Nineteenth century American history: was it only the Civil War? When we learned about it in high school, our instruction was primarily focused on the Civil War and not much else–at least not much that I can remember. The Civil War was framed as the defining American event of the nineteenth century—end of story. Who could argue? But was it really that way? At one level, it is understandable that such a horrific and culture-changing conflict would receive the kind of attention given to it in our coverage of history. America was transformed by the Civil War, as it ended the mind-numbing practice of slavery and destroyed the economic system of the South. And still today, we remain politically divided by the boundaries of that war when it ended, as the South evolved through Reconstruction into white supremacy and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, which converted the South from Democratic to Republican sectionalism, something like going through a quick, permanent temperature inversion—blue to red almost overnight. As the war drew closer to its state of inevitability, the South knew that it would be struggling for its economic survival and its way of life and fought accordingly. As we all know, the Civil War came with a heavy price-tag. It was the bloodiest war ever fought by Americans (latest death toll @ 750,000, in addition to all the other casualties of war, including large numbers of surviving amputees and other injured soldiers and wounded citizens). The fact that it was fought between Americans seemed only to add to the ferocity of the conflict. But, while the Civil War broke the back and formally ended slavery, with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, it did not eliminate black enslavement in the South, which gained momentum once the Radical Republicans abandoned Reconstruction, through an agreement that emerged from the election of 1876. Based on that agreement all Federal troops were removed from Southern states, as the white Southern Democrats had gained control of state houses. Federal troop withdrawals occurred as white supremacy rose in the South and dominated that culture beyond the first half of the twentieth century. When the Radical Republicans abandoned their interest in Reconstruction, they became the party of business and by that time their zeal for reforming the “Southern mentality” had faded. It was an unfinished job when the Republicans gave up the cause and the South was able to rebound, not with slavery, but with a vicious form of indentured servitude that, for many blacks, must have seemed identical to the system they thought had been lifted from their shoulders.
Did the Civil War end slavery? Following the Civil War, it was the Democratic Party that evolved into the party of white supremacy control in the South. As Reconstruction receded, Southern states formulated “black codes” which generated a new kind of black enslavement through forced labor camps, supported by new state statutes, such as “vagrancy” and “loitering” laws that either returned run-away blacks to such camps or forced others to be imprisoned within them, a practice that did not end until the beginning of World War II. It has been said that the bricks that helped rebuild Atlanta after the Civil War were made in black labor camps by ex-slaves. Because we try to paint our history as a continuous example of American exceptionalism, forever justifying “the shining city on the hill” image we try project about our own history (the world has slowly learned the difference between how we talk about ourselves and our actual behavior…this is especially true of countries in South America and the Middle East). Thus, we have an illusory version of the Civil War and the very founding of our nation. The truth is that America was born in war and war is the first state reflex we manifest, when confrontation arrives on our doorstep. When I learned about the Civil War in high school, like many of you, I was taught that it was fought over “states’ rights,” not slavery; after a century and a half of this delusional interpretation, most historians now insist that the Civil War was fought over slavery, as they try to force peeling back one layer of the onion skin of self-delusional history. The residual argument claimed by the “states rights” advocates is that very few Southerners owned slaves, so why should they fight for a cause so few participated in? So let’s see, why do tea party members vote for the interests of the wealthy at the sacrifice of their own economic well-being? Aren’t the masses usually among the first victims of ideology? Still, the “states’ rights” propaganda continues to be promoted by a few weary southern historians, as well as white people with red necks and perhaps at least one Supreme Court Justice by the name of Anthony Scalia. But if we got the motivation behind the Civil War wrong, what else didn’t we get right about our own history and did we miss something important? Did something in our nineteenth century history go on a magic carpet ride?
