Settlers brought the Populist movement with them from Kansas at the time of the first opening in 1889. The Oklahoma People's Party drew its agenda, leadership, and ideology from both the Southern Farmer's Alliance and previous third parties such as the Greenback and Union Labor parties. Each was active in southern Kansas during the 1880s.
The People's Party effectively portrayed itself as the true inheritor of the egalitarian visions of Jefferson and Lincoln. Populists denounced the most exploitative aspects of late-nineteenth-century enterprise, particularly viewing monopoly as a threat to the liberty and economic independence of individuals. For that reason Oklahoma Populists promoted regulation of mercantile businesses, anti-usury legislation, arbitration of labor disputes, and free homes for settlers. They likewise called for low taxes and economical government, although they did support funding designed to help the disadvantaged, such as for education, relief for the destitute, and the construction of bridges and roads. Populists opposed government bonding schemes such as favoritism to bankers and also opposed a territorial militia, both as an unneeded expense and because state militias in this period frequently were used to break labor strikes. Their human rights orientation also caused Oklahoma Populists to support women's suffrage and oppose capital punishment.
In the territorial period most Oklahoma Democrats were southern-born whites; most Republicans were either northern-born whites, foreign-born whites, or African American. Although the People's Party drew mostly from northerners in 1890, afterward the third party effectively bridged sectional considerations and drew significantly from settlers from both regions. Most Populists were family farmers who lived in the hinterland away from railroad towns. They primarily grew corn, hogs, and, as southerners joined, cotton. The People's Party did poorly among early Oklahoma's town dwellers, wheat-growing agribusinessmen, and cattle ranchers. Two-thirds of Oklahoma's Populist legislators were farmers, which mirrored the makeup of Oklahoma's population in the 1890s, moreso than did Democrats or Republicans.
Populists nominated Samuel Crocker, former editor of the Oklahoma War Chief (the Boomers' official newspaper) and founder of Oklahoma's first Free Homes Club, to head their 1890 ticket. Crocker received 17 percent of the vote, and Populists elected five of thirty-nine territorial legislators. Once the 1890 legislature went into session, however, Populists combined with Democrats and a few renegade Republicans to organize both houses of the legislature. Their coalition partners wanted the territorial capital moved from Guthrie to Oklahoma City. In return, the People's Party got the agricultural college for Stillwater. Populists George Gardenhire and Arthur N. Daniels became president of the Territorial Council and House speaker, respectively. Otherwise, Populists were unsuccessful with their legislative agenda. A similar coalition in the 1893 legislature also provided meager results for the People's Party agenda.
Newspaper editors Leo Vincent of Guthrie, Ralph Beaumont of Oklahoma City, and John Allan of Norman led Populists away from coalition with the Democrats in the mid-1890s, establishing the People's Party as the major alternative to the Republican Party with the election of 1894. With a Republican majority in both houses of the 1895 territorial legislature, however, Populist legislation again was thwarted. Three factors brought Oklahoma Populists back into fusion with Democrats in 1896: a doubling of taxes in 1895, a Republican gerrymander of territorial legislative districts in expectation of a three-way 1896 election, and Populists' nomination of Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president.
Fusion in the 1896 territorial elections took the form of creating the Free Silver Party. Free Silver candidates swamped the Republicans, electing thirty-six of thirty-nine territorial legislators and sending Populist James Y. Callahan to Washington as Oklahoma's delegate to Congress. Although eighteen of the thirty-six Free Silver legislators were Populists, Democrats and Republicans again successfully sidetracked or gutted most of the Populist legislative agenda.
Disillusionment over the legislature's failure, plus Bryan's defeat, caused the People's Party to fade rapidly after 1896. Republicans regained control of the territorial legislature with the 1898 election. The Free Silver Party nominated Democrat James R. Keaton for Congress in 1898 and Populist Robert A. Neff in 1900. They received 39 percent and 46 percent of the vote, respectively. The People's Party ran only a few candidates for the territorial legislature in 1902. All lost.
The People's Party was a major contender for political power, becoming Oklahoma's second largest party and seriously challenging Republicans for political control of the territory in the mid-1890s. Because tribal politics dominated the Indian Territory in the 1890s, the People's Party had only a minor presence in what became the eastern portion of present day Oklahoma, although populistic sentiments also ran high in this region. Populists helped organize the First (1890), Second (1893), and Fourth (1897) legislatures but saw little of their political agenda become law until after the demise of the People's Party. Oklahoma's 1907 constitution contained a number of populistic influences, including popular election of all officeholders, initiative and referendum, establishment of a corporation commission, government authority to enter into business for itself, and a powerful Department of Labor and Board of Agriculture.
In the late 1890s many Populists began to turn to socialism as the next wave of egalitarian, third-party reform. Although Oklahoma would claim the nation's strongest Socialist Party, the new party's best electoral showing in 1914 matched only that of the Populist's weakest electoral showing in 1890.
SEE ALSO: SAMUEL CROCKER, FARMERS' ALLIANCE, JAMES YANCEY CALLAHAN, DEMOCRATIC PARTY, GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS, OKLAHOMA FARMERS' UNION, REPUBLICAN PARTY, SETTLEMENT PATTERNS, SOCIALIST PARTY, TERRITORIAL ERA, LEO VINCENT.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Worth Robert Miller, Oklahoma Populism: A History of the People's Party in the Oklahoma Territory (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987). Worth Robert Miller, "Frontier Politics: The Bases of Partisan Choice in the Oklahoma Territory," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 62 (Winter 1984-85). Howard L. Meredith, "The 'Middle Way': The Farmers' Alliance in Indian Territory, 1889-1896," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 47 (Winter 1969-70).
Worth Robert Miller
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