AGRICULTURAL DISCONTENT & THE POPULIST MOVEMENT
The Populist movement began in the late 19th century, and its roots lay in the discontent of farmers. As settlers moved from farms in the East with their lush, green settings, where neighbors were within hailing distance of each other, out onto the Great Plains, they had to make substantial changes. They had to learn new kinds of farming, as annual rainfall was much lower than in the East. The soil was often hard and unyielding, and they had to learn what was known as “dry farming.” Because they needed to grow crops such as wheat and corn in large quantities, the size of farms was larger than the East, and the distances between farms was substantial.
Farming life on the Great Plains was thus a lonely existence. Women in particular, sometimes isolated from all but their family for weeks at a time, often suffered from depression brought on by the lack of human contact. It was said on the Great Plains, where the wind blows freely and often unceasingly, that women were often driven mad by the wind. (In the musical play Paint Your Wagon, about homesteading in the West, there is a song “They Call the Wind Mariah.” One line goes, “Mariah makes the mountains sound like folks was up there dyin’.”) Men, of course, were not immune to the challenges of frontier life, and strong women often carried on when husbands or fathers were defeated by the harsh environment. (Willa Cather’s well-known novel, O Pioneers, (1913) movingly depicts frontier life in Nebraska.)
To combat their isolation farmers began to organize into social groups. They would go into the towns on Saturday night and enjoy hot meals, music, dancing and conversation. That conversation often turned to sharing their troubles, such as being beholden to railroads for transporting their goods and renting out the silos and storage facilities where grain was loaded before being shipped. Farmers were chronically in debt—they had to invest in supplies, machinery and labor before their crops were harvested and sold, and thus often had to borrow money to stay in operation. Farmers were therefore economically hampered by the interest rates they had to pay on loans. Many were deeply indebted to mortgage companies.
To make their troubles worse, as farmers got better and better at their jobs, with more efficient farming methods and equipment, they drastically increased the supply of agricultural goods they were producing, including grains, livestock, and other commodities. Furthermore, with increased, faster transportation both on land and on sea, they began to face competition from other parts of the world. Argentinean beef farmers, for example, competed with American beef producers. The increased supply of farm products drove prices ever lower, to the point where farmers found themselves trapped between rising costs and falling prices.
As was discussed above in the section on currency, an additional hardship came from the fact that the tightness of currency tended to cause prices of farms products to remain stable or even decline. (It is a myth is that inflation hurts everybody; people who have fixed debt find that inflation, which brings rising prices, helps them pay off their loans faster.) The actual amount of money in circulation per capita was decreasing during this period. Conservative money interests wanted to retain the gold standard and limit the supply of silver currency, while soft-money advocates wanted not only more silver coins but even greenbacks—paper money with no specie backing—to be circulated.
All these factors, along with discriminatory railroad rates, unfavorable marketing arrangements, and high protective tariffs, were the constant subject of conversations among farmers. High tariffs raised in particular the costs of farm equipment needed by farmers. Their discontent led to the creation of the Granger movement, the “Patrons of Husbandry,” a secret organization designed to promote the interests of farmers. Having begun as a social movement to counter the lonely, hard life of the farmer and his family, the Grangers soon turned to political action. Part of their activities were of the self-help variety. They shared information on farming through education, used cooperative ventures to purchase silos and machinery, and brought pressure on groups they saw as their oppressors, namely railroads and banks. But they sought political solutions as well.
The Grangers were aided by others who faced many of the same problems, such as small businessmen and merchants. They began to sponsor legislation and got laws passed at the local and state level in the 1870s and 80s. Eventually, around 1890 these somewhat diverse groups congealed into a national political party, the People’s Party or Populists. Recognizing that they needed help from the federal government, which had the constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, they entered big-time politics.
The Populists were not outright Socialists, but many of their goals resembled those of the European socialist parties which were flourishing at the same time. The Populists’ goals included more equitable distribution of wealth, and a humanistic social system. The Populists had what was referred to as a “millennial outlook”—a Utopian view of the future—and they were often strongly religious people. Populist reformers wanted to be “governed by good men.”
Many conservative interests saw the Populists as a threat to the basic economic system of the United States, but the free market economy had always worked against the farmer. If the free market functions on the laws of supply and demand, and supply vastly outstrips demand, the results are likely to be disastrous for the suppliers; in fact, that condition has been the lot of American farmers for much of our modern history. (In 1922 the price of a loaf of bread compared with other commodities was the lowest it had been in 500 years.)
The Populists were an enthusiastic lot, and it was said that the atmosphere of Populism was like that of a revival meeting, probably including many shouts of “Hallelujah” and “Amen!”
To get a firm picture of the Populists’ goals and attitudes, read the Populist Party Platform of 1892. (Appendix) In that year they fielded a presidential candidate James B. Weaver, a former Republican, who earned over one million popular votes, almost 10 percent of the total, and 22 electoral votes, one of the most successful third-party efforts in American political history to date.
Despite their successes, however, the Populists had trouble building a national party. They were perhaps too radical for the time, and many of their ideas seemed somewhat akin to the Communist and Socialist parties of Europe. Ultimately the Populist Party failed to survive. They did well in 1892, but they lacked the money, organization and candidates to follow through in 1894. In that year their total vote was up 50%, but they made few electoral gains. Fusion with the Democratic Party seemed to be the only answer, but many Populists didn’t agree with that approach. In 1896 however they endorsed the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan for president, and thus virtually gave up their party identity. (Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech gives considerable insight into why the Populists found him so appealing.)
In the end, however, the Populist movement succeeded. If you examine carefully the specific goals of the Populist platform of 1892, and survey the results of the Progressive Era 1900-1916, you will notice that almost every one of the Populist goals was addressed. In some cases they did not get everything they wanted—no political party ever does. Still, the Populists changed the landscape of America. The enduring message of the Populist Party is that third parties are important for the country.
In the early 21st Century there are no viable third parties in United States; although the Libertarian and Green Parties generally manage to field candidates for president, they seldom achieve significant vote totals and thus rarely have an impact on election outcomes. The two major parties are divided roughly evenly as recent elections have shown. Much of the present political rancor comes from dissatisfied citizens over specific issues; there is, however, no third party through which people can vent their grievances.
Summary: By the 1890s the nation is approaching a state of crisis. With increases in industrialization, the workplace is becoming ever more dangerous, and businesses refuse to accept responsibility for injuries to workers. As farmers become more efficient in producing crops, supplies tend to outstrip demand regularly, thus depressing prices. From time to time farm production is severely impeded by droughts, storms, infestations of locusts and other parasites, and it becomes increasingly challenging for farmers to make economic progress. In the mid-1890s a serious depression makes things worse, and the Populist rebellion grows in strength. Historian H. W. Brands characterized the 1890s as The Reckless Decade in his book with that title.
The Gilded Age was a time of enormous progress for the country. Production expanded in unimaginable proportions, living standards rose dramatically as thousands of white collar, middle-management jobs were created. Great fortunes were amassed, millions of immigrants found hope on America’s shores. Furthermore, technology began to supplant human muscle power with machine power, with huge increases in productivity. But all that progress had a price. As reformer Henry George pointed out, the side by side existence of massive progress with appalling poverty is the great paradox of the age. Labor was nearly crushed, and a massive workers’ rebellion might have occurred with no-one-knows-what results. Reform was essential, and it came in the form of the Progressive Movement.
(Source: Sage American History by Henry J Sage, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.sageamericanhistory.net.