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Populist Rage

By Donald T. Critchlow
3/20/2018 • American History Magazine

Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle

by Leonard L. Richards, University of Pennsylvania, 2002

Our republic was born in reaction to populist anger. Enraged that uppercrust Bostonians got rich speculating on government bonds and promissory notes while small landholders faced draconian taxes and foreclosures as Massachusetts scrambled to pay off Revolutionary War debts, Daniel Shays led a ragtag army of farmers in a failed attempt to seize the federal arsenal at Springfield in February 1787. Richards argues that fear of a full-scale rebellion amplified the calls for a constitutional convention in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation and was the primary reason George Washington decided to attend the meetings.

The Life of Andrew Jackson

by Robert Remini, Perennial Classics, 2001

In 1828 Andrew Jackson rode a wave of populist anger against financial speculators and political elites into the White House. Remini chronicles Old Hickory’s campaign against the Second Bank of the United States, which populists claimed was a clearinghouse of fraud and corruption that precipitated most of the nation’s financial woes. In July 1832, Jackson vetoed a bill to recharter the bank, claiming that the stock benefited “chiefly the richest class” and foreigners. While Jackson’s veto won popular support, the bank’s demise contributed to an economic depression in 1837.

A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

by Michael Kazin, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

Silver-tongued William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 1896, gave voice to those who had been devastated by the economic collapse of 1893. At the Democratic Convention he declared that this was “1776 over again,” and advocated the free coinage of silver so that the rich “shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Bryan was overwhelmingly defeated by his Republican rival William McKinley who appealed to the more tempered interests of the electorate. But Kazin maintains that Bryan’s mesmerizing eloquence helped transform his Democratic Party from the bulwark of laissez-faire into a citadel of liberalism.

Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long

by Richard D. White Jr., Random House, 2006

Beware: Populist anger often leads to demagoguery. When impatience with Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to revive the economy in the 1930s grew, Louisiana’s flamboyant Sen. Huey P. Long stepped forward. He stumped for a “Share Our Wealth” program that promised confiscation through taxes of all incomes over $4,000, a monthly $30 pension for the needy over 60, a 30-hour work week, and free college tuition for all deserving students. Long claimed his following included 8 million people who joined 27,000 local Share Our Wealth Clubs. Long was organizing a third party when he was assassinated in September 1935 at the age of 42.

 

Originally published in the August 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.  

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