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Farmers Alliance Essay, Research Paper

Farmers Alliance

In the 1880s, as drought hit the wheat-growing areas of the Great Plains and

prices for Southern cotton sunk to new lows, many tenant farmers fell into deep

debt. This exacerbated long-held grievances against railroads, lenders,

grain-elevator owners, and others with whom farmers did business. By the early

1890s, as the depression worsened, some industrial workers shared these farm

families’ views on labor and the trusts.

By the end of the 1880s, farmers had formed two major organizations: the

National Farmer?s Alliance, located on the Plains west of the Mississippi and

know as the Northwestern Alliance, and the Farmers? Alliance and Industrial

Union, based in the South and known as the Southern Alliance.

The southern alliance began in Texas in 1875 but did not assume major

proportions until Dr. Charles W. Macune took over the leadership in 1886. Its

agents spread across the South, where farmers were fed up with crop liens,

depleted lands, and sharecropping. By 1890, the Southern Alliance claimed more

than a million members. Like the Grange, the Alliance distributed educational

materials, and it also established cooperative grain elevators, marketing

associations, and retail stores.

Loosely affiliated with the South en Alliance, the separate Colored Farmers?

National Alliance and Cooperative Union enlisted black farmers in the South.

Claiming over a million members, it probably had closer to 250, 000. Blacks

organized at considerable peril. In 1891, when black cotton pickers struck for

higher wages near Memphis, the strike was violently put down; fifteen strikers

were lynched. The abortive strike ended the Colored Farmers? Alliance.

On the Plains, the Northwestern Alliance, a smaller organization, was formed

in 1880. But it lacked the centralized organization of the southern alliance. In

1889, the Southern Alliance changed its name to the national Farmers Alliance

and Industrial Union and persuaded the three strongest state alliance in the

Plains to join. Thereafter, the new organization dominated the Alliance


The Alliance turned early to politics. In the West, its leader rejected both

the Republicans and the Democrats and organized their own party. The Southern

Alliance resisted the idea of a new party for fear it might divide the white

votes, thus undercutting white supremacy. Instead, the Southerners wanted to

capture control of the dominant Democratic Party. But regardless of their

political positions, such figures and Leonidas Polk, president of the National

Farmers? Alliance, Jeremiah Simpson of Kansas, and Mary E. Lease provided the

movement with forceful leadership.

Meeting in Ocala, Florida, in 1890, the Alliance adopted the Ocala Demands,

the platform it pushed for as long as it existed. First and foremost, the

demands called for the creation of a sub-treasury system, which would allow

farmers to store their crops in government warehouses. In return, they could

claim Treasury notes for up to 80 percent of the local market value of the crop,

a loan to be repaid when the crops were sold. Farmers could thus hold their

crops for the best price. The Ocala Demands also urged the free coinage of

silver, an end to protective tariffs, and national banks, and federal income

tax, the direct election of senators, and stricter regulation of the railroad


The Alliance strategy worked well in the election of 1890. Alliance leaders

claimed thirty-eight Alliance supporters elected to Congress, with at least a

dozen more pledged to Alliance principles. In 1890, Populists won control of the

Kansas state legislature, and Kansan William Peffer became the party’s first

U.S. Senator. Peffer, with his long white beard, was a humorous figure to many

Eastern journalists and politicians, who saw little evidence of Populism in

their states and often treated the party as a joke. Nonetheless, Western and

Southern Populists gained support rapidly. In 1892 the national party was

officially founded through a merger of the Farmers’ Alliance and the Knights of

Labor. In that year the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, won

over one million votes. Between 1892 and 1896, however, the party failed to make

further gains, in part because of fraud, intimidation, and violence by Southern


By 1896 the Populist organization was in even more turmoil than that of

Democrats. Two main factions had appeared. One, the fusion Populists, sought to

merge with the Democrats, using the threat of independent organization to force

changes in the major party’s platform. The Populist organization in Kansas had

already "fused"–over the bitter protest of those who considered this

a sell-out. Fusionists argued that the regionally based third party could never

hold national power; the best strategy was to influence a major party that


The second faction, called "mid-roaders," suspected (with good

reason) that Democratic leaders wanted to destroy the third-party threat;

