the will of the people, and plutocracy has thereby been enthroned upon the ruins of democracy. To restore the government intended by the fathers and for the welfare and prosperity of this and future generations, we demand the establishment of an economic and financial system which shall make us masters of our own affairs and independent of European control by the adoption of the following declaration of principles:
- We demand a national money, safe and sound, issued by the general government only, without the intervention of banks of issue, to be a full legal tender for all debts, public and private; a just, equitable, and efficient means of distribution, direct to the people and through the lawful disbursements of the government.
- We demand the free and unrestricted coinage of silver and gold at the present ratio of 16 to 1, without waiting for the consent of foreign nations.
- We demand the volume of circulating medium be speedily increased to an amount sufficient to meet the demands of the business and population and to restore the just level of prices of labor and production.
- We denounce the sale of bonds and the increase of the public interest-bearing debt made by the present administration as unnecessary and without authority of law, and demand that no more bonds be issued, except by specific act of Congress.
- We demand such legislation as will prevent the demonetization of the lawful money of the United States by private contract.
- We demand that the government, in payment of its obligations, shall use its option as to the kind of lawful money in which they are to be paid, and we denounce the present and preceding administrations for surrendering this option to the holders of government obligations.
- We demand a graduated income tax, to the end that aggregated wealth shall bear its just proportion of taxation, and we regard the recent decision of the Supreme Court relative to the income tax law as a misinterpretation of the Constitution and an invasion of the rightful powers of Congress over the subject of taxation.
- We demand that postal savings-banks be established by the government for the safe deposit of the savings of the people and to facilitate exchange.
Railroads and Telegraphs
- Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people and on a nonpartisan basis, to the end that all may be accorded the same treatment in transportation and that the tyranny and political power now exercised by the great railroad corporations, which result in the impairment if not the destruction of the political rights and personal liberties of the citizen, may be destroyed. Such ownership is to be accomplished gradually, in a manner consistent with sound public policy.
- The interest of the United States in the public highways built with public moneys, and the proceeds of extensive grants of land to the Pacific Railroads should never be alienated, mortgaged, or sold, but guarded and protected for the general welfare as provided by the laws organizing such railroads. The foreclosure of existing liens of the United States on these roads should at once follow default in the payment thereof by the debtor companies; and at the foreclosure sales of said roads the government shall purchase the same if it becomes necessary to protect its interests therein, or if they can be purchased at a reasonable price; and the government shall operate said railroads as public highways for the benefit of the whole people and not in the interest of the few under suitable provisions for protection of life and property, giving to all transportation interests equal privileges and equal rates for fares and freights.
- We denounce the present infamous schemes for refunding these debts, and demand that the laws now applicable thereto be executed and administered according to their interest and spirit.
- The telegraphic, like the post-office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the government in the interest of the people.
- True policy demands that the national and state legislation shall be such as will ultimately enable every prudent and industrious citizen to secure a home, and, therefore, the land should not be monopolized for speculative purposes. All lands now held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs, should by lawful means be reclaimed by the government and held for natural settlers only, and private land monopoly as well as alien ownership should be prohibited.
- We condemn the frauds by which the land grant Pacific Railroad companies have, through the connivance of the Interior Department, robbed multitudes of actual bona-fide settlers of their homes and miners of their claims, and we demand legislation by Congress that will enforce the exception of mineral land from such grants after as well as before the patent.
- We demand that bona-fide settlers on all public lands be granted free homes, as provided in the national Homestead Law, and that no exception be made in the case of Indian reservations when opened for settlement, and that all lands not now patented come under this demand.
We favor a system of direct legislation, through the initiative and referendum, under proper constitutional safeguards.
Direct Election of President and Senators by the People
We demand the election of president, vice president, and United States senators by a direct vote of the people.
Sympathy for Cuba
We tender to the patriotic people of the country our deepest sympathies in their heroic struggle for political freedom and independence, and we believe the time has come when the United States, the great Republic of the world, should recognize that Cuba is and of right ought to be a free and independent state.
We favor home rule in the territories and the District of Columbia, and the early admission of the territories as states.
All public salaries should be made to correspond to the price of labor and its products.
Employment to Be Furnished by Government
In times of great industrial depression, idle labor should be employed on public works as far as practicable.
Arbitrary Judicial Action
The arbitrary course of the courts in assuming to imprison citizens for indirect contempt, and ruling them by injunction, should be prevented by proper legislation.
We favor just pensions for our disabled Union soldiers.
A Fair Ballot
Believing that the elective franchise and an untrammeled ballot are essential to government of, for, and by the people, the People’s Party condemn the wholesale system of disfranchisement adopted in some of the states as unrepublican and undemocratic, and we declare it to be the duty of the several state legislatures to take such action as will secure a full, free, and fair ballot and honest count.
The Financial Question “The Pressing Issue”
While the foregoing propositions constitute the platform upon which our party stands, and for the vindication of which its organization will be maintained, we recognize that the great and pressing issue of the pending campaign, upon which the present election will turn, is the financial question, and upon this great and specific issue between the parties we cordially invite the aid and cooperation of all organizations and citizens agreeing with us upon this vital question.
- What would you identify as the most important ideas and proposals of the 1896 Populist Party Platform? What sorts of political and economic challenges does the party seek to address? At the end of the platform, what is described as the “pressing issue” of the campaign?
- In way ways does the 1896 Populist Party Platform build upon the 1892 Platform (The Populist Party Platform and Expression of Sentiments)? Is the 1896 platform distinguished by its special focus on the “financial question” and interparty cooperation?
- See The “Cross of Gold” Address.
- Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company, 157 U.S. 429 (1895). In a narrow 5-4 decision, the Court struck down an income tax established by the Revenue Act of 1894. The Court reasoned that the provision was an unapportioned direct tax and that the U.S. Constitution required direct taxes to be apportioned according to population. The ruling would later be rendered moot by the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913.
- In order to support westward expansion, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862. Under the legislation, an individual could claim up to 160 acres of government land, provided the individual paid a filing fee, worked that land, and applied for a deed.
- The progressives’ push for direct election of U.S. senators would eventually culminate in the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1913).
- Cuba was a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War in 1898.
- “Home rule” here refers to the ability of the people of a U.S. territory or federal district to govern themselves.
- “Indirect contempt” is when a party refuses to adhere to a court order, or “injunction.” The Populists’ claim here is that the courts were captured by special interests and used injunctions arbitrarily to punish social and political organizers, labor unions, etc.