Farmers' Protest Movements, 1870–1900 (Issue)
FARMERS' PROTEST MOVEMENTS, 1870–1900 (ISSUE)
After the American Civil War (1861–1865) agricultural prices began a long decline that lasted for a generation. Between 1870 and 1897 wheat fell from $106 per bushel to $63; corn fell from $43 to $29; and cotton fell from 15 cents a pound to five cents. At the same time farmers' costs of operation remained constant or increased. These costs included freight rates, interest on loans, and the cost of machinery and other needed commodities.
The cause of the farmers' troubles was overproduction occasioned by the expansion of the agricultural domain—it doubled during the same period—coupled with more efficient methods. Increased production overseas also contributed. However, U.S. farmers did not recognize the complexities of the matter. They believed they were the victims of a conspiracy generated by the railroad companies, the bankers, the grain elevator operators, and conservative politicians who favored a money system based on the gold standard. The latter was an outgrowth of the specie theory of money which held that precious metals must stand behind the circulating medium (money) to give it value. This system tended to keep money scarce and prices low. The farmers and their political leaders, on the other hand, adhered to the quantity theory of money which held that the amount of currency in circulation should be flexible (based on production) in order to meet the needs of all producers and debtors as well as creditors. A system based on this theory would tend to enlarge the money supply and make credit more easily available. It would also tend to drive prices up.
Farmers sought redress of their grievances through organization. There were three major efforts: the Grange, the Farmers' Alliance, and the Populist Party. Each had a platform consisting of several demands, but two demands received more emphasis than others: government regulation of the railroads and currency and banking reform.
The first farmers' organization of the post-war period was the National Grange of Patrons of Husbandry, better known as the Grange. Founded in 1867 by Oliver H. Kelley, it was established as a social club that allowed farmers and their families to improve their lives through mutual aid. By 1875 the Grange claimed a membership of 800,000, mostly in the Midwest and South. By this time also, the organization had shifted its focus from social to political and financial matters and had become a lobby. The Grangers advocated railroad regulation by the states and they wanted the federal government to leave in circulation large amounts of paper money that had been issued during the Civil War.
On the latter issue, the Grange and other groups that wanted to inflate the currency had no success because the government brought paper money to a par with gold in 1875 through the Specie Resumption Act. However, their efforts aimed at railroad regulation were more promising. Beginning in 1871, several states led by Illinois passed laws controlling railroad freight rates and grain elevator charges. The railroads fought these measures, which they called "Granger Laws," in federal court, where they were ruled unconstitutional. Though the Granger Laws were declared unconstitutional, they marked the beginning of a new era in which government would assume more responsibility for regulating the actions of common carriers and their associated businesses.
In addition to their political ventures the Grangers went into business. They set up cooperative creameries, elevators, and warehouses; they also organized insurance companies and attempted the manufacture and sale of farm machinery. Eventually, most of these ventures failed because of intense competition or mismanagement. By the late 1870s the Grange was declining; its business activities disappeared and it ceased to be an aggressive political and financial lobby. Nevertheless, Grange social activities continued and it remains in existence.
The Grange was replaced at the forefront of the agrarian revolt by the Farmers' Alliance. Between the mid 1870s and 1880 two Alliances emerged: the Northwestern, or Northern Alliance, and the Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union, better known as the Southern Alliance.
The Northern Alliance was founded in Illinois in 1880, and soon spread to other Midwestern states, especially Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa. By 1882 the Alliance claimed to have 100,000 members. After that it declined for a while, but hard times in the late 1880s spurred further growth. By 1890 the Northern Alliance had become a force to be reckoned with.
The Southern Alliance began in Texas in 1875. Originally a cattlemen's association in Lampasas County, it soon grew into a statewide organization with both a social and political agenda. By 1886 it seemed on the verge of dissolution because of disagreements about whether or not to enter into politics, but then Charles William Macune became president. His leadership not only averted the split, but launched the Alliance on a course of expansion. By the end of 1887 the Alliance had spread to every southern state. It appealed to farmers because it was portrayed as a cooperative business venture. With cotton prices collapsing this idea seemed to offer a ray of hope.