fusion, they argued, would play into this plot. These Populists advocated

staying "in the middle of the road," between the two larger parties,

and not merging with either. In practice, these Populists were not "in the

middle," but more sweeping in their political goals than either of the

major parties, while Fusionists were more willing to compromise in hopes of

winning powerful Democratic allies. Mid-roaders like Tom Watson warned that

"fusion means the Populist party will play Jonah, and they will play the


Inside the People’s Party, mid-roaders sought to schedule the national

convention before those of the Republicans and Democrats. They lost this fight,

and Fusionists selected a date after the major-party meetings, hoping that

silver Democrats would win a dramatic victory in the Chicago convention. When

this happened–with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan on a free-silver

platform–mid-roaders found themselves in a difficult spot.

By the start of the convention in Saint Louis July 24-26, 1896, relations

between mid-roaders and fusionists were tense; the latter were clearly in

communication with Bryan’s manager, James K. Jones of Arkansas. One of the most

popular and eloquent mid-roaders, Tom Watson of Georgia, stayed home–either

because he sensed disaster, or more likely because hoped mid-roaders would win

control of the convention and nominate him for president. According to tradition

(which McKinley followed and Bryan did not), presidential hopefuls did not

appear at the party’s convention, but waited modestly at home for news of their


The convention was a disaster for mid-roaders, as the convention endorsed the

Democratic presidential nominee, making William Jennings Bryan the candidate of

both the Democratic and Populist parties. When mid-roaders tried to stage a

counter-rally, the lights in their meeting hall mysteriously went out–though

they were burning brightly fifteen minutes after the group gave and went home.

Mid-roaders did defeat the nomination of Arthur Sewall, Democrats’

vice-presidential choice, who was too conservative and anti-labor for the

Populist convention to stomach. Instead, Populists chose Tom Watson of Georgia.

Watson, editor of the People’s Party Paper, was a dedicated Populist who had

endured abuse and death threats from some Democrats in his state who feared the

People’s Party.

Watson accepted the nomination only because he believed a deal had been

struck with Jones, in which Bryan would renounce Sewall, making "Bryan and

Watson" both the Democratic and Populist ticket. Fusionist leaders had not

obtained such a promise–or, if they had, they were betrayed afterward by their

erstwhile Democratic allies.

Upon discovering this when the convention was over, Watson refused to

campaign for Bryan, denouncing the deceit. At the same time, he refused to step

down in favor of Sewall. Watson and other mid-roaders argued that their party’s

platform was substantially different from the Democrats’ Chicago platform, even

if the latter represented a substantial shift for that party. Watson and others

focused on issues rather than individuals, hoping to rescue the third party from

the 1896 debacle and revive it another year.

Fusionist Populists campaigned enthusiastically for Bryan; many Republicans

and Gold Democrats depicted "Populists" and "Silver

Democrats" as a united opposition, though this was far from the case. Some

mid-road Populists, like the Kansas orator Mary Lease, reluctantly campaigned

for Bryan while calling attention to Populists’ broader goals.

Compared with silver Democrats, Populists advocated more sweeping federal

intervention to offset the economic depression, curtail corporate abuses, and

prevent poverty among farming and working-class families. They made a stronger

statement than the major parties in support of Cuban independence and raised

other issues–such as statehood for Territories and the District of

Columbia–that Republicans and Democrats did not address. The platform was,

however, less radical than the state-level platforms of Western Populist

organizations, some of which had called for woman suffrage.

Because the presidential campaign hinged on the currency issue, this plank

(which Populists had held since the early 1890s, and now shared with the

Democrats) received most attention and debate.

In the national campaign, Populists served mostly as a symbol for

Republicans, who warned that the silver Democrats had allied themselves with

ignorant "hayseeds" and "anarchists." Bryan virtually

ignored the People’s Party, even though he was its nominee. While the nomination

of Bryan had destroyed the hopes of mid-roaders, Bryan’s defeat demoralized the

fusionists, leaving the whole party in shambles. As Watson had predicted, fusion

on the ?free

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