How did farmers attempt to solve their problems during the industrial revolution?
While we have studied the trails and triumphs of industrial
revolution we would be negligent if we only focused on industry.
Workers need to be fed and the plight of farmers was and always will
be of critical importance. While cities may represent the wealth of
America, it is the farms and the Midwest that are the breadbasket and
heartland of this nation. This poem, written by a farmer at the turn
of the century reminds us of this.
Farm Prices Drop
The post Civil War era represented both triumph and
tragedy for the farmer. The population boom caused by the end of the
war increased demand and farmers met the demand. The increased
business was a welcome sight for farmers. The industrial age made
farmers more efficient as well. Just as the steel plow and the cotton
gin had increased productivity, so did irrigation and the tractor.
Farm production skyrocketed. As with any product the greater the
supply, the lower the price. In response to this deflation farmers
did what they knew how do do, grew more crops! Generations of farmers
were always taught that the way to make more money was to grow more.
This time however as production continued to increase, prices
continued to fall. Farmers actually MADE LESS! The consequences were
The Gold Standard Makes Deflation Worse
In 1900 America went on the Gold Standard. What this
meant was that every dollar was exchangeable for a dollar of gold.
The US promised to have gold reserves equal to the amount of money in
circulation. The problem with this is that is limits the amount of
money in circulation and this raises the value of money. The effect
of this on farmers was further deflation. Their loans on farm acreage
remained but their income dropped…not a good combination.
Farmers Form The Populist Party
In response to their problems farmers formed a
political party called the Populist Party. The elected William
Jennings Bryan as their leader and first candidate for president. As
a third party the Populists hoped to get their ideas and needs
placed into the public arena. Perhaps they realized that a Populist
would never be elected president but they had a good chance that one
of the major parties would incorporate the populist message into
their platform. The Populist sought the following:
1. Elimination of the gold standard. Populists
supported the Silver Standards which would have made money cheaper
and more available. This would have created inflationary pressure and
raised prices. If a silver standard would not be accepted they would
have settled for bimetallism.
2. Passage of an income tax.
3. The end of life tenure of Federal Judges.
4. The end of the printing of paper currency by nationally
chartered private banks.
The Populist Party did not achieve all of their goals, the nation
remained on the gold standard until 1933, but they did get
considerable recognition as a viable political force. By 1911 the the
new Federal Reserve System took over the printing of money. An income
tax was indeed passed. Perhaps most importantly they proved that a
third party could influence national politics and generate
The American Novelist Frank Baum wrote an interesting story about
the plight of the farmer. Perhaps you have heard of it? It is called
The Wizard of Oz. Surprised? Dorothy represents every woman,
the good of the mid west. Where is she from…Kansas. She is
transported to Oz where she lands on the Wicked Witch of the East.
The East and West witches represent the East and West coasts. Old
money and power. The good witches are North and South, less powerful,
they lie in the center of than nation, the agricultural areas.
Dorothy must travel to Oz, where the all powerful Wizard lives in the
Emerald City. Emerald is green, the color of money. This represents
Washington DC where money rules. To get to the city she must travel
on the yellow brick road. Yellow…gold! Gold will get her
Washington. Along the way she meets several characters. The Tin Man.
He represents the industrial worker whose heart has been torn out by
the evils of factory work and industrialism. The Scare Crow. This is
how the farm worker is seen, without a brain. The Cowardly Lion. He
represents William Jennings Bryan. If you ever saw the movie
Inherit The Wind you would understand. Bryan had this loud
booming voice, like a lion. Bryan also failed to get many of his
reforms accomplished. When Dorothy finally gets to Oz (Washington DC)
she meets the all powerful wizard who is supposed to be able to send
her home to Kansas. Instead she finds him to be weak and flawed, in
fat he is a charlatan who can only deceive himself and others. Guess
who he represents…the President!! In the end how does Dorothy get
home? She is given ruby slippers, but in the book they are silver!
