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This Day in Labor History: March 21, 1877

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On March 21, 1877, the National Farmers Alliance was founded. This organization was the foremost avenue of protest for rural labor in the Gilded Age and helped lay the groundwork for the reforms of the twentieth century that began to ameliorate the excessive corruption and corporate domination of the late nineteenth century.

After the Civil War, the nation soon developed a farm crisis as there was increasingly little economic room for small farmers to maneuver. The Republican Party’s free labor ideology foundation was predicated on small farmers, businessmen, and independent white workers as the foundation of the nation, based upon hard work and democratic participation. But the Civil War had unleashed already building forces of unrestrained and often corrupt capitalism. This manifested itself in the form of the railroad. The federal government incentivized investors to build the railroads by giving them massive amounts of public land, which they often sold to farmers for cheap. But the farmers remained under the railroad thumb, for it was rail that determined the shipping prices and in an era where they gave huge discounts to their friends and allies, they made up the cost on the poor. Meanwhile, in the South, the Reconstruction agricultural economy was a disaster. Cotton prices were in the toilet thanks to growing competition in the British Empire. The freed slaves were denied true emancipation while poor whites entered into tenancy arrangements that, like for black workers, were increasingly defined by sharecropping. Add the Panic of 1873, caused by railroad speculation, and anger among rural Americans began rising.

In 1868, the Grange movement was founded in Fredonia, New York. This became a nonpartisan farmers’ movement advocating regulated railroad rates. It won a huge victory in 1877 in Munn v. Illinois, when the Supreme Court ruled grain warehouses were “a private utility in the public interest,” even though the Court reversed that decision in 1886. But the Grange was already falling apart as a political force due to their poorly thought out cooperatives. It was time for a new farmers organization.

On March 21, 1877, the National Farmers Alliance formed in New York, the first of the Northern Alliances. It wasn’t very effective at all. It had a basic platform that built on the Grange, including rail rate regulation and tax reform. It failed, but soon spawned imitators that were more effective, especially an 1880 edition that came out of Chicago. That grew rapidly through states such as Nebraska and Kansas. In 1881, a drought hit the northern and central Plains, hurting these farmers even further, and they began to join in droves. By October 1881, the organization had over 24,000 members and perhaps upwards of 100,000 in 1882. Like the Grange, it considered itself nonpartisan, which really was mostly necessary in a national politics still dominated by memories of the Civil War.

The Northern Alliance was matched by the Southern Alliance, which had begun in 1875 in Texas. But by 1878, that organization was pretty well wiped out and it was the Northern Alliance that reentered the state in 1879. It spread pretty well through much of Texas and what became Oklahoma in the next couple of years. It was never attached at the hip with the Northern Alliance, largely because it didn’t make the farmers pay dues, but it was an important ally and expanded the growing movement into a different part of the nation.

By 1884, the Alliance was growing throughout the nation’s farming regions and became to adopt stronger political positions as well. As railroads’ domination over nation produced increased anger and as people very slowly began to realize that the free labor ideology to which they were so attached was a lie, they started getting more involved in the political fray needed to transform their lives. It had suffered something of a downturn in the previous two years, as better weather and economic conditions had lessened the immediacy of the issues for many farmers. But rapidly declining grain and livestock prices in 1884 rejuvenated the organization and brought it into the political realm in a way that no farmers’ movement ever had before. It began to expand farther west by 1885, with significant groups in Dakota Territory and Colorado. Stronger dues systems were set up and the organization really began to gain strength. It started to make connections to the urban workers movement, particularly the Knights of Labor, also reaching its peak at this time. And while these alliances were always tenuous, they demonstrated the possibility of the two often ideologically and temperamentally opposed sections of the American working class working together to fight a common foe. Growing African-American chapters in the South, the Colored Farmers Alliance, also promised, however briefly, to overcome the racial divides in American politics to create a new politics based around the dignity of rural labor.

Although the Alliances would soon morph into the Populists and create a significant third party movement, the dreams of a national organization never came to fruition. They were always opposed by conservatives in both parties, who used the Civil War politics, now over two decades old, to sheer off support for the rebels. When that didn’t work, the southern states especially would engage in outright voter fraud to make sure the Alliancemen would never hold power. It wasn’t that hard to break up the tenuous cross-racial alliances and many Populists, from Tom Watson to Mary Lease, would engage in the most disgusting racism possible for the rest of their careers. The third party campaign of 1892 was co-opted by William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats in 1896. The railroads managed to boycott the Alliance attempts to combine their crop production into a single negotiating unit that would force the elevator operators and railroads to bargain. By 1896, it was pretty much dead.

And yet, much of what the Farmers Alliance advocated became central to the reformist politics of the 1890s-1910s. The graduated income tax became such a popular measure that it was ensconced in the Constitution, with the Sixteenth Amendment. The direct election of senators became the Seventeenth Amendment. Other political reforms were part of the Progressive movement. Of course, they had many idea that went nowhere as well, but the broader point is that these farmers, as limited as their tactics and political vision, played a major role in the history of reformist politics in America. Moreover, while we might, as Richard Hofstadter did, look back and see them as yokels, in fact, their vision was no more limited than the late nineteenth century urban reformers. Lots of Americans had to realize that unfettered free labor capitalism was not going to work for them and that took a long time. The Farmers Alliance was a critical moment in that lesson.

This is the 348th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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