What role did agricultural issues play in the emergence of Populism in the 1890s?

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In the late 1800s, farmers across the United States began to collaborate, out of a fear that urban politicians were creating policies that would limit their potential income. Farmers at this time were facing many financial hardships. Many farmers held massive amounts of debt, and interests rates were continuing to rise. Farmers felt that they were being taken advantage of by banking institutions. The start of the Populist Movement was the creation of the Farmer’s Alliance. This was established in 1876 in Texas and aimed at eradicating crop-lien debts. This was a system by which farmers acquired land and supplies through a loan from a bank. The loan was then paid back in crop at the end of the growing season. This was a dangerous system because it all depended on the value of the crop. If the value dropped then the farmers were often left with further debt, unable to pay back their loan.

A second well-known organization was known as the Grange (The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry). This was founded in 1868 in New York and was led by Oliver Kelley. It was very popular, and chapters developed across the country. This organization functioned much like a secret society, with each chapter having traditions and rituals. Furthermore, the Grange provided farmers and their families with social opportunities, such as dances. The rise of the Grange can be attributed to the Panic of 1873, which resulted in a collapse of several major railroads. The Panic of 1873 became a pivotal political moment, encouraging farmers to lobby for government control of railroads. The panic devastated farmers and further increased debt. Compelled to make a better life for themselves and to have greater access to the American dream, many turned to the Grange. The organization developed the Granger Laws in 1874, which were passed in several states. This revolutionized the shipping of crops and targeted the railroad industry.

During the late nineteenth century, the federal government began supporting industry over farmers as their crop prices fell. Though there was growth in industry and technology, the poverty gap widened, at the expense of the working class. Shady and corrupt bankers and tycoons began emerging, thanks to the industrial advances of the Transcontinental Railroad. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould are two infamous shipping tycoons who gained enormous amounts of money from the US government through shady deals.

Following the Grange was the Northern and Southern Farmers’ Alliance. These farmers took highly political stances and often ran for office. Farmers pushed for an increase in inflation. This benefited them because less crop was needed to make the same amount of income. Farmers lobbied for the “Greenback Dollar.” This was a system that allowed money not backed by gold to be guarantees. This idea led to the Greenback Party, which did not garner enough national support. Farmers then turned to "Silver Money." Rather than backing money with gold, silver was a secondary option. These various initiatives were at the heart of the Populist Party.

The Populist Party, also called the People’s Party, was officially created in 1891 and was largely made up of the Farmer’s Alliance. The Populist Party sat at the heart of the Gilded Age. The term "the Gilded Age" was derived from Mark Twain's 1873 satirical novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The era is marked from the 1870s to 1900. In support of agrarian interests, the Populist Party formed to represent their interests at the national level. By 1900, nearly 40% of Americans lived in urban areas. The Populist Party was developed to defend the rights and interests of farmers who remained in rural areas.

In 1892, the Populist Party elected James B. Weaver as their leader. In this election, the party held some sway, gaining 8% of the popular vote. The party campaigned for the support of farmers and a weakening of banks. The party developed the Omaha Platform at the founding convention. It was written by Ignatius Donnelly, an organizer of the Farmer’s Alliance. The platform consisted of a call for graduated income tax, the use of secret ballots, the direct election of senators, and an eight-hour work day. In addition, the party believed that the government should own and control all rail lines. In 1896 it officially folded into the Democratic Party. By 1908, the Populist Party’s intentions were covered by the Progressive Movement. These goals included anti-trust legislation, regulation of private industry, and stronger support for farmers. In addition, the party promoted a government for the people and by the people. Socially, the party opposed liberal immigration policies and believed that immigrants should not have access to land ownership.

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