Annotation: After the Civil War, Drought, plagues of grasshoppers, boll weevils, rising costs, falling prices, and high interest rates made it increasingly difficult to make a living as a farmer. In the South, one third of all landholdings were operated by tenants. Approximately 75 percent of African American farmers and 25 percent of white farmers tilled land owned by someone else.
Every year, the prices farmers received for their crops seemed to fall. Corn fell from 41 cents a bushel in 1874 to 30 cent by 1897. Farmers made less money planting 24 million acres of cotton in 1894 than they did planting 9 million acres in 1873. Facing high interests rates of upwards of 10 percent a year, many farmers found it impossible to pay off their debts. Farmers who could afford to mechanize their operations and purchase additional land could successful compete, but smaller, more poorly financed farmers, working on small plots marginal land, struggled to survive.
Many farmers blamed railroad owners, grain elevator operators, land monopolists, commodity futures dealers, mortgage companies, merchants, bankers, and manufacturers of farm equipment for their plight. Many attributed their problems to discriminatory railroad rates, monopoly prices charged for farm machinery and fertilizer, an oppressively high tariff, an unfair tax structure, an inflexible banking system, political corruption, corporations that bought up huge tracks of land. They considered themselves to be subservient to the industrial Northeast, where three-quarters of the nation's industry was located. They also criticized a deflationary monetary policy based on the gold standard that benefited bankers and other creditors.
The first major rural protest was the Patrons of Husbandry, which was founded in 1867 and had 1.5 million members by 1875. Known as the Granger Movement, these embattled farmers formed buying and selling cooperatives and demanded state regulation of railroad rates and grain elevator fees.
Early in the 1870's the Greenback party agitated for the issue of paper money, not backed by gold or silver, with the idea that a depreciating currency would make it easier for debtors to meet their obligations.
Another wave of protest grew out of the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union (the Southern Farmers Alliance) formed in Lampasas, Texas in 1874 and 1875. In 1886, the alliance laid out its political agenda.
Document: We, the delegates of the Grand State Alliance…assembled at Cleburne, Texas, August, 1886…do demand of our State and national governments…such legislation as shall secure to our people freedom from the onerous and shameful abuses that the industrial classes are now suffering at the hands of arrogant capitalists and powerful corporations.
We demand, first, the recognition…of trade unions, co-operative stores and such other associations as may be organized by the industrial classes to improve their financial condition or promote their general welfare.
2. We demand that all public school lands be sold in small bodies, not exceeding three hundred and twenty acres to each purchaser, for actual settlers on easy terms of payment.
7. We demand that all fences be removed, by force if necessary, from public or school lands unlawfully fenced by cattle companies, syndicates or any other form or name of monopoly.
12. We demand the establishment of a national bureau of labor statistics, that we may arrive at a correct knowledge of the moral, intellectual, and financial condition of the laboring masses of our citizens….
13. We demand the enactment of laws to compel corporations to pay their employees according to contract in lawful money for their services….
14. We demand the passage of an interstate commercial law that shall secure the same rates of freight to all persons for the same class of merchandise, according to the distance of haul, without regard to amount of shipment; to prevent the granting of rebates; to prevent pooling freight to shut out competition, and to secure to the people the benefits of railroad transportation at reasonable cost.
15. We demand that all convicts be confined in prison walls, and the contract system [the convict lease system] abolished.