By the end of the 1880s both national Alliances had identical platforms. They called for government regulation or ownership of the railroads, currency reform, abolition of the national banks, and abolition of alien land ownership. As their goals were similar there was talk of union, but it never occurred. This was because of the race issue—the Northern Alliance allowed black farmers to join—and because the Southern Alliance was larger. Northern leaders feared they would lose their positions in a combined Alliance.
Like the Grange, the Alliances had a social program designed to improve the lives of farmers and their families. It consisted of meetings, picnics, debates, musical performances, and the like. There was an educational program carried on through lectures and publications, and the Alliances also entered business, usually by forming cooperatives to buy and sell products and insurance. These efforts were temporarily successful but eventually most of them failed.
More important was the Alliances' entry into politics. They wanted reforms and pursued them by attempting to influence politicians in the major parties to adopt their platforms. In 1890 numerous Alliance men were elected to office in states like Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, South Carolina, and Georgia. However, there were not enough of them to achieve all their goals and this led many to consider the creation of a national third party.
The Peoples' party—better known as the Populist party—was born at a meeting in St. Louis in 1891. It held its first national convention in Omaha the following year and nominated James B. Weaver of Iowa for president. The party platform reflected the demands of the Farmers' Alliances but there was a major change in the money plank. It now called for the remonetization of silver in order to expand the money supply. Silver had been demonetized in 1873, restored in 1878, and demonetized again in 1893. Demonetization means that silver was dropped as a basis for the value of currency.
In the election of 1892 Weaver polled nearly a million votes, mostly in the Midwest. During the next four years the party flourished. It elected numerous members to state legislatures and several governors. Free and unlimited coinage of silver at 16 to one became the party's battle cry. This meant the Populists wanted the United States' Treasury to buy all the silver produced by U.S mines, peg its value at 1/16th that of gold, and mint as much silver coinage as possible. They believed that this formula would create a financial system that would meet their needs by producing a controlled inflation.
In 1896 the Democrats, led by William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) of Nebraska, adopted the Populist platform for the presidential campaign. The Republicans, led by William McKinley (1843–1901), supported the gold standard. McKinley won and after his victory farm prices began to improve. This was because new discoveries of gold increased the supply and because the Treasury put more banknotes into circulation. The Populist party collapsed and the farmers' revolt was over.
The early years of the twentieth century and the years of World War I (1914–18) were fairly prosperous for U.S. farmers but the twenties were not. Once again overproduction and falling prices combined to wreak havoc in the agrarian community, but this did not lead to the rise of national protest movements like the ones in the late nineteenth century.
During the Great Depression (1929–39) conditions worsened and before President Roosevelt's (1933–45) New Deal there were some efforts to organize. The best known of these was the Farm Holiday Association (FHA) in Iowa in early 1933. Led by Milo Reno, the FHA wanted to persuade farmers to withhold their produce from the market until prices went up. In some cases there were efforts to force farmers to comply, and in March 1933, the FHA threatened a nationwide farmers strike. They also sought to intimidate sheriffs and judges from exercising foreclosure sales. When President Roosevelt made it clear that he intended to assist farmers as soon and as much as possible, the movement quickly declined.
See also: Farmers' Alliance, National Grange
Buck, Solon J. The Granger Movement: A Study of Agricultural Organization and its Political Economic and Social Manifestations. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1913.
Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmer's Alliance and the People's Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955.
McMath, Robert C. Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers Alliance. New York: Norton, 1975.
u.s. farmers . . . believed they were the victims of a conspiracy generated by the railroad companies, the bankers, the grain elevator operators, and conservative politicians who favored a money system based on the gold standard.