Populism Born in Agrarian Revolt

Even though some measure of recovery had been accomplished after the Panic of 1873 when thousands of farmers had simply run out of credit, there was a renewed effort by farmers in the 1880s to open even larger markets abroad to prevent further declines in commodity prices. Two factors were worrying both agriculture and many of the nation's businessmen:

1) the failure of the boom to improve the welfare of agriculture in general, still faced as it was with overproduction and weak prices, and 2) the renewed efforts by European interests to control, if not terminate, American efforts to promote exports.

Farmers were also becoming angrier over the fact that as "our exports increase, the cost of transportation augments in the same proportion, and the producer is left without profit." While American foodstuffs had played a significant role in relieving near famine abroad in the 1870s, many Europeans began to view the cure -- in the form of price depressing commodities from the US -- as more damaging than the sickness, and anti-Americanism soon became pervasive.

In attempting to combat this attitude the United States in 1877 embarked on a geopolitical course for the next two decades that transformed primary economic concerns with exports into a demand for the kind of vigorous government action that produces imperial policy.

Toward the end of the 1880s the nation was faced yet again with another depression almost as severe as the one in the 1870s. By 1893 a panic was on, followed by a depression that lasted into 1898. Market prices for corn went from 66 cents a bushel in 1866 to 28 cents at best and ten cents at worst in 1889, and with wheat the bushel price dropped from $2 a bushel at the end of the Civil War to 70 cents during the same period of time. In some states prices were even worse. The desperate plight of many farmers at the time is best illustrated in a story told by South Dakota State University historian, Dr. Robert Cherny.

A town in Kansas scheduled a community debate on the subject: Resolved that opportunities have never been better in Kansas. A lawyer from the town was invited to present the affirmative side of the question and he sought to do so in eloquent fashion. After he had completed his argument before a rapt audience a local farmer, a member of the Farm Alliance movement, was asked to present the opposing argument. Without a word he stood up, went over to the stove in the corner of the room, took a shovel and threw a load of corn on the fire, and then went back to his seat. "Everybody agreed," Dr. Cherny adds, "he had won the debate."

Coming at the end of a generation of instability and suffering, many believed the depression of the 1890s to be psychologically and politically more disruptive than its predecessors. The answer to this new disaster, government and business leaders contended, was to enlarge metropolitan or industrial exports, thereby creating more of a demand in the domestic market for the nation's abundant agricultural surpluses.

Most of the farm community, of course, viewed such thinking as another instance of eastern capitalist discrimination and continued to argue for renewed efforts to expand overseas markets. They also believed that the key to commercial independence from the East was to first become financially independent.

As Southern farmers sought to escape the tyranny of sharecropping and the "furnishing merchant" system and western farmers fought the tyranny of burgeoning debt and mortgage foreclosures, both believed they saw American agriculture being driven into involuntary servitude. They also believed that the democratic promise was being destroyed and with it any possibility of individual respect and mass aspiration.

From a mass democratic movement, which had initially been generated by a cooperative crusade and which was to become the heart of the "agrarian revolt," to the formation of the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union, emerged a political movement that came to be called populism.

Populism, as historian Lawrence Goodwyn reminds us, was characterized by an evolving democratic culture in which people could "see themselves" and therefore aspire to a society conducive to mass human dignity. In stark contrast to their efforts was the direction they saw being taken by the corporate state in the existing society. One populist newspaper of the time described the issue in these blunt terms:

"In the second fifty years of the republic a new power grew up, unobserved by most men ... Seated in the east, it has dominated the west and south, has monopolized legislation, fortified itself in the citadel of national power and bids defiance of those who question its right."

Populism clearly recognized this condition and thus believed that it was imperative to bring the corporate state under democratic control. "Agrarian reformers," Goodwyn points out, "attempted to overcome a concentrating system of finance capitalism that was rooted in Eastern commercial banks and which radiated outward through trunk-line railroad networks to link in a number of common purposes much of America's consolidating corporate community. Their aim was structural reform of the American economic system."

The fact that populism achieved a high measure of success for nearly a decade in the late 1800s explains why in the century since this "agrarian revolt," corporate America has reacted so strongly and swiftly to any renewed moves by the nation's farmers to assert that same economic and political power they so forcefully applied in the late 1800's.

"In its underlying emotional impulses," Goodwyn tells us, "populism was a revolt against the narrowing limits of political debate within capitalism as much as it was a protest against specific economic injustices. The abundant evidence that 'great aggregations of capital' could cloak self-interested policies in high moral purposes -- and have such interpretations disseminated widely and persuasively through the nation's press -- outraged and frightened the agrarian reformers, convincing them of the need for a new political party free of corporate control."

Although many of the "populist" farm policy seeds would later flower in the form of constructive state and national farm and anti-corporate legislation, the Peoples Party demise as a political force came in the 1896 presidential election when the "silverites," who proposed unlimited silver coinage, captured control of the Party, amalgamated with the Democrats as William Jennings Bryan co-opted much of the "populist" rhetoric, and were beaten decisively by William McKinley and the Republicans.

Meanwhile, many men, women and children were leaving their farms during this period to resettle in company mill towns or push further west in pursuit of the golden dream. Ironically, as each new invention supposedly manufactured to ease and enrich rural life reached farms from the nation's mighty industrial machine, farmers themselves were disappearing into the cities to provide a cheap labor pool for the manufacturers.

Clearly, the later half of the 19th century was marked by considerable confusion and shifting values. The new materialistic "gospel of success" was replacing the ethics of the village and powerful "captains of industry" like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller were the emulated heroes of the day.

With the increasing migration from country to city and the immigration from abroad, the demand for food, large amounts of it, storable and readily available, became an important part of the nation's burgeoning economy. Out of this need came the birth of giant food manufacturing, processing, transporting, wholesaling and marketing companies which in a few short decades would evolve into the nation's largest industry -- agribusiness. As they grew farm technology also grew, but while productivity per person showed remarkable advances so also did farm debt load.

As we examine the 20th century transformation of agriculture into corporate agribusiness, we need to remember that this brief history was but the early stage of a specialized agricultural system designed to reward the few at the expense of the many.

In reviewing the major historical 19th century environmental themes Dr. Joseph Petulla in his classic book "American Environmental History" aptly sums up the early evolution of our farm economy:

"First, I suggest that the economic rationality of American democracy has tended to lead to economic concentration, a waste of natural resources; and environmental degradation (also an inequitable distribution of wealth ...).

"Second, business imperatives, rather than environmental or social concerns, and technological developments have increased the exploitation and processing of natural resources.

"Third, at the same time, the nation has become increasingly tied together through cheap transportation and regional specialization of resource extraction or processing.

"Fourth, American political policy and legal institutions have generally supported the logic of private enterprise development, promoting and defending individual private property rights over social and environmental concerns, eschewing control of private lands even for purposes of conservation; and also providing abundant government assistance for the profitable purposes of agriculture, lumber, oil and mining interests. The government has increasingly underwritten the needs of the larger companies representing the more 'rationalized,' efficient sectors of their respective industries."

A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203; email;

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