Populist Moment?

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The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.

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Populist Moment?

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | March 24, 2009

"If you put a banker, a lawyer and a capitalist in a barrel and roll it down a hill, no matter where it stops there will always be a son-of-a-bitch on top."    Saying from the Farmer's Movement

An article in the New York Times this week suggested that, given the bad economy [there I go again], and the pitchfork and torch level of anger to lavish bonuses paid to those who may have been responsible for it, we may be looking at resurgent political populism. If the Times pundits are correct we should hear a variation of the above quote emanating from the halls of congress soon. For further inspiration, I suggest they look to Minnesota history and literature, especially one of Minnesota's best books...

Edmund Boisgilbert, MD (Ignatius Donnelly) Caesar's Column: a Story of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Schulte and Company, 1890.

I know you are familiar with Edward Bellamy's 1890 utopian novel, Looking Backward. It was a bestseller at a time when the public was hungry to hear that all the social and economic strife would be amicably resolved and a just society would result. An alternative dystopian view came from Minnesota's voice of the people, Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly was a key figure in the Greenback Party, the Farmer's Alliance Party, and the People's Party. In his first novel, Caesar's Column, he explored what would happen if the combined nineteenth century trends of corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of a powerful few continued unabated until 1988. In other words, what would happen if his reform movements failed? The populists answer was that this would lead to barbarism and an unprecedented bloody revolution in America.

Two years after its publication Donnelly penned the preamble to the People's Party platform and it read just like Caesar's Column. "From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes - paupers and millionaires... A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents and is taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism."

Yes, the novel is melodramatic, especially to the modern reader's ear, but contemporary readers were not bothered by the tone. Word of mouth created a publishing sensation. The first printing of two hundred copies was published under Donnelly's pseudonym and sold out quickly. By the end of 1890 the book was selling 1,000 copies a week. By the end of the century it had sold almost a quarter of a million copies in the US and twice that many in Europe. Donnelly's dystopia was as popular as Bellamy's utopia. Harvard reprinted the book in 1960 and it is still in print today.

Martin Ridge's biography of this renaissance man of Minnesota, Ignatius Donnelly: Portrait of a Politician, was awarded "Best Book" by the American Historical Association when it was published. The MHS has kept the book in print.