Part I: “Not a Revolt, A Revolution”

1886-1889: From Cleburne to St. Louis, the Rise of the Farmer’s Alliance

The farmer is the man, the farmer is the man
Lives on credit ‘till the fall
Then they take him by the hand and they lead him from the land
And the merchant is the man who gets it all

From the traditional American folk song: “The Farmer is the Man

In 1886, the fast-swelling ranks of the Farmer’s Alliance held their first formal convention in Cleburne, Texas. From it emerged a bold declaration of agrarian rights. Stated in clear terms, the “Cleburne Demands” forged a platform planked of cooperative economic exchange, government regulation of banking / industry and a flexible national currency. In spirit, the “Demands” were an angry indictment of the political / economic machines that controlled, with an iron grip, the agricultural (and industrial labor) system in post Civil War America. Across the South, that anger had been set to a boil. A “New South” was said to have emerged in the wake of Reconstruction (roughly 1866-1876). Yet in his classic treatise, Origins of the New South, C. Vann Woodward writes, “the prophets of the New Order were hard put to explain where the farmers [fit in] . . . and why it was that as the cities rose the country seemed to decline.” On the farms, many viewed this New South as the “industrialization of agriculture.” Profit, not community, seemed the single motivating factor and many wondered if slavery had simply been replaced by absentee-landlords, tenant-farming and sharecropping—all of which worked to enslave across race lines. Woodward summarizes the Southern farmer’s plight as “a state of hopeless peonage.” In his 1992 work, The Promise of the New South, Ed Ayers documents: “Farmers felt abused by both the major parties and exploited by every level of business from national corporations to local storekeepers.” This future seemed to promise only penury and serfdom for all the small farmers of America. It was time to demand changes . . . At Cleburne the Populist movement received not only written doctrine, but its marching orders.

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The seeds of agrarian discord in the South were sown in the years following the Civil War. The war had destroyed the plantation economy, the South—in an apt description from John D. Hicks’ classic, The Populist Revolt—having generally regressed into a “frontier stage of development.” Within this void the industrial interests of the Northeast and the banks that supported their efforts were left to expand with virtually no competition or regulation. Equally important was a shift in the agrarian way of life. Throughout Reconstruction economic power passed from the “landed” plantations—most of which had been broken up and parceled off, precipitating the explosion in small farms and tenancy—to the merchant shops in the small crossroad towns that had sprung up (often with railroads) across the South during the mid-1800s. The result was a slide away from the self-sustaining traits that were once typical. Whereas the small white landowning farmer (or yeoman) was notably independent and rarely pressed by debt prior to the Civil War, the town merchant became a major factor in the economic life of all small farmers in the years following the war. The South’s resources had been ravaged, its economy left bankrupt. Self-sufficient traits once common gave way to the pursuit of more “commercial agriculture,” mainly cotton, in order to meet the payment demands of the furnishing merchant—who supplied farmers with most everything, including the credit by which to purchase it. This restructuring of the concentration of wealth ran against the personable interdependence that had marked antebellum relations between white agrarians, regardless of social position. The result was a contraction of autonomy for small farmers, the vast majority of the southern populace. And this, predictably, did not sit well—especially with the yeomen landowners who stood to lose their land to the merchant and plunge into tenancy . . . Prior to the war, small farmers viewed their ilk as getting along well enough without any outside economic interference. In Steven Hahn’s work, The Roots of Southern Populism, he richly illustrates these “small communities of producers.” They were inheritors of the great “Jeffersonian” ideal: rural individual agriculturalists, self-sustaining, self-regulating and living free off the land. But following the war the small farmer had become part of the “market.” And the market seemed to have less the interest of small farmers and their communities in mind, and more those of Wall Street and the furnishing merchants that they controlled. The financial arrangements behind the often abused crop-lien in the South—the merchant’s securing of a percentage of a farmer’s crop as collateral for loans—and what was derided as the “chattel (or slave) mortgage” made infamous in the Plains states, irritated this humiliation of dependency more than any other factor. Together they would spawn agrarian revolt.

Agrarian organizations and “alliances” had been in existence from Illinois to the Carolinas since the late 1870s. But the Farmer’s Alliance that would be most directly associated with the larger Southern and National Alliance came into existence in Texas. With the exception of Kansas, the core of Alliance / Populist support would always reside deep in the South. Yet in testament to the non-sectionalism that defined the early stages of the movement (not to mention a blindness to gender and race that was remarkable for the era), the Alliance’s structure mimicked the fraternal order of The Grange, and its demand for legislation on behalf of poor farmers. In parallel, the Alliance drew its inspiration for currency policy from the Greenbackers, a defunct 1870s reform-party that stumped for incontrovertible paper money with the end goal of expanding the national circulation of currency. Both were Western organizations. Though of Southern origin, the Alliance ideology would pursue “producing / working class” interests on the whole.

