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Populism in Minnesota, 1868–1896

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Black and white photograph of a State Grange meeting at Northfield. Taken by Edward Newell James, c.1875.

State Grange meeting at Northfield, c.1875. Photograph by Edward Newell James.

In the late nineteenth century, Minnesota was rife with political discontent. A national movement to support the interests of working people against elites took hold at a local level. Crusading figures like Ignatius Donnelly challenged the power of big business and wealthy tycoons. The movement, called populism, arose from the people's urge for reform. It shaped the young state's politics for close to three decades.

In Minnesota and throughout the U.S., populists took on issues of economic inequality. Corporate monopolies, federal currency, and government corruption drew special concern. Populism was also informed by Jeffersonian political ideals and Christian revivalism. It was therefore both a political and a moral reform movement.

Populism in Minnesota began in the 1860s in the state's rural areas. Farmers felt exploited by railroad barons and milling tycoons. James J. Hill used his control of railroads to keep freight rates high. Grain elevators also steered scales and prices.

Farmers in the mid-nineteenth century did not have protections to fall back on in case of hardship. Social security and disaster insurance did not exist to offer relief in tough times. Oliver H. Kelley, owner of a farm near present-day Elk River, looked for a way to offer hope amidst growing adversity. Without a platform for protest, he realized, farmers would remain at risk.

Kelley and six like-minded colleagues organized the National Grange and Order of Patrons of Husbandry in 1867 to create that platform. They also pledged to lobby for railroad regulation. Local chapters of the order quickly formed across the U.S. One of the first was the Minnesota Grange, founded with Kelley's help in 1868.

The Grange set out to protect the interests of farmers and their families. Its fraternal structure was meant to unite farmers as a class and inspire action. Granges were also gender-inclusive. They invited both men and women to become members and officers.

The Grange grew quickly during the 1870s. 1873 was a devastating year for the state's farmers. A grasshopper plague destroyed crops. A panic on Wall Street caused a depression. Faced with falling crop prices and rising operating costs, farmers craved change. Oliver Kelley used his relationships with newspaper editors to promote Grange ideals.

Minnesota Grangers founded the Anti-Monopoly Party (AMP) in 1873 to increase their political clout. With the help of Democrats, they won seats in the state legislature. They succeeded again in 1876 when the Supreme Court granted states the right to regulate railroads. In Munn v. Illinois, the Court ruled that any company that served public interests was subject to public control.

The influence of the Grange declined after Minnesota's 1878 congressional election, in which Republican William D. Washburn bested state senator Ignatius Donnelly. The outcome divided populists. Democrats had greater influence and fundraising power than the AMP. Therefore, uniting with Democrats offered them a better chance of passing reforms. Without populist support, the AMP folded.

Donnelly had been a polarizing figure since long before the election. Branded as the voice of populism in Minnesota, he gained support in the 1870s by speaking at Grange meetings and rallies. He founded a newspaper called the Anti-Monopolist in 1874 and drew the criticism of pro-business Republicans for his cynical view of capitalism.

Viewing himself as a defender of the people, Donnelly fought against the power of railroads and corporations. He shaped both state and national politics as a Minnesota state senator (1874–1878; 1891–1894), state representative (1887–1888; 1897–1898) and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Minnesota's second district (1863–1869).

Donnelly's populist vision reached a wide audience in his work Caesar's Column. The novel imagined a dystopian future in which wealthy businessmen controlled American society. The book was a cautionary tale, and in it, Donnelly blamed decadence and greed for what he saw as America's decline. The spread of populism, he argued, would reverse that decline and preserve democracy.

Much of Donnelly's populist legacy stems from his work with the Farmers' Alliance. Active since the late 1870s, the Alliance movement produced three organizations, one Northern and two Southern. The first Southern Alliance refused to admit non-white members. In response, African Americans formed a group of their own.