What’s missing from nineteenth century American history? Beyond the fading issue of the “states’ rights” interpretation of the Civil War, the version of Nineteenth Century American history most of us were exposed to in our public schools, was first put through a highly selective propaganda filter, before it was given to us dressed up as “the way we wanted it to be” rather than the way it actually was. And we were the messengers of that propaganda as we often relayed our classroom instructional material to our parents in case they missed the most recent iteration of American history. Entirely missing from my public school history experience was any exposure to the single most important, democratic movement in American history, an attempt at reforming our government to usher in a Populist, bottom-up democracy in America, at a time when there was still hope for the kind of democratic government that now seems entirely out of reach. The agrarian revolt was led by poor farmers who formed cooperatives, beginning with the Farmers Alliance of Texas, and tried to break out of the controlling influence of the emerging corporate power structure that held them in peonage. They wanted nothing less than a revolutionary change in the economic system of America and had formulated plans on how to achieve their objectives (sub-treasury plan). And for one brief moment, it seemed like their momentum would generate a stunning change in American politics, because the agrarian revolt was a true national movement that spread from the east coast to the west coast and from Florida to Washington—it was a movement that briefly changed the complexion of politics in America as it resonated deeply with poor farmers and the emerging labor class, who seemingly had no hope before but, inspired by the movement’s ideals, thought that America’s promise for a true democracy might still be achieved and, if so, they were the ones who could make it happen. Poor farmers who had been apolitical in the past became activists and got energetically organized. In the days before television and radio communication, the radical Farmers Alliance sent out 40,000 lecturers across the country to educate other farmers and laborers about who was responsible for their abhorrent economic conditions of enslavement to their own farm. Equipped with the means of arguments, based on insights about the collusional behavior of bankers and merchants, they were able to conceptualize their response to the rising corporatist forces of the country, as they generated a vision for a new America, launched on the grand stage of Populism. The Farmers Alliance transformed the agrarian revolt into the Populist movement which in turn formed the People’s Party, a third party which had its own national convention for the elections of 1892 and 1896 (and a few iterations beyond). It was the election of 1896 that turned out to be a pivotal election for the movement.
The greatest story never told? The history of the agrarian revolt has been hidden from our view of the history of the United States, at least the version that most of us learned in our public schools. Yet, it represents a democratic movement that should be taught in every public school and should be included in every college class that touches on American history. Although much as been written on this subject, and there are several different interpretations of this history, in my opinion, the most thorough and scholarly view of the agrarian revolt has been provided by Lawrence Goodwyn. He wrote two books on the subject, the first of which was “Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America” published in 1976. This book was so popular that Goodwyn wrote a second, shorter version of the history “The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America.” No matter which version you pick, it’s a riveting story and one that every Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activist should read—perhaps they already have. Though the People’s Party failed to gain the influence they had hoped for, their ideals and expectations are reflected in the OWS movement of today, even though that movement has a long way to go before it can claim the kind of influence developed by the Populists of the late nineteenth century.
Is the history of America that of straight-line success story? The introduction of Goodwyn’s first book begins, “This book is about the decline of freedom in America, and that thought, culturally out of step as it is, presents a problem.” “The problem” that Goodwyn refers to is the fact that America is delusional about its own history—the popular theory is that America’s historical development was one of straight line success and that American exceptionalism means that the image of America, as John Winthrop exclaimed in 1630, “we shall be as a city on a hill” is emblematic of our entire history, as long as you don’t dig too deeply. The history Goodwyn addresses in his two books speaks to the failures of our historical maturation to reach the expectations of our founders, based on democratic principles and opportunity for all citizens, instead of the country in which we really live, where corporatism limits our political freedoms by having a stranglehold on our democracy. We have never had a true democracy in America. For example we still elect our President and Vice-President through an electoral college system, not by popular vote. Indeed, the political system we have today—a boring corporatist-controlled, silly set of sound bites, reveal nothing of substance about the topic of discussion. Our economic system is designed to promote and protect those with wealth, and is a highly embarrassing system to be imposed on any society claiming to be civilized and free. Imagine a hundred years from now what historians will say about the level of our public discourse. Today, we trivialize our own electoral process with candidates who know nothing about America, except perhaps its corrupt business creed, which is taken to be normal behavior, business as usual. That we didn’t achieve a People’s Party Democracy and did not adopt the plan that was given to us by the Populists through the agrarian revolt, means that we have suffered a loss of freedom, security and dignity in the land that was supposed to offer advantages for obtaining all those objectives—it was supposed to be straightforward and simple. Goodwyn’s books are now considered historical classics and in many ways they revolutionized our thinking about what the agrarian revolt was all about, its successes and failures and the reasons for both. One cannot help but come away from reading either of these books without thinking that, through the People’s Party, we had one last chance to get it right in America, before we were swallowed by the forces of crude form of toxic capitalism; the radical forms of our current system are now in full synchronization with the advancing globalization of the world’s economy, and on a collision course with the future health of our planet. This system is an impending threat to our future.
