Notes on the Populist Movement (circa. 1850-1900)
The Populist Movement grew out of the Farmer’s Alliance and alliances between them and Railway Unions. For the Farmers the need to come together cooperatively grew from the unfair and unscrupulous practices of monopolized banks, monopolized transportation and equipment companies, and their ties with and cooperation of Government. In every business direction a farmer turned, he faced the squeeze of his limited money. It is worth noting that during this period greenbacks (printed paper monies) were in high demand as the U.S. population grew rapidly, yet no new money entered into the system.
Ways the farmer was squeezed for money: Typically, in a farming town in the Midwest or in the South one or two wealthy individuals who had a monopoly on the different aspects of the farming business such as owning the land, bank, farming supply; seed, jute bags, weighing, equipment, and the general store. Farmer’s could get various necessities on credit, loaned out with exorbitantly high interests rates (25%). Farmers would have liens placed on their properties and eventually would see them repossessed. The Government regulated prices a farmer could get for his grain etc, however, monopolized railway companies could charge as much as they wished to transport those grains.
Farmers allied as many aspects of business as possible in order to buy and sell together to get the best prices on both ends.
As the Alliance grew, the Movement became political realizing that for true liberty they must change the way government favors wealthy Robber Barons. In the Midwest the Alliances fought to include Negroes, however, this was a harder battle in the South. Faced with just as much resistance for equality the South began to give way. One of the reasons was that Negroes generally did not own their land; conflicts arose within the Alliance when Black farm laborers would strike for higher wages – they were striking against farm owner members of the Alliance. In addition, in the Railways, they chose not to allow Black railroad employees into their Unions. When the Railway Union called for a strike and the boycott of Pullman cars, they did not have the support from the multitudes of Black laborers and therefore lost effectiveness.
Playing to a two party political system, the Democratic Party eventually absorbed the Populist Party.
There is much learned from the Populist Movement that grew out of the Farmers Alliance. Hypothetically speaking, if I were to form a movement I would be weary of affiliating or having too many ideological roots with the Populists. Digging for the truth, in this case, involves discovering not only the purpose of such an association; understanding why it came to be in the first place, but also how it evolved. And especially if its existence is not noted in recent history; understanding why an organization created to defend the equal and fair treatment of the working class no longer exists. Reasons I give are simple on their surface; however, grow more complex when contemplating man’s existence as being in constant flux; ever evolving towards that which is unclear for most of us.
Historians site a Populist backlash, one can say, brought on by the Populist. Early on leaders of the Alliance sought to include Blacks in its mission statement and member ranks. However, as the Alliance grew out of the more liberal Midwest, using the terms more and liberal loosely, and progressed into the South, they faced a population still struggling with their Civil War defeat, the end of Slavery, and Blacks as equals; the white male ego had a strong hold of its notion of superiority. The tenacious South refused black equality. The eviction of White tenants of the crop-lien system replaced with black tenants, caused racial tensions to ignite, and hence alliances between whites and blacks eventually withered. Recall most Blacks and poor Whites were laborers or tenant farmers (Sharecroppers) a legalized form of slavery. This modus operandi would never be a way to improve one’s life; this system never meant to profit the tenant, it kept him in a circle of credit and debt; always owing to the Owner, “The Man”.
White men like Tom Watson of the Georgian Populists sought racial equality, at first. (“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings…” A People’s History of the United States. H. Zinn, p291) But as Watson came against uncomfortable opposition he eventually became a supporter of racism. Now, as the Alliance became the Populist Party, this want of racism, the belief that all men are not created equal, became a playing card for the Democrats. The Democrats knowing that many of the Farmer’s were good ole’ boys of the South, still hanging on to the hatred of racism, used this to sway farmers away from the Populists Party. Eventually voting laws put into place kept Black citizens out of the voting process. However, these same devices – the requirement of land ownership, poll taxes, and literacy tests, also worked against the poorest of whites, and that was no oversight.
You see the Alliance and hence the Populist Party was a chance to align the desires of, in contemporary terms, Upper Middle, Middle, and Poor Classes – both black and white – against the monopoly of the rich elite who had the government’s cooperation. Howard Zinn in his epic history book “A People’s History of the United States”, states that the Democratic Party played on the racism that they knew already existed amongst farmers of the Populist Party, winning them away from the Alliance. And if you consider the terms Modernity and Post Modernity (et.al.) to demarcate times of notable human evolving, you can see in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration’s influence American Constitution’s Bill of Rights claims of equality both the growth and limitations of human’s thoughts and feelings. “All men are created equal…” excluded women and people of color considered with no higher regard than a farm mule.
This documented contemplation of equality amongst humans is a point in the evolution of our thoughts and feelings, however, as an exclusionary device shows the limitations of this advance. But if these men had not been so forth right in their ignorance, spelling it out in the Declaration and later in the Constitution, instead of letting it exist as an unspoken doctrine – would we then have had something so specific to aim our desires of evolving further? Real history documents that before the ink was even dry critical voices from women, blacks, and the poor masses arose.
Divested by personal interests the Populist Movement eventually lacked strength in numbers. What could have been an inclusive tour de force representing every working class citizen was whittled down to a small voice in the cacophony of the Democratic Party. The chance to stand as one against the tyranny of aristocratic monopolies was lost to man’s inability to see equality over personal gain. The mind obviously not evolved enough. They failed to see that the wealthy elite had created the room of the Golden Calf with floors bedazzled with emeralds, ceilings clustered with diamonds, and walls of mirrors. The promise of utopia was in that room. They couldn’t understand that just as they were being tempted by all that glitters and promises, and wanted to pass through that door, that others too would want to come in.
The promise room of the Golden Calf isn’t big enough to fit us all. Yet we’ll keep pushing and pushing, because we’re starving outside that door, because everything is devoted to making that room bigger for the ones inside. But there are not enough emeralds and diamonds in the world to grow that room, and those glass mirrors keep shattering from the crush of reality.
Had things gone differently, had the white farmers, tradesmen, and laborers seen the truth – the belief of inequalities bringing about a tiered system of oppression; that their worry was bound with the worry of all people regardless of sex or the color of skin – would this Yoke, that feels here but distant and shrouded, be with us today?
You see this is why the truth was never widely publicized, why the historians hired by the government educated the children of the 19th and 20th Centuries based on a selective history. To do otherwise would have unveiled those shrouded Yokes you are wearing, it would have implied that the country with Lady Liberty as her mascot was just as much an oppressor as any of the regimes we claimed as enemies of liberty, justice, and democracy.
To tell the truth to the people would have awakened them to the fact that working as one we could accomplish as much, but most likely more. Divided, as we were, blinded by hatred and misunderstanding – our weaknesses preyed upon, they knew that they could separate people, convincing them of their individual interests as being something separate from the interest of every American citizen.