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The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  303 ratings  ·  37 reviews
This condensed version of Lawrence Goodwyn's Democratic Promise, the highly-acclaimed study on American Populism which the Civil Liberties Review called a brilliant, comprehensive study, offers new political language designed to provide a fresh means of assessing both democracy and
authoritarianism today.
Paperback, 384 pages
Published November 30th 1978 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 1978)
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Mar 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Populism was not just an agrarian movement but the “rural aspect” has not been as deeply probed as its urban side. In emphasizing this, Lawrence Goodwyn has helped us see why it originated in the aftermath of the Civil War and why it failed to succeed in the elections of the 1890s.

America had been and still was in 1870 a rural rather than an urban nation, though the stature of the farmer had fallen. Farmers were no longer what Thomas Jefferson had seen: “Cultivators of the earth are the most val
Katie Hanna
Sep 10, 2017 rated it it was ok
In a word: No.

(sorry, fellas, that's all I got time for today)


I've been asked to elaborate more on why I didn't like this book. It's been a while since I've read it, but after looking over my grad school papers from last year, I've concluded I didn't like it because I felt Lawrence Goodwyn unfairly idealized the Populists as the "last true American grassroots radicals," when they . . . weren't necessarily all that radical.

To quote from my paper comparing this book to Charles Postel's Th
Jun 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
In hierarchical societies, genuine democratic politics, when it appears, is hard to understand.

A fascinating look at an overlooked moment of American history.

Things I underlined on my kindle:

(view spoiler)
Brett Williams
Jan 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
This 3.6 star book is informative for our current populist movement. With just a little history external to this text it becomes ever clearer that a sizable fraction of governance is an unending exercise in damping realignments of passion and grievance, sometimes valid, sometimes not. Consider the author’s example: “The old Jacksonian resonances…containing as they did the Jeffersonian vs. Federalist struggle, were all but obliterated by the massive realignment [of Civil War]. The memories and ev ...more
Jul 26, 2021 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I’m sure there were some interesting bits of history in the book, but every time I tried to find some, the author’s long-winded, tedious descriptions of events made me nod off. Page after page of agonizing details so mundane that even their mama’s couldn’t enjoy them.
Feb 10, 2017 rated it liked it
According to Lawrence Goodwyn, the Populist movement of the late 1800s is difficult to understand because it was quite complicated. He tries to simplify it here and succeeds to some extent, but, well, it's complicated!

He starts his story in Texas where farmers are being overcharged by merchants and railroads, charged exorbitant interest rates by banks, and sometimes forced to sell crops at or below cost. A Farmers Alliance tries to resolve these issues, runs into the same problems and turns to p
Gary Moreau
Mar 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Populism. The word is used a lot today by political journalists in reference to both President Trump supporters and the Brexit movement. And, historically speaking, it is generally used inaccurately, a fact that I, too, was unaware of until I read another reader’s review of a separate title. That reviewer recommended this book, written by Duke professor of history, Lawrence Goodwyn, and published in 1979.

While the title refers to the book as ‘short’, it is a very thorough review of the populist
Andrew Figueiredo
Oct 11, 2020 rated it really liked it

Goodwyn walks readers through how the Populist movement developed a level of political, social, and class consciousness among rural Americans who faced the downside of corporate capitalism. This, he calls a democratic culture, full of possibility, collective self-confidence, and inspiration (34). Goodwyn chronicles in great depth the back and forth within the movement and the ways in which it achieved success in some states. Populists employed direct action (see the jute strike), whereas the Gra
Nov 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics, history
A very detailed history of the agrarian revolution that began in the south and spread into federal politics from farm alliances to a viable American political party that challenged the two establishment parties, and the dominance of capital itself.

In explaining the evolution of this movement, Goodwyn has much to teach us about the possibility, and the daunting challenges, of another people's movement.
Sean Chick
Aug 12, 2011 rated it liked it
Well, I think the trouble here is that the evidence of a true movement culture is scant, and Goodwyn relies to heavily on Texas and Kansas. Remember, the Populists are the Lost Cause of the New Left, and the election of 1896 is basically Pickett's Charge for the materialist left. Hofstadter may have been wrong about the racism he saw in their movement, but he was right in that these people had no "center" so to speak. Once they were beaten they were beaten for good. ...more
Jul 30, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Man, what could have been. This is a great look at the excitement and possibility of one of the most dynamic social movement in American, and how demagoguery and Southern Democratic race-baiting destroyed it.
Erhardt Graeff
May 05, 2017 rated it liked it
I must confess. I skipped to the end. Lawrence Goodwyn's history of America's Populist Movement in the late nineteenth century is an important contribution to our knowledge of social movements and American political theory. However, Goodwyn's storytelling fails to live up to contemporary standards of political history from favorites like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert A. Caro, or the fast-paced accounts of recent history from Michael Lewis. That's why after two chapters I skipped to the last on ...more
Kevin Fitzpatrick
Jan 19, 2020 rated it liked it
"In this manner, the farmers saw their own movement: the Alliance was the people, and the people were together... Fragile as it (Populism) was, it nevertheless opened up possibilities of an autonomous democratic life. Because this happened, the substance of American Populism went beyond the political creed embedded in the People's Party, beyond the evocative images of Alliance lecturers and reform editors, beyond even the idea of freedom itself... it was an assertion of how people can act in th ...more
S.L. Berry
Mar 06, 2022 rated it really liked it
Political parties according to Goodwyn quoting William V. Allen, then U.S. Senator from Nebraska “should be held no more sacred than a man’s shoes or garments” and that political parties should exist only as long as they are “conducive to good government.” Goodwyn suggests that the Populist movement’s essence was “an assertion of how people can act in the name of the idea of freedom,” a “demonstration of what authentic political life can be in a functioning democracy.”

