Published by EH.NET (February 2006)


Rebecca Edwards and Sarah DeFeo, “1896: The Presidential Campaign: Cartoons and Commentary.” Vassar College, 2000.

Worth Robert Miller, “Populism.” Missouri State University, 2001.

Website Review for EH.NET by Ranjit S. Dighe, Department of Economics, State University of New York at Oswego.

Populism and the 1896 Election

To economic historians, the Populist era is endlessly fascinating, raising as it does such issues as the Brandeisian conflict between democracy and concentrated wealth, the relative merits of the gold standard versus a bimetallic standard or fiat money, and, of course, the “puzzle of farm discontent” at a time when the average farm standard of living seems to have been rising (at least according to aggregate statistics cited by North 1966 and several other economic historians). Adding to the era’s wondrous quality are timeless documents, like the People’s Party platform of 1892 and William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention of 1896, and larger-than-life characters such as Bryan; Populists Tom Watson, Mary Elizabeth Lease, and Jacob S. Coxey; and Mark Hanna, Republican campaign mastermind.

But possibly nowhere in the American economic history curriculum is the gap between instructor interest and student interest greater than it is for the Populist era. Apathy on this topic is perhaps unsurprising among students in urbanized America who have known only the relatively tranquil Age of Greenspan. For them to relate to the concerns of frontier farmers, or to appreciate how the choice of monetary regime could once have been the paramount issue in American politics, requires a great leap of imagination. Two websites, one devoted to Populism and the other to the famous “battle of the standards” that was the 1896 presidential election, go a long way toward aiding that leap, largely through the use of a device that itself came of age in the 1896 campaign: the political cartoon.

The 1896 website is the creation of Rebecca Edwards, an associate professor of history at Vassar College, and one of her students, Sarah DeFeo, with contributions from students in a Vassar history class. Edwards is the author of two books about American social and political history in the post-Civil War decades, and she is readying a biography of Populist orator Mary (“Raise less corn and more hell”) Lease. The site is attractive and user-friendly, with a distinctive logo and icons that link to its main sections: “The Cartoons,” a chronology of the 1896 election featuring over a hundred political cartoons; a list of newspapers and magazines whence those cartoons came; and pages on the Republican, Democratic, and People’s parties. The main page includes links to additional pages on political, economic, and social leaders, campaign themes, and popular amusements in the 1890s. Pages contain numerous links to other pages but are sufficiently self-contained that one need not spend much time clicking links.

The heart of the 1896 site is its cartoon chronology of that year’s presidential contest between Bryan and William McKinley. Even a century later, the dazzling full-color cartoons, such as those from the anti-Bryan Puck and Judge, convey much of the vividness of the campaign. Most of the other cartoons are cruder but accomplish the same purpose, by presenting an authentic and entertaining version of the campaign as Americans read about it at the time. Humorous put-downs of the opposition are a staple of every presidential campaign, and in 1896 those put-downs found their fullest expression in cartoon caricatures, such as those of McKinley campaign manager Mark Hanna in a dollar-sign suit, devilish-looking Populists holding pitchforks, and Bryan as a hot-air balloon. An accompanying “Journals” page provides the necessary perspective on the myriad periodicals that originally ran the cartoons, including circulation and political affiliation.

The pages on the three major political parties are workmanlike and easily digested. The main thing that distinguishes them from online encyclopedia entries is the extensive use of quotations from contemporary sources, from The Atlanta Constitution to The Rocky Mountain News to The Vineland (NJ) Independent. The quotations offer helpful context, but the pages do not match the vitality of the cartoon chronology. More cartoons or campaign illustrations would have helped. More expansive are the pages on individual leaders, campaign themes, and 1890s pop culture, which are a mix of short essays (some by Vassar students), political cartoons and illustrations, and quotations. The special-features section includes a bibliography, arranged by subject and including several websites, including the Library of Congress’s extensive “American Memory” collection of images ( Also included is an inspired list of classroom ideas for discussion, writing, and research. Additional assignments might be for students to respond to some of the student essays, which are generally good but not always airtight in their arguments. Undergraduates may feel more comfortable challenging assertions made by their peers than by credentialed economists and historians.