Despite its roots, the Alliance’s early leaders were not paralyzed by tradition. They avoided the weaknesses of the reformers they emulated and proved exceedingly bold. Whereas past reform movements proceeded meekly and were marginalized as provincial anomalies, Populism came on, in the words of an early observer in Mississippi, “like a cyclone” . . . Still, it met the same end . . . Populism would not be defeated for its lack of popularity. Its fall can be traced directly to a watering-down of its platform by later leaders. In The Populist Response to Industrial America, Norman Pollack writes: “everything Populism sought to avoid came about.” Though writing on the movement from a Midwestern perspective, Pollack’s observation is true across the board. Populism was no more popular—and feared—than when it was on the attack. But in the end it was ground up by the entrenched powers due in large part to a drift away from its early intensity, and inter-party divisions which would allow much of its platform to be co-opted . . . Today, the term “populist” often serves up the fire-breathing caricature of a radical crusader out-of-touch with sociopolitical / economic realities (thanks chiefly to the later flood of manic self-serving demagogues such as Huey Long and Eugene Talmedge). This modern filter all but guarantees that the actual movement of the late 19th century will remain popularly unknown, aside from topical representations of what it did wrong—which does not exempt the depths to which some Populists sank as withered political “has-beens” in the early 20th century. But in its day Populism’s “popularity,” rising as it did from the sweeping popularity of the National Farmers Alliance, was no fluke. It was no “shadow” movement. Pollack cites: “scholars agree that the movement offered highly concrete remedies designed to meet existing conditions.” It struck a deep chord among the mass of small farmers at the time. It was real and its successes have been left off the American record in lieu of its failures . . . In turning to some of what it did right, the kind of popularity that was afforded the movement doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It was hard-earned; and early Alliance leaders understood this. They also knew that cooperative action would only be achieved by getting the message out. Many of the problems that the farmers encountered were due to a general ignorance of everything from “the lien” to the latest science in agriculture—chief being crop rotation and diversification, a key to pre Civil War agrarian independence. Alliance lecturers from the national to the local level fanned out with these notions in tow. This led to the signal democratic success of the movement: mass organization through education. Hicks parallels the thoughts of an earlier historian in writing: “Like the Grange before it, the Alliance became a great ‘national university.’ ”

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The Alliance rose out of Lampasas County in central Texas. By 1886, it was sweeping across the state. Lawrence Goodwyn explains: “It is only linear that the Alliance began in Texas, flooded as it became with the dispossessed, disillusioned poor from across the agrarian South.” Inside of two years, the Alliance message would flare up across the South—indeed the entire country (there was even a state Alliance chapter in industrialized New York) . . . Early Alliance leaders, despite many of them being large landowners of considerable wealth, were nonetheless outside of the socioeconomic rank of the merchants and large Northeastern trusts. They were bound to the simmering servile condition of the small farmer. To spread their ideas on how to combat this inequity—and gain power enough to do something for themselves—they created this prodigious and proficient lecturing circuit. This, as much as the feudal conditions of the small farmer, led to the swelling angry ranks that poured into Cleburne in 1886. The early Populist leaders proved excellent marketers. They knew how to talk to the people’s problems.

S. O. Daws and William Lamb helped establish the ardent lecturing system in Texas that would flood the South with like men. They established their points early: governmental regulation of railroads, fair credit standards, self-sustaining methods of crop diversification, equitable currency distribution, all with the end goal of commercial cooperation amongst the agrarian poor. Making their points stick would prove difficult at best. Cooperation and competition—if ever co-joined in American capitalism—were never further apart than in the late 19th century era of the centralized monopoly. Still, the message got out. Goodwyn records an observation of the day that states: lecturers were “sweeping everything before them.” In Promise Ed Ayers quotes a North Carolina lecturer who during the active Alliance recruitment drive of the late 1880s stated: “The farmers seem like unto ripe fruit—you can gather them by a gentle shake of the bush” . . . At Cleburne, leaders saw the potential of mass organization through education. A united movement of the disaffected could not be ignored for long.

