Although the population of the United States grew dramatically during the late nineteenth century, the vast expansion of land being farmed and the beginnings of mechanized agriculture soon led to overproduction and falling prices. Farmers protested these developments, blaming government policies, the railroads, and the processors of agricultural products.
During the 1870’s and 1880’s, a series of bad weather cycles plagued American farmers. Compounding these cycles was the general downward trend of prices from the end of the U.S. Civil War to the early 1890’s. The amount of land being farmed in the United States more than doubled as the Great Plains were settled and brought into production. Prices for many farm commodities fell by 50 percent over a thirty-year period, before reaching some stability during the mid-1890’s. Many farmers became involved in the crop lien system, and farm indebtedness rose dramatically.
In the West, farming and cattle ranching would have hardly been possible without railroad connections to the markets of the East, yet producers felt at the mercy of the railroads, the grain elevator operations, and the millers, meatpackers, and other agricultural processors. Farm organizations that had begun as social and educational ventures, such as the
These alliances organized protests and other political activities designed to make their voices heard. They backed the political candidates of both the Republican and the Democratic Parties who promised to represent their interests. The major farmers’ alliances were the Northern Farmers’ Alliance, with about two million members; the Southern Farmers’ Alliance, with about two million white members; and a separate Colored Farmers’ National Alliance that represented about one million southern black farmers. These organizations had some success in electing state and local legislators and governors and in passing state laws regulating railroads and grain elevator operations.
During the early 1890’s, representatives from several of these farm organizations helped form the People’s Party, also known as the
Argersinger, Peter H. The Limits of Agrarian Radicalism: Western Populism and American Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. Schwartz, Michael. Radical Protest and Social Structure: The Southern Farmers’ Alliance and Cotton Tenancy, 1880-1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.