DEMOCRATIC PROMISE: The Populist Movement in America by Lawrence Goodwyn
Kirkus Star

DEMOCRATIC PROMISE: The Populist Movement in America

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

This fresh and extensive look at agrarian populism of the late 1870s and '80s regards the movement as an inspiring resurgence of the democratic ideal in the midst of Gilded Age centralization, and relocates its thrust away from free silver and the campaigns of William Jennings Bryan to the National Farmers Alliance and its endorsement of farm price and credit policies intended to release agricultural cooperatives from dependence on the unaccommodating banks. According to Goodwyn, a Duke University historian, the importance of the populist ideal was not its electoral thrust, which collapsed in the 1892 fusion of the People's Party with the Democrats, but the ""subtreasury Plan"" of William Macune, a Farmers Alliance organizer from Texas, who proposed decentralized issuance of greenbacks to credit-starved farmers' organizations. Goodwyn expresses angry sympathy with the populists' attacks on the banks, while blaming the decline of the movement on the refusal of the Nebraska and Dakota branches of the Alliance to embrace the plan. The special strength of the book, apart from its thesis, is its detailed map of the competing ideologies of a period in which anti-monopolists, socialists, Single Taxers, evangelical utopians, trade unionists, British Fabians, and anarchists alternately converged and separated in the umbrella People's Party. Goodwyn concedes that William Macune's own social philosphy was ""reactionary""; he demanded black exclusion from the Alliance, and shunned dealings with the Knights of Labor. But it is Bryan, labeled as little more than a mouthpiece for the silver magnates, who becomes the foil for Macune. Written in exhaustive, scholarly fashion, this study will provoke high-decibel debate and remain a basic reference on a period whose contemporary parallels Goodwyn does not fail to underline.

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 1976
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press