Lessons of learning. Students exposed to this material will see the brilliance of the Populist movement, the thoughtful nature of the revolt and the organizational genius that was able to at least partially overcome what no one thought possible: to form a cohesive bond and voting plurality between farmers in the South and North, sweeping across the dividing lines drawn by the Civil War, into a common ideology that incorporated new ideas about the national economy and how it should be transformed to help farmers North and South, East and West. This was a sweeping, breathe-taking movement that stirred the hearts of farmers and laborers alike; it had moments of great triumph, but also quickly faded from our view following the election of 1896. Our failure to tell this inspirational story in our public schools is one of the great tragedies of our public education system and an even greater tragedy for the state of ignorance it imposes on our understanding of our own history: the story of the People’s Party is one of the great stories of a people trying to create a new version of the American dream, for themselves and others like them. In my view America blew a chance to become a better country and through that lost opportunity adopted the vicious form capitalism that denies any responsibility for the environment, the species on the planet or the dangers we have created for our planetary future, because of the greenhouse gas emissions that began in the industrial age. I have had some discussions with people who proudly assume responsibility for this transition into toxic capitalism and I believe that, if all the species vanished tomorrow, you would hear them say something like “Geez, I wish I had sold short on Giraffes.” For these people, everything must be commodified.
The Agrarian/Farmers Revolt. The transformational objective of the “farmers revolt” was to rebuild America into a more cooperative and just society where everyone could live with dignity, beginning with a new day for the American farmers, especially those who lived in abject poverty. The movement began slowly, but after nine years of experimentation, the people of the Farmers Alliance developed powerful methods of mass recruitment into their movement and as Goodwyn states it turned out to be the “world’s first large-scale working class cooperative.” In contrast to the political climate of today, where Republicans are screaming for a smaller government, the farmers of the agrarian revolt demanded a strong Federal government in order to face down the growing power of the corporations and banking interests and bring the forces of capitalism into alignment with their view about how a society should be economically organized. That is one reason why one of their demands was to impose a Federal income tax. Part of the lecturer’s mission, that first began in Texas, where the Farmers Alliance was first formed, was to educate farmers to show them just how the mercantile class was aligned with the banks against their self-interests and how the overthrow of that oppressive system could dramatically improve their lives and help move them out of poverty, by eliminating the vicious crop lien system that had enslaved them without hope for a better future. Then, realizing that they could not achieve their political aims through the formation of farm cooperatives alone, due to the constant lack of credit from the banking and mercantile interests of the country, in 1892, the agrarian revolt transformed into the People’s Party, and formed a national ticket whose pivotal moment was the election of 1896. That election turned out to be America’s last chance to create a true democracy and avoid further control by the forces of corporatism. It was also the first election in which the Republican Party brought big financing into the political landscape of America and sealed forever the possibility that the our national elections would be anything other than an event staged and controlled by the financial system of the country. The election of 1896 turned politics into a contest of resources. Thus, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the vision for America promoted by the Farmer’s Alliance had died and capitalism, with all its interest in converting freedom and opportunity and obscuring history into a mechanism of control, took command of the national agenda and, as a result, we generated the boring national political scene that plagues our politics today and provides us with candidates who are an embarrassment to a civilized nation. The politics of today provides too many examples of shear stupidity and national embarrassment. Sloganeering has replaced Socratic dialog and the intelligent, rousing debate that characterized the Populist revolt. Compounding this problem, or perhaps as a result of it, we are entirely void of a press that might have raised resistance to our current low level of public awareness, which makes the electorate seem as if they have gone through a medical procedure, like a giant, mass cultural lobotomy and they have to make do without a cortex. Replacing cortical function in our political dialog leaves brainstem reactionism—which translates to survivalism of one type or another and that’s something like what the Tea Party represents. In contrast, a vigorous press was not a problem for the agrarian revolt. The popularity of their movement spread like wildfire into small counties throughout the country and one or more local newspapers would emerge spontaneously and add to the hundreds of newspapers across the country that helped spread the word about the movement and publish comments that served to galvanize and popularize local farmers into a system of national cohesion. In contrast to the agrarian picture of vitality, today, in many phases of our social discourse, but especially in our politics, we are fed a pablum to soothe the masses while repetition of message serves as a substitute for truth. And it seems to work. Perhaps this is not surprising: in reality, we have had only two democratizing movements in our history—the Jeffersonians of the eighteenth century and the agrarian farmers of the late nineteenth century and neither succeeded in establishing their democratic ideals. Most importantly, we have nothing to match those two movements in the twentieth century, with the exception of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement which needs lots of growth. Still, we need to get behind that movement and stop behaving as though the solution to our problems can be found by running better candidates for office. The agrarian revolt was based on finding their own candidates who supported and articulated their radical views and many of them had surprising success in the political arena. We are in too deep for voting for the best candidate to work for advancing democratic ideals. In effect, the election of 1896 entombed the fate of our country by endorsing and moving forward the political and economic system of the Gilded Age, whose origins followed the Civil War. That’s how important the election of 1896 was, and, not surprisingly that is the system that we live under today: only the Great Depression of the 1930s prevented us from viewing further into the crystal ball of our future.
