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The Five Most Powerful Populist Uprisings in U.S. History

The 2016 election constituted one of the great populist uprisings of American history. A large segment of the electorate rose up against American elites and many of their underlying governing nostrums—globalism, lax border control, free trade, American military adventurism, a wariness toward nationalism, the cozy relationship between Big Government and Big Finance. It’s an open question whether President Trump, who ran against those nostrums, will govern as he campaigned. There are sound reasons to believe he will abandon many of his campaign pronouncements and meld his populist rhetoric with more establishmentarian actions. If so, his political story could become one of the great sleight-of-hand perpetrations of the American experience.

It may be instructive, in any event, to look at the other great populist uprisings of our history by way of a comparative analysis. Herewith then is a list of the country’s five most powerful waves of populism.

Andrew Jackson: We can’t understand Jackson’s populism without understanding how Thomas Jefferson set the stage for his emergence. The country’s first dominant party was the Federalists, unabashedly elitist in its advocacy of a strong federal government and a strong executive within that government. The greatest Federalist was Alexander Hamilton, who had argued during the Constitutional Convention that presidents should hold office until they died. Jefferson set himself foursquare against the Hamiltonian ethos. Following his 1800 presidential victory, he killed the Federalist Party and put to rest its brand of power consolidation.

But that irrepressible figure Henry Clay fashioned a successive political philosophy he called the American System—a governmental commitment to public works designed to pull the nation up from above. It included federal support for roads, bridges, canals, and even a national university. It also included high tariffs to plenish federal coffers (to pay for those public works) and to protect fledgling U.S. industries. It embraced the kind of national bank that Hamilton had fostered in his day. Finally, Clay wanted to sell public lands in the West at high prices to generate federal funds and bolster federal power.

Jackson opposed all this. He despised any concentrations of governmental power and didn’t feel the federal government needed to pull up the country from above. Let the yeoman thrive on his own, believed Jackson, and he would push the country up from below. Thus he favored selling land at low prices—or giving it away altogether—and he opposed the national bank, the national university, and federal support for projects he felt should be left to states and localities.

His big populist moment came when the 1824 presidential election was thrown into the House of Representatives (for lack of an Electoral College majority). There sat Clay, speaker of the House and the dominant figure in the chamber, who immediately maneuvered the members into giving the election to John Quincy Adams, a supporter of Clay’s American System. Jackson, who had garnered the largest plurality in both the popular and electoral balloting, was cast aside. But then Adams offered to Clay, and Clay accepted, the job of secretary of state, at that time the most unobstructed path to the White House.

Jackson went ballistic. For four years he railed against this “corrupt bargain,” as he called it. He employed rhetoric that included words such as “cheating,” “corruption,” and “bribery.” The elites had stolen the presidency, he thundered, and the people must seize it back.

Jackson’s thrust against Clay’s party unfolded amidst a subtle transformation in presidential politics. Until Jackson’s emergence, presidential elections had been largely in the hands of state legislators and other local men of prominence (elites), who selected the electors who in turn selected the presidents. Property restrictions also curtailed voter involvement. The idea was to keep the people at a distance from the process. But, responding to a wave of populism emerging in the west, more and more states were choosing electors by popular vote and eliminating property requirements. The result was the emergence of a mass electorate, a powerful new political force. Jackson brilliantly exploited this political force. Clay and Adams didn’t see it coming.

The result was that Jackson expelled Clay and Adams from the executive branch and installed in Washington his new populist thinking. As president, he reduced tariffs (but not as much as some of his followers wanted), terminated federal funding for a national road project, killed the Second Bank of the United States, sold Western lands at rock-bottom prices, and fashioned the yeoman class into a powerful political force. There was no more talk of a national university.

Jackson was the country’s greatest populist politician. He crafted a governing philosophy and a governing coalition that dominated American politics for a generation until slavery upended the old political fault lines and the Industrial Revolution brought forth the Republican successors to Clay’s American System. And note that Jackson’s populist emergence coincided with a significant shift in relative political power—the emergence of the yeoman class as a political force. Similar shifts in voting patterns also attended other major populist waves in America.

