Political parties in the United States have seen major changes in their leading principles, slogans and the make-up of their supporters. The Democratic Party was formed in the 1830s during the era of Jacksonian Democracy out of factions of the former Democratic-Republican Party. During the 1890s, the Democrats were focused on the decentralization of political power and on supporting the emerging agrarian interests.
Support of Populists
American politics in the 1890s was dominated by the Republican and Democratic parties. However millions of farmers in the south and west organized against both major parties at this time, especially during times of economic panic. Farmers formed the Farmers Alliance, which served as the sponsor for various economic and social programs geared toward farmers’ interests. These farmers, who called themselves “Populists,” were unable to form a substantial third party against the business interests, but they were able to get some of their issues on the Democratic Party platform in the 1890s. The Populists supported a “fusion” ticket with Democrats in the 1896 and 1900 elections.
Populist farmers generally favored the unlimited coinage of silver in an effort to inflate the money supply and forge a giant nation-wide coalition against corporate interests in American politics. In the 1896 elections, the Democrats made the unlimited coinage of silver one of the chief components of their party platform. The Republican presidential nominee was Ohio governor William McKinley, an advocate of the gold standard. While the sitting Democratic President Grover Cleveland also favored a gold standard, the 1896 Democratic nominee was William Jennings Bryan, a strong proponent of free silver.
The United States began pursuing an expansionist foreign policy in the 1890s after undergoing major internal expansion after the Civil War. Republican President Benjamin Harrison, elected in 1889, began pursuing what he called the “New Diplomacy,” which involved a more activist foreign policy and territorial expansion. The Democrats were against such expansion in the 1890s. Democrat President Grover Cleveland, for instance, withdrew a treaty from the previous Harrison Administration which was to annex the independent country of Hawaii to the U.S. Senate. Cleveland argued that the annexation of Hawaii violated the Monroe Doctrine which forbade colonial expansion in the Western Hemisphere.
Decentralization of Power
The Democrats of the 1890s favored a decentralization of political power to the states in contrast to the Republicans’ preference for a more activist national government. Democrats supported state power instead of national power in politics. American politics after the Civil War was deadlocked between the Republican states and the Democratic states, bringing national federal policies to a standstill. The deadlock ensured that government activity in the post-war era would be focused more on local and state levels.
- Learn NC: Appendix A. Political parties in the United States, 1870–1900
- Teaching History: Silverites, Populists and the Movement for Free Silver
- Texas Course Resdesign Repository: United States History: Expansionism in the 1890s
- Pearson: “America: Past and Present”: Chapter 20: Political Realignments in the 1890s: Chapter Summary
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