Populism: The 19th Century

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13578

The United States was never going to remain the agricultural nation it was in 1776. As the country began to industrialize, populism took hold to unite disillusioned people under a single banner.


People and Their Environment, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start
  • Have you ever heard of the Know Nothing Party?
  • Why did they know nothing?

This was the nickname for a political party in the United States in the late 1800s, called the American Party. It started as a secret organization, so when anyone tried to ask about it, members would reply with:

I know nothing!

Find out what this secret organization has to do with populism in the United States.

What Is Populism?

The term populist refers to someone who is concerned with the ordinary person.

Populism has existed in many forms and can represent many different people and political perspectives.

In the early years of the nation's founding, tension between the U.S. and European countries created a populist movement that led John Adams to attempt to deport and detain French immigrants to gain stability during the Quasi-War (1798-1800).

Foreigners are often the subject of the populist cause; however, this complex term can, as you will see, represent a wide range of goals even within just the 19th century.

Irish Migration

statue of liberty

Look at the number of Irish immigrants who entered the United States, broken down by decade.

  1820 - 1830   54,338
  1831 - 1840   207,381
  1841 - 1850   780,719
  1851 - 1860   914,119
  1861 - 1870   435,778
  1871 - 1880   436,871


The spike that began in the 1840s was caused by the Irish Potato Famine, during which thousands of people fled Ireland because they lacked food.

handful of potatoes

This was the first time a massive diaspora flooded the United States, leading to a new secret organization. (Diaspora means the migration of people from their homeland.)

Typically, massive migration creates disorder at some level because many new people need a place to live and work. While the Irish searched for a footing in their new country, the secret organization The Order of The Star Spangled Banner (OSSB) was formed.

The OSSB focused on nativism. Nativism is the idea that the country should primarily be run by and for native-born inhabitants.

This ideology arose during periods of tension throughout history, and the 1840s and 1850s are simply one of the first examples of it in America.

To join the OSSB, you had to be a white male who was at least 21 years old and a Protestant. At the time, Americans had very negative views of Catholics.

This organization was a collection of men who feared that the massive influx of Irish Catholics would undermine the foundations of democracy for one primary reason.

Unlike any Protestant sect of Christianity, Catholicism has a central living figure, the Pope. Members of the OSSB (and others) feared that if Catholics were allowed to participate in government, they would be accountable to the will of the Pope rather than the voters.

While this may sound absurd today, it was a genuine fear in the mid-19th century.

Know Nothing Party

Know Nothing flag

This organization eventually formed a political party called the Know Nothing Party because of the response its members would give to those asking about the OSSB.

Unlike many secret societies, this was strictly a club of like-minded individuals who tried to use their influence to stop the primary danger they saw in the country: immigration.

In 1855, the name was officially changed to the American Party, and it became the first major third party in the country, joining the Democrat and Whig parties. (Unlike today, the two major political parties are the Democrats and Republicans.)

These two parties had existed in some form for decades; however, the Whig party had begun to disintegrate over the increasing division among politicians on how to deal with the issue of slavery in a way that wouldn't tear the country apart.

Read this transcription of the Know-Nothing National Platform, July 13, 1855, and pay attention to how the party tried to distance itself from the dysfunctional political system of the time.

At a time when the country was tearing itself apart over slavery, hundreds of thousands of immigrants were entering, and people were looking for an alternative to the chaos they saw in national politics. The Know Nothing party tried to harness many Americans' disillusionment toward their former political allegiances.

As you watch the video below, identify the number of states the American Party's candidate, Millard Fillmore, won.

Image - Video

Only one state!

  • Fillmore may not have been an earnest candidate; however, didn't you expect him to gain more votes than he did?

While populism can be very influential, it does not always win elections.

The Know Nothings only had a single issue, which was immigration. Anyone who did not identify with the idea that foreign-born Catholics were going to undermine the government was more inclined to stick with the already-known parties and candidates.

The Greenback Party

front and back of a one-dollar greenback

For the next decade, politics was controlled by the conflict between the North and South as the Civil War was fought, and the South eventually had to be rebuilt.

The Know Nothing movement did not thrive during this period because the national unity behind the Republican Party led most of its members to support Lincoln.

However, by the 1870s, a new single issue for the commoner emerged.

Before the Civil War, American currency was backed by an equal amount of gold in the U.S. Treasury. These bills were a highly stable form of currency.

However, the cost of the Civil War started to deplete the Treasury's gold reserve, so they began to issue Greenback dollars backed not by gold but by U.S. bonds. This meant the dollar was supported by the U.S. financial system rather than a precious metal.

By 1867, the country was struggling through a recession. Congress decided to no longer recognize Greenbacks as currency, which caused farmers to rally together to force the U.S. government to issue refunds on these bills.

Unlike the Know Nothing party, the Greenback party expanded its goals beyond this single issue upon which it formed. In addition to farmers, workers in labor unions joined the party. Their goals were to solidify an eight-hour work day and federal aid against the growing monopolies in the country.

Although Peter Cooper (below) ran on the Greenback ticket during the 1876 presidential election, this party never won any central political offices. However, it laid the groundwork for the Populist party to focus exclusively on workers.

Peter Cooper, 1883

The Populist Party

1900 presidential race poster

By the 1890s, the United States of America was a very different country than it had been when Irish immigrants began the first nativist populism movement.

As you watch a portion of the following video, try to answer these questions.

  • To what degree was the Populist party similar to the Know Nothing party?
  • What negative aspects were present in both parties?

Image - Video

The Greenback party's concern over the gold standard transformed into the Populist party's desire to switch to gold and silver standards.

Because more silver was available, more money could be printed, which could help bring wealth down from the monopolists into the pockets of the average factory worker.

The Populist party was set to harness the disillusioned American people in the election 1896 until William Jennings Bryan went on stage at the Democratic National Convention.

  • How did Bryan change the Democratic Party platform in one speech, and why might this adversely affect the Populist party?

Watch this next video to find out.

Image - Video

In one speech, the Populist platform was co-opted by the Democratic Party, creating a new party focused on workers' rights.

By the end of the century, workers' movements were active nationwide. Support for workers and labor unions became standard in the early 20th century.

The Got It? section explores how populism differs from other beliefs known as -isms.

Image - Button Next