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Ignatius Donnelly & The Politics of Discontent

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If William Jennings Bryan was Populism’s messiah, then Ignatius Donnelly was its prophet. A pragmatic politician first schooled in the ward-heeling atmosphere of eastern politics and later educated in the grasping, frequently brutal politics of semi-frontier Minnesota in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Donnelly escaped the bounds of an often sordid past to become the most articulate voice of western discontent – a vocal, vigorous, and effective spokesman for the rights of men who found themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control or comprehension. History has too often remembered this Irish activist as a literary amateur, a vague dreamer, and an impractical “hayseed Gracchus,” whose social and economic theories were the effusions of a utopian fantasist. In the essay that follows, Roger Kennedy reminds us that Donnelly was far more of a power in his place and time than his critics have admitted, and that his “utopian” economic schemes may well have been precisely correct.
Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901) was an American politician, reformer, and author. He was an outstanding spokesperson for the political reform movements of the second half of the 19th century that culminated in the Populist revolt.
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