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!

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  • 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 simply reply with:

I know nothing!

Let's 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 common man.

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 in order to gain stability during the Quasi-War (1798-1800).

Foreigners are often the subject of the populist cause; however, this complex term can, as we 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 huge diaspora of people flooded into the United States, and it led to a new secret organization within the country. (Diaspora means the migration of people from their homeland.)

Typically, massive migration creates disorder at some level because so many new people need a place to live and work. While the Irish searched to find 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 arises during periods of tension throughout history, and the 1840s and 1850s is simply one of the first examples of it in America.

In order 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 major 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 beholden to the will of the Pope rather than the voters.

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

Know Nothing Party

Know Nothing flag

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

This organization eventually formed into a political party that was referred to as the Know Nothing party in reference to 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, where the two major politcal 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, courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa, 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 the disillusionment many Americans felt toward their former political allegiances.

As you watch The American Presidential Election of 1856, from Mr. Beat, identify the number of states that the American Party's candidate, Millard Fillmore, won:

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Only one state!

  • Fillmore may not have been a very serious 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

one dollar Greenback, 1862

Image by US Bureau of Printing, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

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

The Know Nothing movement did not thrive during this time 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 common man emerged.

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

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

By 1867, the country was struggling through a recession. Congress decided to no longer recognize Greenbacks as currency, which casued 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 presidenetial election, this party never won any major political offices. It did, however, lay the groundwork for the Populist party that would focus exclusively on workers.

Peter Cooper, 1883

Image by Brown Brothers, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the publc domain.

The Populist Party

1900 presidential race poster

Image by Neville Williams, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

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 What Is Populism? | History, try to answer the following questions:

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

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The Greenback party's concern over the gold standard transformed into the Populist party's desire to switch to both a gold and silver standard. 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 of 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 have adverse effects on the Populist party?

Watch William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold Speech from danieljbmitchell:

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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 all over the country. Support for workers and labor unions became standard in the early 20th century.

In the Got It? section, explore how populism is different from other beliefs known as -isms.

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