The story

William Peffer

William Peffer

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William Peffer was born in Cumberland County on 10th September, 1831. At the age of fifteen Peffer became a school teacher. However, after the discovery of gold in California he moved to San Francisco. He failed to make his fortune and moved to Indiana.

On the outbreak of the Civil War Peffer joined the Union Army as a private. He developed into a good soldier and reached the rank of second lieutenant and served as regimental quartermaster and adjutant.

After leaving the army Peffer studied law and after qualifying worked in Clarksville, Tennessee before moving to Fredonia, Kansas. Peffer continued as a lawyer but also edited the Fredonia Journal, the Coffeyville Journal and the Kansas Farmer.

Peffer joined the Populist Party. The recently formed party advocated the public ownership of the railroads, steamship lines and telephone and telegraph systems. It also supported the free and unlimited coinage of silver, the abolition of national banks, a system of graduated income tax and the direct election of United States Senators.

In 1891 Peffer was elected to the Senate and served until March 1897. The following year he failed in his attempts to become Governor of Kansas. William Peffer died in Grenola, Kansas, on 6th October, 1912.

The Way Out — William A. Peffer

William A. Peffer was a publisher and politician that served as the senator of Kansas from 1891 to 1 8 97. He was one of the few Populist Party members that made it to the US Senate, but he only served for one term and was more influential in much of his writing. In 1890, before serving in the Senate, he wrote a pamphlet “The Way Out” which called for democratic control of the money supply and interest rates. Some of the reforms he laid out were implemented in some form later, but even today the piece serves as an eloquent defense of the use of government to benefit the public good, and why certain things should not be used to make a profit. This text is taken from Part II — The Proposition, and some less relevant and more out-of-date sections are not included.

The public good is to be preferred before private benefits, and for that reason the merits of a projected reform may be measured by what, if successful, it would probably accomplish in the common interest without injuring the property or endangering the liberty of the citizen, or interfering with the reserved rights of the people. What is proposed here is to suggest such a change in our monetary and financial system as will make it practicable (1) for the people to have and use money not only on reasonable terms but on equal terms (2) to avoid panics in the money market and prevent “corners” and other schemes to affect the value or volume of money in circulation and (3) to reduce annual charges for the use of money on long time to 1 per cent, and 2 or 3 per cent on short time, without injury to present owners of money.

The proposed plan rests upon one fundamental principle, namely: The proper function of money is to serve a public use. In the beginning, money was not needed. It is the child of commerce. It only became useful only as the expansion of trade made needful some convenient medium of exchange, and now it is as necessary in the transaction of ordinary business affairs as common highways are in the movement of persons and property. The citizen, when he lies down at night, should not have any more anxiety about a panic in the money market the next day, or a rise in interest rates through speculation of stock gamblers, than he has about the closing of the highway which lies at his door, or its obstruction by some ambitious neighbor who would traffic in travel, compelling his fellows to pay for privileges to which they are entitled of right. Every citizen is entitled to an outlet. He may not be shut out from the world by his neighbors’ lands. On demand, the state will open a way for him. For stronger reasons, when the common convenience or public necessity requires a thoroughfare, no private interest is suffered to stand in the way of its opening. Individual ownership of land is set aside with no more ceremony than the lawful appropriation of it requires, and the citizen must be content with that. And when more speedy and direct communication between distant points is needed in the common interest, private lands are taken and set apart for public use, the way is opened, a railroad is built and kept in repair for the people’s convenience. While a corporation is permitted to perform all the service and receive all the compensation, it is done as agent and trustee for the people. The work is determined by the legislature, the charges are regulated by law, and in case of failure to discharge its legal obligations, the people through their regularly organized tribunals take possession of the road and its equipments, and provide the needed service. These highways are kept open and maintained at the public expense the people use them freely and on precisely equal terms. No person may obstruct them, every person may use them. But the traveler must “move on” the highway must be kept open because it is for the people’s use. The function of the highway is to accommodate the people in the matter of travel and transportation it is a necessity of civilization, a public necessity, a common need of all the people, and for that reason it becomes the duty of the government, which is the people’s general agent, to see that the need is promptly supplied and permanently maintained.

