Farmers Revolt in the Populist Era


The initial response by increasingly frustrated and angry farmers was to organize into groups that were similar to early labor unions. Taking note of how the industrial labor movement had unfolded in the last quarter of the century, farmers began to understand that a collective voice could create significant pressure among political leaders and produce substantive change. While farmers had their own challenges, including that of geography and diverse needs among different types of famers, they believed this model to be useful to their cause.

One of the first efforts to organize farmers came in 1867 with Oliver Hudson Kelly’s creation of the Patrons of Husbandry, more popularly known as the Grange. In the wake of the Civil War, the Grangers quickly grew to over 1.5 million members in less than a decade (Figure). Kelly believed that farmers could best help themselves by creating farmers’ cooperatives in which they could pool resources and obtain better shipping rates, as well as prices on seeds, fertilizer, machinery, and other necessary inputs. These cooperatives, he believed, would let them self-regulate production as well as collectively obtain better rates from railroad companies and other businesses.

A poster shows a farmer at its center, surrounded by trees and idyllic country views. Happy scenes of farm life surround him, including the “Farmers Fireside,” an image of the “Grange in Session,” and a “Harvest Dance.” The bottom panel, headed “I Pay for All,” contains the words “Faith, Hope, Charity, Fidelity” and shows an illustration of a ruined cabin, whose barren trees contain signs reading “Ignorance” and “Sloth.” The top of the poster reads “Gift for the Grangers;” beneath the title, three gowned women carry flowers, fruit, grains, and a scythe.
This print from the early 1870s, with scenes of farm life, was a promotional poster for the Grangers, one of the earliest farmer reform groups.

At the state level, specifically in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa, the Patrons of Husbandry did briefly succeed in urging the passage of Granger Laws, which regulated some railroad rates along with the prices charged by grain elevator operators. The movement also created a political party—the Greenback Party, so named for its support of print currency (or “greenbacks”) not based upon a gold standard—which saw brief success with the election of fifteen congressmen. However, such successes were short-lived and had little impact on the lives of everyday farmers. In the Wabash case of 1886, brought by the Wabash, St. Louis, and Pacific Railroad Company, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the State of Illinois for passing Granger Laws controlling railroad rates; the court found such laws to be unconstitutional. Their argument held that states did not have the authority to control interstate commerce. As for the Greenback Party, when only seven delegates appeared at an 1888 national convention of the group, the party faded from existence.

Explore Rural Life in the Late Nineteenth Century to study photographs, firsthand reports, and other information about how farmers lived and struggled at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Farmers’ Alliance, a conglomeration of three regional alliances formed in the mid-1880s, took root in the wake of the Grange movement. In 1890, Dr. Charles Macune, who led the Southern Alliance, which was based in Texas and had over 100,000 members by 1886, urged the creation of a national alliance between his organization, the Northwest Alliance, and the Colored Alliance, the largest African American organization in the United States. Led by Tom Watson, the Colored Alliance, which was founded in Texas but quickly spread throughout the Old South, counted over one million members. Although they originally advocated for self-help, African Americans in the group soon understood the benefits of political organization and a unified voice to improve their plight, regardless of race. While racism kept the alliance splintered among the three component branches, they still managed to craft a national agenda that appealed to their large membership. All told, the Farmers’ Alliance brought together over 2.5 million members, 1.5 million white and 1 million black (Figure).

A flag contains the words, “The most good for the most PEOPLE;” “Wisdom, Justice, & Moderation;” “FREE TRADE;” and “ALLIANCE No. 1.” The right side of the flag contains a star and the words “TEXAS 1878.”
The Farmers’ Alliance flag displays the motto: “The most good for the most PEOPLE,” clearly a sentiment they hoped that others would believe.

The alliance movement, and the subsequent political party that emerged from it, also featured prominent roles for women. Nearly 250,000 women joined the movement due to their shared interest in the farmers’ worsening situation as well as the promise of being a full partner with political rights within the group, which they saw as an important step towards advocacy for women’s suffrage on a national level. The ability to vote and stand for office within the organization encouraged many women who sought similar rights on the larger American political scene. Prominent alliance spokeswoman, Mary Elizabeth Lease of Kansas, often spoke of membership in the Farmers’ Alliance as an opportunity to “raise less corn and more hell!”

The Conner Prairie Interactive History Park discusses the role of women in rural America and how it changed throughout the end of the nineteenth century.

The alliance movement had several goals similar to those of the original Grange, including greater regulation of railroad prices and the creation of an inflationary national monetary policy. However, most creative among the solutions promoted by the Farmers’ Alliance was the call for a subtreasury plan. Under this plan, the federal government would store farmers’ crops in government warehouses for a brief period of time, during which the government would provide loans to farmers worth 80 percent of the current crop prices. Thus, farmers would have immediate cash on hand with which to settle debts and purchase goods, while their crops sat in warehouses and farm prices increased due to this control over supply at the market. When market prices rose sufficiently high enough, the farmer could withdraw his crops, sell at the higher price, repay the government loan, and still have profit remaining.

Economists of the day thought the plan had some merit; in fact, a greatly altered version would subsequently be adopted during the Great Depression of the 1930s, in the form of the Agricultural Adjustment Act. However, the federal government never seriously considered the plan, as congressmen questioned the propriety of the government serving as a rural creditor making loans to farmers with no assurance that production controls would result in higher commodity prices. The government’s refusal to act on the proposal left many farmers wondering what it would take to find solutions to their growing indebtedness.