William Jennings Bryan: The 1890s were a bad time for America—and for Democratic President Grover Cleveland, who presided over one of the worst recessions in American history. A bubble in Western land prices had burst while surging grain production devastated farm prices. Farmers needed money to get through hard times, but there was no money. A deflationary spiral had ravaged the money supply. In the farm sector, the answer was simple: expand silver coinage to augment the money that traditionally had been backed by gold. The cry went up for the free coinage of silver at a particular ratio to gold, usually fixed at 16 to 1.

The establishment, consisting of some traditional Democrats and most Republicans, fought back, noting that the nation’s money supply had increased by 240 percent since 1860 and 104 percent since 1872—much faster than the rise in population. Also, they pointed out, global gold production had increased substantially in recent years, bolstering the money supply throughout the world. But the silver men wouldn’t hear of it. They were dying financially, and they demanded action.

This established the framework for one of the most intense populist waves ever seen in American history. It emerged in the 1896 presidential campaign under the banner of Nebraska’s Bryan, just 36 at the time, a lawyer and former two-term congressman but now a $30-a-week political commentator for the Omaha World Herald. Bryan calculated that if he could get to the rostrum of the Democratic National Convention he could sweep the delegates and take the nomination, notwithstanding that nothing of the sort had ever happened in American politics. He did get to that rostrum, where he delivered a breathtaking speech filled with political hellfire. He swept the convention and captured his party’s nomination.

It seemed for a time that he would sweep the nation, but it wasn’t to be. The Republican nominee, William McKinley, far more wily and calculating than most people at the time realized, deftly outmaneuvered the fiery Nebraska populist. He embraced the gold standard as a financial necessity but accepted the idea of greater silver coinage if other major nations would join in an international gold-and-silver agreement designed to prevent destabilizing currency speculations.

With this compromise concept McKinley managed to hold on to the Midwest and Northeast, traditional GOP strongholds, while Bryan swept the West and South. McKinley won with 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 176. Then the new president further deflected Bryan’s populist wave, and bought valuable time, by sending a negotiating team overseas to explore an international currency agreement that would include expanded silver coinage. It didn’t succeed, but in the meantime McKinley managed to get the economy moving again. Prices rose, economic activity resumed, and the farm sector went back to planting and harvesting. When McKinley ran for reelection, he recaptured much of the West along with the traditional GOP strongholds of the Midwest and Northeast—and increased his electoral vote total to 292.

The Bryan populist movement turned out to be a flash in the pan—a powerful wave of sentiment unleashed by economic hard times but without the underlying force to sustain itself once the hard times were over. As president, McKinley placed the country on a strict gold standard while fostering strong and consistent economic growth. The populist silver surge was over.

1968: This was a year of convergence when numerous unsettling developments came together to rile large segments of the electorate—increasingly violent campus protests; bloody racial demonstrations in Northeastern and Midwestern cities with hundreds of deaths; a lingering war in Vietnam that the government couldn’t win and couldn’t end; landmark civil-rights legislation that upended old political alignments; and a quantum increase in federal power and governmental intrusiveness. The country hadn’t been so unsettled since at least the early Great Depression, perhaps not since the slavery debates of the 1850s. The violence outside the Democrats’ Chicago convention betokened the state of political affairs in a country filled with anxiety.

Into this mix strode former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a kind of political bantam rooster who combined feisty rhetoric with a rustic humor. Although he made his name as a racial segregationist and that stamp never would wash away, he now was pushing much broader issues aimed at working-class Americans everywhere—an out-of-control federal bureaucracy, social experimentation such as school busing for racial balance, the lack of social cohesion, a breakdown in civic order. Wallace railed against “pointy-headed bureaucrats” who couldn’t park their bicycles straight. He said they proudly toted fancy briefcases to work, but when they were opened up it turned out there was nothing in them except tuna-fish sandwiches for lunch.

