UNITED STATES HISTORY
*Despite the expansion of the West and its rapid settlement, there
were problems. Just as excessive staple crop production
drove down the value of crops in the South, keeping the
sharecroppers and tenant farmers in debt, so the ever-larger wheat
crops of the West made each particular shipment of wheat (and each
individual farmer’s income) less valuable.
*In the South, the boll weevil destroyed cotton crops, and
droughts, blizzards, locusts, and floods ruined farms in different
parts of the West.
*Farmers had other problems: tariffs, which protected
American manufacturers, meant that farm equipment was expensive,
and the nation had experienced significant deflation since the
Civil War. The government was no longer printing paper
money, so it was harder to get cash, and, after the Panic of 1873,
the government switched to the gold standard, which meant that
money either had to be made of gold or have an equal amount of
gold in the government’s vaults. This reduced the money
supply, hurting debtors (mostly farmers) and miners (who sold the
government silver); however, it made money more stable, which was
popular among bankers.
*To purchase the farm equipment, fertiliser, and seed they needed,
many farmers went into debt, borrowing money from eastern banks at
rates that were sometimes as high as 40%.
*Two financial panics, in 1873 and 1893, caused banks to call in
their loans and farms to fail.
*Farmers also felt gouged by railroad owners who shipped their
produce, the operators of the elevators and warehouses where they
stored it, and the urban companies that bought it.
*Some farmers wanted paper money to be issued again, which would
easily drive down the price of money, but many farmers (and mine
owners, who kept discovering more silver) felt that coining silver
money again would help them a lot without going as far as issuing
*Farmers began to protest, and to ask to government to help them
out, even though the government had always felt it had no business
helping individuals—to do so, it was felt, would make them
dependent so they no longer worked hard. Farmers in the
South and West disagreed, and became politically active.
*In 1867, Oliver Kelley of Minnesota helped organise the National
Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry—commonly known as the
Grange. It was a sort of social club, union, and
self-improvement society for farmers (at first, of course, it had
its secret passwords and rituals, like any good 19th century
society), and was open to both men and women.
*The Grangers tried to help themselves in various ways, including
by creating manufacturing co-operatives to make their own farm
equipment (which failed) and to run flour mills, cotton gins, and
other processing plants (some of which were successfully).
Eventually, they got involved in politics, and in the grain belt
of the upper Mississippi Valley they got a series of ‘Granger
Laws’ passed to benefit farmers by regulating the railroads,
warehouses, and grain elevators.
*Eventually, a number of the Granger laws were struck down, thanks
in large part to the 1886 Supreme Court decision in Wabash,
St. Louis & Pacific Railway Company v. Illinois,
commonly known as the Wabash Case. It determined that the
states do not have the authority to regulate interstate commerce,
and thereby struck down Granger laws affecting railroads that
crossed state lines.
*However, Congress responded the next year by passing the
Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. The Act outlawed pooling
and rebates, and required railroads to publish their prices
openly. It also outlawed discrimination against
shippers. It also created the Interstate Commerce Commission
to oversee these regulations. However, the ICC usually
enforced the rules weakly, and the railroads later came to see it
as useful for them, because it satisfied the public demand for
reform without really limiting big business much.
*Further demands for reform by both farmers and factory workers
led to the creation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890, which
attacked railroad cartels and business monopolies, at least in
theory. In fact, it was rarely used against big business
until the early 20th Century; in the 1890s, it was actually used
most successfully against unions, claiming that they were illegal
combinations of workers—its most significant use was to break the
Pullman Strike of 1894, saying the American Railway Union had a
monopoly on railroad workers. Later, though, it would form
the basis of most subsequent anti-trust laws.
*In 1878, Congress had passed the Bland-Allison Act, requiring the
government to purchase a mint a limited amount of silver, and in
1890, Congress also passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, in
which the government agreed to purchase more silver (to please
western miners and indebted farmers)—although not unlimited
supplies of it—in exchange for miners’ support for a higher
tariff. The result was the McKinley Tariff of 1890, one of
the highest in American history—an average of 48.4% on taxed
imports. So, although mine-owners benefited from the Silver
Purchase Act, farmers actually suffered even more from rising
prices on imports.
*In fact, the Congress meeting from 1889-1891 was so active in
many ways that it was known as the Billion Dollar Congress,
because 1890 was the first year in which the US government
budgeted a billion dollars for expenses. Very little of that
money, however, went to the benefit of farmers, however.
*The Grangers may not have succeeded politically, but they were
not the only group to seek to improve the lives of farmers.
Farmers’ Alliances formed in the North and in the South, and
allowed both white and black farmers. Although there were
separate alliances for black and white farmers in some places, in
other places, even in parts of the South, the two races sometimes
worked together, feeling they had common interests as farmers more
important than traditional racism.
*Eventually, the different Farmers’ Alliances and the even
Grangers became more radical as anger against the banks and the
trusts grew. Western politicians joined their cause, and
even women (some of whom had already been involved in the
temperance movement) became famous for their speeches. Mary
Lease made 160 speeches in 1890 alone, and supposedly told farmers
to raise “less corn and more hell!”
*In 1891, the Farmers’ Alliances, working with some leaders of the
Knights of Labor and with silver miners from the mountain states,
formed the People’s Party, commonly known as the Populist
Party. It drew voters from North, South, and West, Democrats
and Republicans, White and Black. In 1892, the Populists
nominated General James Weaver, who won four states outright
(Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada) and received electoral votes
from Oregon and North Dakota as well—5% of the electoral vote and
9% of the popular vote. They also elected ten governors, six
US senators, and thirty-nine US representatives throughout the
*The Populists demanded reform through government action.
