Topic/ Focus: Farmers Alliances & The National Grange aim #10

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Mr. Armstrong SS8/ AIM #10

Topic/ Focus: Farmers Alliances & The National Grange

AIM #10: Farmers, Why could this group be considered the “backbone” of America?


Analyze the picture below and answer the questions that follow:

  1. In your opinion, what is the overall message of this poster?

  1. Who or what group of people is being represented in a positive point-of-view in this poster? Why?

  1. From whose point-of-view do you think this poster was created?

The Granger Movement & Farmers' Alliances

Beginning in 1867, the Granger movement took shape in America's farmland. Formally known as the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, the organization was originally a social network. Local branches were called 'Granges' and its members were called 'Grangers.' But as economic conditions began to turn against farmers beginning with the Panic of 1873, membership exploded, and later in the decade, many Granges were linked together with 'Farmers' Alliances,' which were more political.

Farmers were drawn in to these networks by the same factors that led industrial workers to labor unions: there was power in cooperation. The Grange's primary target was the monopolistic pricing of the railroads. In one example, Eastern producers paid 95 cents per ton to ship their goods; a producer west of the Missouri River paid $3.20 per ton. Long-haul rates were more than short-haul rates.

The railroads also owned most of the grain elevators, so they gouged farmers for storage as well. But the Grange and Famers' Alliances also sought ways to combat the federal government's economic policies, which heavily favored industry over agriculture. Besides tariffs, which I just mentioned, the government regulated currency to keep inflation low. That's great for investors, but it's bad for people in debt - like farmers.

The Grange tried to address these problems through actions like cooperative ownership of equipment and mills. They pooled their savings and banking assets to form something like early credit unions to handle their own finance needs. The more political Farmers' Alliances pressed for state laws to prohibit monopolistic railroad and grain elevator rates. Throughout the Midwest, Grangers successfully captured majorities in several state legislatures and won the passage of so-called 'Granger laws' in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, establishing policies like price caps for shipping and grain-storage facilities.

Of course, the railroads quickly fought back. The first of the so-called 'Granger cases' reached the Supreme Court in 1877 when a Chicago grain-storage facility charged that the maximum rate was unconstitutional. In Munn v. Illinois, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when a business affected the public interest, the government had the right to regulate it. The Munn decision was a political triumph for farmers, but it wasn't to last. Nine years later, Illinois's Granger law was overturned in the Wabash Case, which determined that the federal government - not states - had jurisdiction over interstate commerce.

Guided Reading Questions:

  1. What led farmers to join National Grange/ Farmers’ Alliance in 1873?

  1. What other group of workers also joined together to protect themselves and their work by creating labor unions?

  1. What did the passing of “Granger laws” do to help famers?

The Populist Party

The Grange and Farmers' Alliances had been an important step in representing agrarian interests, but when the Wabash decision nullified all of the state regulations in 1886, it was pretty obvious to farmers that they needed legislation at the national level.

Their highest political agenda may have been currency reform. The nation had recently adopted the gold standard, which stabilized the currency and encouraged investment. But it led to deflation; people in debt prefer inflation. Consider a farmer who is in debt $2,000. If he can earn $1 for each bushel of grain, then he needs to harvest and sell 2,000 bushels just to break even. But if inflation pushes the cost of grain higher - let's say to $2 a bushel - then he can pay off his debt with just half of the harvest.

Farmers suggested that the treasury print 'greenbacks' (that's dollars that weren't backed by gold) to create inflation. Even though the 'Greenback Party' organized and ran a presidential candidate in 1876, '80 and '84, the nation wasn't ready for such a radical idea. But a related idea did catch on. The treasury could reinstate the use of silver as well as gold to back dollars, and, therefore, increase the money supply. This platform was advanced by a new political party, the Populists (sometimes also called the People's Party).

Since the end of President Grant's term in 1877, politicians hadn't attempted to pass much significant federal legislation beyond civil service reform. The Populist Party changed that. In addition to the free coinage of silver, the Populists proposed several economic and democratic reforms. Among other ideas, they demanded a graduated income tax (keep in mind that there was no income tax at the time; this would have replaced property taxes, which hit farmers the hardest and shifted the tax burden to big business), government ownership of railroads and telegraph lines, the abolition of national banks and lowering protective tariffs for manufacturing.

They also called for a one-term limit for the presidency (at the time, there was no limit), the direct, popular election of senators (at the time, they were selected by each state's legislature), recalls on public officials and secret ballots.

Guided Reading Questions:

  1. What financial problem were many farmers in according to this text?

  1. What were “greenbacks?”

  1. What were some of the proposals put forth by the Populist Party? What did they demand?

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