The future looked bright for American farmers during the mid-1800s. Wheat sold for almost $1.50 a bushel, and the price for cotton rose to about $1.25 a pound during the Civil War. But increased competition from farmers in other countries, including Canada, Russia, and Australia, sent American crop prices spiraling downward. By the 1890s, wheat sold for 60 cents a bushel, and the price for a pound of cotton fell below 6 cents.
The quickly expanding railroad industry also played a part in breaking the spirit—and bank account—of the American farmer. Fierce competition among rail companies prompted the introduction of rebate offers to large shippers. The pricing hurt farmers because railroads charged more for hauling products short distances than they charged for long trips. The high cost of moving goods to grain elevators or cotton brokerages, and the excessive rates operators charged for storage, often consumed farmers’ profits.
For many homesteaders, the only way to keep their land was to mortgage their farm and hope that the next year’s crop would be plentiful. However, loan companies—typically located on the east coast—charged outrageous interest rates up to 40 percent. The deflated market and rising operational costs made it impossible to repay the loans and forced farmers by the hundreds to lose ownership of their land. Farm tenancy, similar to Old World serfdom, spread so quickly throughout the Midwest and the South that by 1880 farm tenants operated nearly one quarter of all American farms.
The bleak and seemingly hopeless circumstances pushed American farmers, who were typically independent by nature, to join forces. In 1867, Minnesota farmer Oliver H. Kelley organized The National Grange of Patrons of Husbandry—more commonly known as the Grange. Kelley’s organization offered isolated farmers an outlet for social and educational activities. The Grange sponsored picnics, concerts, and lectures for its members, which numbered more than 800,000 by 1875.
To improve the plight of the farmers, Grangers established cooperatively owned stores, grain elevators, and warehouses. Some members even entered the political world and supported legislation to regulate railroad transportation rates and product storage fees. However, the regulated corporations hired high-priced lawyers to fight many of the poorly written Granger Laws.
As the Grangers’ influence faded, farmers refocused their efforts and established the Farmers’ Alliance in the late 1870s. Similar to the Grange, the Alliance offered farmers opportunities to socialize and support cooperative buying and selling. By 1890, membership totaled more than one million male and female farmers. Racial turbulence in the United States, especially in the south, forced black farmers to establish a separate Colored Farmers’ National Alliance, which ballooned to more than 250,000 members during the early 1890s.
Frustrated agrarians used the Alliance as a springboard to organize a new political party. Initially called the People’s Party, and later labeled the more widely known Populist Party, it called for the nationalization of railroads, telephones, and telegraph; the introduction of a gradual income tax; and the establishment of a new federal subtreasury, which would warehouse farmers’ nonperishable products and provide them loans until market prices rose.
Members of the Populist Party, primarily from the south and west, also called for free and unlimited silver coinage. In 1873, advocates for gold and greenbacks (paper money) wanted to prevent new silver discoveries in the west from expanding the money supply, and pushed Congress to “demonetize” silver. Farmers, however, feared a limited money supply would further depress already low market prices. Populists believed that an expanded money supply—with a free supply of silver—would raise prices, stimulate the economy, and increase financial opportunities.
When Congress refused to pass legislation to help relieve the farmer’s problems, Populists stunned Republicans and Democrats by electing their own representatives. In the 1890s, Populists won congressional seats in Kansas, Minnesota, California, and Nebraska, and governorships in Colorado, Washington, and Montana. As the Populists gained political power, they successfully passed legislation regulating banks and railroads, and instituted caps on interest rates.
Determined to curtail the growing number of corporate monopolies that threatened their livelihood, discontented agrarians joined together to propel the Populist Party to national prominence. Members of the Farmers’ Alliance, the Grange, and the Greenback Party elected their own Populist representatives to cut through the political rhetoric and remedy farmers’ problems. On July 4, 1892, Populists gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, to nominate former Greenbacker James B. Weaver for president.
The group also established a party platform, called the Omaha Platform, to “end the injustice, oppression, and poverty” that members believed were perpetuated by the policies of the old political parties. The platform formally outlined Populist plans for government ownership of the railroads and the telephone and telegraph systems, the subtreasury system, free silver coinage, a graduated income tax, and a national currency backed by the government rather than private banks. The Omaha Platform also called for reforms in the election process, such as the use of secret ballots, to make elections more democratic and fair.
