What were the causes and political results of the rise of agrarian protest in the 1880s and 1890s?
The primary cause of agrarian unrest was falling prices for farm produce, largely caused by over-production. Farmers managed to increase yields per acre, and anticipated more money as a result; they did not understand the basic law of supply and demand whereby increased supply puts downward pressure on prices. In an attempt to pull even, farmers planted even more, and the result was a downward spiral of increased debt and reduced prices per unit of production. Farmers were trapped in a buyer's market. Additionally, they were hostage to the railroads who set prices to ship farm produce and did not negotiate. Also, with improved transportation, foreign farm produce entered the U.S. market which pushed prices even lower. Finally, with the national money supply backed by gold, there was little room for the economy to grow, and farmers suffered even more.
The result of this dilemma was attempts by farmers to organize politically. The first attempt, the Patrons of Husbandry, known as the Grange, formed cooperatives to assist in marketing produce, but had little political influence. Ultimately, the farmers formed their own political party, a "people's party" of sorts which became known as the Populist Party. The party advocated elimination of ownership of property by aliens, nationalization of the railroads, and free and unlimited coinage of silver, which would allow the economy to grow.
The Populist party had a number of spokesmen, including Mary Kennedy Lease, one of the first women lawyers in Kansas, and "Sockless Jerry Simpson." Their ultimate political spokesman, however, was William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat whom the Populists supported. Bryan, a lawyer and preacher, who ran for President three times, supported a free silver campaign with his famous "cross of Gold" speech:
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.