Biography of Populist Protester Ignatius Donnelly Part 1

About the Populist leader and protester Ignatius Donnelly, history and biography of the political figure.


IGNATIUS DONNELLY (1831-1901). Apostle of protest.

In the 1890s, a short, chubby nonconformist with a fierce dedication to protecting the underdog jolted the political establishment with a people's protest that changed the course of American history. Ignatius Donnelly, the "Apostle of Protest," had been stirring the pot of rebellion for 30 years ricocheting politically from one third party to another, trumpeting a call to arms against usurious bankers, greedy middlemen, and the land-grabbing, rate-rigging railroads. As industrialism widened the gap between the masses and the privileged classes, the pot came to a rolling boil. Farmers and workers, infuriated by a political system they considered to be a "tool of big business," turned to their indomitable champion.

Almost single-handed, Donnelly welded a fractious army of rebels into the National People's, or Populist, party. When he leaped onto the convention platform in 1892, 4,000 Populists let out a roar that "rose like a tornado." His blue eyes blazing, Donnelly electrified the crowd: "We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin ... the fruits of the toil of millions are stolen to build up colossal fortunes ... governmental injustice [breeds] the two great classes--tramps and millionaires ..." He ticked off the Populist planks designed "to restore the government to the hands of the 'plain people'": free silver, a graduated income tax, the eight-hour workday, women's suffrage, and direct election of senators.

Innocuous as these ideas seem today, they were a virtual time bomb to the 19th-century political establishment. The Populists polled over a million votes in one of the most effective protests in the nation's history--and within four decades, nearly all of Donnelly's "lunatic" planks had become national law.

Donnelly was born in Philadelphia, where his mother ran a pawnshop to help put his Irish immigrant father through medical school. Young Ignatius dabbled in poetry, studied law, became interested in politics. Among his earliest political writings was an analysis of Horace Greeley based, not on Greeley's doctrines, but on the bumps on his editorial head. Prophetically, Donnelly had become intrigued with the increasingly popular fad of phrenology.

Things got sticky when he married vivacious Katharine McCaffrey. His pawnbroker mother, who thought the daughter of a petty merchant was a poor match for a budding lawyer, made no secret of the disdain she felt for Kate. Since Kate could be as obstinate as her mother-in-law, the two women didn't speak for 15 years. Fed up with family strife and bored with the law, Donnelly took his bride to Minnesota in 1856 to help found a utopian city, a dream-center of culture in the agrarian West. Nininger City--named after one of Donnelly's partners--boomed. Donnelly strolled the bustling streets, his agile mind toting up the profits from his real estate venture. "Here I am but 26," he mused. "Already I have acquired a large fortune. What shall I do ... with the rest of my life?" But within a few months, the panic of 1857 had wiped out Nininger City and with it Donnelly's "fortune."

Buoyant as a cork, young Donnelly popped to the surface again, this time in the political sea. He joined the Republican party, became lieutenant governor of Minnesota at 28, and was catapulted into Congress in 1863. Ambitious Ignatius hewed to party lines and was twice reelected, but his maverick tendencies eventually sparked a bitter feud with Elihu Washburn, Illinois representative and a party power. In a vitriolic speech on the floor of the House, Donnelly announced that Washburn was as inept as a "stump-tailed bull in fly time." Irate Republican bosses promptly dumped him, ending his congressional career.

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