Cleburne also gave rise to one of the movement’s true visionaries: the brilliant yet enigmatic Charles W. Macune. Macune’s leadership skills were put to the test in steering the often heated discussions between those who preferred direct political involvement and those—like himself—who preferred business-only solutions. But it was at the 1887 convention in Waco, Texas, where Macune emerged as the chief mind of the Alliance. At Waco he unveiled plans for a statewide “cooperative farmer’s exchange.” Instead of being held to the peonage rates offered for crops by the merchants, farmers would store their crop yields in a co-op run by the Alliance and hold out for better rates—a bold attempt to squeeze the lenders into equitable terms. As important was Macune’s encouragement for this experiment in cooperative bargaining to spread, via lecturing, to all corners of producing-class America. Macune wanted this to be a nationwide economic revolution. Still, many others wanted the revolution to go further. William Lamb was a strong proponent of direct political action from his first days with the organization. As they had the previous year, many Alliancemen took up Lamb’s position at Waco. Again Macune’s leadership was required to quell a near split in the Texas Alliance over the issue of politics v. business-only, keeping the larger picture in view by reminding the convention that only as a united front could they effect either. Though Macune’s personal position was clear, it was quite clear that political activism—Populism—had arrived to stay . . . Politics would lead the movement to its greatest successes and its end failures. For radical economic theory in late-Victorian age America was one thing; radical politics was another. This was especially true in the South. Economics and politics were institutionally enmeshed in the ironclad rule of the Southern Democratic Party. Having lately “redeemed” the South from the Republican-induced Reconstruction, and having re-established “home rule,” any challenge to Democratic leaders was anathema. Woodward explains in Origins: “changing one’s party in the South [at the time] . . . involved more than changing one’s mind . . . it might even call in question one’s loyalty to his race and his people.” Still, many Alliancemen—and the many more Populists that would follow—were game; for as Woodward documents in his essay Populist Heritage and the Intellectual, “there was not much further downward for most Populists to go.” Driven by the desperation of their economic situation, many figured: “what do we have to lose?” Ed Ayers quotes an Alliance leader whose summation stated bluntly: “if this be party treason, make the most of it.” In the wake of the convention at Waco, the fight was on.

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The period of 1888-1890 was a watershed for the Farmer’s Alliance. The idea of “cooperative exchange” exported not only a method, but the entire Alliance platform. The fight was against monopoly, a battlecry that galvanized the “mudsill” agrarians throughout the commercial cotton and wheat producing states. Macune’s idea was to “fight monopoly with monopoly” . . . Yet the co-op in Dallas, the very model, failed. Despite a last-ditch effort on June 9, 1888—“the day to save the exchange,” farmers near and far pouring into Dallas to offer what little cash they had to keep the exchange doors open—the “implacable hostility” (Goodwyn’s phrasing) of Gilded Age economic powers had set the tone: strangle this competitor in its infancy. And they’d succeeded, for the moment. All banks had shut their doors and drawn the blinds in the face of credit requests on behalf of the exchange. In reality a great deal of the co-op’s failure can be laid on its own impractical funding plans, which were based mostly in cash—something in short supply amongst the hard-pressed agrarians. Still, to those within the Alliance ranks the cause of the collapse was plainly seen as yet another in a string of infinite transgressions perpetrated by the merchants and bankers. It rallied the “cause.” For what stands out is that this failure seems to have had more impact than if the cooperative had been successful. It energized the movement, delineating the problem with an example: even through mass cooperation, farmers could not induce financial freedom. And whereas Macune still saw the potential of working through existing Democratic Party machinery to bring about “economic redistributive revolution”—which the exchange’s failure had proven as their only long-term solution—it was clear to a majority that a radical political agenda was now inevitable, something the Democratic and New South leadership in the South (and industry-backed Republicans in the West), would fight tooth and nail.

