Ignatius Donnelly & The Politics of Discontent
An Inquiry into the Career of a Populist
By: Roger G. Kennedy
Host: Doug “GoatHollow” for “They Were Preppers”
Editor’s Note: There have been few periods in the history of the West more thoroughly convulsive than that between 1880 and 1900, a time when all the agonies of class conflict in America found sharp focus in the plight of the western farmer, whose dream of a Jeffersonian Eden had been mutilated by reality _ and, in his view, by the villainous manipulation of money-lenders and capitalists. The period gave birth to Populism, one of the most significant political movements in western history, and one that would have a profound effect on both major parties, even while the presidential campaigns of the party’s leader, William Jennings Bryan, went down to defeat.
If William Jennings Bryan was Populism’s messiah, then Ignatius Donnelly was its prophet. A pragmatic politician first schooled in the ward-heeling atmosphere of eastern politics and later educated in the grasping, frequently brutal politics of semi-frontier Minnesota in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Donnelly escaped the bounds of an often sordid past to become the most articulate voice of western discontent – a vocal, vigorous, and effective spokesman for the rights of men who found themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control or comprehension. History has too often remembered this Irish activist as a literary amateur, a vague dreamer, and an impractical “hayseed Gracchus,” whose social and economic theories were the effusions of a utopian fantasist. In the essay that follows, Roger Kennedy reminds us that Donnelly was far more of a power in his place and time than his critics have admitted, and that his “utopian” economic schemes may well have been precisely correct.
Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901) was an American politician, reformer, and author. He was an outstanding spokesperson for the political reform movements of the second half of the 19th century that culminated in the Populist revolt.
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