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The Farmers' Alliance was an organized agrarian economic movement amongst U.S. farmers that flourished in the 1880s. One of its goals was to end the adverse effects of the crop-lien system on farmers after the Civil War.[1][2] First formed in 1876 in Lampasas, Texas, the Alliance was designed to promote higher commodity prices through collective action by groups of individual farmers. The movement was strongest in the South, and was widely popular before it was destroyed by the power of commodity brokers. Despite its failure, it is regarded as the precursor to the United States Populist Party, which grew out of the ashes of the Alliance in 1892.

Contents

History

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The beginnings, expansion and attempt for a united alliance

The agrarian movement of the late eighteen hundreds witnessed the emergence and eventual amalgamation of numerous farming unions and alliances. Among the most popular and influential groups were (in order of origin) were [3]:

  1. The Grange, or Order of Patrons of Husbandry (1867)
  2. The National Farmers` Alliance (1880)
  3. The National Farmers` Alliance and Industrial Union (1875 – official charter in 1880)
  4. The Colored Farmers` Alliance and Co-operative Union (1886)
  5. The Farmers` Mutual Benefit Association (National order founded in 1887)
  6. The Supreme Association of the Patrons of Industry of North America (1890)
  7. The National Farmers` League (1890)

The most powerful and largest organizations were the Farmers’ Alliances: the Northern or Northwestern Alliance, the Southern Alliance and the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and Co-operative Union. Yet all three organizations understood the need for unity among farmers and pursued similar objectives, the three organizations remained independent of each other.

The Northern or Northwestern Alliance (officially known as the National Farmers` Alliance) was organized in Cook Country, Illinois in October 1880 as a response to the fading of Grange life, and losing passion for the anti-railroad wars.[4]. The new movement strove to protect farmers from the capitalistic and industrial powers of monopolies such as the railroads and public officials who were unsympathetic with farmers.[5] The Northern Alliance sought out to protect farmers by demanding a more equitable tax system on mortgage property, pass income tax law, the election of all public officials, demanding honesty in government, abolishing free passes to legislators, governors, judges, and other law enforcement officers, and the regulation of interstate commerce by congress.[6]

The Southern Alliance, among the most powerful orders, developed through the merger of several smaller organizations. The alliance, formerly known as the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, officially developed through the merger of the Texas Alliance (founded in 1875) and the Louisiana Union to form the organization called the National Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union in 1887.[7] This was the Southern Alliance first steps in unifying farmers along the American cotton belt. The demands of the Southern Alliance were similar to those of the Northern Alliance. They demanded to abolition of national banks and monopolies, free coinage of silver, issuance of paper money (Greenback or Fiat money), loans on land, and establishment of sub-treasuries, income tax acts and revision of tariffs.[8] Further steps were taken to continue the unification of farmers, and in 1889 in Meridian, the National Farmers’ Union and Cooperative Union united with the Agricultural Wheel to form the National Farmers’ and Laborers’ Union of America. Following suit of the Meridian Meeting, negotiations were in place to unite the Northern Alliance and Southern Alliance to strengthen the movement.

The merger of the two alliances would have united these powers on a united front. The Northern Alliance had three conditions on which they would be willing to join forces: (1) changing the name to the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, (2) eliminating the word “white” from the qualifications for membership and (3) states would have the option of secrecy.[9] The Southern Alliance acknowledged the first and second (although the second was required by the new constitution), however, refused the third condition.

The failure to create a united Alliance amongst the North and South was a result of other factors than the failed concessions of the St Louis Meeting of 1889. The divide amongst the Farmers’ Alliance movement resulted from the differences amongst the governing bodies of the two alliances, membership size and classes, the differing views on colored peoples’ membership, and the conflict between Southern and Northern farmers' economic interests.[10]

Effects of the Alliance

The accomplishments of the Farmers’ Alliance are numerous. For example, many Alliance chapters all set up their own local cooperative stores, which bought directly from wholesalers and sold their goods to farmers at a lower rate. Some of these stores reported annual sales ranging from $5,000 to $36,000 and claimed to sell goods at 20 to 30 percent below regular retail price.[11] Such stores achieved only limited success, however, since they faced the hostility of wholesale merchants. Moreover, local retail merchants sometimes retaliated against the Alliance stores by temporarily lowering their prices in order to drive the Alliance stores out of business.

