The agrarian reform movement known as Populism found political expression in Texas as the People's party, which evolved from the Grange, the Greenback party, and the Farmers' Alliance into the most successful of the third-party movements in state history. A group known as the Jeffersonian Democrats (not to be confused with the later Jeffersonian Democrats) split from the Democratic party in 1890 and in April 1892 fused with the Populists to form the People's party which later drew some strength also from Republicans, Socialists, and Prohibitionists. The Populist electorate was recruited from small farmers, sheep ranchers, laborers, and blacks. The program had as its major demands the preservation of land from large and alien landowners, regulation of transportation, and increase of the amount of money in circulation. Minor party demands at various times included tax reform and trust regulation, popular election of officials, lower salaries for public officials, direct legislation, the recall, and proportional representation.
Southern support for the People's (Populist) party was intricately tied to activities of the Southern Farmers' Alliance, one of the largest agrarian protest organizations in American history. In his 1889 presidential address at the national convention of the alliance, Charles W. Macune argued that the agricultural depression and the deepening general depression were due to an insufficient supply of currency. His proposed remedy, the subtreasury plan, called for government land loans and commodity loans direct to farmers. The subtreasury plan was based on a fiat currency system wherein the amount of circulating currency was dictated by the needs of the country, not the availability of gold or silver. After endorsing the subtreasury proposal, alliance members debated how to get it implemented. The majority thought that pressure politics within the existing political parties would suffice. Others, however, argued that a new party was needed. To appease these third-party proponents, Macune proposed that the alliance meet with other reform organizations in St. Louis in February 1892 to discuss the desirability of a third party. During the time before the meeting, reform organizations could test the utility of pressure politics. Though the alliance was reluctant to endorse the idea of a third party, other reform organizations were not. In May 1891 a national convention in Cincinnati of almost 400 delegates from various reform organizations established the People's party. To increase the appeal of the party to Southerners, the convention delegates adopted a platform identical to the alliance platform. They also postponed nominations for the coming elections until after the alliance-called St. Louis convention. They hoped that the South, poorly represented at the Cincinnati convention, would warm to the idea of a third party if given additional time. Their patience was rewarded, since the Democratic party increasingly alienated alliance members. When the chairman of the state Democratic executive committee, Newton W. Finley, issued an ultimatum that Texas alliance members must abandon their support of fiatism and the subtreasury plan before they could vote in Democratic primaries, the St. Louis convention endorsed the newly founded People's party.
The history of the People's party in Texas is of particular interest because the party benefited from a grass-roots communication structure developed by the largest state alliance organization in the country. It was in Texas that the alliance was born and that its most innovative and extensive projects were formulated. Movement toward establishing a third party in Texas began in the late 1880s and culminated with the formal organization of a Texas People's party in Dallas on August 18, 1891. Party organization included Populist clubs, primaries, biennial county conventions, district conventions, and the state convention. There was an executive committee and a campaign committee at each level. An educational campaign to spread Populism made use of printed appeals, reform speakers, and camp meetings similar to revival meetings. During the political campaigns proper, campaign managers waged a war in oratory, writing, and action against opposing forces. Texas politics became more vigorous than at any time since Reconstruction. Populist leaders encouraged the establishment and growth of reform journals, and the reform press, vigorous and crusading, became a factor in Populist success. The weekly Texas Advance (Dallas) and later the weekly Southern Mercury (Dallas) were statewide party organs. In 1895 seventy Texas counties had Populist newspapers; of about 600 papers published in Texas in that year, 75 were Populist. At the height of the movement there were about 100 Populist newspapers.
