The Populists (1983 DBQ) In the late nineteenth century, Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in steel, John D. Rockefeller made his in oil, and other "captains of industry" (or" robber barons") also climbed to the top of the economic pyramid. Thanks to modernization, the middle class generally prospered, too despite the periodic shocks experienced by the economy overall.
Other groups, however, did not fare so well. Urban laborers, many of them recent immigrants, worked 12-hour days in factories that could only be described as grim. Both Black and White farmers in the South often had no choice but to become sharecroppers or tenant farmers, working harder and harder to grow cotton for an increasingly competitive world market. Wheat farmers in the -Trans-Mississippi West were in much the same position: the net result of their hard work was declining prices for their products.
Farmers still made up nearly half of America's work force, and they did not endure their hardships passively. First in the Granges (Patrons of Husbandry), then in Farmers' Alliances, and finally in their own political party, the People's (or Populist*) Party, farmers argued, organized, and campaigned to define and protect their interests. Together, they made up a part of what historian Samuel P Hays terrified" the response to industrialism." Like labor union organizers in the cities, they realized that big business had the upper hand, but that realization only spurred them on.
By 1896, the angry agrarians were powerful enough to get the Democratic Party to nominate their favorite candidate, William Jennings Bryan, and to adopt their favorite platform plank, "free silver." But they were not powerful enough to win t e election. Whether they should have carried the day - whether their complaints were valid, and their solutions reasonable - is what the student is asked to discuss in this essay.
AP US History Document Based Question Directions: The following question requires you to construct an essay that integrates your interpretation of Documents A-H and your knowledge of the period referred to in the question. In the essay you should strive to support your assertions both by citing key pieces of evidence from the documents and by drawing on your knowledge of the period.
1. Documents A-H reveal some of the problems that many farmers in the late nineteenth century (1880-1900) saw as threats to their way of life. Using the documents and your knowledge of the period, (a) explain the reasons for agrarian discontent and (b): evaluate the validity of the farmers' complaints.
Document A Source: The platform of the People's (Populist) party (1892)
The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and even touches the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized.... The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self- protection....
The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bondholders; - a vast public debt payable in legal-tender currency has been funded into gold bearing bonds, thereby adding millions to the burdens of the people.
Silver, which has been accepted as coin since the dawn of history, has been demonetized to add to the purchasing power of gold by decreasing the value of all forms of property as well as human labor, and the supply of currency is purposely abridged to fatten usurers, bankrupt enterprise and enslave industry. 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 convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.
Document B Source: Acceptance speech of William McKinley, Canton, Ohio (August 26, 1896)
It is proposed by one wing of the Democratic Party and its allies, the People's and Silver parties, to inaugurate action on the part of the United States at a ratio of 16 ounces of silver to one ounce of gold....
We must not be misled by phrases, nor deluded by false theories. Free silver would not mean that silver dollars were to be freely had without cost or labor ... It would not make labor easier, the
hours shorter, or the pay better. It would not make farming less laborious or more profitable .....
Debasement of the currency means destruction of values. No one suffers so much from cheap Money as the farmers and laborers. They are the first to feel its bad effects and the last to recover from them ....
It is mere pretense to attribute the hard times to the fact that all our currency is on a gold basis. Good money never made times hard....
Document C S ource: United States government data (1961)
Document D Source: The Farmer’s Voice, a Chicago newspaper [late 1880s, early 1890s]
Document E Source: J. Laurence Laughlin, 'Causes of Agricultural Unrest,' Atlantic Monthly (November, 1896)
Of course, the farmer who has overtraded, or expanded his operation beyond his means, in a time of commercial depression is affected just as anyone else is in like conditions.
The simple fact that we produce more wheat than we consume, and that, consequently, the price of the whole crop is determined, not by the markets within this country, but by the world-markets, is sufficient to put wheat, as regards its price, in a different class froth those articles whose markets are local.... And it need not be said that many wheat-growing farmers make little or no allowance for events beyond their limited range of local information....