The collapse of the Dallas exchange’s short-term effects aside, 1888 was an optimistic year for the Alliance—if in growth alone. Small local chapters, the “suballiances,” were chartered by the hundreds in every state of the Old Confederacy (Hicks makes the case that the Alliance itself actually grew out of the suballiances, the parent organization’s prolific consolidation a result of the pre-existing networks of local chapters, or “lodges”). Henry Vincent oversaw the creation of the Kansas Alliance in 1888. The fervent support found in Kansas—a ligament between North / South—can certainly be viewed as leading the spread of “cooperation over war-era sectionalism” that would at least initially unite the West / Northwest / Midwest agrarians with their Southern compatriots. In conjunction, as the rates of merchants continued to inflate so did the Alliance’s membership rolls. Hicks summarized: “As the hard times of the late ‘80s set in, the strength of the Alliance movement increased correspondingly.” By 1888, there were well over a million members. Using the 1890 census records as a guide, it wouldn’t be a leap to say that by the height of the Alliance in the early 1890s registered members as a percentage of the population were near the relative percentages of registered Democrats or Republicans today . . . In his 1947, History of the South, Francis Simkins points to the importance of the Alliance’s “alliances” in helping to swell the movement’s ranks (in fact, every Alliance / Populist history I’ve read can’t stress the point enough). In 1886, the infant Texas Alliance backed a bold strike by southwest industrial workers union: the Knights of Labor. The strike was eventually overwhelmed by the cunning and powerful industrialist Jay Gould; but this support would come to define Populism’s desire to unite all producing class organizations nationwide under a single banner. Labor could not foster the underlying foundations to organize nationally (labor was over a decade removed from such widespread unions [emerging in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle], both Goodwyn and Pollack clearing the way for speculation of the radical differences in our country today if the two powerful sectors had been able to co-join movements). But there was an abundance of independent agricultural unions, mainly in what was then called the Southwest. By 1890, the Agricultural Wheel and Brothers of Freedom (a consolidation of two Arkansan organizations) along with North Louisiana’s Farmer’s Union (the geographic core of Huey Long’s constituency in the 1930s) had—after pragmatic demanding negotiation—merged with the up-and-coming Farmer’s Alliance. Along with securing a majority of the South’s Grangers, the Alliance was—through membership alone—rapidly spreading beyond its regional roots.

As mentioned both women and blacks were not only initially welcomed into the movement, but actively recruited. Mary Ellen Lease, a radical / fervent Kansan, rose to be the most recognized woman Populist. She was an agrarian Mother Jones. One of her famous proclamations singled out a standard perceived enemy: “It is no longer a government of the people, by the people and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.” Ed Ayers records women comprising a full quarter of the Nat’l Alliance’s membership at its height, adding this female Texan Populist’s testimony: “The Alliance has come to redeem woman from her enslaved condition” . . . Officially segregated, the Colored Alliance claimed membership equal to that of the white Alliance by the late 1880s. Texans R. M. Humphrey, a white Baptist minister, and John Rayner, a vocal black activist, would guide their state’s Colored Alliance—recorded as the most substantial chapter—and prove mentors to this mostly Southern “movement within the movement.” In attempting to ease distrust and dislike of blacks prevalent among rural whites at the time then emerging Populist leader from Georgia, Tom Watson, urged his fellow agrarians to discard their differences and focus on the similarities. “They are in the ditch just like we are,” he said. In the late 1890s, Watson would completely regress into a virulent, dangerous prejudice against blacks, Jews and seemingly anyone not like himself (as would much of the white South going into the new century). But during the heady rise of Populism, most all of the Alliance / Populist leaders championed their colored agrarian brethren . . . Many historians claim that this embrace targeted more the black vote than true equitable reform. But it is also true that African-American farmers of the time—equally and often more so shackled to economic inequity—took to the “uprising” as their only hope for securing their own independence: i.e. on their own initiative black farmers used the movement as much as the movement may have used them. Proof of their choice in the matter lay with the ample reasons African-Americans had to look to this movement as one that could deliver true reform. By the 1880s, the Republican Party had abandoned Southern blacks to socioeconomic conditions that were slavery in all but name. One result of this restoration of “home rule” had been the institutionalization of the grotesque, corrupt and inhumane “convict-lease system.” In short, black men were often arrested on minor or trumped up charges, én masse, and given long drawn out sentences in labor camps. It was an institutionalized slave-labor force rented to private contractors by states, who acquired enormous disgusting profits on the trade . . . Though the color line was clearly defined throughout the life of the movement, agrarians white and black had reason enough to rely on each other. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn documents an Alliance editorial stating that Populism was not designed to free African-American farmers, “but to emancipate all men.”

The optimism that spread in the wake of the Dallas cooperative’s failure was to a great extent prodded by another economic fight then brewing. Cotton bales were typically wrapped in a tough cloth made from the fibrous jute plant. In 1888, jute-bag manufacturers announced that they were raising prices—as high as double the previous cost per yard of cloth. The “jute-bag trust” sent an electric pulse through the Southern Alliance. A convention was called and held in Birmingham, Alabama, at which all the state Alliance delegations in attendance enthusiastically agreed that their constituencies should substitute cotton bagging for jute. The jute-bag manufacturers picked a poor time to act in trust, for the agrarians were rife for a fight. Parades were soon being staged across the Deep South, in which Alliance members were seen marching down streets wearing cotton bags. Ed Ayers documents wedding parties in Atlanta decked out in the cotton bagging. In his bio of the man, Woodward quotes Tom Watson who urged on his agrarian supporters in the jute-bag fight proclaiming: “The standard of revolt is up. Let us keep it up and speed it on.” The “fight” allowed the newborn movement something to focus on; and more importantly, an instance of economic manipulation it could potentially outlast and win. And win it did. By 1890, the “jute-bag trust” collapsed and prices were restored, even lowered from their original rates. The victory proved that cooperative action could work; and having crossed state borders, it also solidified the movement on a mass scale. It was a high point for the Populist Moment.