What the highway is to transportation, money is to trade — a public necessity, and the government is as much bound to supply one as the other, and upon precisely the same terms as to compensation. People use the roads without expense beyond the cost of opening and maintaining them, and it ought to cost them no more for the use of money they borrow. The people supply themselves with roads at the public expense, so should they supply themselves with money — the common medium of exchange — at the public expense, paying for its use only what it costs to supply it. The proper function of money is incompatible with its use as a commodity — an article to be bought and sold in the public markets like what and corn. It should be made by the people for their use and upon the same principle that they make and use bridges, ferries, mills and roads. One citizen should not be permitted to speculate on the necessities of another.

Money is no exception to the general rule for determining market values. Whatever can be obtained for an article in the market, that is its market value, and the demand depends largely on the amount and distribution of supply. A short supply and an active demand enhances prices, not because any moral principle is involved, but simply because the seller can bank on the necessities of the buyer — he can make money out of a short market. The necessity of one is the advantage of another. And as to commodities in general, there is no objection to this rule of trade. It is conceded on all sides that the rule is reasonable and that its operation tends to maintain commercial equilibrium. But how would it work as to things which the people have set apart for their common use and benefit? Some things may be classified — as the industries one class of persons work on farms, another class in shops and factories, a third go to mining, a fourth engage in transportation, and thus all the workers are employed. There are some things, however, that are common to all the people, in which they are alike interested, not to the same degree, but for the same reason. As to such matters it is better that the work be done by the people for themselves in their own way through some agency specially appointed and kept constantly under surveillance of public authority. All the people of a city are interested in water and light, and though in different degrees the nature of the case will not admit of discriminations. One person may need large quantities of water, another not nearly so much, but not account is taken of that in termination to supply the city with water. It is much cheaper, much more convenient and much better in every way that the city should supply the water and because the people are all alike interested. If people were limited in their correspondence to private mail carriers, the expense would be enormous, and the inconvenience intolerable. Carrying the mails rapidly, promptly and safely is a public need, therefore the people see to it themselves for themselves the government does the work, and the poor and rich fare alike. One hundred stamps cost the purchaser one hundred times as much as one stamp of the same class costs its purchaser. The government is now trying to equalize the cost of transportation of property over railroads and canals and on rivers, so that there shall be no unjust or unnecessary discrimination in favor of or against particular persons or places, and there is an almost universal demand for legislation prohibiting the free carriage of favored passengers. A Senate committee has just been investigating charges against meat packers that they are defrauding the public in a matter which all the people are interested. Suits have been brought against corporations alleging that they had forfeited their franchises by engaging in enterprises not contemplated in nor compatible with their charters and people of all parties denounce trusts and other combinations which unnecessarily and unjustly make living more costly. There is a clearer perception now than ever before of the need of the public management, at all events public control of every matter which directly concerns all the people alike. All this comes logically to a free people where from the beginning the poor man enjoyed political and civil rights equal with the rich. Latterly the concentration of large interests have increased the number and the power of rich men, and the deft handling of money by its owners, with the dangerous development of stock and grain gambling, have impressed the masses of the people with the need of legislative interference in behalf of the many as against the few in this particular direction.

While all the people — this includes every individual person — are interested alike in the use of money, that portion of it which is used for lending on interest belongs to only a few persons, and that few control the money markets of the country, always interested in making money scarce and dear, so that the demand will be higher and therefore rates of interest higher. To call in one-half of the money of the country would not only increase interest rates 50 per cent, but it would force prices of commodities down 50 per cent. Owners of money would gain while owners of other kinds of property would lose. This principle has been demonstrated many times in our history and never more plainly than within a few years last past. The possession of money is a power dangerous when exerted in the interest of individuals against that of the community, and it is neither safe nor just to let that power remain in individual hands. The law of self-defense is nature’s law, and it is preserved in human codes. The citizen may be always armed in his own defense, but he should be shorn of every power which endangers the public interests. The money power is the most dangerous foe to republican liberty at this hour it must be disabled. Fortunately this can be done justly and peaceable, injuring none, benefiting all. The remedy is to take money out of the list of commodities which may be bought and sold for gain, and limit its use to its proper function of serving the people in the conduct of their everyday affairs. Let the government, not bankers and money-lenders, control the money of the country.

My Genealogy Hound

Below is a family biography included in the Biographical Annals of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania published in 1905 by The Genealogical Publishing Company. These biographies are valuable for genealogy research in discovering missing ancestors or filling in the details of a family tree. Family biographies often include far more information than can be found in a census record or obituary. Details will vary with each biography but will often include the date and place of birth, parent names including mothers' maiden name, name of wife including maiden name, her parents' names, name of children (including spouses if married), former places of residence, occupation details, military service, church and social organization affiliations, and more. There are often ancestry details included that cannot be found in any other type of genealogical record.