In 1892 the Populist party was nominating candidates for public office, who posed a serious threat to the dominance of the Democrats. The Democrats attempted to deflect alliance attention from the subtreasury demand by advocating a more conservative reform— "free silver." They agreed that the root cause of the economic crisis was an insufficient currency supply. In 1873 the federal government had returned the treasury to the gold standard, which it had temporarily abandoned due to Civil War expenses. This action had contracted the currency supply severely, thereby precipitating a major economic crisis. A return to a bimetallic monetary base of gold and silver would, it was argued, revitalize the economy. Not all Democratic politicians in Texas, however, were supporters of bimetallism. The bimetallists, led by incumbent governor James Hogg, were opposed by the gold-standard, "sound-money" advocates led by George Clark. The latter accused the Hogg faction of a "weak and cowardly surrender" to third-partyism. The Clark supporters bolted at the state Democratic convention in August 1892 and put out an independent ticket. Third-party activists such as Harry Tracy and H. S. P. "Stump" Ashby , working in large part through alliance-established communication networks, criticized both gold-standard advocates and bimetallists. A fiat, irredeemable monetary system, as entailed in the subtreasury plan, was essential to these men. Their views were consistent with the Omaha platform adopted by the People's party in 1892, which stressed a flexible currency system through the subtreasury.
The success of the third-party campaign was limited. The results in the 1892 Texas gubernatorial election placed Populist Thomas Nugent third in a field of five candidates; he garnered about 25 percent of the vote or 108,483 votes, roughly the equivalent of half the Texas alliance membership. The presidential election returns from Texas gave Democrat Grover Cleveland 57 percent of the vote and Populist James B. Weaver 24 percent. The party's failure in this election resulted partly from its attempt to build a coalition of Black and White voters. Despite such high-profile Black Populists as John B. Rayner who was on the executive committee, the People's party was unable to persuade the majority of Black Texans to abandon the Republican party. The party also proved inept in convincing the rank and file members to put aside their racial prejudices; when "faced [with] a choice between white supremacy and a Populist governor...they chose white supremacy." These election results also indicated a major vulnerability of third parties. A third party must meet two challenges: it must convince the majority of voters that the reforms it is advocating are necessary, and it must convince them of the viability of the third-party challenge. If only the first challenge is met, many voters in agreement with third-party demands will nevertheless choose the less objectionable of the old-party candidates. In the 1892 state election, for example, to vote for the People's party would have split the reform vote and possibly resulted in Clark's victory, and many potential third-party supporters were not willing to risk that possibility. As for the national election, the probability of a People's party victory was remote. This fact, coupled with the similarity between the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, resulted in most people voting as usual.
Under the new Cleveland administration, the economic crisis grew more severe. The rebellious spirit of the people did not go unnoticed; Texas Democrats recognized that another split in the state ticket might be disastrous. At their 1894 convention they agreed that there would be no bolting. The platform adopted did not contain any monetary reform demands. Yet, in an ironic twist, the reform faction won most of the nominations, including that of free-silverite Charles Culberson for governor. As a consequence, the candidates opposed the platform of the party that nominated them. Populists argued in 1894 that voters could not expect reform from a party that had no genuine, unified commitment to reform. Many voters agreed: they elected twenty-two Populist candidates to the state House of Representatives and two to the state Senate. In eight of the thirteen national congressional elections, the Populist candidates polled over 40 percent of the vote. In the gubernatorial election, Culberson won with 49 percent of the vote. Populist Thomas Nugent received about 36 percent of the vote, an 11 percent increase in third-party support since 1892. This increased support occurred despite electoral illegalities. In Huntsville for example, penitentiary employees who refused to pledge support for the Democratic party were discharged. Fear of job security subsequently spread through the ranks of state employees. Similar types of intimidation were experienced in the private sector. The Black population was particularly vulnerable to intimidation and fraud. Culberson's margin of victory was maintained by the suspiciously large Democratic vote in the heavily Black-populated counties. In contrast to Texas, nationally the People's party did very poorly in 1894. It obtained over 40 percent of the vote in only thirty-three of the 350 congressional races. This was a major blow to the party since a key reform demand— revamping the monetary system— could be accomplished only at the national level.