Wallace turned out to be largely a Southern candidate propelled by a distressed white power structure in that region, agitated by the looming rise of African-Americans through the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He carried five Southern states—Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. But in collecting 13.4 percent of the popular vote overall he also helped demonstrate just how unsettled the electorate was. The unsettled voters gave the presidency to Richard M. Nixon by a paper-thin margin of just 510,314 popular votes.

The politically brilliant Nixon promptly set about to absorb this Wallace electorate into the Republican base. He did this through his much-maligned “Southern strategy,” decried by many as evidence that the GOP was employing an underlying racism to extend itself into Southern politics. But in the end the “solid South” gave way to a more normal brand of politics that accommodated the rise of serious black politicians, including governors and U.S senators, as well as solidly conservative sentiments similar to what was seen elsewhere in the nation. In the meantime, Nixon also galvanized large numbers of Northern working class voters—his so-called Silent Majority, upset by social chaos in the country—to score in 1972 one of the most lopsided presidential victories in American history. He lost a single state, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.

1992: In retrospect, it’s difficult to grasp just why the electorate was so unsettled in this year as to devastate a sitting president in the primaries and foster a third-party candidate who pulled nearly 19 percent of the popular vote (though he carried no states). Incumbent George H.W. Bush, successor to the highly successful Ronald Reagan, presided over an economy that, while in a mild recession, hardly left devastation in its wake. He had scored a major military success in forcing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait.

But Bush had abandoned much of the Reagan formula, to the great consternation of many Republicans. He appeared a bit hapless on the economy, particularly in violating his own campaign pledge that he wouldn’t raise taxes. The Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, in which 55 people died, agitated much of the nation. And there was a growing feeling that the status quo in Washington was operating in its own interests far more than in the national interest and that rampant fiscal irresponsibility was threatening the nation’s future.

The first sign that this was going to be a populist year came with the New Hampshire primary, when commentator Patrick Buchanan (not even a real politician) scored 38 percent of the vote. He went on to collect 30 percent in Colorado, 36 percent in Georgia, 32 percent in Florida, and 27 percent in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts. Overall, Buchanan collected 23 percent of the primary vote.

That’s a devastating result for any sitting president and heralded the arrival of industrialist Ross Perot as an independent candidate. Perot entered the race with great fanfare, then exited the race in a huff, saying Bush had taken steps to sabotage his daughter’s wedding. He then re-entered the race and named as his vice-presidential candidate the retired Admiral James Stockdale, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and true military hero of rare dimension, who was, however, past his prime at this point and sadly out of place in the hurly-burly of American politics. Nevertheless, with all of that Perot still collected nearly a fifth of all popular votes cast.

Populist elections nearly always favor the challenger over the incumbent, and 1992 was no exception. Bush couldn’t withstand the anti-establishment sentiment of that year, and he fell to challenger Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who captured the far West and most of the Midwest and Northeast, as well as a smattering of Southern states. But it was the populists Buchanan and Perot who set the direction of American politics that year and destroyed the Bush presidency.

Trump: What we see in surveying the country’s five most powerful episodes of populism is that this sentiment stretches through the American experience, sometimes lying latent in the body politic, sometimes rising to the surface to redirect the course of politics when civic anger approaches or reaches a boiling point. But it is always there. It is worth noting, however, that seldom has the populist impulse actually captured a national majority or the presidency. It happened in 1828 with Jackson. And it happened only one other time, with Trump.

What this says about our own time is that we are in a period of superheated civic agitation, which isn’t going to go away in the same way that McKinley parried Bryan’s call for free silver coinage or Nixon co-opted the Wallace constituency. Trump may falter as president, may fail, but if he does, the American populism of our time won’t falter or fail with him. It will linger in American politics until the American system finds a way either to address the political agitations of our time or to somehow move beyond them. Either way, the unpredictability of politics will continue until the country manages to fashion a new consensus on who we are and where we’re going.  

