Farmers, the Populist Party, and Mississippi (1870-1900)

by Kenneth G. McCarty / July 2003

In the late 1800s, the United States experienced a tremendous growth in industrialization. Led by oil, steel, and other manufacturing industries, the United States had become the world’s leading producer of manufactured goods by 1900. The value of American exports tripled from 1870 to 1900 as America went from a debtor to a creditor nation. National wealth and national income skyrocketed. It was the age that amassed fortunes for John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Commodore Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, James B. Duke, and E. H. Harriman, to name a few. Before 1860 there were few millionaires in the United States, but by 1900 there were more than four thousand. Yet in the midst of all this industrial growth and production of wealth, almost ten million Americans, or about one out of eight people, lived in poverty.

Among the Americans left out of the prosperity were the farmers who experienced difficult economic times. An article in the April 28, 1887, edition of the Progressive Farmer magazine accurately summed up the attitude of farmers:

There is something radically wrong in our industrial system. There is a screw loose. The wheels have dropped out of balance. The railroads have never been so prosperous, and yet agriculture languishes. The banks have never done a better or more profitable business, and yet agriculture languishes. Manufacturing enterprises never made more money or were in a more flourishing condition, and yet agriculture languishes. Towns and cities flourish and ‘boom’ and grow and ‘boom,’ and yet agriculture languishes. Salaries and fees were never so temptingly high and desirable, and yet agriculture languishes.

Farmers believed that their economic demise resulted from the low prices which they received for their produce. Statistics validate their belief as the price of agricultural produce did fall drastically during the closing decades of the 19th century. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 1870 to 1897, wheat prices fell from $1.06 a bushel to 63¢ a bushel, corn from 43¢ to 30¢ a bushel, and cotton from 15¢ a pound to 6¢ a pound. Most of the time farmers received even less for their produce.

Farmers refused to admit it, but the primary cause of their problem was overproduction caused by increases in acreage of farm land and increased yields per acre due to improved farming methods generated by newly created agricultural colleges. Thus, farmers produced more than consumer demand, and prices fell to a point that farmers barely made a profit. Farmers, however, came to believe that their chief problem was not the market dynamics of supply and demand but that they sold goods in a free market and purchased goods in a protected and monopolistic market. They primarily zeroed in on two villains – banks and railroads. In their view banks charged outrageous interest rates, and monopolistic railroads not only charged outrageous rates but their rates were unfair and arbitrary in that the railroads charged farmers higher rates than they charged fellow industrialists.

Farmers organize

In an attempt to improve their condition, farmers in the 1870s decided to organize. They created numerous organizations including the Patrons of Husbandry or Grange, the National Farmers’ Alliance, the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, and the Southern Alliance. Working within existing political parties, farmers attempted to bring about political change. They managed to gain control of several state legislatures and to enact state laws which regulated railroads. At first the U. S. Supreme Court in Munn v. Illinois upheld these laws of railroad regulation, but in the late 1880s the court reversed itself and either declared state regulatory laws unconstitutional or took most of the starch out of them.

Frustrated by the reversal of the court and their inability to get either major political party to adopt their agenda, farmers in 1890 decided to field candidates for state and national offices under diverse party labels. Farm leaders surprised themselves by gaining partial or complete control of twelve state legislatures and by electing six governors, three senators, and approximately fifty congressmen.

Populist Party is created

Elated over their success, the agrarian leaders decided it was time to create a national farm and labor party. Accordingly in July 1892, they held a convention in Omaha, Nebraska. The agrarians created the People’s or Populist Party, drafted a platform, and nominated James B. Weaver for president and James G. Field for vice president. The Omaha platform of 1892 concisely documented the grievances and demands of farmers. It was also one of the most radical platforms to this point in American history. Among other things, it called for government ownership and operation of the railroad, telephone, and telegraph systems.

Third parties have never won national elections and the Populist Party was no exception. Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate in 1892, won the presidency, but Weaver did poll more than a million popular votes and twenty-two electoral votes. In the 1896 presidential election, the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan and adopted a platform that included several planks from the 1892 Populist platform. After much discussion, Populist leaders decided to support Bryan and in so doing, signed the death warrant of the Populist Party. Bryan lost three presidential elections as the nominee of the Democratic Party.

Mississippi farmers blame Bourbons

Like the rest of the nation, Mississippi farmers languished in economic distress during the late 1800s. Many of them joined and supported the Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance. Like their national counterparts, Mississippi farmers believed that railroads, banks, large lumber companies, corporations, and the middle man were the major causes of their economic plight. After the overthrow of Radical Republican governments in 1875, Mississippi virtually became a one-party state for the next hundred years. After 1875, a political machine emerged to control the Democratic Party. Led by James Z. George, L. Q. C. Lamar, Edward C. Walthall, John M. Stone, and Robert Lowry, this machine controlled politics in Mississippi for the next two decades. Labeled “Bourbons” (called Redeemers by some) by their opponents, the leaders championed railroad and corporate interests, and, in the eyes of farmers, favored the industrialization of Mississippi at the expense of agriculture.

Mississippi farmers blamed the Bourbon leaders for their economic problems, and in the 1880s they believed that in order to improve their economic plight, they needed to gain control of the Democratic Party by electing candidates who reflected their interests rather than attempting to create a third party. Like other farmers in the South, Mississippi farmers feared that a third party would endanger White supremacy.

