FARMERS' ALLIANCE was an umbrella term for several grassroots farmers organizations active between 1877 and 1892, most prominently in the South and the Plains states. These groups sought to ameliorate debt, poverty, and low crop prices by educating and mobilizing rural men and women, engaging in cooperative economic organizing, and asserting their power in electoral politics.
Formation of the Alliances
The Alliance hadits roots in the severe depression of the 1870s. The so-called Southern Alliance was founded in 1877 in Lampasas County, Texas, as the Knights of Reliance. The so-called Northern Alliance hadits roots in New York in the same year; founder Milton George, an editor of farm publications, moved the group to Chicago in 1880. Both began quite small but over the 1880s absorbed other local groups such as the Louisiana Farmers' Union and the Agricultural Wheel in Arkansas. The continuing decline of world cotton prices and severe drought on the Plains prompted thousands to join, and by the late 1880s Alliance influence was widespread across the South and Plains. In some states, especially Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa, similar concerns were represented through the Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association. In 1886 black farmers created a Colored Farmers' National Alliance that cooperated with, but remained separate from, the white-run groups. By 1890 Alliance organizers reached the Pacific Coast, winning particular success in California. Loosely sympathetic agrarian groups, such as the Mexican American Gorras Blancas (White Caps) in New Mexico, arose simultaneously in other states. Some groups undertook vigilante protests, destroying, for example, the barbed-wire fences of large landholders that prevented small farmers from letting their hogs and cattle range free.
The Alliances as Social, Educational, and Economic Organizations
The Alliances' work was grounded in the activities of local sub alliances, where farmers met regularly to discuss their grievances and needs. Women were prominent in such groups, constituting as much as 50 percent of members in some parts of the Plains, and Alliance picnics and family socials were popular remedies for rural isolation and grinding labor. Alliance men and women wrote essays and debated such political issues as monetary policy and temperance. Alliances helped build a vibrant network of alternative newspapers that furthered the work of education and reform. Membership is difficult to determine, but at their peak in 1890 the various Alliances probably represented well over one million families. Combined membership in Kansas and Texas alone was 380,000 and the separate Colored Alliance counted 250,000.
Cooperative economic action was central to the Alliance vision. In Texas, Alliance leader Charles Macune organized the Texas Exchange, through which farmers bypassed middlemen and sold cotton directly to buyers in New England and Europe. The exchange lasted from 1887 to 1889 but failed for a lack of capital, caused by both the poverty of farmers and the hostility of banks to the cooperative venture. More successful was the jute boycott of 1889. Cotton farmers wrapped their bales in jute bagging and the monopolistic bagging manufacturer hiked prices 60 percent over two years. Outraged southern farmers created their own cotton bagging, temporarily forcing the jute cartel to reduce prices.
A Turn to Political Action
By 1890, however, many Alliancemen had concluded they must take action in electoral politics to achieve lasting change. At a convention in Ocala, Florida, in December 1890, movement leaders agreed on the "Ocala Platform," demanding a looser money supply, progressive income taxes on the wealthy, and other economic measures. In calling for "rigid" government oversight of railroads and public ownership if regulation failed to stem abuses, the Ocala demands echoed midwestern "Granger Laws" of the 1870s. Meanwhile, Kansas Alliancemen, guided by editor William A. Peffer, had joined with labor leaders in forming the Kansas People's Party, whose success in the dramatic campaign of 1890 electrified Alliance followers nationwide. The new party unseated Kansas's Republican U.S. senator, John J. Ingalls, who was hostile to Alliance goals, and replaced him with Peffer. Southern Alliancemen sought action simultaneously through the Democratic Party, telling legislators they would be judged by the "Alliance yardstick." But after legislators returned to southern state capitols, their campaign promises and flattery turned out to be largely empty and sentiment in the Southern Alliance shifted toward creation of a new party.
