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Farmers' Discontent in the 1800s
        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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