Populism and Imperialism: Politics in the U.S. West, 1890-1900
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Historians have long been fascinated by the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was in these years that one of the great industrial reform movements arose, spearheaded in much of the West and South by the Populists. It was also a decade in which the nation fought its first foreign war in half a century and forcibly took possession of its first major overseas colonial possessions. Scholars have frequently attempted to discuss the two phenomena in conjunction, but their attempts thus far have been shallow and unsatisfactory. This study examines the Populists of the U.S. West in detail, with a special focus upon the years from 1898 to 1900. Within the first years of the decade, the Populists had developed a substantial following by demanding a reorganization of the national economy for the benefit of small-scale producers and laborers. By 1896, the party formed a vital component of the reform coalition that won most of the elected offices of the region. The Populists and their allies appeared poised to become a substantial force for change, but it was not to be. Wars---the first with Spain over Cuba, the second in the Philippines to quash an independence movement---shifted public attention to other matters. Western Populists and Democrats responded by extending their critique of concentrated wealth to foreign affairs, and they attributed the drive for empire to the demands of financiers and industrialists. Yet by attacking the American war efforts, they laid themselves open to charges of disloyalty. President McKinley and the western Republicans who followed him saw the opportunities provided by the conflicts. They declared that colonies would promote trade and promised that the wealth generated by this commerce would trickle down to all classes. To an even greater degree, they skillfully used the wars to rally support around the nation's soldiers and the "flag." And finally, western Republicans successfully labeled the Populists and Democrats who opposed the wars as traitors and "copperheads." In this way conservatives destroyed the most serious challenge to the American industrial order.