During the course of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of big business created great gaps in wealth between the rich and the poor and drew criticism from a variety of reformers. None was more vocal than Ignatius Donnelly. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 3, 1831, Donnelly came to his radicalism late in life. Early in the 1850s, he toured the Old Northwest and concluded that the town of Nininger, Minnesota, was destined to become one of America's great cities. He was wrong and lost his savings in the panic of 1857. Heavily in debt, Donnelly remained in Minnesota and tried to farm the land.
During the Civil War, Donnelly became an ardent Republican and a supporter of high tariffs and conservative fiscal principles. He ran for Congress and served three terms, lobbying successfully to secure land grants, government subsidies, and railroad lines in his district. But he also grew disillusioned at how consistently businessmen tried to use the powers of government to enhance their own economic positions and how frequently they were willing to exploit other people in order to get them. The Republican Party, he concluded, was nothing more than an agent for business interests, pursuing high tariffs and hard-money policies at every turn. In 1870, Donnelly abandoned the Republican Party.
During the next twenty years, Donnelly tried to find a political home in the Liberal Republican Party, the Greenback-Labor Party, and the Granger movement, and his ideas about soft money—free coinage of silver—developed during these years. He served in the state legislature during these years and edited The Anti-Monopolist, a political journal dedicated to the antitrust movement. When Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, Donnelly considered it a personal victory. He also wrote the book Caesar's Column (1890), which predicted the future of cooperative socialism for the United States.
As the plight of farmers worsened in the 1890s—declining incomes because of overproduction and rising rates from railroads, grain elevators, and banks—Donnelly joined the Farmers Alliance movement, which soon evolved into the Populist Party. In 1892, he wrote the preamble to the Ocala platform of the Populist Party. In 1896, Donnelly endorsed the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, who was running on the Democratic Party ticket but who had also been endorsed by the Populists. For Donnelly, the free coinage of silver was the answer to all of the country's economic problems. If the money supply were expanded and commodity prices were inflated, farmers would escape the economic squeeze in which they found themselves, and since most Americans were farmers, the economy would improve. Most voters did not buy the idea, and the Republican candidate William McKinley won the election. Donnelly ran as a Populist for vice president in 1900 and lost, and he died on January 1, 1901.