Goodwyn's book on the late
Jan 13, 2018 rated it liked it
Journal entry for October 11, 1993

Since I am running out of time, this will be a highly sketchy consideration of Goodwyn, to which I must later return and fill in details. It strikes me that Livingston is right to question that if Lawrence Goodwyn is right (about Populism being the last truly democratic movement in American history), how can we talk about the 20th Century? For Goodwyn, as Livingston observes, the Populists are more than just the "liberals' Lost Cause." The failure of Populism is
Steven Burnap
An interesting but dense look at the rise and fall of the populist movement in the late eighteenth century. Interesting both for that part of history, and as an example of how political movements can fail. The TL;DR of it is that the populist movement could not both sustain its original principals while simultaneously finding broad appeal.

I'm pretty well read, but before this I'd never clearly understood the what the currency arguments of the period were actually about. Here you get a very clea
Julien Devin
Jun 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Really interesting look at the agrarian movement in the 1880s-1890s. The author wanted to revive the reputation of the populists from earlier historiography (there's a whole essay about how bad other historians of this period, esp Hofstadter, have been) and he is clearly ideologically motivated, but the history is interesting and Goodwyn is appropriately critical of the movement. I felt like the book did dodge issues of race; though Goodwyn does go into how white supremacy hurt the Populists, he ...more
Jul 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"In ways people outside the South had difficulty perceiving, the crop lien system became for millions of Southerners, white and black, little more than slavery. ... The man with the ledger became the farmer's sole significant contact with the outside world. Across the South he was know as 'the furnishing man' or 'the advancing man.' To black farmers he became 'the Man.'" (23)

"Populism in America was not the sub-treasury plan, not the greenback heritage, not the Omaha Platform. it was not, at bot
James Howard
Sep 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
I will warn people, this is a scholarly work and can be very dry. Although if you are like me, and knew nothing about the rise of Populism and the People's Party, please give it a read. There is so much more to the story than the five minutes that your history teacher may or may not have covered in class. ...more
Apr 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
Four stars for the content, two for the prose. Entirely too much minutiae but such an important historical moment (and, for me at least, awfully relevant today).
Mar 14, 2022 rated it really liked it
It's one of the most important books about American history, but I wish I could have understood it better and want to blame it on the writing instead of myself. ...more
Margaret Pinard
The previous reader’s notes stop at Chapter 3, but I made it all the way through! Dense. So wide-ranging I had to have side conversations with government and economist friends to figure out some of the arguments. But I got there! And have tons of ideas for new stories! Anyone else use excessive stickies?
#stickynoteuser #betterthandogearedpages
#storyfodder #gildedage #writersgonnawrite
Jun 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
this is a good overview of the Populist movement of the 1880s and 90s in the United States, which was primarily poor farmers across the South and West being radicalized by the experience of unfair debt burdens being placed on them by the financial system. it was perhaps the largest mass movement in US history, yet today most of us barely know it existed.

the movement began through the "cooperative crusade," farmers coming together to try to sell their crops together rather than competitively, and
Scott Vann
Sep 17, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: u-of-m-textbooks
Goodwyn details the events that lead to the formation and movement known as the Farmer’s Alliance. He examines the origins of the party in the South and how it eventually took a national stage to become the National Farmer’s Alliance. Goodwyn also examines the “system” - the crop lien system and how it started a new method of “economic organization”. The devastation from the Civil War in the South, left farmers with no economic stabilization and left very little capital in the banks (Goodwyn, pp ...more
Sep 06, 2010 rated it it was ok
This book is the last one I have to read for my Progressive and Populist class. HOORAY! Anyway it wasn't terribly interesting but it wasn't horrible either. There was good information. Goodywn really went through the Populist movement from beginning to end and integrated every persons part in its development. I didn't know until I read this what really started this movement but according to Goodwyn it was the end of the Civil War and the crop lien system in the South and the West. This system ma ...more
Japhet Els
Apr 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Brilliant history of the last true American revolution that ultimately failed but seriously challenged the powers that be -- i.e. Wall Street. The agrarian revolution of late 1880 stretched through the end of the century banning together millions of farmers left out in the cold by their own government. Self-organizing from the ground up, Goodwyn shares one of the most honest accounts of American grassroots revolution in a century.

Give it a read.
C. Scott
Dec 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
What an amazing book. Anyone with even a passing interest in third party politics in the United States needs to consult this volume. I think Goodwyn basically lays out the entire spectrum of everything can happen throughout the life cycle of an American third party movement.

No doubt, this is a lot of very dense material (after finishing this the full expended version seems even more daunting) but you will be rewarded if you stick with it.
Jul 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
For most of my Indiana adolescence I was in love with that William Jennings Bryan speech, "The Cross of Gold," and I pined hard for the unsettled activist Midwest of the early twentieth century. This book satisfied that part of me. ...more
Chuck Zak
Jul 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
This was a important insight (if a little too academic for my tastes at times)into a period of American history from which not nearly enough lessons seem to have been learned. A somewhat sobering reminder of how far down the corporate rabbit-hole we've fallen. ...more
Earl Brown
Dec 29, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Epic story of small-farmer organizing in the late 19th century.
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