Congressional Populism and the Crisis of the 1890s

Gene Clanton

In the political landscape of the late nineteenth century, the Populist party was recognized even by its critics as being ahead of its time. Its members saw themselves as bearers of a reform message vital to the nation, reflecting agrarian America's anxiety that the country was moving toward a new form of slavery in the face of changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. These issues were for many Americans the "Crisis of the Nineties," and Populists met that crisis with a stand against imperialism, a commitment to human rights, and a deep distrust of big business.

While most studies of Populism have focused on regional activities or on its intellectual and social underpinnings, little has been written about the record of this radical party in the national legislature. Now one of our foremost scholars of Populism presents the first comprehensive treatment of the party in Congress, revealing the programs and personalities that shaped and ultimately doomed the movement.

“Gene Clanton has devoted his long and productive career as a scholar to understanding Populism and its context. We are in his debt for that and for this rich study of a neglected subject: what the Populists said and how they voted in Congress during the crisis of the 1890s.

—American Historical Review

“Engagingly written, replete with telling anecdotes about colorful Populist personalities.

—Journal of American History
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Gene Clanton has combed the Congressional Record to document how these visionaries performed on the national stage during that tumultuous decade. He examines the contributions of the fifty Populist legislators elected by sixteen states and one territory from 1891 to 1903-from Senator William Peffer of Kansas to Congressman William Neville of Nebraska-to show how they represented the party line on such issues as the gold standard, taxation, immigration, government railways, and the Spanish-American War.

Clanton demonstrates that congressional Populism was a positive and humane force in American politics totally distinct from the reactionary political movement that flourishes today under its name. He also suggests that the issues which Populist congressmen grappled with and the policies they advocated have continued to affect us even into the present. Long awaited by scholars of the Populist movement, Clanton's book is the crowning achievement of a career of research and shows how these forgotten radicals fit into the sweeping panorama of American politics.

About the Author

Gene Clanton has taught at Washington State University since 1968 and is the author of Kansas Populism: Ideas and Men.