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The West
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Mapping Conquest Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

Page 12345

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Prosperity in Peril

But still, that dream of freedom persisted. And it depended on getting land. In 1862, Congress had passed the law that embodied, more than any other piece of legislation in American history, the Jeffersonian vision of America: the Homestead Act. For a small registration fee, any head-of-household could get 160 acres of the public domain.

[picture of a midwestern family with a wagon]

If he (or for that matter, she) managed to live on that land for five years and make basic improvements, the land would be free. Like the Indian families who tried farming under the Dawes Act, many homesteaders failed, and there were good reasons for the failure. Most of the West was too dry for small farms to make it. And just buying a plow, and digging a well, and putting up a fence, and purchasing seed, that could cost just as much as $1000.

Moreover, machines like the McCormick reaper were revolutionizing farming, making it not only possible, but virtually mandatory for farmers to plow and plant and harvest more acres. In the 1870s, hope, and debt, expanded. The farmers planted more; ranchers brought in more stock. But the farming and ranching bonanzas couldn't last.

Drought years became more and more common. Grasshopper plagues and blizzards raged. Crops withered in the fields. Cattle died of thirst.

The furious winters of 1886 and 1887 produced stories of disasters across cow country, of ranchers going out to check their herds and finding their cattle by the hundreds, piled up against barbed wire fences, their ribs standing out, frozen to death. The western writer, J. Frank Dobie, put it this way. He said, "a whole generation of cow men were dead broke."

The farmers had it just as bad. The summers after those winters, drought and locusts took what the ice storms had left behind. Foreign competition drove wheat prices down and down.

Bankrupt farmers loaded up their household goods and they gave up. "In God We Trusted," read the sign on a wagon headed east, but "In Kansas We Busted."

As the century neared an end, the Empire for Liberty was in trouble.

The world was headed for a system of independent, specialized producers. And just as meat-packing had become the domain of large corporations, so would the growing and processing of those amber waves of grain. And what about those farm families chasing Jefferson's dream? Well they found themselves dependent not only on whether they could turn their hopes to dust in a matter of weeks, but also on the banks that extended loans for the machines and the seeds.

And they were dependent on the railroads that shipped the goods. Thoreau had not been happy as he stood watching the construction of a rail line that would, he was afraid, destroy the refuge he sought at Walden. "We do not ride on the railroad," Thoreau wrote. "It rides upon us."

Farmers were squeezed by the government's tight money policies, which kept farmers cash-poor. They grew more, and watched the prices for their produce fall as they tried to pay their debts with dollars that were worth more than the ones they'd borrowed only months before. And the railroads, with the complicity of state legislators who were very easily bought, charged high rates to carry their crops to the market, as high as the traffic would bear.


Farmers Fight Back

These problems finally pushed farmers to organize. As early as 1867, the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange, had protested against the banks and the railroads, and had urged farmers to cooperate to "buy less and produce more." By the late 1880s, Farmers Alliances, first organized in the southern cotton belt, but soon appearing across the prairies and plains, began to attract thousands of members.

They demanded state ownership of the railroads. They wanted a graduated income tax, and more money in circulation in the form of "the free and unlimited coinage of silver," or "free silver." Alliance men also ran for political office, and surprisingly often, they won.

[picture of Mary Lease]

Alliance women like Kansas' Mary Lease, a tall woman with a deep, almost hypnotic voice, knew firsthand the dreariness and insecurity of farm life. Lease became famous for urging farmers to "raise less corn, and more hell." By 1892, the Alliances were ready to take their message nationwide. They met in St. Louis with representatives of the Knights of Labor and others to found the People's Party, soon to be known as the Populist Party.

Their platform called for public ownership of railroads, banks, and telegraph lines, for a prohibition on large landholding companies, an eight-hour workday, a graduated income tax, and that supposed financial panacea, free silver. Like other Americans, the Populists looked for scapegoats. Their speeches frothed with tirades against rich Jews (of whom there were precious few, in that day, in America or anywhere else). And the party platform also called for immigration restriction.


A Battle Between City and Country

[picture of a political cartoon depicting William Jennings Bryan]

The Populist presidential ticket received over a million votes in 1892. Populist candidates won, throughout the West and South, in 1894, and the party looked forward to the elections of 1896. That year, the Democratic party candidate, William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, electrified the Democratic party convention with his fiery oratory, and he won the endorsement and the hearts of the People's Party. "Burn down your cities and leave our farms," he declared, "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."

What Bryan and the Populists would not admit was that the countryside was in trouble. As early as 1880, the West, which had so long embodied the American idea that open land guaranteed liberty, was already the most urbanized part of the country. By 1896, for every town-dweller who moved to the countryside, twenty farm people migrated to cities. The future lay not with the homestead, but with landscapes taking shape in Denver and New York, in Seattle and Chicago, in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

The Grangers, and the Alliances, and the People's Party had, in some senses, outlined an innovative program, a program that set the agenda for 20th century political reform. But in 1896, with Bryan as the Democratic candidate, the contest between the Republicans and the Democrats was to be a battle between city and country. The Populists knew which side they were on. It was the losing side.



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