WILLIAM H. PEFFER. On Oct. 7, 1751, there arrived at Philadelphia in the ship “Janet,” from Rotterdam, a Philip Pfeiffer. With him on the same ship came a Christian Peifer and a Mathias Pfeiffer, who were probably brothers of Philip. There is nothing at hand to show where in the Province of Pennsylvania these immigrants first settled, but the records of Cumberland county show that a Philip Peffer was on the Yellow Breeches creek, in West Pennsboro (now Dickinson) township, as early as 1775. His name that year first appears upon the tax list of Cumberland county, but he in all probability was in the locality named even prior to that date, for the
Provincial records show that in 1786 there was issued to him a warrant for land on which there was then already an “improvement,” and interest on the amount charged for the land was to commence on March 1, 1773. The Philip Pfeiffer of the ship “Janet” and the Philip Peffer of the Yellow Breeches, it may safely be assumed, were one and the same person.

Philip Peffer continues regularly upon the tax list of that part of the county for many years taxed with both real and personal property. His chief occupation was farming, but he also engaged in distilling, as were many farmers at that early date in this part of Pennsylvania. He also took a great interest in public affairs, and in 1806, and again in 1807, was elected one of Cumberland county’s representatives in the State Legislature, which then sat at Lancaster. His colleagues in the Legislature were James Lowery and John Orr. He and his wife Mary died in 1830, within less than a day of each other, she on Sunday evening, Oct. 17th, and he on Monday morning, Oct. 18th. She was seventy-seven years old and he eighty-three, and both were buried in the same grave. He left a will from which it appears that he had the following children: Henry, Benjamin, George, Joseph and John, sons, and also daughters, Christina Plyler and Mary Black. In a codicil to his will he also speaks of a son-in-law named Isaac Brandt. In 1781 there were upon the tax list of West Pennsboro township the names of two Philip Peffers, one designated freeman, from which it may be inferred that Philip Peffer also had a son Philip, but if he had it is strongly probable that he died without issue and before his father made his will.

Henry Peffer was one of the two executors named in Philip Peffer’s will — David Glenn being the other — but it is not certain that he was the eldest son. He married Mary Wolfensberger, and had the following children: Adam, William, John, Benjamin and Mary. He also had a son Henry, who died in August, 1826, aged about twenty-two years. Mary Peffer, wife of Henry Peffer and mother of Adam Peffer, died June 16, 1845, in the seventy-fourth year of his age, and her husband died two weeks afterward, on July 1, 1845, at the age of seventy-three.

Adam Peffer was the eldest of Henry Peffer’s children. He was born Dec. 14, 1797, on the ancestral homestead in Dickinson township, and spent all his lifetime in that vicinity. He was twice married, on Feb. 24, 1825, being united to Miss Mary Kerr, by Rev. Benjamin Keller, pastor of the Lutheran Church of Carlisle. Mary Kerr was a daughter of Andrew and Elizabeth (McGranathan) Kerr, of Carlisle, and was of Scotch-Irish descent. By this marriage he had one child, Henry Kerr Peffer. Adam Peffer’s first wife died early and he afterward married Elizabeth Glancey, a daughter of William Glancey, a native of Ireland.

