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Agrarian Distress and the Rise of Populism
In spite of their remarkable progress, late-19th century
American farmers experienced recurring periods of hardship.
Mechanical improvements greatly increased yield per hectare.
The amount of land under cultivation grew rapidly throughout the
second half of the century, as the railroads and the gradual
displacement of the Plains Indians opened up new areas for
western settlement. A similar expansion of agricultural lands in
countries such as Canada, Argentina, and Australia compounded
these problems in the international market, where much of U.S.
agricultural production was now sold. Everywhere, heavy
supply pushed the price of agricultural commodities downward.
Midwestern farmers were increasingly restive over what they
considered excessive railroad freight rates to move their goods
to market. They believed that the protective tariff, a
subsidy to big business, drove up the price of their
increasingly expensive equipment. Squeezed by low market prices
and high costs, they resented ever-heavier debt loads and the
banks that held their mortgages. Even the weather was
hostile. During the late 1880s droughts devastated the
western Great Plains and bankrupted thousands of settlers.
In the South, the end of slavery brought major changes.
Much agricultural land was now worked by sharecroppers, tenants
who gave up to half of their crop to a landowner for rent, seed,
and essential supplies. An estimated 80 percent of the South's
African-American farmers and 40 percent of its white ones lived
under this debilitating system. Most were locked in
a cycle of debt, from which the only hope of escape was
increased planting. This led to the over-production of cotton
and tobacco, and thus to declining prices and the further
exhaustion of the soil.
The first organized effort to address general agricultural
problems was by the Patrons of Husbandry, a farmer's group
popularly known as the Grange movement. Launched in 1867 by
employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Granges
focused initially on social activities to counter the isolation
most farm families encountered. Women's participation was
actively encouraged. Spurred by the Panic of 1873, the Grange
soon grew to 20,000 chapters and one-and-a-half million members.
The Granges set up their own marketing systems, stores,
processing plants, factories, and cooperatives, but most
ultimately failed. The movement also enjoyed some
political success. During the 1870s, a few states passed
"Granger laws," limiting railroad and warehouse fees.
By 1880 the Grange was in decline and being replaced by the
Farmers' Alliances, which were similar in many respects but more
overtly political. By 1890 the alliances, initially
autonomous state organizations, had about 1.5 million members
from New York to California. A parallel African-American
group, the Colored Farmers National Alliance, claimed over a
million members. Federating into two large Northern and
Southern blocs, the alliances promoted elaborate economic
programs to "unite the farmers of America for their protection
against class legislation and the encroachments of concentrated
By 1890 the level of agrarian distress, fueled by years of
hardship and hostility toward the McKinley tariff, was at an
all-time high. Working with sympathetic Democrats in the South
or small third parties in the West, the Farmers' Alliances made
a push for political power. A third political party, the
People's (or Populist) Party, emerged. Never before in American
politics had there been anything like the Populist fervor that
swept the prairies and cotton lands. The elections of 1890
brought the new party into power in a dozen Southern and Western
states, and sent a score of Populist senators and
representatives to Congress.
The first Populist convention was in 1892. Delegates
from farm, labor, and reform organizations met in Omaha,
Nebraska, determined to overturn a U.S. political system they
viewed as hopelessly corrupted by the industrial and financial
trusts. Their platform stated:
We are met, in the midst of a nation
brought to the verge of moral,
political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the
legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the
[courts]. ... From the same prolific womb of governmental
injustice we breed the two great classes – tramps and
The pragmatic portion of their platform
called for the nationalization of the railroads; a low tariff;
loans secured by non-perishable crops stored in government-owned
warehouses; and, most explosively, currency inflation through
Treasury purchase and the unlimited coinage of silver at the
"traditional" ratio of 16 ounces of silver to one ounce of gold.
The Populists showed impressive strength in the West and
South, and their candidate for president polled more than a
million votes. But the currency question soon overshadowed all
other issues. Agrarian spokesmen, convinced that their troubles
stemmed from a shortage of money in circulation, argued that
increasing the volume of money would indirectly raise prices for
farm products and drive up industrial wages, thus allowing debts
to be paid with inflated currency. Conservative groups and the
financial classes, on the other hand, responded that the 16:1
price ratio was nearly twice the market price for silver.
A policy of unlimited purchase would denude the U.S. Treasury of
all its gold holdings, sharply devalue the dollar, and destroy
the purchasing power of the working and middle classes.
Only the gold standard, they said, offered stability.
The financial panic of 1893 heightened the tension of this
debate. Bank failures abounded in the South and Midwest;
unemployment soared and crop prices fell badly. The crisis and
President Grover Cleveland's defense of the gold standard
sharply divided the Democratic Party. Democrats who were silver
supporters went over to the Populists as the presidential
elections of 1896 neared.
The Democratic convention that year was swayed by one of the
most famous speeches in U.S. political history. Pleading with
the convention not to "crucify mankind on a cross of gold,"
William Jennings Bryan, the young Nebraskan champion of silver,
won the Democrats' presidential nomination. The Populists also
In the epic contest that followed, Bryan carried almost all
the Southern and Western states. But he lost the more
populated, industrial North and East – and the election – to
Republican candidate William McKinley.
The following year the country's finances began to improve, in part owing to the discovery of gold in Alaska and the Yukon. This provided a basis for a conservative expansion of the money supply. In 1898 the Spanish-American War drew the nation's attention further from Populist issues. Populism and the silver issue were dead. Many of the movement's other reform ideas, however, lived on.
Click here to print. Answer Key: (1) Heavy supply from overproduction; (2) Excessive railroad freight rates to move their goods to market; protectve tariff drove up the price of farm equipment; heavy debt loads; droughts caused by hostile weather; (3) Tenant farmers who give up to half of their crop to a landowner for rent, seed, and essential supplies; (4) Over-production by tenant farmers who hoped that increased planting would get them out of debt; (5) Patrons of Husbandry, the first organized effort to address general agricultural problems; launched in 1867 by members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; (6) Farmers' Alliances; (7) B - False; (8) D - Subsidization of crops through a government program of paying farmers to leave parts of their land fallow; (9) B - False; (10) C - William Jennings Bryan; (11) William McKinley.
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Text courtesy of the U.S. State Department, Bureau of International Information Programs, 2005