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, DC, journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century [1], is due out from Simon & Schuster in September.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "The Five Most Powerful Populist Uprisings in U.S. History"

#1 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 14, 2017 @ 11:00 pm

This is an usually fine essay, Mr. Merry, even by your high standards. You conclude with this brilliant, prophetic insight into the current situation:

”Trump may falter as president, may fail, but if he does, the American populism of our time won’t falter or fail with him. It will linger in American politics until the American system finds a way either to address the political agitations of our time or to somehow move beyond them. Either way, the unpredictability of politics will continue until the country manages to fashion a new consensus on who we are and where we’re going.”

#2 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 15, 2017 @ 12:36 am

Uhh, the New Deal?

Many of these you list are “populist” in the sense that the dominant ethnic/cultural group in this country reasserts it’s dominance at the ballot box, but none of these (except perhaps Jackson) has much troubled entrenched capital. (Bryan would have, had he succeeded). 1968 and 2016, in large part, were dominated by culture.

And 2016 did produce a trump victory, but the 45th president, other than deporting a lot of Mexicans and putting a Southern gentleman in charge of civil rights, is rapidly becoming yet another establishment stooge.

#3 Comment By connecticut farmer On April 15, 2017 @ 10:14 am

If a populist movement may be a described as a reaction against so-called “establishment” politics, then one could do worse than add a sixth: The New Deal. In 1932 the American economy was on its knees, with almost 25 percent of the workforce unemployed there was a genuine fear that America could go the way of either the USSR or Germany. America was sick and Hoover Republicanism was deemed to be the cause of the disease. The cure? FDR, a Hudson Valley patrician who would quickly be branded “a traitor to his class.” Whether it was the New Deal or Pearl Harbor which finally triggered the economic upsurge in America is a matter of some debate. What is not debatable is that, for good or for ill (again, a matter of debate) FDR gets the credit for being the architect of what we now know as “the Welfare State.”

#4 Comment By JLF On April 15, 2017 @ 10:31 am

Merry gives too much credit to the “establishment” of the 1890s to solve the problems the Populists raised. (And the Populists were so enamored of their rhetoric – “Free Silver” – to see what was actually happening.)

The deflation of the 1890s came from Cleveland and his “Hard Money” Democrats adopting the gold standard of the GOP. An expanding economy, brought about by the industrial boom and business expansion of the post-bellum years needed the kind of flexible economy the Populists sensed but could only express as the need for a second monetizing metal: silver.

McKinley’s policies most certainly did not end the monetary crisis. The discovery of gold in Alaska and the Yukon did. And the rail network saw to it that the gold quickly made its way into the monetry mainstream, thereby inflating the currency, just as Populist rhetoric had demanded (but in a way consonant with conservative Gold Bug demands.)

And, too, with McKinley came the start of the American Empire, with colonial acquisitions in Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico. All in just a couple of years.

#5 Comment By Chris C. On April 15, 2017 @ 11:07 am

Fascinating article though I think the Reagan win in 1980, and arguably FDR’s triumph in 1932 might qualify as great populist triumphs as well.

#6 Comment By Conewago On April 15, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

“Let the yeoman thrive on his own, believed Jackson, and he would push the country up from below.”

Unless that yeoman was a reasonably-assimilated Cherokee plantation owner in Georgia. Even one who owned slaves. And whose sons fought for the Confederacy. By gosh, an Indian is an Indian. And if that Indian yeoman – who agreed to become assimilated to white ways, and did so, successfully – happens to own rich land that is coveted by a rich white plantation owner, then, by goodness, we’ll see what the might of the central government can do.

Jackson already perpetrated the greatest populist slight-of-hand. Only, he continues to do it to this day in our history books. Populism is a way for the rich in certain areas to circumvent the U.S. Constitution to get what they want.

And the real men of the people, like Davy Crockett, usually get pushed out of the way. At least Davy got to die a hero in south-central Texas, though.

#7 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On April 15, 2017 @ 1:31 pm

Populism may have been a ‘thing’ in the 19th and 20th centuries, but like any ‘popular’ movement, it was co-opted by the two headed monster we call “democracy” and it became just another tool in the ‘say anything to get elected’ toolbox. Make no mistake, it’s a good tool to have – especially in the age of Twitter, memes, FB, and the like; but in a manner of speaking it is more ‘virtual’ than real. Think of it as “reality politics”.