In the presidential election on 1892, Populist candidate Weaver collected more than one million votes. Although most party members felt satisfied with the respectable showing, others were disappointed with the results. Many Populists accused Republican and Democrats, primarily in southern states, of using violence to intimidate voters. It is more likely, however, that Weaver’s loss to Democrat Grover Cleveland in the south was due to the lack of support for a Populist biracial reform position among white Southern Democrats. Also, many unfamiliar with the ideals of the Alliance and the Populist platform, remained loyal to their traditional political parties. Undaunted by the loss, Populist Party leaders worked to expand their support throughout the growing nation.
The anger toward big business and tyrannical owners spread beyond the farmer, the core group of the Populist Party, to workers in every industry. Work strikes became popular responses to combat labor disputes. In the summer of 1892, a lockout of unionists at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead steel plant turned violent when plant manager Henry Clay Frick hired 300 Pinkerton detectives to protect nonunion replacement workers and guard the plant. The Pinkertons’ reputation as strike-busters added tension to the volatile situation. The clash between the striking employees and guards left ten people dead and more than 60 wounded. The governor of Pennsylvania eventually called on the state militia to keep the plant open and protect nonunion workers. The violent incident ended the strike and also broke the union.
Two years after the Homestead strike, workers staged another prominent uprising when they challenged wage cuts at George Pullman’s Palace Sleeping Car Company. Pullman enacted a payroll reduction but refused to lower rent in the company-owned town of Pullman, where most company employees lived. The workers, with support from American Railway Union leader Eugene V. Debs, ordered a boycott of any train with Pullman cars. The strike forced trains to sit idle and backed up miles of track both in and out of Chicago. Using the excuse that the mail cars were unable to move, railroad owners sought help from President Cleveland, who dispatched federal troops to the area. When Debs refused to honor a court injunction against the strike, authorities arrested him and broke the strike.
During the early 1890s, poor market conditions for farmers and ongoing labor unrest plunged the nation into severe depression. Railroad overexpansion, an inadequate banking system, limited credit, and reduced American exports to Europe fed the Panic of 1893. By the end of the year hundreds of banks closed, thousands of businesses declared bankruptcy, and more than 20 percent of the workforce became jobless. With no government programs to assist the unemployed, many families lost their homes, and men, women, and children scavenged for food.
In 1894, businessman Jacob Coxey organized a march on Washington to persuade the federal government to provide jobs to the jobless. The Populist from Ohio proposed using paper money to finance a public works program to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Coxey claimed the plan would put men back to work, enhance the nation’s roadways, and stimulate the economy. President Cleveland, however, did not believe the government should protect the weak or unfortunate. The functions of the government, he said, do not include the support of the people.
The press dubbed the marchers Coxey’s Army and followed the group’s journey to the steps of the Capitol. Government leaders, though, had no intention of letting Coxey plead his case. Police arrested him for trespassing and refused to let him present his plan to Congress. The coldhearted treatment of Coxey and his cause proved to Americans that the Cleveland administration had little sympathy for unfortunate citizens.
The depression of the 1890s, and President Cleveland’s unwillingness to use federal resources to assist the unemployed, alienated irate farmers and workers from the Democratic Party. During the 1892 and 1894 elections, Democrats suffered large Congressional seat losses while Republicans and Populists each achieved significant gains.
As the presidential election of 1896 drew closer and political leaders worked to define party platforms, currency standards became the hottest issue. While Republicans endorsed the gold standard to win east coast industrialist votes, Populists continued to support unlimited silver coinage to increase the money supply. Democrats, meanwhile, were split as they struggled to find a common direction for their party and overcome the unpopular actions and policies of the Cleveland administration.
At the Democratic convention in Chicago, the commanding presence of William Jennings Bryan captured the attention of the delegates as he spoke in favor of using the ratio of 16 ounces of silver to 1 ounce of gold to create coins. Bryan’s support of silver over gold angered those who favored only gold, commonly called Goldbugs. But through a series of speeches, primarily in the south and west where farmers and silver miners lived, support for Bryan’s plan grew rapidly.
Many considered the 36-year-old, two-term congressman from Nebraska one of the best speakers of the day. Bryan rose to national prominence when he fought for the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which required the treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver each month. The agreement, he claimed, would have a harmful inflationary impact on the economy. Bryan used his exceptional oratory skills to call for the implementation of silver coinage and an end to the big business-backed gold standard.
"We have petitioned and our petitions have been scorned,” Bryan told the audience. “We have entreated and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer. We entreat no more. We petition no more. We defy them."
Bryan concluded his speech with a phrase that appeared in newspapers across the country and set the tone for the Democratic campaign. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns,” he warned, describing the usage of unlimited coinage of silver and gold as a “holy cause.” “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” He then dramatically extended his arms as if he were on a crucifix.
