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The Agrarian Revolt that almost led to a new American Democracy, Part II

Posted on August 21st, 2012 in Culture,Economy,General,History,Politics by Robert Miller

Political Circular Election of 1896

Why should we be interested in the agrarian revolt that took place more than a century ago? The Populist movement that brought about the People’s Party tried to capture the Presidency and initiate a new democratic agenda for America; it was the last such movement in our history until the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement emerged last year and began talking about the same issues that were raised by the Populist’s in the elections of 1892 and 1896; both movements primarily centered on the corrosive influence of big corporations and Wall Street. The Populist’s demands were far better articulated than the convoluted language developed at the time by either the Republican or Democratic Party and you can stretch that rhetorical wasteland forward into the modern era. But the agrarian revolt wanted, indeed needed to speak truth to power—their movement depended on it. Today, the degradation of the quality of our culture is starkly evident in our newspapers, the messages relayed through our television sets and the trivial distractions to our lives conveyed over the internet—through the social media, or other means by which American life is trivialized.

The Populists would not recognize the “progressives” and “liberals” who followed them, as they built their party structure by educating and training their constituents, not by merely trying to elect better politicians through the entrenched party structures that we see today.  Indeed, the reason we have experienced such deterioration in our political discourse can be traced to our failure to challenge the two-party system as effectively as the People’s Party did in the late nineteenth century. Today, we have hollowed out our culture into a shell of what it might have been had we adopted more democratic structures to combat the corporatist controls that regulate our economy as well as our information and political party structure. Isn’t global climate change just another TV channel?  Hasn’t employment been trivialized by degrading the employees, who must learn how to please their masters (by crossing their legs properly and maintaining an agreeable posture during the interview, or take a “fellowship” before they get a real job and very often, that job doesn’t meet the requirements of a decent, sustainable life).

In the Populist era, the Republicans had recently matriculated into the party of business, not the party of Lincoln, and the Democratic party was becoming the party of white supremacy in the South. What the People’s Party promised, through a very specific set of demands, was a revolutionary change that favored a bottom-up democracy, including a transformation in how we dealt with our currency and loan programs and support for the “production classes of America.” In their world, farmers and laborers would be on a more level playing field with bankers and corporate masters. It was also a movement in which the Populists wanted to prevent the boundaries established by the Civil War from becoming ossified into permanent barriers that prevented broad political action in America: to succeed, their movement required trans-sectionalism, not an easy task so soon after the war.

The failure of the Populist movement to more fully engage the American electorate, meant that America lost its last chance to formulate a true democracy, such that every citizen of the country could live a decent life, one that came with self-respect and dignity. To this day, our political discourse, with a few word changes here and there, remains limited by the boundaries the Populists wanted to erase: their failure was America’s failure to grab the brass ring of democracy.  Today we have more of a caricature of a true democracy, one that increasingly trivializes the lofty ambitions we talked about in our Declaration of Independence and the hope the world had that America might truly be different. And, we are different—we are the paradise for corporatism, not democracy.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is, in many ways, reminiscent of what the People’s Party germinated more than a hundred years ago. But instead of focusing on farmers, many of whom quit farming and went to work in the cities, they are focused on the Middle Class and the poor, as they try to educate those who will listen about the false promises and corrupt political and financial system we have in America today. Their problem is deep, because they are also trying to do battle with an American value system whose rudder is broken. That is why we should be interested in the Populist movement, to learn about what might have been and perhaps, down the road, what America might yet become, despite the seemingly uphill road it will take to get there.

To understand the agrarian revolt,  one must appreciate the form that farming took in the South after the Civil War. At the war’s end, the economy of the South was shattered. Their coin of the realm, the Confederate dollar, was worthless and banks throughout the South went insolvent, leaving many regions without banking services. Goodwyn states “Massachusetts alone had five times as much national bank circulation as the entire South.” With the elimination of slavery, the few big plantation owners suddenly found themselves lacking the free labor that had given them a life of wealth and luxury before the war. However, many former slaves were still around, except now the plantation owner would have to provide them with some kind of subsistence.  Often, these owners found it advantageous to divide their land into smaller parcels and engage in sharecropping, getting a percentage of the annual crop and profits from each farmer who worked a small section of their land. But sharecroppers and land-owning small farmers all came under the dictates of the furniture merchants who controlled their lives through the crop lien system.