In Minnesota, the Alliance maintained the platforms of the Grange. Like the Grange, the Alliance defended the interests of farmers against business elites. Donnelly provided strong leadership for the group, writing its platform and eventually serving as its president. It won a major victory in 1887 with the creation of the Minnesota Railroad and Warehouse Commission (RWC). The RWC inspected scales at grain terminals in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth.

The year before the formation of the RWC, the Alliance joined with the urban labor movement, gaining strength through cooperation. Recognizing the common concerns of farmers and factory workers, they partnered with the Knights of Labor to lobby for broader regulation of industry. The two groups united formally in 1890 to form the Alliance Labor Union Party. The new party's candidates for governor and state legislature offered an alternative to the two-party status quo.

The national populist movement evolved in 1892 when Donnelly and his allies helped form the Populist Party (also called the People's Party). Many Minnesotans embraced its platform, which included reforms of the banking system, income tax, and civil service. Its call for the repeal of the gold standard appealed to the state's farmers, miners, and immigrants. Due in part to the party's pressure, Republican governor Knute Nelson passed some railroad and labor reforms.

William Jennings Bryan rose to prominence during the presidential campaign of 1896. He challenged Republican William McKinley and ran on a Democratic ticket with a populist agenda. Like Donnelly, Bryan fought against corporate greed. Although Bryan lost the election he gained many supporters in Minnesota and across the U.S.

Populism's momentum slowed amidst the growing ethnic diversity of the late 1890s. Many immigrants did not think of class conflict as a priority. They considered issues of ethnicity and religion to be more crucial. Moreover, populism's growth in Minnesota was limited mostly to rural areas like the Red River Valley.

Urban workers, women, and politicians like John Lind carried Minnesota's populist cause into the twentieth century. They helped bring the state into the progressive era, focusing on women's suffrage, prohibition, and labor reform.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Atkins, Annette. Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

Gilman, Rhoda. Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota's Protest Tradition. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.

Lass, William E. Minnesota: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America 1870–1920. New York: Free Press, 2003.

Ridge, Martin. Ignatius Donnelly: The Portrait of a Politician. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Risjord, Norman K. A Popular History of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of a State Grange meeting at Northfield. Taken by Edward Newell James, c.1875.
Black and white photograph of a State Grange meeting at Northfield. Taken by Edward Newell James, c.1875.
Patrons of Husbandry Badge, 1867.
Patrons of Husbandry Badge, 1867.
Black and white photograph of J. H. Thomas, head of the Grange in Young America, 1873.
Black and white photograph of J. H. Thomas, head of the Grange in Young America, 1873.
Oliver H. Kelley
Oliver H. Kelley
Black and white photograph of Ignatius Donnelly, 1888.
Black and white photograph of Ignatius Donnelly, 1888.

Turning Point

In 1868, Oliver H. Kelley founds the North Star Grange to support farmers and lobby for railroad regulation.

Chronology

1868

Oliver H. Kelley organizes the North Star Grange, a Minnesota chapter of the national Order of the Patrons of Husbandry.

1871

Ignatius Donnelly speaks at anti-monopoly rallies across Minnesota, attracting new members to local Granges.

1873

Financial panic leads to growing discontent and demands for reform. Grangers form the Anti-Monopoly Party.

1874

Ignatius Donnelly is elected to the Minnesota State Senate.

1876

The U.S. Supreme Court grants states the right to regulate railroads.

1877

The National Farmers' Alliance forms in New York.

1878

Ignatius Donnelly is defeated by William D. Washburn in a state congressional election.

1881

The Minnesota Farmers' Alliance is founded.

1886

Donnelly writes the Farmers' Alliance platform.

1887

The Minnesota Railroad and Warehouse Commission is created to regulate railroads.

1890

Ignatius Donnelly's work Caesar's Column is published.

1890

The Alliance Labor Union Party, a group effort of farmers and workers, elects a congressman.

1892

The Populist Party is founded.

1896

Most of the Populist Party fuses with the Democratic Party. The remainder, in Minnesota and nationally, ceases to be a significant political force.