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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 617

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This is the grave of Leonidas Polk.

Born in 1837 in Anson County, North Carolina, Polk, a distant relative of President James K. Polk and of the Confederate general also named Leonidas Polk, committed treason in defense of slavery as a young man. Although he was a colonel of the militia (like a lot of southerners, he loved his military titles and was known as Colonel later in life), he actually entered as a private and was mustered out of the 43rd North Carolina Infantry as a second lieutenant. He was also wounded at Gettysburg but kept serving until 1864, when he was elected to the North Carolina state legislature. After the war, Polk became involved in the reform politics of the agrarian outrage over corporate domination of the nation. That took a little while though. His initial politics were associated with the “Conservatives,” which was a postwar euphemism for unreconstructed Democrats in much of the South, including North Carolina. He was a delegate to the constitutional convention that created the postwar document for North Carolina during Reconstruction. He became the North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture in 1877. One of his accomplishments while there–and I should say that for most people in positions like this in the Gilded Age, the best thing they might have done is not steal from the pot, so any real accomplishment makes one unusual–is that he started establishing the collections that became the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. He was actually the first person to hold the position and he developed a tax on commercial fertilizers that other states copied to bring desperately needed funds into state coffers. He founded a town in North Carolina called Polkstown in 1875 when the railroad came to his land. A good Baptist, he pushed hard for a new religious college for Baptist girls that evenutally became Meredith College in Raleigh. Perhaps most importantly, he started a weekly newspaper that advocated for farmers’ rights and for the policies of the Grange, a technically nonpartisan organization that sprung up around the nation’s rural areas in these years to fight for the rights of increasingly dispossessed white farmers.

We have to understand how terrible conditions were for these farmers after the Civil War. The postwar period was disastrous for southern agriculture, even outside of the big planters losing their human capital. That did not impact that many of the people who would later be involved in the Farmers Alliance and then the Populist Party. Some, yes, but many of these people were the smaller white farmers often despised by the southern elite. The postwar decline in cotton prices combined with the South’s increased dependence on credit and global cotton markets that no longer paid off like they did in the 1850s. Northern capital took control over the region instead of the integrated capitalism that tied both regions together before the war. High debt loads led to increased tenancy and decreased independence. The control of railroads over the entire nation, most powerfully expressed in fiction not in southern literature but rather in western literature with Frank Norris’ The Octopus, created tremendous resentment based upon very real financial problems. In short, the region was downwardly mobile in a nation where corporations were becoming unbelievably powerful. And people were angry about it.

Polk became the head of the North Carolina Farmers’ Association and edited the Progressive Farmer, one of the leading reform publications of the rural movement. He started that in 1886. It is still published today. It was initially created as a journal of scientific agriculture, teaching farmers better methods to grow their crops, but it soon switched to also being about the populist politics beginning to arise in the rural South. He pushed for a state agricultural college under the Morrill Act (which it should be remembered only passed because the South had left the Union; the idea of federally supported education was anathema to these people) and for farmers to organize themselves.

In 1877, the Farmers Alliance was created to push forward these new politics. By the mid-1880, Polk was one of the movement’s leaders. In 1887, he became the Farmer Alliance VP and in 1889, its president. He was reelected in 1890 and 1891, by which time the Alliance had 2 million members. He stated the position of the farmers plainly, such as this 1887 line: “Our farmers buy everything to raise cotton, and raise cotton to buy everything, and, after going through this treadmill business for years, they lie down and die and leave their families penniless.” He was a big supporter of the subtreasury plan, which was the idea to help farmers by collectivizing part of the process of selling crops, allowing farmers to store their goods in government owned warehouses until the price rose enough to make it worthwhile enough to sell.

In 1892, the Farmers Alliance decided to run a presidential candidate under the auspices of the Populist Party. People such as Polk would have vastly preferred to work within the Democratic Party, but party elites simply had no interest in allowing these farmers to control state politics or enact these reformist ideas. In North Carolina, the Democratic Party divided between Populists and Bourbon Democrats. His men held the balance of power in the North Carolina legislature by 1892 and even the Democrats replaced their Bourbon candidate for governor by a reformer. In a sense, this was a precursor for how Democrats nationally would reject Grover Cleveland in 1896 for William Jennings Bryan.

But Polk could not completely break with Democrats in North Carolina. There was one big reason for this–racism. His fears of black politics and his deep-seated white supremacy that had never left him meant that he separated state from federal politics in terms of a third party effort. As he put it in Progressive Farmer, “we can not afford to risk negro supremacy here.” In this, Polk was not particularly different than any other member of the Southern Alliance, in that they almost always believed in the strict separation of races, even at that moment when they were working with black farmers who had formed their own Colored Alliances. Yes, there was a recognition of shared economic interests, but it almost never went any farther than that, as much as people who try to play up the history of cross-racial organizing in this white supremacist nation would prefer not to linger on this. And let’s be clear, this was not something isolated in the Southern Alliance, as the example of Mary Lease, among many others, teaches us. Polk always played up his southern genteel ways, having people refer to him as “Colonel” and basically acting like the post-war romanticized vision of Robert E. Lee, gentlemen and soldier.

In February 1892, Polk presided over the proceedings that officially created the party. The Omaha Convention in July laid it out. It called for the 8-hour day, government control of railroad and communication networks, direct election of senators, civil service reform, the graduated income tax, and the abolition of national banks. It also supported the coinage of silver, which would create inflation, allow farmers to pay off their substantial debts, and alleviate the very real shortage of currency the U.S. faced in the 1890s. Leonidas Polk was to be the presidential candidate of the new party. But there was one problem. He had dropped dead a month earlier, in June, of a hemorrhaging bladder. He was 55 years old. Although he had made a good bit of money over the past few decades, he had spent it all on his agricultural reform efforts and his family was loaded down with debt.

Leonidas Polk is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader donations. Many thanks for this! If you would like this series to visit other Populists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Weaver, who ended up being the Populist presidential candidate in 1892 after Polk’s demise, is in Des Moines, Iowa and Charles Macune is in Fort Worth, Texas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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