#8 Comment By Mark Thomason On April 15, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

Populist explosions are what prevents things building to revolutionary explosions.

They are not always wise, nor bringers of good answers.

They are however a safe-for-society rebellion against powers-that-be that are not delivering answers to the satisfaction of voters.

They kick start the political process, even when they do not themselves bring the needed answers.

Trump is not likely to bring any needed answers. He did however end two things: the Republican establishment Party of No, and the Clinton-DNC dominance of making Democrats into the Republican-Lite party of a donor elite.

What is important about Trump is what comes after him. It won’t be Hillary or Tim Kaine. It won’t be Romney or McCain.

That is an important service, in a two step political process.

#9 Comment By Thrice A Viking On April 16, 2017 @ 4:13 am

Interesting article. I’m surprised that you didn’t include the rise of FDR in the Great Depression on your Greatest Hits of Populism series. Granted, he was rich – but then, so is Trump. And the New Deal really did transform American politics, far more than either 1968 or 1992 did.

You could also make the case for Ronald Reagan in 1980 prevailing due to a populist movement. Remember that both Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown challenged the incumbent POTUS, Jimmy Carter, in the Democratic primaries, and that that year saw a viable 3rd party candidate in John Anderson.

I’m curious about this idea of a national university. We already had one at West Point, and the predecessor to Annapolis was established during the administration of Jackson’s VP and successor, Martin Van Buren. How did this one differ so much from those, does anyone know?

#10 Comment By Ted W On April 16, 2017 @ 11:04 am

Overall enjoyed, but I think it’s notable the sole mention of race in this article is to downplay the racial nature of George Wallace and Richard Nixon’s appeals. Call it the damned liberal in me but Jackson, Wallace and Trump all seemed at least in part motivated by the causes of Indian removal, racial segregation and an anti-Muslim/Latino sentiment in turn. Not every emotionally disabused electorate is righteous in their anger or wise in their judgements. I don’t know about you but I rarely make wise decisions based on fear and anger.

I’m sure if I lived in 1830 I’d be pretty angry about losing that national road.

#11 Comment By Jack Spandalin On April 16, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

I love how they compare the presidents. The analysis is very thorough.

#12 Comment By collin On April 17, 2017 @ 10:10 am

In retrospect, it’s difficult to grasp just why the electorate was so unsettled in this year. (FYI..I graduate college in 1992 in SoCal so I experienced the 1991/1992 realities.)

Easy, we forget the S&L 1990 recession created the jobless recovery in which unemployment was increasing until the summer of 1992. This happened A year and half after the recession ended and there was a lot complaints about Japan and NAFTA. (Sound familiar?) Secondly, despite winning the Iraq war goals and the Cold War ending, the victory felt empty to both its supporters, Saddam was in charge of Iraq, and its detractors, Bush Sr. only cared about foreign policy. All the while, the Bush administration was whining about Murphy Brown and The Simpsons as issues behind Rodney King breakdowns which made them look ridiculous. All the while, the Clintons presented themselves as Boomers of the future against Bush administration that appeared to be flatfooted by the jobless recovery.

Anyway, the bizarre 1992 election still has my favorite Presidential election controversy which was Hillary Rodman Clinton cookie bakeoff against Barbara Bush.

#13 Comment By Scott On April 17, 2017 @ 10:13 am

Donald Trump is no populist … his campaign was a charade from the outset and enough people pointed out that fact enough times in enough places that only the self-deluded fell for it. Clearly, Americans — in large numbers — have been deluding themselves for some time. What is sad is that some Americans still think the swamp is being drained, the trans-nationals and the Big Banks are being harnessed, and that the elites are still chortling all the way to the bank.

#14 Comment By Tom S On April 17, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

And of course Jackson’s populism in regard to the national bank condemned the United States to a century of boom and bust cycles, which weren’t finally ended until reinstitution of Federal control over monetary policy.

