Presentation on theme: "1880-1896. Causes of agrarian anger American farmers seemed to have much to be proud of. Between 1870 and 1900 the population of the United States doubled."— Presentation transcript:
Causes of agrarian anger American farmers seemed to have much to be proud of. Between 1870 and 1900 the population of the United States doubled to just over 76 million people. New machines and fertilizers enabled American farmers to increase the number of acres under cultivation. As a result, farmers were able to dramatically expand production and feed the nation’s soaring population. However, the law of supply and demand worked against the farmers. The more wheat, corn, and cotton they produced the lower prices fell. For example, the price of a bushel of wheat plummeted from $1.19 in 1881 to just 49 cents in 1894. Cotton that sold for 15.1 cents a pound in 1870 commanded only 5.8 cents a pound in 1894.
Causes of agrarian anger Angry and desperate farmers blamed the railroads for many of their problems. Railroads made large-scale agriculture possible by transporting corn, wheat, and cattle to cities and then shipping heavy machinery and supplies to the farms. Most farmers were thus completely dependent upon the railroads. Farmers bitterly complained that the railroads used their monopoly to charge unfair rates. For example, the Burlington line charged its customers west of the Mississippi four times what they charged customers east of the river. Farmers had to borrow heavily to build houses and buy land and equipment. Following the Civil War, America experienced a prolonged period of deflation which meant that both prices and the money supply were falling. As a result, a farmer had to pay back loans with dollars that had doubled in value since he borrowed them.
The Granger movement Many farmers endured a lonely existence on widely separated farms. The Granger movement began as a social and educational organization in response to the farmers’ isolation. As local Grange chapters spread across the southern and western farm belts, membership rolls reached 1.5 million people by 1874. The Grange soon became more than an organization to end the loneliness of farm life. The Grange founded cooperatives through which they sold their crops and bought supplies as a group. They even tried to manufacture farm machinery. At the same time the Grange began to fight the railroads. Several states passed “Granger laws” regulating railroad freight rates. The Grange’s early success proved to be short-lived. Many of the cooperatives failed because of mismanagement. Meanwhile, the railroad successfully challenged the state regulations in federal courts. By 1890, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not regulate railroads engaged in interstate commerce. These setbacks led to the decline of the Grange after 1876.
The Farmers’ Alliance The farmers still had much to complain about. As the Grange lost members, a new organization known as the Farmers’ Alliance grew in size and importance. Founded in Texas in the mid-1870s, the National Farmers’ Alliance quickly spread through the South and Plains’ states. By 1891, the Alliance movement boasted over 1.5 million members. A separate Alliance for black farmers had another quarter-million members. The Alliance movement sponsored an ambitious program of economic and political reform. As a “grand army of reform” it welcomed women members. Many women embraced this opportunity and assumed key leadership roles.
The birth of the Populist Party America’s increasingly militant farmers believed that they had good reasons to organize a third party. Once praised as the backbone of American democracy, the farmers now saw themselves as victims of an unjust system that penalized them with low crop prices and predatory railroad rates while rewarding Wall Street financiers with extravagant profits. Populist leader Mary E. Lease captured the farmers’ militant mood when she advised them “to raise less corn and more hell.” The wave of agrarian discontent gave birth to the People’s or Populist Party. Alliance leaders discussed plans for a third party at conventions held in Cincinnati in May 1891 and St. Louis in February 1892. Finally in July 1892, 1,300 exhilarated delegates met in Omaha, Nebraska to formulate a platform and nominate a candidate for the fall presidential election.
The Birth of the Populist Party The Populist platform emphatically demanded government control of the railroads. It also called for the free and unlimited coinage of silver. Populist leaders believed that free silver would increase the money supply and therefore spur inflation. And finally, the Populist platform endorsed the eight-hour workday, a graduated income tax, and the direct election of senators by voters instead of state legislatures. The Populists nominated former congressman and Union general James B. Weaver of Iowa to run for president. Weaver received just over one million votes, more than any previous third-party candidate. In addition, the Populists elected ten congressmen, five senators, and almost fifteen hundred members of state legislature. Buoyed by their success, the Populists eagerly looked forward to the 1896 presidential election.
The Depression of 1893 Grover Cleveland began his second term as President on March 4, 1893. Just two months later a panic on Wall Street touched off a sever economic depression. A worried advisor warned Cleveland, “We are on the eve of a very dark night.” His gloomy prediction proved to be accurate. In 1893 over 15,000 businesses and 600 banks closed. By the following year, one-fifth of the nation’s workers had lost their jobs.
