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Content Reading Guide: Farmers and Populism Part 2
The Populist Party never rose to prominence on the national scene. A few Senators served for the Populist Party in Congress and some governors won office as well. As a political party, the movement faded. Yet, the goals and ideals of Populism were adopted by the Democrats.
During the Panic of 1893, many factors led to an economic decline. Farmers were unable to pay debts and railroads had laid too many tracks without enough customers. People lost trust in currency other than gold and tried to trade their money for gold. Silver mines closed due to the low interest in the metal. Due to these and other issues, thousands of businesses and hundreds of banks closed.
During the late 1800s, many in the North were Republicans and many in the South were Democrats. During the Civil War, the issue that divided these parties was slavery. In this era, the division between the parties was over the economy. Republicans heavily supported industry and Democrats heavily supported farmers. Silverites, those who supported bimetallism, wanted to add silver to the currency heavily backed by gold. That way, paper money could be backed by silver AND gold. Those against this plan were called Gold Bugs, and they only wanted money to be backed by gold. This was called the gold standard. Adding silver to back currency would mean inflation and more circulation of money available for loans. This would help the Populists to achieve their goal of reducing the stress of loans on farmers. Less inflation would happen with the gold standard, but the money would be hoarded and controlled by a minority of wealthy people.
In the election of 1896, the Republicans backed the gold standard and nominated William McKinley for the presidency. The Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan and supported bimetallism. The Populist Party, instead of running their own presidential candidate, supported Bryan for the presidency. William Jennings Bryan, armed with Populist ideas, supported by the Democrats and the Populist Party, lost the election of 1896. Bryan heavily favored bimetallism and in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech declared he would fight the gold standard if elected president. William McKinley was backed by big businesses who wanted a gold standard to keep their control over the economy. This was the end of the Populist movement as a political party, but their ideals and notions of promoting the common man through strength in numbers continue to today.
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