While third-party activists in Texas continued their campaign against both bimetallists and gold-standard advocates, national party chairman H. E. Taubeneck decided that the party's viability depended on compromise. He believed that neither the Republican nor Democratic party would endorse monetary reform in its national platform in 1896. Therefore, he argued that the People's party should gather bimetallists under its banner and maximize its chance of winning office. This necessitated abandoning reform demands for fiatism and the subtreasury. In Texas, most third-partyites expressed disgust with Taubeneck's view. When a well-known Texas Populist, James H. "Cyclone" Davis , sided with him, their reaction appeared generally to be one of anger. Texas Populists notwithstanding, Taubeneck successfully mobilized a majority faction in favor of his plan. His plan went awry, however, when unexpectedly the national Democratic party endorsed bimetallism and nominated free-silverite William Jennings Bryan for president. It was too late for Taubeneck to change course. Consequently, pro-Bryan sentiment was strong at the national People's party convention, and by a vote of 1,042 to 321 Bryan won the presidential nomination. The Texas delegation cast all 103 of its votes for Bryan's opponent, S. F. Norton. Dallas county Populists had sent a telegram to the convention: "Five hundred Populists say never surrender. Bryan means death." The anti-fusionists, led by Texan Stump Ashby, were successful in preventing complete fusion of the Democratic and Populist tickets. They rallied support behind Southern Populist Tom Watson for vice president rather than Democratic candidate Arthur M. Sewall. Thus, while the Populists officially supported Democrat Bryan, some states offered the Bryan-Watson ticket as an alternative to complete fusion.
At the Texas People's party convention that began a week after the national convention in 1896, wild cheering broke out in support of Ashby and the other "immortal 103" anti-fusionists. A committee appointed to contact other state Populist conventions proposed a telegram that read: "No Watson, no Bryan." But Charles H. Jenkins, state party treasurer and chairman of the platform and resolutions committee, strongly opposed the wording; he argued that the national convention had nominated Bryan and the nomination was binding. He successfully delayed the vote on whether to send the telegram until it made little difference, other state conventions having adjourned. Some Texas anti-fusionists thought that the Democratic party was attempting to destroy the People's party, and they angrily stated that they would not vote for Bryan. The Texas press picked up on this and charged that Texas Populists were in collusion with the Republican party; Republican support for the state Populist ticket was allegedly being traded for Populist support of the national Republican ticket. Although the chairman of the state People's party denied the charges, the alleged fusion dominated the news and caused considerable dissention among rank-and-file Populists. The 1896 election results in Texas placed the Bryan-Watson ticket in third place, with a mere 15 percent of the vote. The ticket carried only one county in Texas, Sabine. Populists in the state attributed the poor performance to the fusionist efforts of the national party leaders. As evidence of the continued viability of the People's party, they noted that the Populist gubernatorial candidate, Jerome Kearby, had garnered 44 percent of the vote. However, Kearby's success was largely due to the fact that the Republicans did not field a gubernatorial candidate; in fact, Republican ballots bore the names of the Populist candidates for state office.
The continued wrangling between the anti-fusionists and fusionists took its toll. In the 1898 gubernatorial election in Texas, Populist Barney (Barnett) Gibbs received only 28 percent of the vote. In 1900 the split between the two factions became official. Anti-fusionists bolted and called for a separate national convention in Cincinnati. In Texas delegates to the state People's party convention voted to send representatives to Cincinnati. Some Texas Populists were angered by the vote, stating that it placed them out of the sphere of influence within the regular party organization. These Populists, which included all three representatives to the national People's party executive committee and most of the members to the state executive committee, bolted from the convention amid hisses and jeers. The delegates at the regular People's party convention in 1900 again nominated Bryan as president and Charles Towne, a free-silver Republican, as vice president. When Towne later resigned, the national executive committee made no move to replace him but instead accepted complete fusion with the Democratic Bryan-Stevenson ticket. The anti-fusionists fielded a straight Populist ticket, nominating Wharton Barker as president and Ignatius Donnelly as vice president. But the Barker-Donnelly ticket flopped. In Texas it received only 5 percent of the vote. The Populist gubernatorial candidate did not fare much better; he received only 6 percent of the total vote. The People's party had clearly lost its viability as a reform party.
Historians have attributed the demise of the People's party to various factors, including the demoralization caused by fusion, the return of prosperity after 1896, and the development of a more sympathetic Democratic party platform at this time. Whatever the cause, the party's political effectiveness was over by 1900, although it slated a candidate for governor in Texas through 1904 and a presidential candidate through 1908. Despite its demise, the People's party in Texas represented a successful coalition of Anglo small farmers, Blacks, and labor. Its effectiveness in voicing the concerns of these groups was an important part of Texas politics at the turn of the century and was instrumental in the rise of other reform groups in Texas in the twentieth century.