What were the causes and political results of the rise of agrarian protest in the 1880s and 1890s?

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larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The major cause of agrarian protest was falling prices for farm products. Farmers were caught between overproduction domestically and increased competition from foreign sources which forced prices down. The farmers aimed most of their vitriol at the railroads, as there was no other method of effectively transporting large amounts of farm produce and they were at the mercy of transit rates set by the railroad companies. Additionally, a tariff on foreign manufactured goods meant that farmers had to purchase farm equipment, etc. produced domestically at a higher price at the same time that foreign competition for their own product lowered prices. To the farmers, this was something of a "double whammy."  Additionally, the gold standard employed by the U.S. created deflation and kept prices low. The Silver Purchase Act of 1878 required the treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver monthly; however farmers did not consider it enough to impact the economy.

The end result was political organization of the farmers, primarily into the Populist Movement, and the rise of a number of spokesmen who championed their cause. Among their spokesmen:

  • Mary Elizabeth Kennedy Lease, who told farmers to "raise less corn and more hell."
  • Sockless Jerry Simpson, who ran for Congress claiming the battle was between the "robbers and the robbed."

The Populist Political Party formed in 1891 which called for a graduated income tax, unlimited coinage of silver at the rate of 16:1, and nationalization of the railroads. Their most famous spokesmen was William Jennings Bryan, a three time candidate for President of the United States, who, in a famous address said:

I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity. . . . We have petitioned, and out petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, but our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer, we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

 

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