A repair job delayed? By allowing the toxic capitalism that exists in America today to dominate our lives, and destroy our environment almost as a side show, we have produced what may be the most listless, contemptuous, disengaging political system in our short history, one that fits none of the ideals envisioned by the Farmer’s Alliance or the documents left to us by our founding fathers. By learning more about the agrarian revolt, we can easily see why it has been removed from the historical record to which we and our children should have been more thoroughly exposed. The Civil War was a horrible conflict, but it was all about repairing a document (the Constitution of 1787) that was flawed from the very beginning—it was a war created by the original sins of the Constitution, so, horrific as the war was, it was a repair job delayed. The Civil War did however, establish the political alignments of the country that are still with us today, though the political polarity for Southern states has reversed. It was the post-Civil War alignment that the agrarian revolt tried to tear down by building a new country across the boundaries of sectionalism. Thus, in contrast to the Civil War, the agrarian revolt tried to reform how the Civil War and the Gilded Age had entombed America. Their plan was completely different—it looked towards the future of America, not its past and promised hope as the movement articulated a much clearer blueprint for the future of America than that provided by either of the two major parties. It was a non-racist view of the country; it supported labor rights and gender equity. As one Populist defined the situation, “we have an overproduction of poverty, barefooted women, political thieves and many liars. There is no difference between legalized robbery and highway robbery….If you listen to other classes, you have only three rights…to work, to starve and to die.” Had their blueprint for a different America been implemented, we would surely have a far more democratic country today. It is inspiring just to learn there was once an alternative hope for America. The promise of the Populists was to remake the country’s democratic ideals and force the evolution of the country into one in which everyone had an opportunity to succeed and live a life with dignity. To achieve that objective, they wanted to take the treasury system out of the hands of the bankers and use “greenback dollars” (dollars not linked to silver or gold) as a source of low interest Federal loans to farmers, so they could hold their products in storage until a reasonable price (based on loans with interest at 2 per cent each year) could be obtained on the market. The greenback dollars could be used as cash. The reformers did not couch their words in simple party planks, but began each topic with the words “We Demand!” But, for many reasons, the movement fell short of its promise and the country capitulated to the forces of capitalism, allowing the economic system of the Gilded Age, to become the political and economic system we have today, where financial control is through the Federal Reserve, our banking system and the corporatist structure of globalization. You need only look to the recent bailout of our financial system to see where the epicenter of power is in this country. It’s a top-down economic system that earns great wealth for those at the top, but an increasingly hollowed out culture for those at the bottom and even in between. Those outcomes were all determined by the election of 1896 and its aftermath. If your history lesson was anything like mine, you never heard about this fascinating movement that fell tragically short of its objectives. But those farmers tried hard to give us a legacy of a better America and perhaps we should all learn more about who they were and how they operated. There plan it seems to me was the “true audacity of hope.” At the moment, our only hope to ignite something similar to the agrarian revolt is to strongly support and engage with the OWS movement. Perhaps stirrings like those evident in the agrarian revolt could be reignited in America, but it needs to happen soon!
to be continued………
(Note: this material was taken from the two Goodwyn books referred to above and various websites, including Wikipedia; the cartoon was taken from the website http://catalog.flatworldknowledge.com/bookhub/2044?e=trowbridge2_1.0-ch03_s02)Print This Post