#15 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 17, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

I agree with connecticut farmer, Chris C., and Thrice a Viking that the 1932 FDR win should probably be included in Mr. Merry’s list of “the five most powerful populist uprisings in US history.” As Thrice a Viking put it: “I’m surprised that you didn’t include the rise of FDR in the Great Depression on your Greatest Hits of Populism series. Granted, he was rich – but then, so is Trump. And the New Deal really did transform American politics, far more than either 1968 or 1992 did.”

My late father was raised in Urbanna, Virginia, a dirt-poor town of 500 — mainly farmers and fisherman — in Middlesex County, not far from the Chesapeake Bay. Daddy said that on Election Night 1932 in Urbanna was an unforgettable night: “In 1932, when I was twelve, I worked for two hours for 15 cents. But that was pretty good then because grown men were working ten hours a day for ten cents an hour…a dollar a day…six days a week…six dollars a week. And they were happy to get the work. We went through a period in the ‘30s when there was not that much work. Probably one of the most jubilant times that I can remember in Urbanna was the night Franklin Roosevelt was elected the first time. People were really jubilant. Went out and got drunk…took a barrel of tar – that they had to fix the roads – and took the tar and went out in a man’s field and got the shocks of fodder and put all around the barrel of tar out in the middle of the field and had this big fire all night long.”

#16 Comment By Weldon On April 17, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

I have trouble taking an account of American populism that doesn’t mention racial anxiety and resentment seriously. That said, I think the inclusion of 1992 is important, and that’s probably the election of the five I understand the least, even though I was alive through it.

#17 Comment By Thrice A Viking On April 17, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

Collin, there may have been complaints against Mexico, and perhaps even Canada, our two partners in NAFTA. And there might have even been worries about the treaty if and when it was approved while Bush Sr. was still POTUS. But it didn’t actually get passed until the following Clinton Administration. Remember the debate between then-VP Al Gore and Ross Perot?

Scott, I think Trump may have been sincere about what he said on the campaign trail regarding trade and immigration. (His temperament is so mercurial that it’s hard to be sure about that long ago, in Trump time.) Commentators in the MSM haven’t been too good about pointing this out, but Trump’s voters were, by-and-large, richer than average. However, he did seem to do better among lower income voters than many of his Republican predecessors, enough to win the Electoral College.

#18 Comment By Blackhorse On April 17, 2017 @ 8:11 pm

re Chris C & Vking: both Roosevelt in and Reagan ran traditional campaigns; no direct appeal to “the people”.

“Merry gives too much credit to the “establishment” of the 1890s to solve the problems the Populists raised.” It took the creation of the Fed (heresy!) to stabilize the economy.

re Scott: agree, Trump’s was populism without conviction; Sanders was the real deal.

#19 Comment By JonF On April 18, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

The 80s were hugely disruptive to the working class, although not to the educated or entrepreneurial middle class. It saw the demolition of unionism, the end of strict government enforcement of trust and monopoly regulations, and the beginnings of labor arbitrage.
This goes a ways to explain the surge of populism in the early 90s, even if the educated classes were left on the outside wondering what all the fuss was about.

#20 Comment By Ed On April 18, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

“Populism” is a slippery term to define. Jefferson in 1800 and Roosevelt in 1932 may have been “patricians,” but they certainly were swept into office by a wave of popular revulsion with the status quo. Reagan’s 1980 victory certainly qualifies as a bigger change in US politics than Wallace’s or Perot’s third party candidacies.

If I were to draw a lesson from this, it might be that populism is a means to effect change. Some very populist campaigns concentrated more on feeling than on policy and didn’t change much. Leaders who had one foot in the populist camp and one in the establishment camp were more likely to be successful. Clinton and Nixon were (I suppose) a bigger influence on American history than Perot or Wallace.

#21 Comment By One Man On April 18, 2017 @ 5:02 pm

“Not every emotionally disabused electorate is righteous in their anger or wise in their judgments.”

Yes. This shows the “why can’t it be both” principle. Trump supporters have reason to hate the elite. But they were foolish to think Trump was the solution to their problems.