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Populist Party

Describe and evaluate the reasons for the rapid rise and fall of the Populist Party. What strengths and weaknesses did the party exhibit? What is the overall significance of the Populist Party?

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The Populist movement grew out of the frustration of the American farmer in the late 19th century. For some time farmers had been subject to worsening economic and social conditions. Some of these problems farmers faced included: a world-wide surplus had driven prices down; resentment of the high railroad rates with no other forms of transportation; little bargaining power either as buyers or sellers; and constant debt. After the Civil War farmers grew ever more entangled in debt. Western farmers incurred mortgages to cover the costs of land and machinery. Southern farmers were forced to use crop liens to the local merchants. As commodity prices dropped, the debt burden grew because farmers had to cultivate more wheat or cotton to raise the same amount of money. By growing more they furthered the vicious cycle of surpluses and price declines.

Frustrated by the unwillingness of Congress to meet their demands and ease their plight, disgruntled farmers began to organize after the Civil War. Like many of their counterparts laboring in urban factories, they realized that social change could be provoked only by demonstrations of power. Unlike labor unions, farm organizations faced a more complex array of economic variables affecting their livelihood. They had to deal with bankers, middlemen, railroad and grain elevator operators, and the world market all played a role. So too did the unpredictable forces of nature, i.e. droughts, ...