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Farmers Alliance Essay, Research Paper
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
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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