What factors gave rise to populism, and what role did the Grangers play in addressing the farmers' concerns?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

During the late 1800s, what Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age, industrialization peaked in America to give rise to a wealthy economy driven by technology but also driven by corruption. As America became more urbanized, the farmers began to suffer from falling prices; the suffering of the farmers gave rise to the Granger movement, which eventually led to the creation of the Populist Party.

Industrialization brought with it new machines that could increase farming productivity and a transcontinental railroad system that made exporting goods much easier. But as production of farmed goods increased, demand decreased, leading to lower prices. In addition, as prices dropped, railroad companies became guilty of raising transportation prices, leaving many farmers in dept. Drought further contributed to profit losses and an inability to pay off debts.

By 1867, farmers began to form the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, also known as the Granger movement. Much like the labor unions also forming during this period, farmers found power in forming a united front. By 1877, members of the Granger movement also formed the National Farmers' Alliance to fulfill greater political aspirations. The National Farmers' Alliance mostly targeted the railroad industry and succeeded in enacting the "Granger laws," in which price caps were set for shipping and grain storage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. However, sadly, the US Supreme Court overturned all successes by ruling in the Wabash Case of 1886 that only the federal government, as opposed to state governments, could rule over interstate commerce.

When the Wabash Case overturned what the National Farmers' Alliance and Granger movement had succeeded in accomplishing, they formed two new national political parties. First, they formed the Greenback Party in an effort to get the US treasury to issue "greenbacks," dollars not backed by gold. The purpose of the Greenback Party was to drive inflation, which would also raise prices, making it easier for farmers to pay off their debts. When the Greenback Party failed, the National Farmers' Alliance formed the Populist Party, which proposed issuing dollars backed by silver in order to increase the money supply, drive inflation, and increase prices. Along with calling for an increase in the money supply, the Populist Party platform pushed to replace property taxes with a graduated income tax at a time when there was no income tax. The party platform also advocated for the federal government to take over the ownership of all transportation and communication commerce, the elimination of national banks, an 8-hour work day, and a decrease in tariffs, among other things.