All signs pointed towards a nationalization of the movement. Well-organized, full of doctrine and spreading like wildfire, it still lacked a cohesive national front and a definitive answer on whether this was an economic revolution, a political revolution, or both. These issues were given shape at the 1889 “national” convention in St. Louis . . . “Fusion,” a tactic that would be utilized by Populist politicians to their detriment during the 1896 presidential campaign, was the hope at St. Louis—in that the Northern and Southern Alliance (almost triple the size) would fully fuse. The Midwestern delegations proved tempered in their views, which stood in contrast to the more radical plans of the Southern delegates. But the delegations representing Kansas and the Dakota Territory were game. They threw in with the Southerners and the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union was formed (“industrial” replaced the original “cooperative,” a tip to hopeful mass organization and inclusion of labor unions such as the Knights of Labor, who were on hand at St. Louis). The convention created national figures of many Alliancemen, such as the Dakotas’ Henry Loucks, and North Carolina’s L. L. Polk—who as acting president of the Southern wing was nominated president of the Nat’l Alliance. Despite some obvious differences—the Northern and Southern Alliance even met in different halls—the general tenor of the convention’s results was to work cooperatively. Hicks summarizes: “. . . a unity of purpose, never so well expressed before, was definitely asserted.” The “St. Louis Platform” advanced the requisite Greenback-inspired demands to abolish national banks and plot inflationary circulation (which included the unlimited coinage of silver, a tactic that would come to haunt Southern Populists), along with standard planks for government regulation—mainly of subsidized railroads. But the big-ticket item was Charles Macune’s economically radical “subtreasury” plan. Macune used the South’s cotton crop as proof for this necessity of redistribution (Macune could very well have utilized the West / Northwest’s yearly wheat harvest just as easily): when the crop yields hit the market each harvest season, he argued, the flood of product inventory dropped prices to abysmally low levels due to the maladjusted availability of national currency—which had not changed appreciably since the Civil War. With the number of small farmers increasing every year, so did crop prices continue to decline: more farmers, higher yields, the same amount of currency being spread ever more thin. In addition, a major outrage was that after a lien was settled (or a mortgage in the West), merchants then held out for better prices on the stored yields. Farmers had no control and no choice. The “subtreasury” plan proposed building and maintaining federally-run warehouses across the country, in which the farmers’ crops—from cotton to oats, wheat to sugar—could be stored while waiting for more agreeable market prices to emerge. Farmers would deal directly with the government—eliminating the hated merchant middlemen—and would be able to obtain low-interest loans against their crop yields. Finally, the volume of national currency would be adjusted to the market levels of 1889 not 1865. Given the inevitable failure of local / regional cooperatives due to the “implacable hostility” of lenders, the “subtreasury” plan simply elevated the idea of cooperative exchange to the level of a federally-subsidized institution (FDR’s Farm Security Administration owed much to the groundwork of the Charles Macunes of the late 19th century) . . . Reaction to the “subtreasury” plan was predictable amongst Democratic / New South leadership (and likewise the Republican / Industrial interests in the North and West). In one of the first cases of its widespread use as a political indictment, the thunderous charge of “socialism” poured into the public discourse. On its surface, the “subtreasury” contained socialist features. But the plan was founded so as to help producing class participants in the market, not all comers. The movement was based in equitable leveling, not equality (as the division between black and white Alliances attests). Still, socialist accusations leveled by the entrenched powers was political gold; and public opinion could be manipulated through the press . . . Yet what the vitriolic representatives of the New Southerners and Industrialists failed to realize was that the Nat’l Alliance knew this. “Corporate” legislators were now in the crosshairs of the movement’s leaders; and winning the elections of 1890 became the Populists’ overriding goal. Tom Watson summed up the ardent resolve of the day when he proclaimed of the agrarian movement: “Not just a revolt; It is a Revolution.”

NEXT  »  Part II: Fighting It Straight

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Part I: Not a Revolt, A Revolution «

Part II: Fighting It Straight

Part III: Sold Out