Bryan’s spectacular “Cross of Gold” speech invoked a resounding response from the delegates. The convention promptly adopted a platform calling for unlimited coinage of silver and gold at a ratio of 16 to 1, and then nominated the energetic Bryan for president. However, not everyone agreed with the nomination. Pro-gold Democrats refused to support Bryan and instead nominated their own candidate, Senator John M. Palmer of Illinois. The move was an obvious attempt to hinder Bryan’s quest to follow through on his silver coinage strategy. “I will not consider it any great fault if you decide to cast your vote for William McKinley,” Palmer exclaimed, referring to the Republican presidential nominee.
The Democrats’ decision to nominate Bryan created a predicament for the Populist Party. If they selected their own candidate, they risked splitting the pro-silver vote, which would give McKinley and the gold-supporting Republicans the White House. However, if they also nominated Bryan, they would lose their party identity. The Populists eventually nominated Bryan, but to separate themselves from the Democrats, they replaced vice-presidential candidate Arthur Sewall with Tom Watson, a former leader of the Farmer’s Alliance.
Republicans looked to capitalize on their popularity in the upper Midwest and the Northeast. McKinley, governor of Ohio and a strong proponent of high tariffs, generated substantial support from wealthy industrialists. Ohio businessman Marcus Alonzo Hanna raised more than three million dollars to promote McKinley’s candidacy. Hanna understood the power of brochures and newspapers as promotional tools and blanketed cities with 250 million pieces of campaign literature in English and the native languages of immigrants, including German, Swedish, Polish, and Italian. He also sent 1,500 speakers across the nation to preach about the qualities, abilities, and ideals of the Republican nominee.
During the 1800s, politicians rarely played large roles in their own campaigns because it was considered improper to blatantly pursue the presidency. While Bryan shunned tradition and traveled thousands of miles to take advantage of his considerable public speaking skills, Hanna advised McKinley to conduct a front-porch campaign. Thousands of people from across the country converged on McKinley’s front lawn in Canton, Ohio, to hear him deliver brief speeches. Railroad owners who supported McKinley offered discounted fares so people from every state could afford to hear the Republican speak. Assistants carefully coordinated the arrival and departure of different groups so McKinley could tailor his speeches to the interests of his audience. With his mother and wife at his side, the candidate then hosted small receptions and shook hands with individual delegates.
The candidates spent weeks vying for the support of voters, but Bryan’s focus on the silver issue eventually hurt him. The Democrat discussed how the influx of silver would help indebted farmers, but he failed to appeal to the people in urban areas who cared about jobs, wages, and enhanced working conditions. Both McKinley and Hanna had solid relationships with labor groups and company owners. However, some industrialists turned to threats to guarantee a Republican win. “You may vote any way you wish,” some plant owners allegedly told their workers, “but if Bryan is elected on Tuesday, the whistle will not blow on Wednesday.”
When authorities tallied election results, Bryan carried all of the states of the former Confederacy and many of the states in the Plains and the mountain west, but it was not enough. McKinley collected 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 176. The battle between silver and gold, as it turned out, had little impact on the future of America’s currency. In the years following the election, new gold discoveries in Colorado, Alaska, Australia, and South Africa led to an expansion of the money supply. And inflation from the new supply of gold was greater than what many anticipated would be the result of free silver.
The economic recovery catapulted Republicans to the front of the political stage and established them as the party of prosperity. The strong Republican performance left Democrats with only sectional followers, primarily poor southern farmers who supported aging policies and failed to recognize industrial advances. The Populist Party lost many of its members and faded from the American political landscape.
McKinley won re-election in 1900, again defeating Bryan and the aging Democratic platform. Much like the previous election, McKinley campaigned from the comfort of his home and Bryan toured the country speaking to anyone who would listen. However, this time the Republicans presented their own roving politician when vice-presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt traveled from state to state. His brash and charismatic personality stole the limelight from the smooth-talking Bryan and helped McKinley post an even larger win than he experienced in 1896.The election of 1900 was perhaps the most significant election after the victories of Abraham Lincoln because it marked a change in American politics. No longer would presidential candidates make concerted efforts to court the agrarian vote. Rather, big business and large urban centers would greatly influence the outcome of elections as opposed to votes being widely dispersed throughout the United States. Republicans remained in office for 16 consecutive years after the election of 1900 and shaped America to reflect their values. As Republican concerns became increasingly aligned with the concerns of prosperous, white collar, corporate-minded Americans, the face of the Republican Party shifted. African Americans and less affluent Americans, who at one time formed the core of the party, left in search of a political organization that would represent their interests.