The sudden enlargement of the supply without any corresponding increase of demand produced that alarming fall in the price of wheat which has been made the farmer's excuse for thinking that silver is the magic panacea-for all his ills....
Feeling the coils of some mysterious power about them, the farmers, in all honesty, have attributed their misfortunes to the 'constriction" in prices, caused, as they think, not by an increased production of wheat throughout the world, but by the "scarcity of gold."
Document F Source: James B. Weaver, A Call to Action, An Interpretation of the Great Uprising. Its Source and Causes (1892) “It is clear that trusts are contrary to public policy and hence in conflict with the Common law. They are monopolies organized to destroy competition and restrain trade.... Once they secure control of a given line of business, they are master of the situation and can dictate to the two great classes with which they deal-the producer of the raw material and the consumer of the finished product. They limit the price of the raw material so as to impoverish the producer, drive him to a single market, reduce the price of every class of labor connected with the trade, throw out of employment large numbers of persons who had before been engaged in a meritorious calling and finally... they increase the price to the consumer... The main weapons of the trust are threats, intimidation, bribery, fraud, wreck, and pillage.”
Document G Source: Testimony of George W. Parker, vice-president of the Cairo Short Line Railroad, before the Senate Cullom Committee (1885)
Mr. Parker. There is a decided distinction between local and through business. They are influenced by different considerations. Different rules and practices apply to them ....
About 33 1/3 percent of the operating expenses of this road is continuous, regardless of whether the road is earning much or little, and it therefore requires a certain volume of business to meet these fixed expenses. In most cases, and especially in some seasons of the year, the local business of the road of itself, is not of sufficient volume to make up paying trains, nor is it sufficient to make the earnings, over and above current expenses, sufficient to meet the fixed charges against the road. So that in order to run paying trains we generally, after we have built the road to accommodate the local territory, endeavor to get a connection for through business to be super-added to the local business. . Then when we make up a train of ten or fifteen cars of local freight to go over our line from Saint Louis, we can attach fifteen or twenty cars more of strictly through business. We can take the latter at a very low rate rather than go without it. We are justified in doing so, as one does no prejudice to the other...
The Chairman. Suppose you were to carry the freights that you gather along the line of your road for the same rate you carry through freight ... what would be the consequence?
Mr. Parker. Bankruptcy, inevitably and speedily.
Document H Source: Frank Norris, The Octopus (1901) For a moment Dyke was confused. Then swiftly the matter became clear in his mind. The Railroad had raised the rate on hops from two cents to five.
All his calculations as to a profit on his little investment he had based on a freight rate of two cents a pound. He was under contract to deliver his crop. He could not draw back. The new rate ate up every cent of his gains. He stood there ruined.
“Why, what do you mean?" he burst out. “You promised me a rate of two cents and I went ahead with my business with that understanding......”
“The rate is five cents.” declared the clerk doggedly.
"Well that ruins me," shouted Dyke. 'Do you understand, I won’t make fifty cents. Make? Why, will owe -I'll be--be-That ruins me, do you understand?"
The other raised a shoulder.
"We don't force you to ship. You can do as you like. The rate is five cents.”
“Well-but- ….You told me-you promised me a two-cent rate.”
…. Dyke stared in blank astonishment…..
". . . Look here. What's your basis of applying freight rates, anyhow?” he suddenly vociferated with furious sarcasm.....
S. Behnnan emphasized each word of his reply with a tap of one forefinger on the counter before him.
Notes for Teachers: This DBQ, the second in the new format, does not link its documents as intricately as the 1982 DBQ on John Brown did. Indeed, it is possible to imagine a student answering the question without reference to the eight documents at all. However, the documents do provide triggers for the students' memories and grist for their arguments. And there is enough evidence on both sides of the question to make it clear that students must take counter-arguments into account to answer effectively.