Additionally, the Farmer's Alliance established its own mills for flour, cottonseed oil, and corn, as well as its own cotton gin. Such facilities allowed debt-laden farmers, who often had little cash to pay third-party mills, to bring their goods to markets at a lower cost.

The national agenda

The limited effects of the local policies of the Alliance did little to address the overall problem of deflation and depressed agricultural prices. By 1886, tensions had begun to form in the movement between the political activists, who promoted a national political agenda, and the political conservatives, who favored no change in national policy but a "strictly business" plan of local economic action. In Texas, the split reached a climax in August 1886 at the statewide convention in Cleburne. The political activists successfully lobbied for passage of a set of political demands that included support of the Knights of Labor and the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886. Other demands include changes in governmental land policy, and railroad regulation. The demands also included a demand for use of silver as legal tender, on the grounds that this would alleviate the contraction in the money supply that fed the inflation in prices and the scarcity of credit (see gold standard).

The political activism of the Alliance gained strength in the late 1880s, merging with the nearly 500,000 member Agricultural Wheel in 1888. In the South, the agenda centered on demands of government control of transportation and communication, in order to break the power of corporate monopolies. It also included a demand for a national "subtreasury" plan that would allow easier credit for agriculture, thus breaking the power of the centralized eastern banks over farmers in the rural South and West. The Southern Alliance also demanded reforms of currency, land ownership, and income tax policies. Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance stressed the demand for free coinage of large amounts of silver.

Political activists in the movement also made attempts to unite the two Alliance organizations, along with the Knights of Labor and the Colored Farmers' National Alliance and Cooperative Union, into a common movement. The efforts and unification proved futile, however, and the Southern Alliance organized on its own, eventually reaching 43 states. The Alliance movement as a whole reached over 750,000 by 1890.

Downfall and transition to the Populist movement

As an economic movement, the Alliance had very limited and a short term success. Cotton brokers who had previously negotiated with individual farmers for ten bales at a time now needed to strike deals with the Alliancemen for 1,000 bale sales. This solidarity was usually short-lived, however, and could not withstand the retaliation from the commodities brokers and railroads, who responded by boycotting the Alliance and eventually broke the power of the movement. The Alliance had never fielded its own political candidates, preferring to work through the established Republican and Democratic parties, which, however, often proved fickle in supporting the agenda of the Alliance.

As an economic movement, it failed, but it is regarded by historians as engendering a "movement culture" among the rural poor. Failure of the Alliance as economic vehicle prompted an evolution of the Alliance into a political movement to field its own candidates in national elections. In 1889–1890, the Alliance was reborn as the Populist Party (i.e., "People's Party"), and included both Alliancemen and Knights of Labor members from the industrialized Northeast. The Populist Party, which fielded national candidates in the 1892 election, essentially repeated all the demands of the Alliance in its platform.

Well-known Alliancemen

Populist publications

References

  1. ^ Lawrence Goodwyn. The Populist Moment: A Short History of Agrarian Revolt in America. Oxford University Press, 1978
  2. ^ Farmer Alliance thrives in western Georgia
  3. ^ Drew, Frank M., “The Present Farmers’ Movement”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol 6. No 2 (Jun., 1891) pp. 282-310.
  4. ^ Drew, Frank M. “The Present Farmers’ Movement”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol 6. No 2 (Jun., 1891) pp. 282-310.
  5. ^ Saloutos, T. “Farmers Movement in the South 1865-1933” University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln: 1964.
  6. ^ Saloutos, T. “Farmers Movement in the South 1865-1933” University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln: 1964.
  7. ^ Saloutos, T. “Farmers Movement in the South 1865-1933” University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln: 1964.
  8. ^ Drew, Frank M. “The Present Farmers’ Movement”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol 6. No 2 (Jun., 1891) pp. 282-310.
  9. ^ Drew, Frank M. “The Present Farmers’ Movement”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol 6. No 2 (Jun., 1891) pp. 282-310.
  10. ^ Nixon, Herman C., “The Cleavage within the Farmers’ Alliance Movement”, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Vol. 15, No. 1, (Jun. 1928), pp. 22-33.
  11. ^ The Handbook of Texas Online.

Further reading

External links


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