Henry Kerr Peffer, the only child of Adam and Mary (Kerr) Peffer, was born Jan. 13, 1827, in South Middleton township, where he grew to manhood and received his education in the public schools. On Feb. 10, 1848, he married Jane Mary, daughter of Nathaniel Weakley, of Dickinson township. Nathaniel Weakley was the son of a James Weakley, who was a son of James Weakley, who about 1725 came from Ireland and settled near the Yellow Breeches creek, in what is now Dickinson township. In 1833 Henry K. Peffer migrated to Warren county, Ill., where for ten years he engaged at farming. He then took up his residence in Monmouth, the county seat of Warren county, and formed a law partnership with Col. James W. Davidson, in which he continued for three years. In 1862 he was elected to the Illinois Legislature as a Democrat, and at the expiration of his term was unanimously nominated by his party for State senator. In 1864 he was a Presidential elector, on the McClellan ticket. In the fall of 1865 he removed with his family to Carlisle, Pa., where, after spending a year looking up business interests in Texas and the Southwest, he permanently located. In 1871 he was nominated by the Democrats, in the district composed of Cumberland and Franklin counties, for State senator, but his party that year was generally unsuccessful and with one or two exceptions the entire ticket was defeated. In 1872 he was admitted to the Cumberland county Bar, but shortly afterwards took charge of the Valley Sentinel, then published at Shippensburg, and entered upon the newspaper business, in which he continued until shortly before his death. In 1874 he became the sole owner of the Sentinel, removed it to Carlisle, and in 1881 began the publication of the Evening Sentinel, the first daily newspaper in Cumberland county. In 1888 he was appointed postmaster of Carlisle and the following year was succeeded in the publication of his newspaper by his two sons, William H. and Charles A. Peffer. In religious faith Mr. Peffer and family were Presbyterians and long active and prominent in the Second Presbyterian Church of Carlisle. He died on April 13, 1891, at his home near Carlisle his wife died at Monmouth Jan. 19, 1895, and the remains of both rest in the Old Graveyard at Carlisle. Henry K. and Jane Mary Peffer had issue as follows: Mary Elizabeth, born March 2, 1852 William Henry, born Jan. 4, 1857 Charles Alvin, born April 4, 1859 and Adam Franklin, born Feb. 25, 1861. The first named, Mary E., was born in Cumberland county, but the three sons were born at Monmouth, Ill. Mary E. married Milton S. Sprout, a native of Hampden township, Cumberland county, who died Oct. 3, 1893, and she died July 28, 1896 their remains are buried at Monmouth. They left no children. Charles A. married Ella Krause, of Carlisle, and has children - Mary, Addie, Ruth and Ernest. Adam E. married Sarah Mull, of Carlisle, but has no children.

William H. Peffer, the eldest son, was eight years old when his parents returned to Pennsylvania and located at Carlisle. He attended the public schools of Carlisle until he reached his fifteenth year and then entered the Sentinel office and learned the printing trade. His cares and responsibilities increased with his knowledge of the business, and upon his father’s retirement he succeeded him as publisher and soon afterward as proprietor of the newspaper. He continued the publication of the Sentinel until 1894, when, being appointed postmaster of Carlisle, he sold it and turned his attention to his official duties and business enterprises. About this time he purchased a farm at Bonny Brook, a short distance south of Carlisle, where he has since engaged at farming and also for some years at dairying. This place is still his home. Mr. Peffer’s long newspaper career brought him in close touch with Cumberland county politics, and in 1899 he was nominated by the Democrats for clerk of the courts and recorder, but through dissensions in the party failed of election by a small majority. Three years afterward he was elected county treasurer, which responsible office he now holds.

William H. Peffer, on May 30, 1883, was married to Miss Eleanor Hoffman, of Carlisle, Rev. W. S. Freese, pastor of the First Lutheran Church, of Carlisle, performing the ceremony. To their union have come the following children: Henry Kerr, born March 9, 1884 Edith Kelly, May 19, 1886 and Milton, July 4, 1888 (who died in the following September).

This family biography is one of numerous biographies included in the Biographical Annals of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania published in 1905 by The Genealogical Publishing Company.

View additional Cumberland County, Pennsylvania family biographies here: Cumberland County, Pennsylvania Biographies

Use the links at the top right of this page to search or browse thousands of other family biographies.