Farming in the South developed into a peonage system, in which the farmers found themselves constantly in debt, unable to break free from the yoke that tied them to the their land. The majority of white Southern farmers owned small plots of land, but with a high rate of illiteracy among them, they fell easy victim to the farm peonage system that began to flourish after the war. A peonage system fell into place in which farmers were tied to their land by borrowing against future crop success through a crop lien system that kept them impoverished. Although this system was most prominent in the South, it spread into other regions of the country and slowly took the form of a national model for keeping farmers enslaved and permanently wedded to their farms, such that profits could be maximized for the furniture merchants. The crop lien arrangement defined a farming system in which the farmer and his family lived in perpetual poverty and each year faced losing their farm and becoming indentured to the land which they may have previously owned. Some farmers may own their land while others worked on land that had been foreclosed on them because they couldn’t make their payments to the banks or the store owners who gave them advances on the future value of their crops. The crop lien system meant that it was also the loaning merchant who determined the kind of crop that should be planted and many of them would not make any loans to small farmers if their crop was something other than cotton. The system was designed to have banks and merchants increasingly own the land because crop failure for any length of time would inevitably lead to foreclosure or merchant ownership of the property. It was against this background that the Farmers Alliance began to take root.

How the crop lien system worked [taken from Lawrence Goodwyn’s book (listed below]:The farmer, his eyes downcast, and his hat sometimes literally in his hand, approached the merchant with a list of needs. The man behind the counter consulted a ledger, and after a mumbled exchange, moved to his shelves that would satisfy at least a part of his customer’s wants. Rarely did the farmer receive the range of items or even the quantity of  one item he had requested. No money changed hands; the merchant made brief notations in his ledger. Two weeks or a month later, the farmer would return, the consultation would recur, the mumbled exchange and the careful selection of goods would ensue, and new additions would be noted in the ledger. From early spring to late fall the ritual would be enacted until, at “settlin’-up” time, the farmer and the merchant would meet at the local cotton gin, where the fruits of a year’s toil would be ginned, bagged, tied, weighed and sold. At that moment, the farmer would learn what his cotton had brought. The merchant, who had possessed title to the crop even before the farmer had planted it, then consulted his ledger for a final time. The accumulated debt for the year, he informed the farmer, exceeded the income received from the cotton crop. The farmer had failed in his effort to “pay out”—he still owed the merchant a remaining balance for the supplies “furnished” on credit during the year. The “furnishing merchant” would then announce his intention to carry the farmer through the winter on a new account, the latter merely having to sign a note mortgage to the merchant for next year’s crop. The lien signed, the farmer, empty-handed, climbed in his wagon and drove home, knowing that for the second or fifth or fifteenth year he had not paid out.”  Goodwyn quotes an economic figure for that period, in which the per capita income for Rhode Island was $77.16, while that for Arkansas was 13 cents.  The lack of money and widespread poverty in the South, created, in the words of one historian a, “giant pawn shop” as the economic system that governed people’s lives. As we know by now, corporate interests are always poised to make big gains when the economy of a country is down and nowhere was this practice more in evidence than in the Southern farms of post-war America.

Peonage was illegal but that didn’t matter. Ironically, the United States had passed an anti-peonage law in 1867, because acquiring New Mexico from Mexico meant they would be inheriting the peonage system established by the Spanish conquerors and the country wanted to avoid projecting this image–it was not the image of a democratic society. But this law was never enforced, and only one Georgia farmer and his overseer were ever convicted under this law and that happened in 1921, which at the time, involved charges of killing eleven blacks living under peonage. In many ways, for black people in the South, their post-war experience was a more violent and repressive form of servitude than what they had experienced under slavery. It is a shameful chapter in American history and one can understand why we don’t hear too much about this dark chapter: such stories are incompatible with the self-image we carry around as adherents to the “shining city on the hill” model of America. It didn’t happen that way—America was built on exploitation of blacks and poor white farmers. The spillover from that period is still with us in how we have shaped our prison system—a system in which we house the largest prison population in the world, with our prisons  filled disproportionately with the black and brown people of America, based in part, on drug laws that discriminate between poor black neighborhoods and those of whites. And, it is seemingly illegal to be poor in America.