The silver standard, if you remember is what the Populist Party
wanted to end farm problems with deflation. The reality, however is
that it turns out she had the power all along within herself. A final
message that the farmers had it in themselves to solve their own
problems. There is more but space limits the discussion. If you have
any questions or you are interested in a discussion on the topic E
**NOTE – I met with L Frank Baum’s Great Great Grandson and he
disputes the analogy. (He sells his own children’s books living off
his name at he MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas) He says it was just a
children’s book. The story is too close for me to buy that ,
however, and he never did meet his Great Great Grandfather, but I
promised him I would add the disclaimer. You decide for yourself!
Below is the edited text of William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross
of Gold” speech where he outlines the stance of the Populist Party.
I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the
distinguished gentlemen to whom you have just listened if this were a
mere measuring of abilities; but this is not a contest between
persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor
of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come
to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty
– the cause of humanity.
Ah my friends, we say not one word against those that live on the
Atlantic coast, but the hardy pioneers who have braved all the
dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to bloom as the
rose – the pioneers away out there who rear their children near the
natures heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of
the birds – out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the
education of their young, churches where they praise their creator,
and cemeteries where rest the ashes of their dead – these people, we
say, are as deserving of the consideration of our party as any people
in this country. It is for these that we speak. We do not come as
aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest; we are fighting in the
defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have
petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated,
and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and we have
been mocked when our calamity came. We beg no more. We defy them!
The gentlemen from Wisconsin has said that he fears a Robespierre
(A revolutionary tyrant). My friends, in this land of the free you
need not fear that a tyrant will spring up among the people. What we
need is an Andrew Jackson to stand, as Jackson stood, against the
encroachments of organized wealth.
Conditions have arisen and we are hear to meet those conditions.
They tell us that the income tax ought not to be brought here; that
it is a new idea. They say we passed an unconstitutional law; we deny
it. The income tax was not unconstitutional when it was passed, it
was not unconstitutional when it went before the Supreme Court for
the first time; it did not become unconstitutional until one of the
judges changed his mind. I am in favor of an income tax. When I find
a man who is not willing to bear his share of the burdens of the
government which protects him, I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy
the blessings of a government like ours.
They say that we are opposing national bank currency; it is true.
We say in our platform we believe that the right to coin and issue
money is a function of government. We believe it. We believe that it
is a part of sovereignty, and can no more with safety be delegated to
private individuals then we could afford to delegate private
individuals the power to make penal statutes or levy taxes. Mr.
Jefferson, once regarded as a good Democratic authority, seems to
have differed from (those that oppose this position). I stand with
Jefferson rather than with them, and I tell them, as he did, that the
issue of money is a function of government, and that banks ought to
get out of the governing business.
They complain about the plank (our position) which declares
against life tenure in office. What we oppose in that plank is the
life tenure which is being built up in Washington, and which excludes
from participation in official benefits the humbler members of
And now, my friends, let us come to the paramount issue. If they
ask us why we say more on the money question than we say upon the
(protective) tariff question, I reply that, if protection has slain
its thousands, the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands. If
they tell us that the gold standard is a good thing, we shall point
to their platform and tell them that their platform pledges the party
to get rid of the gold standard and substitute bimetallism. If the
gold standard is a good thing, then why try to get rid of it? If they
tell us that the gold standard is the standard of civilization, we
reply to them that this, the most enlightened of all nations of the
earth, has never declared a for a gold standard and that both the
great parties are declaring against it.
When you come to us and tell us that we are about to disturb you
business interests, we reply that you have disturbed ours by your
course. There are two ideas of government. There are those who
believe that if you will only legislate to make the well to do
prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The
Democratic idea, however, has been that if you make the masses
prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class
which rests upon them.
You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of a
gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and
fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your
cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and
the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.
If they dare come out in the open field and defend the gold
standard, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the
producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the
commercial interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their
demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press
down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not
crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.