William H. Peffer

     William H. Peffer was born on 16 Jul 1846 in Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania. 6,7,8
     He appeared on the 1850 Federal Census of Lower Dickinson Twp., Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania, in the household of his parents, Benjamin K. Peffer and Anne Fickes . 14 He appeared on the 1860 Federal Census of Lower Dickinson Twp., Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania, in the household of his parents. 15
     William married Virginia Vallance , daughter of John A. Vallance and Margaret Flora , about 1878. 9,10,11
     William and Virginia appeared on the 1880 Federal Census of Mt. Holly Springs, Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania, enumerated 7 Jun 1880. Their daughter Bessie was listed as living with them, as was her mother. 2
     William and Virginia appeared on the 1900 Federal Census of South Middleton Twp., Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania, enumerated 8 Jun 1900, reporting they owned their home, free of mortgage. Their children Bessie, William and George were listed as living with them. 16
     William and Virginia appeared on the 1910 Federal Census of South Middleton Twp., Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania, enumerated 28 Apr 1910, reporting they owned their home, free of mortgage. Their daughter Bessie was listed as living with them, as was her husband, John W. Hartzell . Their son William and his wife and two young sons were apparently living close by as they are listed as the previous household. 17
     William and Virginia appeared on the 1920 Federal Census of South Middleton Twp., Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania, on the back road to Mt. Hope, enumerated 4 Mar 1920, reporting they owned their home, free of mortgage. Their daughter Bessie was listed as living with them, as was her husband, John W. Hartzell . 18
     He was a dry goods merchant in 1880. By 1900 he was a day laborer. By 1910 he was a salesman in the paper business. In 1920 he was a salesman for a general store. 19,20,21,22,23
     William died on 1 Jan 1927 in South Middleton Twp., Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania, at age 80. 12,13 He was buried on 4 Jan 1927 in Mt. Hollly Springs, South Middleton Twp., Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania. 3

William Peffer - History

[Item below taken from Volume II, KANSAS, A Cyclopedia of State History, by Frank W. Blackmar, A. M., Ph.D., published by Standard Publishing Company in 1912, Page 458.]

Peffer, William A., United States senator, was born on a farm in Cumberland county, Pennsylvania, September 10, 1831, of Dutch parents. From his tenth to fifteenth year he attended the public schools seven months each winter, and then began to teach a small district school. He followed that profession until he caught the gold fever in 1850, when he went to California, and there made considerable money, returning to Pennsylvania in 1852. There he married Sarah Jane Barber and soon after removed to Indiana. He engaged in farming near Crawsfordsville until he met with reverses, when he determined to go farther west, and soon after opened a farm in Morgan county, Missouri. In February, 1862, he went to Illinois to get away from guerilla warfare, and the following August he enlisted as a private in the Eighty-third Illinois infantry. He was promoted to second lieutenant in March, 1863. During the three years of his service, he was engaged principally in the performance of detached duty as quartermaster, adjutant, and judge-advocate of a military commission, as depot quartermaster in the engineering department at Nashville, Tennessee. He was mustered out on June 26, 1865. Having studied law as opportunity afforded, he settled at Clarksville, Tennessee, at the close of the war and began the practice of that profession. In 1870 he came to Kansas and took up a claim in Wilson county. Two years later he removed to Fredonia and established the Fredonia Journal, a weekly newspaper, at the same time continuing his law practice. He next went to Coffeyville, and established the Coffeyville Journal. In 1874 he was elected to the state senate as a Republican and served one term. He was delegate to the Republican national convention in 1880, and that year he removed to Topeka, where he assumed control of the Kansas Farmer, which he purchased later. In 1890 he joined the Farmers' Alliance movement, and the following year the People's party elected him to the United States senate, where he served one term. Mr. Peffer is a member of the Episcopal church, a Master Mason, and belongs to the Knights of Labor.

Winfield Courier, July 10, 1874.

SALT SPRINGS. Judge Peffer, Col. J. C. McMullen, E. P. Kinne, Mr. Loomis, and several ladies, also the "Special Contributor," visited the salt works on the 6th. We found Judge McIntire superintendent of the works. Our July sun is doing the handsome thing for these just now, giving a product of a ton per week.

There are also springs containing, apparently, glauber's salts and other minerals in solution. We concluded the "warm spring" to be caused by the action of the solar heat.

Person:William Peffer (1)

William Alfred Peffer (September 10, 1831 – October 6, 1912) was a United States Senator from Kansas, notable for being the first of six Populists (two of whom, more than any other state, were from Kansas) elected to the United States Senate. In the Senate he was recognizable by his enormous flowing beard. His name was also raised as a possible third-party presidential candidate in 1896.

Born in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, Peffer attended the public schools and commenced teaching at the age of 15. He followed the gold rush to San Francisco, California in 1850 and moved to Indiana in 1853, Missouri in 1859, and Illinois in 1862. During the Civil War he enlisted in the Union Army as a private, was promoted to second lieutenant, and served as regimental quartermaster and adjutant, post adjutant, judge advocate of the military commission, and department Army he studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1865, commencing practice in Clarksville, Tennessee. He moved to Fredonia, Kansas in 1870 and continued the practice of law, and purchased and edited the Fredonia Journal.

