Lecture Notes From Summer Institutes



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SESSION I – Populism in America:

A. Approached the topic with the question: How did different groups of Americans—including farmers—cope with and react to the Industrial Revolution?

B. McGeer approached the topic by relating the story of Richard and Belle Garland and their four children. The Garland family symbolizes Populism.

1. Richard Garland was born in Massachusetts around 1840 (?) and moved to Wisconsin as a teenager. In the year 1861 he paid off his farm mortgage, and joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War—in part to protect and continue Populist ideals.

a. He fought to defend the Union and protect the right to own your own land.

b. Many Americans of the period believed in the desire and right to “be lord of your own soil,” and be an independent family both politically and economically.

c. Many Union soldiers fought to defend their way of life, their agricultural society, and agrarian ideologies.

2. In the year 1867 Richard and Belle moved the family from Wisconsin to Minnesota, and then in 1870 to Iowa.

3. In Iowa Richard and the Garland family began to recognize significant changes occurred in their lives.

a. He learned farming after the Civil War had much greater physical and economic vulnerability.

b. Richard worked to get the railroad to pass through his village in Iowa, but once it arrived, he and other farmers became dependent on it. The railroad was a monopoly and exercised great power → very high railroad rates.

c. In the year 1873 Richard moved his family into the town of Osage, Iowa and traveled from town to work his farm.



  • His children became more sophisticated from town life, and they expected and desired a lifestyle different from their father’s.

  • His family became more involved in consumerism, and the pursuit of material goods.

  • Richard joined the Grange Movement.

4. During the 1880s Richard moved his family to the Dakotas in search of the desire to “be lord of your own soil” and the traditional agricultural dream of America.

a. He purchased over 300 acres.

b. He and his family faced the same problems with railroads, severe farming conditions, weather, and falling profits.

c. Richard’s son, Hamlin Garland, at age 20 told his father he could not and would not pursue farming as a career, instead he moved to Chicago and became a writer.

d. In the year 1889 Richard Garland joined the Peoples’ or Populist political party.

e. In the year 1893, Hamlin visited his family in the Dakotas, and his father announced he was moving the family to Montana to buy 1,000 acres and plant it in wheat—again in pursuit of an agricultural myth or dream.



  • Hamlin refused to let his mother move yet again in pursuit of an impossible life. The family’s story in told in Hamlin Garland’s book, A Son of the Middle Border.

  • Richard did move to Montana to farm, but Belle moved with Hamlin to Chicago.

  • All of Richard’s children figured out that farming, such as his father pursued, held no future for them. Farming in the Midwest was risky and each child refused to follow his father’s lead.

  • In the year 1894 the family had Thanksgiving dinner at Chicago, but Hamlin, not Richard sat in the “father’s seat.”

  • It became clear Richard pursued a “fairy story” that could not be fulfilled to “be lord of his own soil.”

  • Hamlin bought a home for his mother Belle in a Wisconsin farming town, and at age 60 his father moved to the same town. Richard became a “respectable” American, living in a town and adopting American consumerism.

C. What does the story of Richard Garland convey about populism and its issues?

1. Farmers’ economic problems.

a. Richard and many farmers defeated themselves by adopting “agricultural progress” or better methods. He was too good at what he did → overproduction of agricultural products → decrease in farm prices/profits.

b. Demonstrates the nation did not need as many farmers as pursued it.

c. American farmers began to compete with an international market.

d. Vividly points out the clash between the traditional American farmer and its ideals with the movement to an economy based more on industrial production.

e. Demonstrates the farmers’ lack of control of railroads and their rates.

f. Populism and the Grange could not defend all its members—farmers—so many were forced off the land.

2. Farmers’ political realities.

a. Farmers desired to regulate or have government ownership and management of transportation systems and costs, but were unable to do so.

b. Farmers wanted to expand the money supply by coining silver coins and returning to “bimetallism.”


  • McGeer contends the idea was not “hayseed” and may have greatly assisted all Americans.

c. Populists wanted a “sub-treasury system” be established where farmers could take their grain for storage and receive currency in return for their crops—a type of subsidy.

  • McGeer stated most stock market crashes have occurred in American history during the fall because it is the time the harvest is taken in and sold; it destabilizes the market place.

d. Populists were portrayed as “wild-eyed fanatics” or “hayseeds,” and it helped people of the 1890s to dismiss them.

e. Populism failed not because their ideas were bad, but their ideas contradicted their desired policies. Regulation of railroads or the agricultural economy contradicted the idea to “be lord of his own soil.”

f. The Democratic and Republican Parties controlled politics and political money. Since the Populists were struggling farmers, the Peoples’ Party had little money to fund elections.


  • In the South there were acts of violence against Populists.

  • There were instances of fraudulent elections to undermine Populist votes.

3. Cultural aspects of Populism.

a. Farmers lost the battles within their own families; beginning in the decade of the 1870s up to today, many farm children decided they could not make a living from farming so they abandoned it. There was great disillusionment among farmers and their children. The decade of the 1890s saw a tremendous exodus from the land—no coincidence the Peoples’ Party was established then.



  • Many farm children seemed drawn to an American ideal different from that of their parents—town & city life and pursuit of consumerism.

b. Some farmers of the North actually tried to prepare their children for leaving the farm.

  • Some gave each child his or her own room to prepare them for a more individual and isolated lifestyle.

  • Many farmers gave their children a plot of land to raise vegetables on to teach them to use money and currency in preparation for city life.

  1. Remember the history of Populism is not just one of politics, economics, and American society; it is the story of individual people and families coping with a world that changed dramatically during their lifetimes.


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