Monday, February 2, 2009

USH9: The Farmers Revolt

The downside of 'The Gilded Age' (see my last post) was that millions of people worked themselves incredibly hard, and sometimes to death, to build the empires of these 'Captains of Industry'. There were strikes throughout the period of the Civil War (see my post of 1/21) and after, but by the 1880s the workers, and farmers who produced the food and cotton, began to organize themselves.

In 1886, one of the leading worker's groups, the Knights of Labor, supported a strike demanding that the work day be cut down to eight hours. Three hundred and fifty thousand workers across the country went on strike. On May 3rd, in Chicago strikers and strikebreakers fought at the McCormick Company and the police fired on the strikers killing several and wounding many more. The International Working People's Association (an anarchist group) called a rally for the next day in Haymarket Square. Several thousand people showed up. So did the police. As the rally was ending a bomb was thrown into the midst of the police. Seven policemen died. The police fired into the crowd, killing more people. Without any evidence other than their literature, anarchist leaders were arrested and several of them hanged. This led to an international wave of protests--in England, France, Holland, Italy, Spain, and Russia. Eventually three remaining anarchists were pardoned and released.

In the south and west, farmers were being squeezed by the general economic conditions of the country (the policies that were enriching the bankers were empoverishing them) and a system of borrowing that put them further and further in debt--to the point they were losing their lands and becoming virtual slaves to the merchants.

In Texas in 1877, a group began that was eventually called the Farmers' Alliance. It grew slowly at first and faltered along the way but with some charismatic organizers leading the way it mushroomed in the 1880s--from a membership of 10,000 in 1884 to 50,000 members by the end of 1885. Lawrence Goodwyn, who documented the story of this movement, attributes the growth to a combination of a mass education program (including traveling lecturers), building cooperatives to develop collective buying power, and the fostering of what Goodwyn calls "individual self-respect and collective self-confidence".

The Knights of Labor, who had forced robber baron Jay Gould to acknowledge them (see my post of 1/21 for more on Jay Gould), called a strike against his railroad in 1886 for firing a union spokesman unjustly. Although the Farmer's Alliance leadership did not want to get involved, one of the organizers put out a call to support the Knights of Labor and the membership, who could see that the Knights battle was similar to their own, began supporting the strike over the protests of the leadership. (The Knights eventually lost the strike and along with fallout from the Haymarket incident that same year--see above--began losing membership.)

By the summer of 1886, the Farmers' Alliance had grown to 100,000 members. At their statewide convention in Cleburne, radicals in the group made a list of seventeen 'Demands' that eventually the majority of delegates supported. One of these 'Demands' suggested a national conference of all labor related organizations "to discuss such measures as may be of interest to the laboring classes." The farmers had become activists.

In 1887, the Farmers' Alliance merged with the Louisiana Farmers Union and formed the National Farmers Alliance and Cooperative Union. They sent lecturers to just about every southern state, plus Kansas, and the movement exploded. One observer claimed that the Alliance "swept across Mississippi like a cyclone".

Unfortunately, as the Alliance grew, bankers and businesses began to notice. The cooperatives that they formed were not taken lightly by those who sought to make money from the farmers. In Alabama, a town (pushed by merchants and bankers) levied a tax on a newly built Alliance cooperative warehouse. The farmers then moved their warehouse outside the city limits. When the town council tried to make them pay for transport of cotton in and out of the town it led to a gunfight where two men were killed. Alabama Alliance members began considering starting a cooperative bank. As the Alliance built bigger and better coops, they found that the banks wouldn't give them credit and the farmers were too poor to raise it themselves. Eventually the Texas Exchange, a key part of building a cooperative system, failed. The cooperative system couldn't succeed when the people with the economic power went against them. (However, there were some cooperative successes as well. When the merchants who sold the farmers jute bags to put their cotton in raised their prices to almost double, Alliance members began a boycott of the bags--and began making their own bags out of cotton--that eventually collapsed the jute market. The jute merchants ended up lowering their prices to below what they had originally sold the bags for, just to be able to sell jute bags again.)

Rather than becoming demoralized and collapsing, however, the farmers were educating themselves as to who the culprits were and who could be on their side. An idea was hatched to pursuade the government to create a 'sub-treasury' system that would give provide the farmers with financial resources. They began reaching out to workers, contacting what was left of the Knights of Labor, sending lecturers now to states from California, Oregon, and Washington, to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

By 1890, having given up on the current political parties, organizers formed a People's Party. The farmers had become 'Populists'. They ran in elections across the country and sometimes won--but they were again against vested interests (and ingrained prejudices) and often very dirty tricks. Some elections were 'won' by their opponents who were elected by dead voters as well as those who had long ago moved out of the county or the state. Racism in the South was often used to split apart white and black voters. Still, the Populists were often able to create racial unity at a time when it was otherwise unthinkable. The Populists ran James Weaver for president in 1892 and got over a million votes--but he still came in third.

Unfortunately, what happened was that many of the Populist candidates and 'leaders' began focusing on winning elections and downplayed (or forgot or even repudiated) many of the ideals that the Farmers Alliance had stood for. The rank and file (at least in places like Texas and Kansas where there had been good education) still understood what the movement was all about and was often more radical than those who were supposed to be leading them. The man they wanted for president in 1896 was Eugene Debs.

But the 'leadership' of the Populists--as well as Populists from the West and Northeast--decided they wanted to join forces with the Democrats candidate, William Jennings Bryan, and managed to nominate him at their convention. Although Bryan's 'Cross of Gold' speech (which claimed that America could exist without cities but not without farms) seemed to push silver as an answer to the farmers' problems, his candidacy was actually being subsidized by silver (and copper) industrialists. When he lost to Republican William McKinley, it all but destroyed the Populist movement.

The story is a lot more complex and it is worth reading Lawrence Goodwyn's book, The Populist Moment for a much more detailed analysis of where the Farmer's Alliance succeeded and why the Populists failed. The book also holds Goodwyn's useful theories about movements in general, and I will return to his ideas at some point in the future.

(The Quote of the Day is from the Populists' 1892 convention.)

Quote of the Day: "We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box... The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few. ... From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two classes--paupers and millionaires..." - Ignatius Donnelly

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment
Wikipedia, various articles (especially the ones on the Farmers' Alliance and the Populist Party)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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