Peffer was a member of the Kansas Senate from 1874 to 1876 and moved to Coffeyville, Kansas, where he edited the Coffeyville Journal in 1875 and also practiced law. He was a presidential elector on the Republican ticket in 1880 and was editor of the Kansas Farmer at Topeka in 1881. He was elected as a Populist to the U.S. Senate by the Kansas Legislature and served from March 4, 1891, to March 3, 1897. He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1896, being beaten by a fellow populist William A. Harris, making Peffer the only Populist senator to have been replaced by a fellow Populist. While in the Senate, he was chairman of the Committee to Examine Branches of the Civil Service (Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth Congresses). He was, in 1898, an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Kansas, and afterward engaged in literary pursuits. Peffer died in Grenola, Kansas in 1912 and was interred in Topeka Cemetery under a soldier's government-issued tombstone.

the text in this section is copied from an article in Wikipedia

William Alfred Peffer (September 10, 1831October 6, 1912) was a United States Senator from Kansas, notable for being the first of six Populists (two of whom, more than any other state, were from Kansas) elected to the United States Senate. In the Senate he was recognizable by his enormous flowing beard. His name was also raised as a possible third-party presidential candidate in 1896.

Biography [ edit | edit source ]

Born in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, Peffer attended the public schools and commenced teaching at the age of 15. He followed the gold rush to San Francisco, California in 1850 and moved to Indiana in 1853, Missouri in 1859, and Illinois in 1862. During the Civil War he enlisted in the Union Army as a private, was promoted to second lieutenant, and served as regimental quartermaster and adjutant, post adjutant, judge advocate of the military commission, and department quartermaster in the engineering department at Nashville. He was mustered out of the service in 1865. While in the Army he studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1865, commencing practice in Clarksville, Tennessee. He moved to Fredonia, Kansas in 1870 and continued the practice of law, and purchased and edited the Fredonia Journal.


This study focuses attention of the People’s party which existed for a short time in the 1890s. Despite its brief existence the party and the movement that brought it into being had a lasting effect on American politics and society.

Populism originally developed outside the political system because the system had proved incapable of responding to real needs. As the movement was transformed into the People’s party, however, much of its responsive nature was lost. The People’s party became subject to the same influences that guided the old parties and it became more concerned with winning office than with promoting genuine reform. In finding this sharp distinction between Populism and the People’s party, Mr. Argersinger portrays Populism not as a success but as a tragic failure, betrayed from within by politicians who followed political dictates rather than Populist principles.

Mr. Argersinger studies the Populist predicament in organizing a national movement in a time of political sectionalism and discovers neglected phases of Populist activity in the crucial campaign of 1896. He suggests that there may have been some validity to the charge of Populist “conspiracy-mindedness.”

Peter H. Argersinger is assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Kansas Populist Movement Basics: The End

“Sockless” Jerry Simpson

P opulist candidate James Weaver did not become president in 1892, as most undoubtedly know. However, he did win 8.5% of the popular vote—an impressive amount for a third-party candidate. He also won the states of Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho.

The Populist movement was far more successful in some states than others. As previously mentioned, Populist strongholds tended to be states in which farmers were hard hit by drought and economic turmoil. One of these states was Kansas.

Populists in Power

When the Kansas People’s Party first organized in Topeka in 1890, it enjoyed considerable political success across the state. The lower house of the state legislature was taken by Populists. “Sockless Jerry” Simpson, reportedly unable to afford socks during his ranching days, won a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Long-time U.S. Senator John J. Ingalls, who had been involved in Kansas politics since the territorial days, lost his seat to Populist editor William Peffer.

In 1892, a People’s Party candidate became Kansas governor with the election of Lorenzo D. Lewelling. The party also won the upper house of the state legislature. The lower house remained divided between Populists and Republicans, leading to a rather bizarre situation known as the Legislative War.

The “war” began as a dispute over election results. The Republicans claimed to have taken control of the Kansas House. However, the Populists asserted that they had done so through election fraud, making the People’s Party the majority. At first, the two parties met in the same chamber at different times to pass legislation independently. Tension finally mounted to the point that the Populist members locked themselves into the House and the Republican members gained entry via sledgehammer. The Kansas Supreme Court eventually decided in favor of the Republicans.