Worth Robert Miller’s “Populism” site also provides an impressive cartoon-based presentation but otherwise overlaps only a little with the 1896 site. Miller, a professor of history at Missouri State University, has written extensively and sympathetically on Populist politics, including a book on Oklahoma Populism. He is currently at work on a book on Populist cartoons, of which he has assembled over one thousand. The website presentation contains 40 cartoons (an alternate “short presentation” has 32), all from Populist newspapers. The presentations amount to cartoon histories of Populism, as depicted by the Populists themselves and annotated by Miller, who has provided simple explanatory captions. The presentations, though web-based, are as easy to use as slide shows, as one can advance from one cartoon to the next with just one click. One could easily and entertainingly devote a class period to either of these online presentations (or a selection thereof), perhaps following it up the next class with a discussion of Populism’s and free silver’s critics, illustrated with cartoons from the 1896 site.

Miller’s cartoons mostly predate the 1896 election. This is no accident, as Miller, like many historians of Populism, rejects the conventional view of Bryan’s 1896 campaign as the climax of Populism; instead he sees it as a debacle, and not just because Bryan lost. By endorsing Bryan, the People’s Party subordinated its original vision to the narrower concerns of the free-silver Democrats, “becoming an annex to Bryan Democracy” (Miller, “A Centennial Historiography of American Populism,” on the website. See Clanton 1991, 2004 for similar accounts).

The Populism site also contains some of Miller’s own writings, namely an annotated bibliography of Populism, an interpretive overview of the Populists (originally a book chapter), and three journal articles, two on Populist politics in Texas and the other a solid historiography of Populism. The annotated biography, which Miller revised in 1989 and again in 2001 from a 1973 book of Populist history sources by Henry Clay Dethloff contains entries on Populist activities in over thirty states and with about twenty categories. Finally, the site links to standard primary documents like the People’s Party platforms of 1892 and 1896 and Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.

Neither Edwards nor Miller appears to be a card-carrying economic historian, and, not surprisingly, neither of these sites contains much discussion of the cliometric literature on monetary populism and agrarian discontent. This is regrettable, all the more so because it seems symptomatic of a more general communication breakdown between traditional historians and economic historians (as described in Coclanis and Carlton 2001). The New Economic History spawned a generation of skeptics about the true economic plight of the farmers and a plethora of research on the “puzzle of farm discontent,” but that research is generally absent from both of these sites. Both sites, and Miller’s otherwise comprehensive bibliography in particular, would do well to acknowledge the modern economic history literature, from early revisionist pieces like North’s (1966) book chapter, subsequent responses (e.g., Mayhew 1972, McGuire 1981), and more recent pieces that suggest the Populist preoccupation with price deflation and reflation was rational (e.g., Rockoff 1990, Frieden 1997). Miller does reference two cliometric works on railroads and Populism (Higgs 1970, Aldrich 1980), but that’s about all.

On the other hand, economic history instructors are probably already assigning works like those, or textbook chapters that incorporate their insights. And neither site claims to be a self-contained lesson on the economics of Populism. Despite their omissions, these sites can be highly valuable to economic historians, especially those seeking to spice up their classroom coverage of the Populist movement and the “battle of the standards.”


Aldrich, Mark. 1980. “A Note on Railroad Rates and the Populist Uprising.” Agricultural History 54 (3): 424-432.

Clanton, Gene. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Clanton, O. Gene. A Common Humanity: Kansas Populism and the Battle for Justice and Equality, 1854-1903. Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 2004.

Coclanis, Peter, and David Carlton. 2001. “The Crisis in Economic History.” Challenge 44 (November-December): 93-103.

Frieden, Jeffry A. 1997. “Monetary Populism in Nineteenth-Century America: An Open-Economy Interpretation.” Journal of Economic History 57 (June): 367-395.

Higgs, Robert. 1970. “Railroad Rates and the Populist Uprising.” Agricultural History 44 (3): 291-297.

Mayhew, Anne. 1972. “A Reappraisal of the Causes of Farm Protest in the U.S., 1870-1900.” Journal of Economic History 32 (June): 464-475.

McGuire, Robert A. 1981. “Economic Causes of Late-Nineteenth Century Agrarian Unrest: New Evidence.” Journal of Economic History 41 (December): 835-852.

North, Douglass C. 1966. Growth and Welfare in the American Past, chapter 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rockoff, Hugh. 1990. “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory.” Journal of Political Economy 98 (August): 739-760.

Ranjit S. Dighe is Associate Professor of Economics at the State University of New York at Oswego. He is the author of The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (2002). His recent research concerns business support for Prohibition and its repeal.