In the political landscape of the late nineteenth century, the
Populist party was recognized even by its critics as being ahead of
its time. Its members saw themselves as bearers of a reform message
vital to the nation, reflecting agrarian America's anxiety that the
country was moving toward a new form of slavery in the face of
changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. These issues
were for many Americans the "Crisis of the Nineties," and Populists
met that crisis with a stand against imperialism, a commitment to
human rights, and a deep distrust of big business.
While most studies of Populism have focused on regional
activities or on its intellectual and social underpinnings, little
has been written about the record of this radical party in the
national legislature. Now one of our foremost scholars of Populism
presents the first comprehensive treatment of the party in
Congress, revealing the programs and personalities that shaped and
ultimately doomed the movement.
Gene Clanton has combed the Congressional Record to document how
these visionaries performed on the national stage during that
tumultuous decade. He examines the contributions of the fifty
Populist legislators elected by sixteen states and one territory
from 1891 to 1903-from Senator William Peffer of Kansas to
Congressman William Neville of Nebraska-to show how they
represented the party line on such issues as the gold standard,
taxation, immigration, government railways, and the
Clanton demonstrates that congressional Populism was a positive
and humane force in American politics totally distinct from the
reactionary political movement that flourishes today under its
name. He also suggests that the issues which Populist congressmen
grappled with and the policies they advocated have continued to
affect us even into the present. Long awaited by scholars of the
Populist movement, Clanton's book is the crowning achievement of a
career of research and shows how these forgotten radicals fit into
the sweeping panorama of American politics.
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