The Depression of 1893 An Ohio Populist named James S. Coxey urged the federal government to launch a $500 million road- building program to provide unemployed workers with desperately needed jobs. When Congress ignored his proposal, Coxey led a ragtag army of unemployed workers on a protest march to Washington. When “Coxey’s army” finally reached the U.S. Capitol armed police arrested Coxey for walking on the lawn. He was fined $5.00 and sentenced to 20 days in jail. It is interesting to note that Coxey died in 1951 having lived long enough to see his ideas for public works projects enacted during the New Deal.
The Populists and free silver Unemployed workers and debt-ridden farmers called for an immediate solution to end the depression. Populist leaders believed that the depression underscored the urgent need for the free coinage of silver. The Populists believed that there was a direct relationship between the amount of money in circulation and the level of economic activity. Strict adherence to the gold standard reduced the supply of money in circulation and thus limited economic activity. This policy benefited bankers and creditors while punishing debtors. The free and unlimited coinage of silver would bring back prosperity by putting more money in circulation and thus increasing business activity. One Populist summed up the case for free silver by explaining that, “It means the reopening of closed factories, the relighting of fires in darkened furnaces; it means hope instead of despair; comfort in place of suffering; life instead of death.” Populist leaders believed that free silver offered a compelling solution to the depression. With the 1896 election fast approaching, Populists prepared for a climatic battle with the Republicans and Democrats that many believed would determine the nation’s future for generations to come.
The candidates The Republicans correctly sensed that the depression weakened Cleveland and the Democrats. They confidently nominated William McKinley, the affable and well-liked governor of Ohio. The Republican platform supported tariffs and forthrightly stated that “the existing gold standard must be maintained.” Pro-silver delegates controlled the Democratic convention in Chicago. The Silverites promptly repudiated Cleveland and wrote a platform demanding the free coinage of silver. The Democrats now had an issue but still lacked a candidate. That changed when William Jennings Bryan, a 36 year-old former congressman from Nebraska, addressed the convention. Bryan reminded the pro- silver delegates that, “We have petitioned and our petitions have been scorned!” Bryan thundered defiance as he reached his free silver conclusion: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech galvanized (electrified) the cheering delegates. The next day euphoric delegates wearing silver badges and waving silver banners nominated Bryan for President. The Democrat’s decision to nominate a pro-silver candidate presented the Populists with a difficult choice. Nominating their own candidate would divide the silver vote and ensure McKinley’s election. Endorsing Bryan would mean giving up their identity as a separate party. After much debate, the Populists chose to support Bryan.
“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”
The campaign Bryan ignored tradition and launched a whirlwind campaign that crisscrossed the country. The “Boy Orator” conveyed boundless energy and an almost evangelical enthusiasm as he delivered over 600 speeches extolling (praising) the benefits of free silver. While Bryan campaigned across the country, McKinley stayed at home in Canton, Ohio and ran a “front porch” campaign adroitly (skillfully) managed by his close friend Mark Hanna. Friendly railroads provided reduced fares enabling over 750,000 people to visit Canton and hear McKinley earnestly promise “good work, good wages, and good money.” Hanna’s strategy cleverly allowed McKinley to maintain an image of decorum and dignity. The president of a New England woman’s club approvingly noted, “He does not talk wildly, and his appearance is that of a President.”
The results McKinley’s well-financed campaign overwhelmed Bryan. McKinley won the popular vote by 7.1 million to 6.5 million and the electoral vote by 271 to 176. The South and much of the thinly populated West supported Bryan. McKinley captured all of the Northeast and the upper Midwest, including the crucial swing states of Ohio and Illinois. As expected, industrialists and the middle class solidly endorsed McKinley. However, McKinley surprised Bryan by also winning a majority of votes from urban workers. Despite the pro- labor planks in their platform, the Democrats were unable to build a rural-urban coalition. Bryan’s obsession with the silver issue diverted attention from labor’s traditional focus on wages, hours, and working conditions. Many labor leaders feared that free silver would inflate the value of the dollar and thus shrink the real value of their wages. Industrial workers also approved the Republican support for high tariffs. They believed tariffs would protect American industries and thus save working-class jobs.
The consequences The election of 1896 led to the swift collapse of the Populist Party. The silver issue melted away as gold strikes in South Africa, the Yukon, and Alaska enlarged the money supply and reversed the deflationary spiral. In addition, crop failures in Europe led to an increase in American grain exports. As commodity prices rose, farmers entered a period of renewed prosperity that lasted until the end of World War I. The return of prosperity did not end the spirit of reform. A new generation of Progressive reformers successfully fought for many of the Populist reforms. The election of 1896 began a generation of almost unbroken Republican dominance that lasted until the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.