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Farmers’ Discontent In The 1800s Essay, Research Paper

The period between 1880 and 1900 was a boom time for American

politics. The country was for once free of the threat of war, and many

of its citizens were living comfortably. However, as these two decades

went by, the American farmer found it harder and harder to live

comfortably. Crops such as cotton and wheat, once the bulwark of

agriculture, were selling at prices so low that it was nearly

impossible for farmers to make a profit off them. Furthermore,

improvement in transportation allowed foreign competition to

materialize, making it harder for American farmers to dispose of

surplus crop. Finally, years of drought in the midwest and the

downward spiral of business in the 1890’s devastated many of the

nation’s farmers. As a result of the agricultural depression, many

farm groups, most notably the Populist Party, arose to fight what

farmers saw as the reasons for the decline in agriculture. During the

last twenty years of the nineteenth century, many farmers in the

United States saw monopolies and trusts, railroads, and money

shortages and the demonetization of silver as threats to their way of

life, though in many cases their complaints were not valid.

The growth of the railroad was one of the most significant

elements in American economic growth. However, in many ways, the

railroads hurt small shippers and farmers. Extreme competition between

rail companies necessitated some way to win business. To do this, many

railroads offered rebates and drawbacks to larger shippers who used

their rails. However, this practice hurt smaller shippers, including

farmers, for often times railroad companies would charge more to ship

products short distances than they would for long trips. The rail

companies justified this practice by asserting that if they did not

rebate, they would not make enough profit to stay in business. In his

testimony to the Senate Cullom Committee, George W. Parker stated,

“…the operating expense of this road…requires a certain volume of

business to meet these fixed expenses….in some seasons of the year,

the local business of the road…is not sufficient to make the

earnings…when we make up a train of ten of fifteen cars of local

freight…we can attach fifteen or twenty cars…of strictly through

business. We can take the latter at a very low rate than go without

it.” Later, when asked the consequences of charging local traffic the

same rate as through freight, Mr. Parker responded, “Bankruptcy,

inevitably and speedy…”. While the railroads felt that they must use

this practice to make a profit, the farmers were justified in

complaining, for they were seriously injured by it. A perfect example

of this fact can be found in The Octopus by Frank Norris. A farmer

named Dyke discovers that the railroad has increased their freight

charges from two to five cents a pound. This new rate, “…ate up

every cent of his gains. He stood there ruined.” (Doc. H). The

railroads regularly used rebates and drawbacks to help win the

business of large shippers, and made up this loss in profit by

increasing the cost to smaller shippers such as farmers. As a result,

many farmers, already hurt by the downslide in agriculture, were

ruined. Thus, the farmers of the late nineteenth century had a valid

complaint against railroad shippers, for these farmers were hurt by

the unfair practices of the railroads.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, business began to

centralize, leading to the rise of monopolies and trusts. Falling

prices, along with the need for better efficiency in industry, led to

the rise of such companies as Carnegie Steel and Standard Oil, which

controlled a majority of the nation’s supply of raw steel and oil

respectively. The rise of these monopolies and trusts concerned many

farmers, for they felt that the disappearance of competition would

lead to erratic and unreasonable price rises that would hurt

consumers. James B. Weaver, the Populist party’s presidential

candidate in the 1892 election, summed up the feelings of many

Americans of the period in his work, A Call to Action: An

Interpretation of the Great Uprising. He wrote, “It is clear that

trusts are…in conflict with the Common law. They are monopolies

organized to destroy competition and restrain trade…. Once they

secure control of a given line, they are master of the situation…

They can limit the price of the raw material so as to impoverish the

producer, drive him to a single market, reduce the price of every

class of labor connected with the trade, throw out of employment large

numbers persons…and finally…they increase the price to the

consumer…. The main weapons of the trust are threats, intimidation,

bribery, fraud, wreck, and pillage.” However, the facts refute many of

Weaver’s charges against the monopolies. While it is true that many

used questionable means to achieve their monopoly, many were not out

to crush competitors. To the contrary, John D. Rockefeller, head of

Standard Oil, competed ruthlessly not to crush other refiners but to

persuade them to join Standard Oil and share the business so all could

profit. Furthermore, the fear that the monopolies would raise prices

unreasonably was never realized. Prices tended to fall during the

latter part of the 1800’s creating what some have called a “consumer’s

millennium”. Thus, the agrarian complaints against monopolies were not

incredibly valid, for the monopolies did very little harm to farmers

of the time.

Finally, deflation and falling prices during the late 1800’s

led to the most heated complaint of farmers and the Populist party

that grew out of agricultural discontent. Deflation had been running

rampant during the latter half of the 1800’s, as evidenced by the

drastic fall in the value of wheat and cotton. To fight the

deflationary trend, the Populists demanded a reversal of the Coinage

Act of 1873, which demonetized silver. The Populist platform for the

1892 election called for unlimited coinage of silver and an increase

in the money supply “to no less than $50 per capita.”. Here again, the

farmers are wrong in the assessment of their problems. It is true that

the country_s money supply was not adequate. United States government

data from 1961 shows that though the country_s population between 1865

and 1875 increased by nearly four million, the country’s money supply

actually decreased. However, many farmers used the money supply to

explain problems that indeed had very little to do with the money

supply at all. This fact is best summed up in a quote from J. Laurence

Laughlin’s article, “Causes of Agricultural Unrest”. He says, “Feeling

the coils of some mysterious power about them, the farmers… have

attributed their misfortunes to the ‘constriction’ in prices, caused,

as they think, not by an increased production of wheat throughout the

world, but by the ’scarcity of gold’.” Furthermore, history has shown

that battle between gold and silver had little real meaning. The real

battle was not between gold or silver, but instead what would be done

to check deflation. William McKinley, in his 1896 acceptance speech,

said, “Free silver would not mean that silver dollars were to be

freely had without cost or labor… It would not make labor easier,

the hours shorter, or the pay better. It would not make the farming

less laborious or more profitable…”. Many farmers saw silver as a

cure-all for their problems, failing to see that changes in the world

were to blame. Finally, the discovery of gold in Alaska and improved

methods of extracting gold from low-grade ore did much to increase the

nation’s money supply. These facts prove that the farmers’ view of

silver was not sound, thus invalidating their complaints about the

nation’s financial system.

The farmers of the late 1800’s had many reasons for being

dissatisfied with their situation. Unfair railroad practices, such as

rebates and drawbacks, hurt them severely. However, in some cases,

these farmers’ complaints were not justified. Many of the fears that

farmers had about monopolies, such as the idea of unfair and

unreasonable price increases, happened in very few occasions; in fact,

prices went down in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Finally, history has proven that their view of silver as a way to end

deflation and the decrease in crop values was inaccurate. The farmers

of the period, though, used these issues to change the shape of

American politics and bring it face to face with the problems the

country was facing.

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