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A Paean to Populism

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977
Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America. By Lawrence Goodwyn. Oxford. $19.95

Like Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, Lawrence Goodwyn’s new Democratic Promise is a big, tedious book with a few seminal ideas. It offers an original interpretation of the Farmers Alliances and the People’s Party that together constitute the movement historians have simply named populism, and which Goodwyn terms “the populist moment.”

In the 1880’s and ‘90’s, Southern and Western farmers in the movement sought to remedy their economic hardships by redressing the financial balance of power between themselves and railroads, banks, and merchants. Their basic aims survived through several versions of their platform, from the Cleburne [Texas] Demands of 1886, to the Dallas Demands of 1890, and the Omaha Platform of 1892. These platforms called for government ownership of railroads, expansion of the supply of money, and institution of a subtreasury system. (The sub-treasury plan combined warehouses, where farmers could store their crops, with loans for produce placed in storage. Hence they would be able to sell when prices were best, yet realize a return in the meanwhile. In the South, the sub-treasury system would free them from the abusive crop lien system that forced mortgaging of their crops to merchants, in advance.) For Goodwyn, the union of Alliance cooperatives, greenbacker economics—elastic, fiat currency as opposed to inelastic specie currency—and the subtreasury plan constituted the heart of populism.

By 1896, when William Jennings Bryan and Thomas Watson ran as the People’s Party presidential ticket, the movement was moribund, vitiated by compromise with place seekers and fusion with the Democratic Party. And the comprehensive economic reforms of the early ‘90’s shrank to the mere Democratic slogan, “Free Silver.” Goodwyn shows convincingly that the agrarian revolt at its best was a thing of the 1880’s, a product of local impetus. On the national scale, the movement drew in big names and strayed from its roots in a new vision of freedom and dignity for the plain people.

In 1971 Goodwyn published a remarkable essay (“Populist Dreams and Negro Rights: West Texas as a Case Study,” The American Historical Review LXXVI, 5), which rendered the scholarship of John Hicks, Richard Hofstadter, and Norman Pollack on the farmers’ movement virtually obsolete. In that essay, Goodwyn had already accomplished much of what is best in Democratic Promise. But the article did not examine the origins of populism. It did not mention the Alliance lecturing system, which emerges in the book as the key to effective radical organization in Texas, and by extension, to effectual organization per se. The lecturers aroused the farmers and organized them into suballiances. Although Goodwyn names only a few lecturers—S. O. Daws, William Lamb, and Evan Jones figure prominently—they numbered in the hundreds. They are easily the book’s most important cadre. Yet one learns only that this lecturer was a “compelling speaker,” that that one was “ruggedly handsome,” and that others bore the “Daws stamp: articulate, indignant, and capable of speaking a language the farmers understood.” As both conduits and teachers of the need for change, the lecturers discovered by 1886 that “thousands of farmers began evolving the desire to express their discontent through tangible political acts.”

The anonymity of the lecturers is the book’s greatest source of frustration. Goodwyn writes that every suballiance had its lecturer, every county alliance its county lecturer, and that they held the agrarian revolt together and molded tens of thousands of farmers into a political force. Their discussions forged the Cleburne Demands, the first step into politics. The lecturers’ network was so important that the system created “a new democratic culture that insulated the participants from the hierarchical culture of the larger society.”

Who were these pivotal people? Were they cut from the exact same cloth as the local rank and file? Did lecturers’ talents vary, as one would suspect, or were the greater number marked off by self-awareness and an analytical turn of mind, like Lamb and Daws, as Goodwyn hints? Were they better off economically than their people and thus able to support themselves during their lecturing? Or did the Alliance pay for their time? Goodwyn mentions this once and thereby raises unanswered questions about Alliance financing. The mystery of the lecturers leads to basic queries about the organizational resilience of the Farmers Alliance and the solidity of the projects its lecturers set up. A more critical examination of the lecture system may show that the agrarian movement collapsed as much from internal unevenness, superficial organization, and flagging commitment, as from external opposition. By ignoring what must have been an enormous variation of commitments and abilities among the lecturers, Goodwyn presents an undifferentiated, pious picture.

Democratic Promise reads as though the visionary in Goodwyn knew instinctively that a special combination of agrarian outrage, committed lecturers, and theoretical thinking in Texas produced his moment of “democratic promise.” But then the workaday historian in Goodwyn doubted the persuasiveness of his vision and insisted on writing a meticulous account, state by state. The resulting book is weaker for the impulses of the compulsive historian, for it is too long, too detailed, too repetitious. Many readers will be tempted to settle for its introduction and conclusion, wasting years of work in the center of the book. What now appears in print might as well be called “An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Populism,” for it is as complete and unwieldy to read as such a title would indicate.

The introduction and conclusion make up the interpretive sections of the book and have occasioned its enthusiastic reviews. The last chapter in particular, “The Irony of Populism,” clearly explains the downfall of the People’s Party. No political party, Goodwyn says, could “sustain the day-to-day democratic ethos at the heart of the Alliance cooperative.” Reaching beyond mere partisan politics, the farmers’ revolt was a “cultural assertion as a people’s movement of mass democratic aspiration.” American culture, he claims, was at fault, for Populists could not transcend their sectional and racial loyalties. This is not a very satisfying answer, but I think it is a good and honest one. Goodwyn then carries his argument beyond the late 19th century, to indict not only Progressive America of the early 20th century, but liberal America of our own time. Populism he says, was our last, best chance to be free.

In drawing this conclusion, Goodwyn shoulders quite a burden, particularly when so many of his agrarian rebels were white supremacists. Their unwillingness to antagonize the white man’s party sparked the debate which produced the Cleburne demands. Ultimately, Southern refusal to break with the Democrats wrecked the intersectional third party of the people. The spectre of Negro domination hung about the edges of the movement throughout its history.

It would not be fair to charge Goodwyn with the racial blindness of his historical predecessors, Hicks and Hofstadter, for he improves upon them in this, as in many other regards. In Democratic Promise he calls John B. Rayner of Texas “perhaps the most intrepid Populist of them all,” and he writes an entire chapter on the “Populist Approach to Black America.” I wish, however, that he had addressed his white Populists to black farmers. Not all black Americans of the time were farmers, and a large enough handful of Negro reactionaries shared with E. L. Godkin the “provincial inheritance of a complacent culture.” If the book had the extraordinary sensitivity of the 1971 article on matters of race, Goodwyn would have written more carefully when he said that Tom Watson had been elected to Congress “in 1890 before vote frauds became a way of life in the South.”

Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise will replace Hicks’s book as the standard history of populism. It is a likable book, energetic, thorough, and occasionally corny. Goodwyn makes “sweeping generalizations about what Populist radicalism could have become,” which in his earlier article he termed “romantic.” The movement was “too diverse, too congregational, and too ideologically thin” he wrote then, and it “perished before developing a mature philosophy—on race, on money, or on socialism.” He was absolutely right then, self-righteous now. Yet Democratic Promise reorients discussion of the populists from the great names to the plain people, and it gives them their due as the originators of agrarian radicalism in the late 19th century. As Alliancemen and Populists, they lined out the agenda for future economic reform, true. But I cannot agree with him that the Populists were “the last American reformers with authentic cultural credentials to solicit mass support for the idea of achieving the democratic organization of an industrial society.” They finally left racialism intact, in both its economic and social aspects. Civil rights activists, mid-20th century “American reformers with authentic cultural credentials,” aimed at the very bastions of racism the Populists would have left standing.


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