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During the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, the United States’ large

farmer population was growing increasingly discontent with the state of


political affairs. Deflation, debts, mortgage foreclosures, high tariffs, and unfair
railroad freight rates contributed to the farmers’ unrest and desire for political
reform. Farmers sought immediate and radical change through political
means. The establishment of the Farmer’s Alliance and the Populist Party had
drastic repercussions in national politics including the introduction of new
ideas regarding monetary policy and government’s role in the economy.

Before 1870, the global economy was performing poorly because of


widespread crop failures in other countries. American farmers took advantage
of this and began growing large quantities of wheat, which they could sell for
a high profit. However, by 1890 the global economy had rebounded causing
wheat prices in the global market to plummet. Consequently, American
farmers were hit hard and forced to sell their crop at lower prices. Similar to
the “King Cotton” economy of the Civil War South, the nineteenth century
Midwest economy was also “single crop” and thus prone to the effects of
global market swings. The sudden increase of wheat quantities available in the
world market caused a deflationary effect in the Midwest. There was simply
not enough money to go around. Farmers were forced to mortgage their
property and their crop in order to make ends meet. Many farmers lost their
land to the “evils” of the “mortgage system” (Doc. B). As mortgage
foreclosures increased, so did the number of farmers forced into tenancy. By
1900, the majority of Midwest farmers were tenants—unable to afford their
own land. However, Midwest farmers were faced with other, more severe
atrocities that eventually impacted national politics.

Government corruption also contributed greatly to the farmers’ discontent.


From their perspectives, it seemed like the government was doing everything
in its power to injure the Midwest region and thus, its farmers. Railroad
companies charged exorbitant rates that were “up to four times as large as
Eastern rates” (Doc. F). Farmers had no other choice but to pay the grossly
inflated freight fees in order to get their crop to market. Eventually, farmers
began to clamor for government control of the railroads. To the farmers, it
was the duty of the government to protect the general public, even at the cost
of corporations or private companies (Doc. C). The government finally
responded to the farmers’ demands with the establishment of the Interstate
Commerce Commission (ICC). The ICC was in charge of supervising railroad
companies and ensuring that they conduct business ethically and post their
rates openly. However, this organization proved to be ineffective at taming the
ravenous railroads. In fact, many railroad insiders viewed the ICC as a tool to
be utilized rather than an authority to be obeyed. Future United States
Attorney General, Richard Olney, wrote in a letter to the president of the
Chicago and Burlington Railroad, “The Commission . . . can be made of great
use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government
supervision of railroads, [and] at the same time that supervision is almost
entirely nominal” (Doc. E). In this manner, railroad companies increased their
participation in politics, often bribing legislators in order to tighten their own
grip on the government (Doc. F). “Robber barons” like William H. Vanderbilt
cared nothing for the plight of the Midwest farmers. These “robber barons”
charged unreasonable rates to farmers in order to pay off financial obligations
arising from the dishonest practice of “stock watering”. In 1883, Vanderbilt
famously said, “The public be damned!”, once again showing the railroad
companies’ lack of concern for public interests. However, this was not the only
complaint Midwest farmers made about the U.S. government.

Midwest farmers expressed further discontent with the U.S. government on


the issue of taxes. During the Civil War, the U.S. government had increased
taxes to raise revenue for the relentless war machine, but had neglected to
lower them back down after the conflict had concluded. The high taxes and
tariffs—especially the McKinley Tariff (which raised rates up to 48.4%)—were
especially devastating to Midwest farmers. Farmers were forced to purchase
more-expensive American-manufactured goods rather than cheaper foreign
goods because of the “protective” high tariff. Then, farmers had to turn
around and sell their crops in international, unprotected markets with highly
competitive rates. The U.S. high tariff policy was clearly beneficial to the
industrial giants and the city-dwellers. However, farmers believed that the
government should look more favorably upon farmers who, of course, provide
all of the food to the nation. A famous poster entitled “The Farmer’s
Grievances” (Doc. A) expresses the agrarian idea that all other walks of life are
dependent upon the work of farmers. William Jennings Bryan also expresses
this same idea in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, “Burn down your cities
and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but
destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the
country.” Farmers felt that their interests were consistently being overlooked
by the government which was being controlled from behind-the-scenes by
corrupt “robber barons”, railroad companies, and industrial giants with big-city
interests.

Midwest farmers were clearly justified in their discontent with the U.S.
government during the late nineteenth century; however, organized
opposition was slow to materialize. The majority of Americans had always
been firm believers in the Jeffersonian idea of a free economy without
government intervention; however, to the countless farmers struggling to
subsist from month to month, the time had come for the government to step
in and protect the interests of the general public. In the words of F.B. Tracy
“. . . Like a lightning flash, the idea of political action ran through the
alliances. . . . and with one bound the Farmers’ Alliance went into politics all
over the West” (Doc. F). The Farmers’ Alliance impacted U.S. politics right from
the start. First, it organized farmers and set up lines of communication for
outraged farmers to express their ideas to other like-minded individuals.
Before the Alliance, farmers had been disorganized and too weak to effect any
political change. By acting together, the farmers were able to raise clamor loud
enough that Washington was forced to recognize the honest farmer’s plight.
Second, the Alliance promoted higher crop prices through collective action by
a large group of farmers. However, their actions had little effect on the crop
prices because the majority of farmers were too indebted to participate in the
Alliance’s cash-purchase plans. Lastly, the Farmer’s Alliance paved the way to
the ultimate development of the Populist Party, also known as the People’s
Party. Since the majority of the Farmers’ Alliance members lived in the
Midwest United States (Doc. D), the Populist Party focused on improving the
plight of the average farmer. The Populist Party’s platform was radical—even
revolutionary—for the time. The Populists proposed a bimetallic standard with
“free and unlimited coinage of silver” at the ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to
one ounce of gold, a graduated income tax, a one-term limit on the
presidency, government ownership of the railroads and other public services, a
shorter workday, and the direct election of senators—all in the true spirit of
democracy. Populists believed that each of these components were integral to
establishing a true democracy that would protect the people because, after all,
the government should work for the people, not the other way around.
However, the Populists also had some negative consequences on American
politics. For example, the Populist clamor for free silver caused foreign
countries to doubt the future soundness of U.S. money and recall loans to the
U.S. government. The British fervently opposed U.S. adoption of the bimetallic
standard often calling its supporters “. . . hopelessly ignorant and savagely
covetous waifs and strays of American civilization. . . .” (Doc. H). Some
historians argue that even the mere talk of adopting the bimetallic standard
launched the U.S. into the Depression of 1893. Though it is doubtful that the
Populists single-handedly caused the American economy to plummet, their
“free silver” talk undoubtedly did cause American credit to be questioned
abroad. Although the Populists had negative impacts on U.S. politics, they also
benefited the U.S. in many ways and left a lasting legacy.

Though the Populist Party’s life was short-lived, their presidential candidate
did receive twenty-two electoral votes, proving that a third party could rank
on the electoral level in a presidential election. Also, the Populists’ calls for the
direct election of senators were eventually realized when the U.S. adopted the
Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. Also, many Populist ideals were
incorporated into the Democratic Party and thus Populism lived on even after
the death of the Party.