One candidate farmers supported in the 1880s was Ethelbert Barksdale, editor of the Jackson Clarion. A Democrat and one of the leaders of the overthrow of Republican rule in Mississippi, he nevertheless supported regulation of railroads and other programs championed by farmers. Barksdale, however, failed in his bid for the United States Senate in 1880, and again in 1891 when he attempted to defeat incumbent Senator James Z. George.

Farmers also supported Putnam Darden, head of the state Grange, in an unsuccessful bid for the governorship in 1885. While farm candidates did win some elections, they never won a major one and never came close to gaining control of the Democratic Party. They failed, in part, because parties selected nominees in county, district, and state conventions, which were easily controlled by a political organization and not by a vote of the people.

In the 1880s there was much support in Mississippi for a constitutional convention to draft a new constitution. While the main driving force for the convention was to legally disfranchise African-Americans, there were other issues including apportionment of the state legislature, ending the convict-lease system, regulation of railroad and corporations, electing the state judiciary, and equalization of the school fund. Bourbon leaders were divided in their support for a new constitution. Among Bourbon leaders, Senator George was the driving force for a constitutional convention, while Senator Edward C. Walthall was the main spokesman for the opposition. Walthall argued that it was impossible to disfranchise Black Mississippians without also disfranchising thousands of White voters.

Frank Burkitt

Agrarian leaders generally supported a constitution convention to draft a new constitution. Newspaper editor Frank Burkitt and the Farmers’ Alliance were among the earliest supporters of a constitutional convention. In 1888 the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill for a constitutional convention, but Governor Robert Lowry vetoed it. In 1890 the legislature again passed a similar bill and the new governor, John M. Stone, signed it.

One hundred and thirty-four delegates met in Jackson in August 1890 to draft a new constitution. After much bitter debate, a new constitution emerged. Among its most far-reaching provisions were the disfranchisement of Black voters through the literacy clause and poll tax, the reapportionment of the state legislature, and the abolition of the convict-lease system. In addition, railroad companies were placed under state laws.

A new constitution did not bring an end to the farmers’ economic ills. Cotton prices continued to fall and dropped to 7.5¢ a pound by 1892, or about the cost of production. Efforts by farmers to bring economic and political change within the Bourbon-controlled Democratic Party seemed hopeless. This led Mississippi farmers to turn to and support the newly created Populist Party.

Frank Burkitt, editor of the Okolona Chickasaw Messenger, led the movement to unseat what he described as the “putrid, putrescent, putrifying political moribund carcass of bourbon democracy.” In the 1892 elections, Mississippi Populists ran candidates in all congressional districts except one. All of them lost. Burkitt, who ran in a northeast Mississippi congressional district, made the best showing winning 39 percent of the vote. Weaver, the presidential candidate, won 19 percent of the state vote.

Populist Party fades away

Nevertheless, in their eyes Populists had made a good showing and thus believed they would ultimately triumph. However, Populist results at the polls in elections from 1892 to 1898 were, at best, terribly disappointing. In 1898 cotton prices fell below the cost of production, yet in the congressional elections that year, Populist candidates received fewer votes than in previous elections. In 1900 William McKinley, the Republican candidate for president, received more votes than Wharton Barker, the Populist candidate. For all practical purposes, Populism had died.

In the late 19th century, the Populist Party arose out of agrarian economic and political protest, was short lived, and passed into history. Yet, in time, it achieved most of its platform. At the national level, the presidential administration of Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) and the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) enacted most of the Populist demands into law.

In Mississippi, the state legislature passed the direct primary law in 1903 which led to the election of pro-farmer Democratic governors like James K. Vardaman (1904-1908) and Theodore G. Bilbo (1916-1920 and 1928-1932) whose administrations passed into law many of the demands of the Mississippi farmers. Thus, like most third parties in America, the Populists failed to win elections, but in time achieved many of their goals.

Kenneth G. McCarty, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Southern Mississippi, and editor of The Journal of Mississippi History, a quarterly publication of the Mississippi Historical Society.

Lesson Plan

  • Robert Lowry
    Mississippi farmers considered Robert Lowry a “Bourbon” and one who favored the industrialization of Mississippi at their expense. Lowry, a Democrat, was governor of Mississippi from 1882 to 1890. Photo courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Call No. PI/1989.0008/27
  • Ethelbert Barksdale
    Ethelbert Barksdale, a Mississippi newspaper editor and Democrat who in 1875 helped overthrow Republican rule in Mississippi, was supported by farmers in his run for the U. S. Senate because he supported regulation of railroads. Photo courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Call No. PI/PER/B 37.5
  • Frank Burkitt
    Frank Burkitt, editor of the Okolona "Chickasaw Messenger", ran as a Populist for a congressional seat in 1892. Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
  • James K. Vardaman
    The pro-farmer administration of James K. Vardaman, governor of Mississippi from 1904 to 1908, passed into law many demands of Mississippi farmers. Photo courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Call No. PI/1989.0008/32

Suggested Reading

Cresswell, Stephen. Multiparty Politics in Mississippi, 1877-1902. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Movement: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Kirwan, Albert D. Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics: 1876-1925. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1951.