Book Review: Principle Over Party by R. Alton Lee

Why do certain political ideas take root and gain acceptance while others advocated by the same party or movement do not? That question can’t help but come to mind reading R. Alton Lee’s Principle over Party: The Farmers’ Alliance and Populism in South Dakota, 1880-1900.

The Farmers’ Alliance and the political parties to which it helped give birth had a couple primary goals: government ownership of railroads, the abolition of national banks, and the free and unlimited coinage of silver. (Briefly, and perhaps inadequately, explained, free silver advocates saw it as a way to increase the money supply and, hopefully, make it easier for farmers to pay their debts given declining farm prices.) None of the three goals was achieved and, at best, they brought limited electoral success for political offices. Yet other issues these groups championed during the last two decades of the 19th Century were adopted near the end of the movement or after. These included the Australian (secret) ballot, direct election of senators, initiative and referendum, and a graduated income tax. Plainly, the lack of success on one front didn’t keep these organizations from changing the country.

To a great extent, Lee tells the story of the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist movement in South Dakota through its most prominent figures — Henry Loucks and Alonzo Wardall. Loucks not only helped found the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance in 1886 and became its president, he would go on to lead the National Farmers’ Alliance and was recognized nationally as a leader of the Populist movement. Wardall, meanwhile, helped lead many of the business activities of the Alliance and worked nationwide in attempting to achieve its success.

The reason the Alliance supported financial reform is relatively easy to understand. Difficult economic times meant farmers in the Dakotas and elsewhere were burdened by debt, including mortgages with up to 20 percent interest. At the same time, elevator and railroad charges to get grain to market meant little or no profit. The Farmers’ Alliance arose from numerous local social and political groups combining under its umbrella. Although wanting change in government policy, the Alliance also used cooperatives to try to help farmers. These cooperatives operated warehouses and grain elevators, while the Alliance offered farm equipment, twine, barbed wire and household items at prices significantly less than farmers could get on their own. It also successfully underwrote hail, fire and life insurance.

Yet these efforts did little to remedy what supporters of the Farmers’ Alliance saw as the underlying causes of the economic distress. By 1890, U.S. Census Bureau statistics suggested farmers were so heavily mortgaged they would never be able to pay off the debt given the cost of money and the prices farm products brought. Loucks and other leaders realized that the ability to legislate was key. Using original source and other materials, Lee details the formation of the Independent Party, its evolution into the People’s Party (commonly know as the Populist Party), and its political efforts. Yet while the Populists would find support and limited political success –including the election of James Kyle as U.S. Senator in 1891 and, in 1896, not only Andrew Lee as governor but both of South Dakota’s U.S. Representatives — they discovered that implementing policies was much more difficult. South Dakota had been controlled by the Republican Party for decades and resisted the Alliance’s major platform points.

The move from advocacy to party politics may also have foreshadowed the ultimate downfall of the Populists, at least in South Dakota. The political reality that required forming a party ultimately produced a crucial division. Lee explores how some in the movement came to believe that the only way to political success was through “fusion,” jointly supporting candidates with Democrats or so-called “silver Republicans” (GOP members who disagreed with the party’s opposition to free silver) in some races. Although they realized it might mean occasionally compromising on certain issues, they viewed it as the only way to obtain electoral office and effectuate change. Laucks was perhaps the chief opponent of the idea, believing it crucial for Populists to nominate and support only candidates fully committed to its platform and principles. “We cannot afford to sacrifice our principles for the sake of office nor yet can we afford to do it for the sake of temporary success,” he wrote in 1892.

Loucks was on the losing side of the debate. Fusion was unquestionably a reality in 1896, when Populists supported William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential candidate, rather than having their own. Although Bryan lost the election, fusion with South Dakota Democrats and silver Republicans helped produce the Populist success in the gubernatorial and Congressional races, although by by a slim margin. Loucks, however, may have been correct. Neither Congressman was re-elected and while Lee was, he was hamstrung during both terms not only by the effects of longtime Republican control of patronage but the need to gain support outside the Populist movement for various measures. Populism had passed its peak and the party would disappear, although many of its ideas would provide spark for the ensuing Progressive movement.

Principle Over Party makes clear that the Alliance and the Populist movement were truly grassroots organizations. No one knows how broad success by the Populist movement might have changed the country. Some historians view Populism as a true reform movement, others as little more than a relatively brief coalition of special interest groups. Regardless, like many grassroots movements it found difficulty when confronting powerful, entrenched and politically adept opponents. Although Lee doesn’t put it this way, the ultimate political reality was that farmers or agrarian interests stood little chance against large corporations and financial institutions. Yet Lee, a professor emeritus of history at the University of South Dakota, does an excellent job using original source material and related matter in not only taking the reader inside the movement but also demonstrating how large a role South Dakota played in both the rise and fall of Populism. That makes the book a worthy and important addition to the canon of South Dakota political history.

In this movement, men are nothing, principles are everything.

Henry Loucks, quoted in
R. Alton Lee, Principle over Party.

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