How Ya' Gonna' Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?: The Rise of Populism

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1865 to the Present L10

How Ya' Gonna' Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?: The Rise of Populism

Worsening conditions in rural America in the 1870s caused people to abandon their farms in droves. At the same time, changes in agricultural practices and the agricultural marketplace forced independent farmers to become more like businessmen, but with none of the power that had made urban businessmen prosperous. In reaction to these trends, farmers began to take political action and in the 1890s organized the Populist movement, out of which a third political party was formed.

Changes in Agriculture

1. Mechanization of agriculture
The mechanization of agriculture led to huge improvements in efficiency, but also caused problems for the yeoman (independent) farmer.

Problems Presented by Machines

o More capital needed

o Machines demanded upkeep and repair

o Added to the risks that independent farmers had to take
2. Opening of new agricultural lands
As land prices went up and crop prices went down, farmers began mortgaging their property in order to put more land in cultivation. The drive for more land was fueled in the 1870s and early 1880s by unusually high rainfall. By cultivating more land, farmers hoped to pay off their debt; however, urban businessmen charged farmers extraordinarily high interest rates on their mortgages. When drought struck the Midwest in 1886, the combination of unwatered crops and high interest rates was disastrous for many farmers. By the mid 1880s, midwestern farmers had the highest per capita debt in the United States.
3. Growth of specialization in farm products
Although farmers were being introduced to new crops on a regular basis in the late 19th century, most farmers preferred to plant the crops that were "traditional" to their region. While most urban businessmen were diversifying their holdings, farmers continued to invest all of their capital in a single crop, thereby increasing their risk for complete loss.

4. Changing character of markets for agricultural goods
Prior to the Civil War, only a handful of American farmers sold their crops abroad. After the Civil War, however, international markets for U.S. agricultural goods expanded dramatically. In the years from 1860 to 1900, agricultural products comprised 75% of the United States' total export trade.

Few farmers, however, understood the complexities of commodities markets and foreign trade. Middlemen, especially railroad agents and owners, profited from the ignorance of the farmers. Thus, even as markets for farm products expanded, farmers saw less and less of that profit.

All of this forced farmers to become businessmen, but most remained ignorant of basic business practices. They had none of the power that had made other businessmen prosperous. Farmers had no control over the marketplace. Their prosperity depended on six factors, which they could not regulate:
* Business Cycles

* Credit

* Transportation

* Labor Supply

* Price Structure

* Government policies

In reaction to these problems, farmers began to take political action.

"Agrarian Myth"

This is the concept that the most significant person in American society is the yeoman farmer. This idea is closely allied with the Jeffersonian ideal of the farmer as the bedrock of American democracy. The gulf between this ideal and the reality of farming--falling income, loss of profits to the railroads--exasperated farmers. So they worked beyond this myth to form organizations that would improve their situation.

The Grange

The full name of the Grange was "The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry." The word "grange" comes from an archaic word for "granary," but in the context of American history it refers to an association of farmers founded in the United States in 1867. It worked to pass pro-farmer legislation and instituted the cooperative movement that allowed farmers to pool their capital in order make purchases of machinery, supplies, insurance, etc. more economical.

"At first most of the [Granges] were in Minnesota, the home of the founder, Oliver Kelley. During the 1870s, however, the movement spread rapidly, fed by agrarian desperation over hard times, high railroad shipping rates, and tight money. By 1875, the membership had passed 850,000. During these years, the Grangers placed growing emphasis on the extent to which farmers were being victimized by railroads, merchants, and banks. The Patrons of Husbandry stood at the head of a nationwide agrarian movement[...] that created hundreds of cooperatives, founded banks, pushed through legislation regulating railroads and grain elevators, and campaigned for political candidates.[...] Because of opposition from local businesses as well as the Grangers' own inexperience, few of their economic initiatives succeeded. Nevertheless, they set important precedents with their legislation, particularly those regulating railroads (as affirmed by the Supreme Court in Munn v. Illinois, 1877). More important, the Granger movement marked the beginning of an aggressive and self-conscious effort by the nation's farmers to define their problems in economic terms and to address those problems through economic and political action." Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, eds., The Reader's Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991) 464-65.

Munn vs. Illinois

Munn vs. Illinois was decided by the Supreme Court of the U.S. in 1877. In deciding the case, the court upheld the right of a state legislature to regulate railroad rates.

"Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite wrote the majority opinion. In it he stated that private property becomes subject to regulation by the government through its 'police powers' when the property is devoted to the public interest" Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, eds., The Reader's Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991) 759.

"Common carriers exercise a sort of public office, and have duties to perform in which the public is interested.... Their business is, therefore, 'affected with a public interest.'"-- (From the majority opinion of Chief Justice Waite.)
After this small victory, the Grange backed away from political activism. In addition, improved agricultural conditions in the Midwest caused membership to drop. The Grange was succeeded by three regional organizations in the 1880s.
1. Farmers and Laborers' Union of America was a regional association in the Southwest. By 1890 it had 3 million members.

2. Northwest Farmers' Alliance began in Chicago and spread throughout the Midwest. By 1890 it had 2 million members.

3. Colored Farmers National Alliance addressed needs of black farmers in the South and Midwest. By 1890 it had 1-1.5 million members.
These three groups held a convention in St. Louis, Missouri in 1889, but they could not overcome regional differences so no national organization emerged. In the elections of 1890, Southern farmers joined with local Democrats while midwestern farmers formed their own local parties, which became known as "People's Parties."
Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Kansas farmwoman, was one of the Populist orators who traveled throughout rural areas trying to whip up support for pro-farm candidates in the election of 1890.

Omaha Platform of 1892

In 1890 farmers elected 5 U.S. senators, 6 governors, and 46 congressmen. Encouraged by this, farmers again set their sights on a national coalition. The three major farmers' organizations held a convention in Omaha, Nebraska in 1892. They stated six principal demands:

1. A permanent union of all working classes

2. Wealth for the workers

3. Government ownership of railroads

4. Government ownership of all communications systems

5. More flexible and fair distribution of the national currency

6. No more ownership of land by those who do not actually use it

As it turned out, the Populists' secondary, less radical demands came into law within twenty years: a secret ballot, a graduated income tax, and direct election of senators.
Main critiques made by Populists:
* Too great an emphasis on property rights

* Decried the existence of the monopoly

* Denounced Social Darwinism & laissez-faire economics

* Industrial society had turned the individual into a commodity

  • Wealth was unevenly distributed

Populism and Presidential Elections

William Jennings Bryan was nominated both by the Democratic Party and by the Populists as a presidential candidate in 1896. At the 1896 Democratic national convention, he delivered the "Cross of Gold" speech in favor of unlimited coinage of silver and against the gold standard. He believed that government should protect individuals and the democratic process against monopolies. Bryan lost to the Republican candidate William McKinley, who ran on a platform of "prosperity for all." In 1900 Bryan ran again for president, hoping to make the election a referendum on imperialism, but lost to McKinley a second time. His final campaign for president was in 1908, when he lost to William Howard Taft.

Tom Watson was the Populists' candidate for president in 1904 and 1908. His candidacy demonstrates the dramatic decline of Populism, as Watson was vehemently anti-Semitic, anti-Black and anti-immigrant.
The American agricultural scene underwent massive transformations in the late 19th century. In response, farmers began a nationwide movement demanding a new kind of politics. More and more people began to view the federal government as a possible source of protection against the ravages of industrial society. Farmers were not the only Americans to sense the possible benefits of government activity, however. As conditions in cities worsened in the late 19th century, more and more city dwellers began to make similar calls for government action.

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