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Populist Origins – The Farmers' Alliance

By Charles Postel, San Francisco State University

The People's Party had roots in the organization of the nation's farmers. Following the Civil War, American agriculture expanded rapidly into new terrain, opening new cotton lands in the South, and new acreage for wheat and other grains across the Great Plains and beyond. From 1860 to 1890, farmers opened up 421 million new acres to the plow, more than doubling the acreage of America's farms, and the number of people working the land nearly tripled. The pace of agricultural expansion would not keep up with the speed of industrial growth and, as with industry, farming went through cycles of boom and bust. Nonetheless, the hungry markets in the urban Northeast and Europe promised good opportunities in American agriculture. Farmers, however, were soon caught in the double bind of falling farm prices and heavy debt payments on their land and farm machinery. Farmers responded by building large-scale organizations to strengthen their hand in marketing farm goods, and in lobbying government for more favorable terms of credit and trade.

More than any other organization, the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union laid the foundations of the Populist movement. Often referred to as simply the Farmers' Alliance, the organization began in the midst of a speculative land boom on the central Texas plains during the 1870s and early 1880s. Originally, it had worked to attract new settlers, to bring in new railroad lines, and to boost the value of farmland. But as the land boom turned to bust, the Farmers' Alliance sought to rescue distressed farmers through marketing cooperatives, government regulation, and currency reform. In doing so, it drew from the previous experience of the Patrons of Husbandry (the Grange), as well as the legacy of the Greenback-labor movement and the Knights of Labor.

Unlike previous rural associations, however, the Farmers' Alliance sought to organize from a strictly “business standpoint.” The architect of this policy was Dr. Charles Macune, a Texas physician who believed that the cause of rural poverty lay in the farmers' lack of organization. His message was that farmers had to employ the same professional and business methods that other commercial interests employed to gain political influence and bargaining strength in the national economy. As the national president of the Farmers' Alliance Macune's message resonated in rural districts across much of the country. By 1890, the Farmers' Alliance claimed 1.2 million members in twenty-seven states. Farmers' Alliance leaders such as Macune, Leonidas Polk of North Carolina, William Peffer of Kansas, and Marion Cannon of California, were prominent rural citizens, whereas most of the rank-and-file members were small landholding and poor farmers. What they shared in common was a vision of rural improvement.

Dr. Macune and the Farmers' Alliance unfolded a series of bold plans. This included large-scale cooperative enterprises, such as the Texas Farmers' Alliance Exchange, an effort to pool the entire Texas cotton crop, eliminate the middlemen, and gain direct access to New York, London, and other trading centers. The Alliance also pioneered efforts at building an effective farm lobby in politics. The Farmers' Alliance worked with state legislatures, and Macune himself moved to Washington, D.C., where he set up an office to direct the national lobbying efforts of the organization. The most innovative legislative proposal of the Farmers' Alliance was known as the “subtreasury,” a federal system of warehousing crops and farm credits.

Besides the Farmers' Alliance, several other organizations had similar names or similar purposes. The reform editor Milton George led the Chicago-based National Farmers' Alliance, also known as the Northwestern or Northern Famers' Alliance, with a following across the upper Midwest. Based in downstate Illinois, Herman Taubeneck's Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association also organized in several Midwestern states. In the South, African Americans organized the Colored Farmers' Alliance. In Dr. Macune's vision, farmers' organizations, as with the other modern business enterprise of the day, should be strictly segregated by race, and accordingly the Farmers' Alliance only allowed white members. The Colored Farmers' Alliance had a white president and other officers, and despite having several hundred thousand members, suffered from a poverty of resources.

Never in history had rural Americans been so organized or so determined to improve their position within the commercial and social order. Officially, the Farmers' Alliance and similar groups were non-partisan and worked for reform through the existing parties. But when that policy failed, by the early 1890s many farm reformers took the fateful step of building an independent, third party movement. The Populist Party rose on the shoulders of the Farmers' Alliance and the organized power of American farmers.

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