March 30

This Day in History

Old West

Mar 30, 1891:

"Sockless" Simpson rallies populist farmers

Signaling a growing movement toward direct political action among desperate western farmers, "Sockless" Jerry Simpson calls on the Kansas Farmers' Alliance to work for a takeover of the state government.

Simpson was one of the most popular and influential leaders among Populist-minded western and mid-western farmers of the late 19th century. Angered over low crop prices, crippling bank loans, and high shipping rates, farmers began to unite in self-help groups like the Grange and the Farmers' Alliances. Initially, these groups primarily provided mutual assistance to members while agitating for the regulation of railroads and grain elevators. Increasingly, though, they became centers of support for more sweeping political change by uniting to help form the new nationwide third-party movement known as the Populists.

Simpson understood the West and the challenges of making a living in that difficult land. Since 1878, he had operated a ranch in southwest Kansas, where he first became involved in Republican politics. During the economic downturn of the 1890s, he became disgusted with the Republican's timid and ineffective efforts to help farmers and ranchers. Like many other men and women who worked the land for a living, he abandoned the major parties to try to achieve more fundamental change through the Populists.

Simpson became one of the most influential Populist leaders, thanks in part to his extraordinary wit and talent for cagey publicity stunts. Running for the U.S. Congress in 1890, Simpson's opponents sarcastically accused the Populist candidate of being a backcountry rube who did not even wear socks. Simpson quickly turned the insult to his advantage, proudly calling himself "Sockless Jerry" or the "Sockless Socrates of the Plains." Simpson's down-home manner and humor won him wide support, and he served in Congress three times during the 1890s. Had he not been Canadian by birth, he would likely have been nominated as the Populist's presidential candidate.

As with most third party movements in the history of the U.S., the Populist Party was short-lived. By 1898, Simpson was out of the Congress and Populism was all but dead. Still, Simpson and the Populists did succeed in pushing elite Americans to adopt some of their ideas. The Progressive-minded politicians of the early 20th century achieved at least some of the Populist goals, such as regulation of the railways. Shortly before he died in Wichita in 1905, Simpson noted that the Progressive politicians of the day were "just learning now what the farmers... knew fourteen years ago."

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