In February 1892 delegates from the various Alliances met in St. Louis with representatives of many labor and progressive reform groups, forming the national People's (or Populist) Party. Much of its platform echoed the Ocala Demands of 1890, set forth at a national Alliance conference in Ocala, Florida. Seeking reforms in "money, land, and transportation," Alliance leaders demanded government regulation or outright ownership of telegraphs and railroads; revocation of large land grants to railroads; various antitrust remedies; a federal progressive income tax; direct election of U.S. senators by the people; and an increased money supply to benefit borrowers rather than lenders. Some Alliance leaders, especially in the West, also called for women's suffrage. Alliance president Leonidas Polk, editor of North Carolina's Progressive Farmer, would have probably been the party's first presidential nominee had he not died suddenly a few weeks before the 1892 convention, dashing hopes for a farmer candidate with nationwide appeal.
The Alliance's success depended largely on political conditions in different regions. In states like Iowa and Illinois, which had already proved sympathetic to farmers' demands in passing Granger Laws in the 1870s, Democrats moved to meet farmers' demands and the People's Party never gained a foothold. In the South many Democrats resorted to violence and fraud to maintain power while playing on white racial prejudices to divide their opponents. The People's Party won its greatest victories and endured longest in Plains states such as Kansas and Nebraska, but even there it was forced to compromise with Democrats in order to retain power. The severe depression of the 1890s was a blow to both the Alliance and the new party and the Alliances had largely disappeared by 1900. Nonetheless, the political agenda of the agrarian movement endured. Southern and western farm states provided crucial support for much of the landmark reform legislation of the Progressive era, particularly in the areas of antitrust, railroad regulation, taxation, banking, credit, monetary policy, and protection of labor.
Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1931.
Jeffrey, Julie Roy. "Women in the Southern Farmers' Alliance: A Reconsideration of the Role and Status of Women in the Late Nineteenth-Century South." Feminist Studies 3 (1975): 72–91.
McMath, Robert C., Jr. Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers' Alliance. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
———. American Populism: A Social History, 1877–1898. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Ostler, Jeffrey. Prairie Populism: The Fate of Agrarian Radicalism in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, 1880–1892. Lawrence, Kans.: University of Kansas Press, 1993.
Sanders, Elizabeth. Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877–1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
See alsoCooperatives, Farmers'; Populism ; andvol. 9:Women in the Farmers' Alliance .
Brothers and Sisters
The time has arrived when we must have perfect harmony and unity of action throughout our entire order. If we hope for success in the demands of our just rights we must be true to our motto, "United we stand, divided we fall," for in unity lies great strength. Why are the farmers getting poorer every year? We work harder, are more economical than we have ever been.
A few years since[, ] money was plentiful, the demands for labor were great; now there is very little in circulation, laborers are more numerous, begging employment but the farmers are not able to hire them. What was once the common necessities of life are now high priced luxuries. Why is it that our produce when carried to market is priced by others? Why is taxation more burdensome than during the civil war? Have we less energy? Are we more effeminate? Are we less capable of managing our affairs? Are we truly the empty-headed class we are represented to be? Why have we not been respected as a class, as a great power in the land? Is it because we failed to organize at the proper time as all other classes and occupations and organizations have done? Or is it because we failed to pledge our means and sacred honor for the advancement of our just right? Is it not because we have placed all confidence in our representatives, thinking they had the interest of the whole country at heart? Have they not sold us to the bankers, the monopolies, the trusts, the rings, to all for filthy lucre's sake? A few years since it was considered an honor to be an American citizen but we as a people have fallen into corruption and there is none so poor as to honor us.
Our country is as productive as ever. There is more money in the treasury vaults in Washington than at any previous time, but 'tis not for the laboring class to handle. 'Tis for the benefit of railroad monopolies, national banks to loan to the people at usurious interest; 'tis also for public buildings which is of very little benefit to the people, 'tis squandered by congress in appropriations but none of it goes to lighten the burdens of those who live by the sweat of their brow. There was an appeal for aid sent to congress last year for the drought stricken sufferers. Did they receive aid? Some seed in the agricultural department was bestowed upon them; congress turned a deaf ear to the cries of suffering humanity and don't forget, it is the same democratic president and congress that wants your votes next November.
SOURCE: Mrs. Anna Gray, front-page essay in the Southern Mercury, 19 April 1888.