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An Inquiry into the Career of a Populist!

An Inquiry into the Career of a Populist
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By: Roger G. Kennedy

An Inquiry into the Career of a Populist

(populist then/populist now)

PopulistIgnatius Donnelly died of derision. Not his corpulent Red Irish body, which has survived so many blizzards and dust storms and endless haggling conventions and caucuses – his body died of a heart attack in his sixty-ninth year, two months after he lost his twenty-third election campaign. Nor did his spirit die – it animated the reforms of two Progressive decades built upon his four decades of agitation, and it went marching on into the agricultural policies of the New Deal. But his reputation, that part of his reality about which he cared most, his “darling reputation,” was buried under the ridicule of respectable politicians and journalist during his lifetime and respectable historians thereafter. Even during the liberal years, the 1930’s and 1940’s, Ignatius Donnelly, like William Jennings Bryan, was thought to be too much the hayseed Gracchus, too much the product of the pre-deodorant era, to please the fastidious urban intellectuals.

“Ignatius Donnelly” he was called at the end. He had led the Anti-Monopolists and the Greenbackers and the Grangers and the Populist, had lost so many campaigns for the Congress and the Senate and the Governorship and the Presidency that he had become a figure of fun. William Watts Folwell, the establishment historian of Minnesota, called his life a “dreary record.” Latter-day critics agreed: Richard Hofstadter said he had been a leader of “country cranks’; Eric Goldman said he “had a reputation of the kind of theories that too many nights on the prairie can produce.”

PopulistDuring Donnelly’s lifetime Folwell set him down as “discredited,” a “mountebank politician.” He was attacked from the Left: Everett Fish called him a “fat brute,” and Sidney Owen called him the “Benedict Arnold of Populism.” From the Right the St. Paul Pioneer Press said he was “like Judas Iscariot…a dictator (and) a dog”; the Mississippi Valley Lumberman called him a “dishonest political juggler’; and during a famous exchange of invective, the stately Elihu Washburne of Illinois accused him of taking bribes, of being an “office beggar,” a coward, liar, a populist, and criminal “whose record is stained with every fraud – whiskey and other frauds – a man, who has proved false alike to his friends, his constituents, his country, his religion, and his God.” Continue reading An Inquiry into the Career of a Populist!