As both a political organizer and movement intellectual, Donnelly contributed greatly to the political culture of the Populist Party and to the conspiratorial imagination of late-nineteenth-century agrarian radicalism. In his speeches and writings for the party, Donnelly gave voice to the deeply held belief that the spread of plutocracy and monopoly capitalism left the United States “on the verge of moral, political and material ruin.”
Born in Philadelphia, Donnelly moved to the utopian community of Nininger in rural Minnesota in 1856. After the community broke up, Donnelly remained in Minnesota where he fought for the “have nots” against the “haves” as lieutenant governor in the state legislature, in Congress, and as the president of the Minnesota Farmers Alliance.
Donnelly was also a prolific author, writing books on the existence of Atlantis, the scientific basis for Armageddon myths, and The Great Cryptogram, in which he argued that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare’s plays.
Donnelly’s most important literary work is the novel Caesar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century. Published in 1890, Caesar’s Column extrapolates what he saw as the worst tendencies of the 1880s—unfettered capitalism, bribery and corruption, the degradation of labor, and the monopolization of culture by the rich—and constructs a narrative around the cataclysmic self-destruction of this imagined destiny.
Set in 1988, Caesar’s Column begins with the protagonist’s arrival in New York City by airship where he finds a magnificent city of glasscovered streets and pristine high-rise buildings. However, this utopia above ground is paralleled by the hell found underground, where the teeming millions of the working class are brutalized into a nearbestial state. This absolutely divided society is ruled by an inner council of oligarchs and dictators who maintain order with a fleet of airships known as “Demons” armed with poison bombs.
While the rich have grown decadent and autocratic, the working class has also lost its ideals and organized itself into the nihilistic Brotherhood of Destruction. Conspiracy thus faces conspiracy and when the rebellion begins it sets off an uncontrollable riot of looting and massacre. So many people are killed in this massive uprising that bodies clog the streets.
Imagining himself a conqueror, Caesar Lomellini, the military leader of the Brotherhood, orders the bodies piled up in Union Square and encased in concrete, forming a gigantic column to stand as a monument to the uprising. At the novel’s end, Caesar himself is murdered, and as the city burns the protagonists escape the conflagration in an airship to begin a new society in Africa based upon Populist values.
After publishing Caesar’s Column, Donnelly rose through the Minnesota Farmer’s Alliance to become one of the leading intellectuals of the Populist movement. Donnelly authored the preamble to the Populist Party platform of 1892, a philosophical statement that powerfully expresses the moral and political outrage behind the rapid growth of the Populist movement among both farmers and industrial workers.
Delivering the preamble in person at the party convention in St. Louis, Donnelly dramatically asserted: “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires ... A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly 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”.
Donnelly’s suggestion of “a vast conspiracy” of financial manipulators was interpreted by historian Richard Hofstadter as evidence of the reactionary nature of the Populist revolt, and that this “folklore” revealed Populism to be a hayseed movement that was led by “pseudo-intellectuals” who were possessed by the “paranoid style of American politics.” However, Donnelly’s statement can also be read not as evidence of demagoguery, but as a cultural expression of a distinct structure of feeling that united U.S. farmers and workers in the 1890s.
Increasingly subjected to the manipulation of railroads and banks, and reduced from their proud status as autonomous working men to “wage slaves,” Populist Party leaders and followers alike articulated this monopolistic intrusion as a deliberate depravation of their much-prized independence. Without democratic change, Donnelly demands, the conspiracy of the present could become the Caesar’s Column of our future.