Talking Politics: Edward Bellamy, Populism, and the Election of 1892

Published at a time when Americans were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the national political climate, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward inspired many to try implementing social reforms by enacting political change.  In this blog post, we look at the relationship between Nationalism, the movement inspired by Bellamy’s novel, and populism, the new political movement that was growing in popularity.

While Nationalism was not synonymous with populism in the 1890s, there was a fair amount of overlap in the interests of the movements’ members.  Nationalism, the movement named after the plan from Looking Backward to nationalize industry, was what Edward Bellamy explained as “the latest phase of socialism.”  Simply put, its goal was for society to evolve into a “perfectly organized industrial system which […] shall work at a minimum of friction with a maximum result of wealth and leisure to all.”  Populism, on the other hand, was a political rather than social movement.  However, members of both movements believed that some of the same means would bring about their desired end state.  They also felt that the problem with government was not the extent of its authority but rather the negative influence of capitalism.  As Bellamy’s weekly paper, the New Nation, reported in its analysis of the Populists’ platform, the proposition that “the powers of government […] should be expanded […] as rapidly and as far as the good sense of intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify” was “nationalism reduced to a practical proposition.”1

James Weaver

Photo of General James B. Weaver, the People’s Party’s 1892 candidate for president.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The People’s Party, whose members were known as Populists, formalized their platform in 1892 in Omaha, Nebraska.  Government ownership of railroads and telegraphs, a graduated income tax, the direct election of U.S. senators, and an eight-hour work day (all of which appealed to Nationalists) were just some of the reforms that were proposed.  In a grassroots effort to convince members of the working class that the People’s Party was worth supporting, Populists sent writers and lecturers across the country.  Appealing to a sense of nostalgia for what were perceived as better times, the speakers often invoked the founding fathers and other men seen as democratic heroes.  This was a favorite strategy for Bellamy as well; for example, in 1891 he praised Abraham Lincoln’s warning about the negative effects of surrendering one’s personal rights to capital.2

Bellamy’s poor health prevented him from embarking on lecture tours in support of the People’s Party.  However, he did accept invitations to attend and speak at various conventions and rallies in Massachusetts, and he publicly endorsed People’s Party candidates.  He was also listed on the 1892 party ticket as a presidential elector at large.  Believing that the more attention the People’s Party received, the easier it would be to build support for the Nationalists’ agenda, he printed pro-Populist articles in the New Nation as well.  And while he didn’t want Nationalist clubs to turn into “campaign clubs,” fearing that a focus on a broad political platform would mean a shift away from his more detailed plans for reform, he did encourage supporting the People’s Party financially; in 1892, the New Nation offered to forward contributions for the Massachusetts campaign fund to the state committee.3

James Weaver, the People’s Party candidate, did not win the presidential election of 1892.  He did, however, win 8.5 percent of the total vote and was the first third-party candidate to win electoral votes since the Civil War.  Nearly 1,500 Populist candidates, including a handful of governors and congressmen, were elected to office as well.  Despite his candidate’s loss, Bellamy still viewed Democrat Grover Cleveland’s victory over incumbent Benjamin Harrison as a hopeful sign, writing, “The spirit of the republican party will be reincarnated in the coming nationalist party.”  From where he sat in 1892, the Republican’s defeat would give the party the time it needed to regroup and become the moral leader Bellamy remembered from his childhood once more.4


  1. “In the Interest of a Clear Use of Terms,” New Nation, December 12, 1891, 725-6; Sylvia Bowman, The Year 2000 (New York: Bookman Associates, 1958) 134; Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008) 102-3; “People’s Party Convention, Omaha,” New Nation, July 16, 1892, 454.
  2. Painter, 98-9; Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 39; “Lincoln’s Prophecy,” New Nation, December 5, 1891, 709-10.
  3. Bowman, 134-5; Arthur E. Morgan, Edward Bellamy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944) 282; “After the Omaha Convention,” New Nation, July 23, 1892, 471.
  4. Painter, 115-6; “How Cleveland’s Victory Prepares the Way for Nationalism,” New Nation, November 19, 1892, 686-7.