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.
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.
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
A Battle Between City and Country
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