Students should be able to generalize about a couple of reasons for agrarian discontent, particularly high railroad rates and falling crop prices, and relate the latter to the money question. Effective use of outside evidence is critical to answering this question successfully. Students who establish a clear and comprehensive context early in the essay, then continue to supply specifics and make distinctions as their arguments develop, will do far better than those who simply run through the documents one by one.
Document A (the 1892 Populist Party platform) should stimulate students to establish a context for their answer. With its emphatic litany of complaints, it should remind students of all the political, economic, and social problems of the Gilded Age, which they might then summarize while introducing their arguments. They might well also mention, as outside information, what the Populists'1892 platform proposed to do, and that their presidential nominee, James B. Weaver (who shows up again in Document F) gathered about eight percent of the vote while running against Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican Benjamin Harrison.
Students who are familiar with Richard Hofstadter's Age of Reform will seize upon the phrase about the "vast conspiracy against mankind" as proof of the Populists' irrationality, and they may even mention Hofstadter's other indictments of the Populists, such as their anti- Semitism and sentimental recourse to the "agrarian myth '"Other students who note this phrase will be able to claim that this kind of overheated rhetoric was par for the course in this period and discount any argument that it was symptomatic of agrarian paranoia.
William McKinley, speaking as presidential nominee in 1896 (Document B), brings economics to the fore, and students should be prepared to come to grips with his argument that "no one suffers so much from cheap money as the farmers and laborers." Students usually have a fairly easy time understanding why inflation hurts laborers on a fixed wage; McKinley's argument as applied to farmers is more complicated, requiring students to think about the fact that not all farmers were debtors (which explains why Iowa and Illinois, for instance, went along with McKinley in 1896) and that prices of various goods and services may rise at different rates.
The money question is introduced again in Document C. If particularly well prepared, students will be able to talk about the Crime of 1873, the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 (and its repeal in 1893). Even if they do not grapple with these specifics, they can discuss the significance of the fact that between 1965 and 1895 the population rose faster than the money supply, and that this would seem to suggest the likelihood of deflation.
Document D (the cartoon showing "The Eastern Master and His Western Slaves") is tricky in the same way that Document H (the excerpt from Frank Norris' novel The Octopus) is tricky: neither of them can be used to prove that farmers were exploited, but they can be used to prove that at least some people thought they were exploited. (Notice that Document H is set up so that the student who notes The Octopus was a novel can get credit for providing outside information.) Document D can be discussed in the same breath with Document A, and also in connection with the economic grievances that mortgage bearing farmers, particularly wheat farmers, were nursing.
Document E, with its tone of calm rationality, tends to carry a lot of weight with students, although some will note that the Atlantic Monthly was not exactly the eastern edition of The Farmer's Voice, but rather a conservative, "establishment" publication. Such students will also be impressed with Weaver's presentation in Document F, and may well connect his perceptions to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
Document G, the testimony of a railroad vice president given on the eve of passage of the Interstate. Commerce Act (I 887), makes a-case for freight rates, being higher for short hauls than for long ones. It is suggestive at best (historian Albro Martin makes the argument more thoroughly and effectively in Railroads Triumphant. This document provides some counterpoint to the easily understood drama of Document H - but, again, as a piece of fiction, the latter depicts the case against the railroads, but does not prove it.
In summary then, a student organizing an may by considering farmers' grievances against the railroads and fielding the money question could: first, establish a context by referring to Document A (and perhaps F), then examine Documents B, C, D, and E regarding gold and silver; next, look at G and H regarding railroads; and finally, come to a conclusion. In our experience, most students end u siding with the farmers, but a sizeable minority goes against them. A student good at making distinctions might even suggest that farmers' complaints were justified in one arena but not the other. But the key to an effective answer, no matter what the final decision, is establishing a clear historical context for the late nineteenth century and demonstrating a reasonable understanding of basic economic concepts.