Populism and Imperialism

Politics, Culture, and Foreign Policy in the American West, 1890-1900

Nathan Jessen

In the final years of the nineteenth century, as a large-scale movement of farmers and laborers swept much the country, the United States engaged in an ostensibly anti-colonial war against Spain and a colonial war of its own in the Philippines. How one related to the other—the nature of the activists’ involvement in foreign policy debates and the influence of these wars upon the prospects for domestic reform—is what Nathan Jessen explores in Populism and Imperialism.

American reformers at the turn of the twentieth century have long been misrepresented as accomplices of empire. Rather, as Populism and Imperialism makes clear, they were imperialism’s chief opponents—and that opposition contributed to their ultimate defeat. Correcting the record, Jessen charts the fortunes of the Populists through the nineteenth century’s last decade. He shows that, contrary to the standard narrative, Populists remained powerful in West after the election of 1896; they only suffered their final political reverses in 1900 after being branded as unpatriotic traitors by their opponents. In fact, the Populists and Democrats in the West favored war with Spain for humanitarian reasons; some among them led the opposition to Hawaiian annexation and—as leaders of the anti-imperialists in Congress from 1899 on—the occupation of the Philippines.

“Nathan Jessen makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the role Western state reformers played in nineteenth-century foreign policy debates, and, how their views on war and imperialism were used against them. Populism and Imperialism also well illustrates the interrelation between domestic and foreign policies.”

—David R. Berman, author of Politics, Labor, and the War On Big Business: The Path of Reform in Arizona, 1890–1920

“Jessen presents a bold and compelling treatment of folks whom historians have shunted aside—Populists who survived the supposed political massacre of 1896 and went on to become powerful and thoughtful critics of American empire. Jessen’s mastery of historiography, both old and new, is especially impressive. In our turbulent age, where “populism” has come to many to seem the antithesis of democracy, Jessen’s work calls our attention to the most noble achievements of the American populist tradition.”

—Robert D. Johnston, author of The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon
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Jessen also addresses the little-studied “money power” conspiracy theory that explains a key element of the Populist worldview. This theory, linking European imperialism and the growing economic and political power of financiers, stirred Populist opposition to American imperialism as well.

Populism and Imperialism revises a critical chapter in US history and offers lessons for the present as well as insights into the nation’s past.

About the Author

Nathan Jessen is an independent researcher in Maryland.