Fusion and the End of the Populist Era

William A. Peffer

In many elections, Populist candidates won their offices through the support of the Democrats. In fact, in the Kansas elections of 1892, the state’s Democratic Party did not nominate its own candidates, but endorsed the People’s Party ticket instead. Thus, the precedent was early on established for joining forces with the older party in a move known as “fusion.”

This created a deep divide within the People’s Party. One faction wanted to ride the coattails of the better established Democratic Party to victory. The other cautioned that fusion would be the end of the party. Populist Thomas E. Watson warned that “fusion means the Populist party will play Jonah, and [the Democrats] will play the whale.”

When William Jennings Bryan was nominated as the 1896 Democratic presidential candidate on a platform of free coinage of silver, the People’s Party was in a quandary. Their convention occurred after the Democratic convention, and it was clear that it was likely to be a divisive event. Never before had fusion been such an attractive option. Still, there was a sentiment that the Populists should demand recognition from the Democrats on more issues than simply silver.

Fusion was the course pursued by the majority of the People’s Party delegates when the votes were cast. Those against fusion attempted to organize a counter-rally and regain control of the convention, but the lights in the meeting hall abruptly went out. William Jennings Bryan became the Populist nominee for president. However, the People’s Party also took the unusual course of rejecting his Democratic running mate Arthur Sewall because he was a banker and railroad man and instead nominating Thomas Watson for vice president. This created a rather awkward situation, as Watson positively refused to campaign for Bryan, but was equally obstinate in declining to step aside for Sewall. All this time, the Republicans cheerfully announced that the Democrats had allied themselves with anarchists. William Jennings Bryan ultimately lost the presidency to Republican William McKinley.

A few antifusion members of the People’s Party held out for over a decade, but the party was officially disbanded in 1908.

Impacts of Populism on Subsequent Events

William Jennings Bryan

Antifusion Populists were certainly correct in their prediction that fusion would destroy the identity of the party. However, it was by no means the end of their philosophies. The Populist movement gradually morphed into the subsequent Progressive movement. Progressive candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, tended to support anti-trust legislation, federal regulation of private industry, and federal support for the farmer and the laborer.

During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt, while highly critical of the People’s Party, became an outspoken advocate of the Populist-friendly policy of trust-busting. Direct election of United States senators became a reality in 1912. The general notion that farmers and laborers should receive federal assistance during times of economic disaster became a concrete fact with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Thus, while the People’s Party did not achieve most of its ambitions itself, the movement marked the end of the Gilded Age and ushered in a new phase of federal government.

Helpful Resource

Legislative War Artifacts
More on the Legislative War, along with several artifacts on display at the Kansas Museum of History.

Populism, Its Rise and Fall

Before it was "Populism," the great reform movement of the 1890s was often called "Pefferism" after its most prominent leader, Kansas editor William Peffer. Peffer's Populism, Its Rise and Fall is the only significant memoir by a major Populist figure.

The Populist movement arose as a revolt against the special privileges of industrialism and the American banking system. It spread quickly throughout the Midwest and South and reached its zenith with the founding of the People's party in the early 1890s. William Peffer chaired the national conference that organized the People's party and was the party's first U.S. senator and president of its National Reform Press Association.

Peffer's memoir, written in 1899 but discovered decades later, offers a unique insider's view of the Populist movement. Peffer describes the development of Populism, the political maneuverings and campaign practices of the People's party, the effect of the famous silver movement on the critical election of 1896, and the behind-the-scenes conflicts and disagreements that ultimately led to the dissolution of America's last great third party.

Populism, Its Rise and Fall includes the complete text of this singular memoir, transcribed, edited, and annotated by Peter H. Argersinger, a leading scholar of the Populist movement. Argersinger's introductory essay and extensive annotation evoke America at the turn of the century and place Peffer's memoir in the context of the times, at the vortex of the forces that shaped and ultimately destroyed Populism.

"There are other Populist memoirs, but none from such a central figure as Peffer, and none from a key Kansas Populist. This book will be of note to scholars with general interests in the Gilded Age, as well as to specialists in Populism and farm activism."—Tom Isern, author of Bull Threshers and Bindlestiffs: Harvesting and Threshing on the North American Plains and coauthor of Plainsfolk: A Commonplace of the Great Plains.

"Beyond doubt, Peffer was one of the more significant leaders produced by the Populist movement. This memoir is useful in helping us to understand the course he followed, which has remained something of an enigma."—Gene Clanton, author of Kansas Populism: Ideas and Men.

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