Actions of the furnishing merchants. The furnishing merchants, who kept the farmers in peonage, were able to get their own goods on consignment, but gave them to farmers on credit, taking a lien on their crop for security. For farmers to get such a lien, they had to pay punishing interest rates, usually in excess of 100 percent annually or more. And when the farmer bought on credit, he had to pay more for each item, for there was a two-tier system, one for cash customers  and a second with much higher prices for those that needed credit. Once a farmer signed his first crop lien, he was in bondage to the merchant for the rest of his life, if he stayed working on the same land. Should he ever fail to settle, he would never again get credit from the lien system. Farmers also learned of a sliding scale for essential items, such as clothing, the cost of which was at the whim of the merchant and had no bearing to the merchant’s cost. Thus, while slavery was gone as an economic system, small farmers labored under a new system, a peonage system in which they were no different than indentured slaves and could not break free from the grip of the crop lien system.

The challenge for the farmer’s revolt.  Right after the Civil War, as the peonage system of indentured farming came into wide practice, any national movement involving both Northern and Southern farmers would have to overcome the identity of the sectionalism whose boundaries had been determined or reinforced by the Civil War.  In the South, the white population identified with the Democratic party, “the party of the fathers,” which was transforming itself into the party of white supremacy.  The third party, the Peoples Party evolved from within the Farmers Alliance and the Democratic Party. As the evolution of party politics developed during the 1880s and 1890s, it became increasingly clear that the Democratic party did not go along with all of the policy demands of the People’s Party, particularly when it came to the sub-treasury system. Many Democrats identified themselves as “silverites” who were in favor of a dollar backed up by silver and supported the interests of silver mining companies in the West. Of course for members of the People’s Party, the Republican Party was the evil party of big business and banking, trying to keep the farmers in peonage, so that profits from the fruits of their labor would go mainly to the business class, transportation costs and the banking system of America. The sub-treasury system would eventually be used as a litmus test for differentiating between the “silverites” and “sub-treasury” advocates and that demand helped to drive the Populists to create the People’s Party in 1892. For the election of 1896, the dominant form of the debate would be whether the value of American currency should be based on Gold (Republicans), Silver (Democrats) or unhinged from any rare metal in the form that became known as the sub-treasury system, in which the Populists wanted to evolve a currency that could not be controlled by the bankers and merchants and did not have an equivalent value in a rare metal. This latter plan grew out of the Greenback party and was put in the People’s Party format by Charles Macune. To the Populists, both the Republicans and Democrats were perceived to be in the control of capitalist interests. Isn’t that relevant for today? Had the People’s Party succeeded, it would have established the dream country that was first articulated, not through our Constitution of 1787, but beginning earlier, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. That document spoke of equality while our constitution established slavery and nearly a hundred years or more of slave state rule.

Our founding fathers, largely members of the ruling class, did not trust ordinary citizens  to make decisions and within each state, elections were generally rigged through the old fashioned techniques of ballot box stuffing and voter denial laws. Every issue not specifically granted by the Constitution or Bill of Rights, had to be achieved by amendments to the Constitution or through our court system and ultimately the Supreme Court. The phrase “all men a created equal” did not mean women, blacks, Indians or Asians. The modern voter suppression laws that are popping up all over today, had been wiped off the map with the Voter Rights Act of 1965, but they are now making a comeback in the form of voter-ID laws to once again restrict citizen voting. The white supremacist South is attempting to rise again, but this time it is not just the South, who are aided by the ALEC-sponsored template laws that further restrict our rights in an already restricted democratic society. And, thanks to air-conditioning, the Republicans have migrated into the Southwest, where the epicenter of the Tea Party exists today.

