Agrarian Discontent in the Late 1800's

"Why the Farmers Were Wrong"



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