AP U.S. History Notes

Agrarian Discontent in the Late 19th Century

Prompt: “Why did the farmers express discontent during 1870-1900, and what impact did their new attitudes and actions have on national politics?

During the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, the United States’ large farmer population was growing increasingly discontent with the state of political affairs. Deflation, debts, mortgage foreclosures, high tariffs, and unfair railroad freight rates contributed to the farmers’ unrest and desire for political reform. Farmers sought immediate and radical change through political means. The establishment of the Farmer’s Alliance and the Populist Party had drastic repercussions in national politics including the introduction of new ideas regarding monetary policy and government’s role in the economy.

Before 1870, the global economy was performing poorly because of widespread crop failures in other countries. American farmers took advantage of this and began growing large quantities of wheat, which they could sell for a high profit. However, by 1890 the global economy had rebounded causing wheat prices in the global market to plummet. Consequently, American farmers were hit hard and forced to sell their crop at lower prices. Similar to the “King Cotton” economy of the Civil War South, the nineteenth century Midwest economy was also “single crop” and thus prone to the effects of global market swings. The sudden increase of wheat quantities available in the world market caused a deflationary effect in the Midwest. There was simply not enough money to go around. Farmers were forced to mortgage their property and their crop in order to make ends meet. Many farmers lost their land to the “evils” of the “mortgage system” (Doc. B). As mortgage foreclosures increased, so did the number of farmers forced into tenancy. By 1900, the majority of Midwest farmers were tenants—unable to afford their own land. However, Midwest farmers were faced with other, more severe atrocities that eventually impacted national politics.

Government corruption also contributed greatly to the farmers’ discontent. From their perspectives, it seemed like the government was doing everything in its power to injure the Midwest region and thus, its farmers. Railroad companies charged exorbitant rates that were “up to four times as large as Eastern rates” (Doc. F). Farmers had no other choice but to pay the grossly inflated freight fees in order to get their crop to market. Eventually, farmers began to clamor for government control of the railroads. To the farmers, it was the duty of the government to protect the general public, even at the cost of corporations or private companies (Doc. C). The government finally responded to the farmers’ demands with the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The ICC was in charge of supervising railroad companies and ensuring that they conduct business ethically and post their rates openly. However, this organization proved to be ineffective at taming the ravenous railroads. In fact, many railroad insiders viewed the ICC as a tool to be utilized rather than an authority to be obeyed. Future United States Attorney General, Richard Olney, wrote in a letter to the president of the Chicago and Burlington Railroad, “The Commission . . . can be made of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of railroads, [and] at the same time that supervision is almost entirely nominal” (Doc. E). In this manner, railroad companies increased their participation in politics, often bribing legislators in order to tighten their own grip on the government (Doc. F). “Robber barons” like William H. Vanderbilt cared nothing for the plight of the Midwest farmers. These “robber barons” charged unreasonable rates to farmers in order to pay off financial obligations arising from the dishonest practice of “stock watering”. In 1883, Vanderbilt famously said, “The public be damned!”, once again showing the railroad companies’ lack of concern for public interests. However, this was not the only complaint Midwest farmers made about the U.S. government.

Midwest farmers expressed further discontent with the U.S. government on the issue of taxes. During the Civil War, the U.S. government had increased taxes to raise revenue for the relentless war machine, but had neglected to lower them back down after the conflict had concluded. The high taxes and tariffs—especially the McKinley Tariff (which raised rates up to 48.4%)—were especially devastating to Midwest farmers. Farmers were forced to purchase more-expensive American-manufactured goods rather than cheaper foreign goods because of the “protective” high tariff. Then, farmers had to turn around and sell their crops in international, unprotected markets with highly competitive rates. The U.S. high tariff policy was clearly beneficial to the industrial giants and the city-dwellers. However, farmers believed that the government should look more favorably upon farmers who, of course, provide all of the food to the nation. A famous poster entitled “The Farmer’s Grievances” (Doc. A) expresses the agrarian idea that all other walks of life are dependent upon the work of farmers. William Jennings Bryan also expresses this same idea in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Farmers felt that their interests were consistently being overlooked by the government which was being controlled from behind-the-scenes by corrupt “robber barons”, railroad companies, and industrial giants with big-city interests.

Midwest farmers were clearly justified in their discontent with the U.S. government during the late nineteenth century; however, organized opposition was slow to materialize. The majority of Americans had always been firm believers in the Jeffersonian idea of a free economy without government intervention; however, to the countless farmers struggling to subsist from month to month, the time had come for the government to step in and protect the interests of the general public. In the words of F.B. Tracy “. . . Like a lightning flash, the idea of political action ran through the alliances. . . . and with one bound the Farmers’ Alliance went into politics all over the West” (Doc. F). The Farmers’ Alliance impacted U.S. politics right from the start. First, it organized farmers and set up lines of communication for outraged farmers to express their ideas to other like-minded individuals. Before the Alliance, farmers had been disorganized and too weak to effect any political change. By acting together, the farmers were able to raise clamor loud enough that Washington was forced to recognize the honest farmer’s plight. Second, the Alliance promoted higher crop prices through collective action by a large group of farmers. However, their actions had little effect on the crop prices because the majority of farmers were too indebted to participate in the Alliance’s cash-purchase plans. Lastly, the Farmer’s Alliance paved the way to the ultimate development of the Populist Party, also known as the People’s Party. Since the majority of the Farmers’ Alliance members lived in the Midwest United States (Doc. D), the Populist Party focused on improving the plight of the average farmer. The Populist Party’s platform was radical—even revolutionary—for the time. The Populists proposed a bimetallic standard with “free and unlimited coinage of silver” at the ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to one ounce of gold, a graduated income tax, a one-term limit on the presidency, government ownership of the railroads and other public services, a shorter workday, and the direct election of senators—all in the true spirit of democracy. Populists believed that each of these components were integral to establishing a true democracy that would protect the people because, after all, the government should work for the people, not the other way around. However, the Populists also had some negative consequences on American politics. For example, the Populist clamor for free silver caused foreign countries to doubt the future soundness of U.S. money and recall loans to the U.S. government. The British fervently opposed U.S. adoption of the bimetallic standard often calling its supporters “. . . hopelessly ignorant and savagely covetous waifs and strays of American civilization. . . .” (Doc. H). Some historians argue that even the mere talk of adopting the bimetallic standard launched the U.S. into the Depression of 1893. Though it is doubtful that the Populists single-handedly caused the American economy to plummet, their “free silver” talk undoubtedly did cause American credit to be questioned abroad. Although the Populists had negative impacts on U.S. politics, they also benefited the U.S. in many ways and left a lasting legacy.

Though the Populist Party’s life was short-lived, their presidential candidate did receive twenty-two electoral votes, proving that a third party could rank on the electoral level in a presidential election. Also, the Populists’ calls for the direct election of senators were eventually realized when the U.S. adopted the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. Also, many Populist ideals were incorporated into the Democratic Party and thus Populism lived on even after the death of the Party.


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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Agrarian Discontent in the Late 19th Century" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Sep. 2019. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/sample-essays/agrarian-discontent-in-the-late-19th/>.
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