They wanted more circulation of money, the minting of all the
silver that could be mined, a progressive income tax, direct
election of senators, and government ownership of transportation
and communication so they could be run for the common good, not
*The Populists took votes from both the Republicans and the
Democrats, but in the South the Democrats countered by splitting
them along racial lines—insisting that a vote for the Populists
(who included black Farmers’ Alliance members) was a vote for
*Furthermore, strikes, such as the Homestead Strike in 1892,
showed that high tariffs did not mean higher wages, which hurt the
Republicans, too, as did the wastefulness of the ‘Billion Dollar
Congress.’ In the end, Grover Cleveland defeated Benjamin
Harrison and James Weaver, returning to the White House for the
only non-consecutive second term in American history.
*When the Panic of 1893 hit shortly after Cleveland’s
inauguration, the President got Congress to repeal the Silver
Purchase Act, which used up the government’s gold through the
Act’s obligation to buy a certain amount of silver each
year. This split his own party, turning many westerners
against him. It also was not enough to keep the country
solvent, as in 1895, Cleveland had to arrange a $65 million loan
through JP Morgan.
*The government’s immense spending and borrowing angered
unemployed Americans, who marched on Washington demanding paper
money and a public works program—jobs created by the government to
help the unemployed. The most famous of these groups was led
by Jacob Coxey, a wealthy Ohio quarry owner, who began marching to
Washington with about 100 supporters in 1894. Eventually
more joined him, forming Coxey’s Army with 6,000 men at its
height. By the time they reached Washington, though, Coxey
was arrested for walking on the grass at the US Capitol.
Other groups attempted similar marches, one even seizing a train
and fighting off US Marshals before being arrested.
*Despite some foreign policy successes and despite surviving a
secret operation to remove a cancerous area from his mouth,
Cleveland’s conservatism had alienated too many members of his own
party for him to possibly run for re-election in 1896—he angered
the western Silverites by ending the Silver Purchase Act, he
angered labour by breaking the Pullman Strike, and angered
Southerners and farmers by supporting tariffs (even if they were
lower than the McKinley Tariff, they were not low enough for many
*Instead, the Democratic leadership had to make sure that they did
not lose the radicals to the Populists. They did so by
turning to a strongly pro-silver western congressman, the
36-year-old Representative from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan.
*Bryan was already a famous speaker, known as the Boy Orator of
the Platte (he was also compared unfavourably to the Platte River,
as both were supposedly six inches deep and six miles wide at the
mouth). He spoke for farmers and poor workers, demanding
Free Silver in religious imagery, saying, “You shall not press
down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not
crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
*Bryan travelled around the country repeating this speech and
others. Relying on just a few hours of sleep a night, he
travelled 18,000 miles in three months to address an estimated
five million people; at a time when there were only around
70,000,000 people in the country (of whom 13,500,000 voted in
1896), Bryan personally spoke to about one out of every 14
*Although Free Silver was not the main issue for most Populists,
they recognised Bryan as one of their own--he was also known as
the Great Commoner--and they nominated him as their candidate, too
(although with a different vice-presidential candidate than the
Democratic one). Some Democratic Gold Bugs (including
Cleveland) were so opposed to the bi-metallic standard that they
actually opposed their own party, which helped ensure Republican
occupancy of the White House for the next 16 years.
*The Republicans nominated William McKinley, a Union Army officer
in the Civil War, who stayed home and allowed others to campaign
for him. He was sponsored by the Ohio businessman Mark
Hannah, who once said, ‘There are two things that are important in
politics. The first is money, and I can't remember what the second
one is,’ and by Gold Bug Republicans who managed to outspend the
Democrats by 5 to 1. Among other campaign gimmicks were
dollar bills printed with Bryan’s portrait and the motto “IN GOD
WE TRUST...FOR THE OTHER 53 CENTS,” because it was believed that
free coinage of silver would drop the value of the dollar to 47¢.
*With the Democrats split and the Republicans running a
well-funded campaign, McKinley won the election. Soon, the
Populist Party began to dissolve, having already given its support
to the Democrats.
*American farmers also got some relief when crop failures in
Europe led to rising crop prices in America.
*Furthermore, the discovery of gold in Alaska, Canada, Australia,
and South Africa in the late 1890s created inflation without the
coinage of free silver, although Bryan would run on that platform
again in 1900. However, in the first decade of the 1900s,
urban reformers would take up many of the same demands as the
*Incidentally, some historians have suggested that a popular novel
of the year 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is an
allegory for the politics of the late 1800s. The various
characters supposedly represent different people or groups of the
time: the Scarecrow represents the farmers, the Tin Man the
factory workers who have been dehumanised by their labour, the
Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan himself, the Wizard of Oz
is really William McKinley or even Mark Hannah (the man behind the
curtain). The Munchkins are the middle class: groups
like the Lollipop Guild represent craft guilds like the AF of L
and the Lullaby League is made up of female reformers like Jane
Addams. The flying monkeys are, perhaps, Indians.
Dorothy (an innocent girl from the heart of Populist country)
spends most of the story trying to solve her problems by following
the Yellow Brick Road, representing the Gold Standard, but does
not succeed, until the Good Witch points out that she had the
solution with her all along—not the ruby slippers of the film, but
the Silver Shoes. While L. Frank Baum may not have had this
in mind at the time, it can serve as a way to remember some of the
issues of the late 1800s.
This page last updated 20 July, 2020.