Given the punishing nature and seemingly inescapable grip of the oppressive lien system, it seemed likely that farmers would jump at any promise of relief. Some did so by abandoning their farms and moving West, only to find a similar lien system waiting for them. But for the majority, fused into peonage on their land, when the Farmers Alliance speakers came knocking at their door, they brought far more than a message of relief—they brought the promise of a revolution and that resonant message spread like wildfire, not only in the South, but in most other sectors of the country. The success of the agrarian revolt and its meaning for the future of America have been underplayed in historical treatments of this era, but Goodwyn brings this period to life and provides a riveting account of their history, the highs, the lows and much that is in between. No revolution such as that attempted by the Farmers Alliance can exist as a nameless, faceless cause, no matter what the message of hope might be. In our contemporary world of 2012, it seems inconceivable that the state which started the Alliance was none other than Texas and the individual who formed the ingenious theoretical framework for the Farmer’s Alliance was Dr. Charles W. Macune, also a Texan. Macune practiced both law and medicine and was a superb organizer, a strong writer and a powerful public speaker. In addition he was a creative economic theorist, who joined the movement in Texas in 1885-86 and quickly became its chief architect for the financial revolution eventually adopted by the Farmer’s Alliance and the People’s Party. He was immediately elected chairman of the executive committee and provided a new brand of leadership. As he labored behind the scenes to make the organization grow, farmers by the thousands flocked to the Alliance which experienced spectacular growth. Under Macune’s influence, the movement in Texas grew at a rate of 20,000 new members each month. He helped arm the Alliance lecturers with a new message that convinced farmers that a departure from the old, repressive ways was at hand. By the time Macune convened a special Alliance meeting in Waco Texas in January 1887, the Alliance claimed 200,000 members in more than 3000 chartered suballiances. Alliancemen as they were known, began to write and speak despicably about the oppressive system that had exploited their farms and their labor as they pronounced “unless America changed, you will have only three rights…..to work, to starve and to die.”

Good manners are gone. The good manners with which poor farmers had been brought up, giving deference to the wealthy, quickly eroded as they learned how the bankers would not loan their cooperatives money at reasonable rates, but in contrast, seemed to roll over with generosity when merchants needed money. It was in Texas that citizens outside the Farmer’s Alliance learned that they needed to worry about the revolutionary attitude sweeping through the farmlands of their state. What the farmers were fighting was the corporate culture that had prevented them from rising out of a state of peonage created by a punishing system that exploited the farmer and forced him to live a degraded life, always on the edge of economic catastrophe.   The Farmer’s Alliance saw this coming more than a century before anyone else did and it was creative thinkers like Macune who were responsible for generating the arguments that helped crystallize the movement and bring the “demands” into sharper focus. What the Farmer’s Alliance achieved was almost unfathomable: it united the South and the West through a fusion of common interests and radical planning for a truly democratic vision as a new blueprint for America. This vision was without gender or racial bias, it was a bottom-up movement that began with cooperatives organized outside of the lien system and separated itself from the bankers. In 1892 this organization became known to the nation as “Populism,” and it evolved into the People’s Party in the elections of 1892 and 1896. Texas produced many other outstanding leaders in the agrarian revolt, including S.O. Daws, who was the first Populist and was named “Traveling Lecturer” of the Alliance. He once declared “Capital is thoroughly organized, but when the laboring class begins to organize, they call it communism and other hard names, which is unjust. I am proud the morning sunlight of labor’s freedom is shining in the political horizon of the east.

Another fireball was William Lamb who helped stimulate the incredible growth of the Farmers Alliance and was effective in spreading the message into Southern states. He was also instrumental in trying to unite the interests of the farmer and the laborer, into “the industrial class” but labor was out of sync with the Populist movement: it did not achieve an influential position until they discovered the power of the sit-down strike in the 1930s. Had the labor movement evolved in parallel with the Populists, the outcome for our country might have been very different. There were many other heroes of the movement and an equally surprising identity of states that helped elevate the movement into one of national visibility. Kansas played a major role in leadership and had many innovative newspapers that helped spread the word into every nook and cranny of Kansas and beyond. One of the great publishers of that era was Henry Vincent. One cannot overestimate the power of the small local presses in spreading the message of the revolt and the tone of the reaction to the revealed behavior of the capitalist world that had oppressed the farmer and was now broadly exposed through an educational process to a group with a high rate of illiteracy.

[Note: quotations were taken from Lawrence Goodwyn’s book “The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America.”]

to be continued……………



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