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Greenback Party: History, Goals, and Significance

Akshay Chavan Mar 2, 2020
The United States was steeped in financial crises after the Civil War. The Greenback Party emerged from the ashes of the war, with the main goal of improving the conditions of farmers.

Did You Know?

The oldest candidate to contest a US Presidential Election was Peter Cooper, a member of the Greenback Party, who fought the 1876 election at the age of 85 years.
The period after the end of the Civil War in 1865 saw some of the most rapid development that the United States had ever seen. Thousands of miles of railroads were laid throughout the country, bringing remote parts closer to each other.
To promote such growth, the federal government gifted large tracts of public land to private railroad companies. This period also witnessed an agricultural revolution in the country, and the railroads only provided an easy route for farm products to reach distant markets.
As can be expected in such a situation, these railroads became extremely powerful due to the favors granted to them, and began indulging in unfair trade practices, which angered the farmers. Similarly, urban workers began blaming industrialists and financiers for their dismal situation.
It was only a matter of time before the farmers and workers joined hands to take on those who were exploiting them. The result was the Greenback Party, which had a resounding impact. Let us understand why the Greenback Party was actually formed.

The Greenback Party

The Greenback Party was a short-lived political organization, that fought for the rights of farmers and industrial workers after the US Civil War. It supported the government regulation of paper currency, and got its name from the color of dollar bills issued by the government during the Civil War.


The Civil War had put a great financial strain on the US government, especially because it no longer received taxes from the South, which wanted to secede from the country.
To finance its war effort, the government issued paper currency which was not backed by a gold standard, thus increasing the amount of money in circulation. These years also saw improvements in the agricultural output.
Poverty rose to a great extent following the Civil War. Farm prices fell drastically, while the railroad costs for transporting farm goods to the markets remained the same, or even increased. This made it harder for farmers and other working sections to pay back their debts.
These sections of society began to regard non-gold backed currency, like that issued by the government during the War, as the remedy to all ills. They believed that the unlimited circulation of paper currency would cause inflation, making it easy to repay their debts with money having less value.
With this aim in mind, several farmer groups got together to form the Greenback Party, on November 25, 1874, in Indianapolis, Indiana. It rose in popularity till 1880, because of the unfavorable policies taken by the government, such as the 1875 Specie Resumption Act which restored gold-backed currency.
The party united with labor organizations to form the Greenback Labor Party in 1878, borrowing some of their objectives, like an 8-hour work day, and opposition of government action on strikes, onto its platform.
The Greenback Party fought the Presidential Elections thrice - in 1876, '80, and '84, and lost each time. Some of its members became Congressmen, however. The party won over a million votes in the 1878 fall elections, sending 14 of its members to the House of Representatives.
The party lost its support among workers, after economic conditions improved steadily despite the reduction in paper currency. As a result, it obtained a dismal 175,000 votes in the 1884 Presidential Elections. From then, it faded into oblivion, with some of its members joining the Populist Party, and others returning to the Republican or Democratic fold.


✦ An unlimited circulation of paper currency
✦ Opposition to currency backed by gold (hard money)
✦ Unlimited coinage of silver
✦ An 8-hour work day
✦ Right of women to vote
✦ Introduction of a graduated income tax
✦ Opposition to the forcible control of labor strikes


❑ The Greenback Party reflected the struggle of farmer groups against industrial, railroad, and banking lobbies. They knew that the replacement of paper currency by hard money would give private banks and corporations more control of pricing, thus increasing the hardships of the working class.
❑ Despite lasting for a mere decade since its formation, the party became one of the most prominent organizations in the United States. Most of its supporters were drawn from the farming communities in the South, who were the hardest hit by the financial crises following the Civil War (especially the Recession of 1873).
The party's highest successes were a result of industrial workers rallying behind it in the late 1870s. Its fortunes fell when its support base among these workers was eroded.
❑ People in western USA were against the gold standard, and thus, supported the party. This was because many silver deposits had been discovered in the west, so they wanted the government to issue unlimited silver coins, which would guarantee an assured market for the precious metal.
❑ The biggest opposition of the Greenback Party was the Republican Party, who represented the banking and industrial tycoons of the west and northeast. These sections were dead against paper currency, because, like most creditors, they would suffer huge losses when forced to accept debt repayments in a currency of less value.
❑ The Greenback Party helped the growth of other political parties though, in an indirect way. From the beginning, several of its goals were appropriated by the Democrats. When it became irrelevant after the 1884 elections, many state units of the party merged with the Democrats.
Gen. James Weaver, the party's largest vote-getter in the 1880 elections, disagreed with this, and went on to form the Populist Party in 1891, which fought for similar objectives.
While the Greenback Party might represent a remote era in American history, many of the issues it brought into the limelight, such as hard money vs. soft money, and inflation vs. economic stability, are relevant even today.