The Grange was the first major farm organization and began in the 1860’s.
This organization was created mostly as a social and self-help association not
originally an organization of protest. During the depression of 1873, this
group of bonded friends, became an “agency for political change.” They knew in
ordered to help themselves they must become a voice in this new government in
order to survive.
With the depression farm product prices began to decrease. More farms
joined the Grange to band together to resolve the issues before them. Beginning
as a small group of friends learning from each other what worked and what didn’t,
by 1875 the Grange boasted of over 800,000 members and 20,000 local lodges;
claiming chapters in almost every state, being the strongest in the states that
produced the most: the South and Midwest. As a group (strong in member) they
made their statement to the world on an appropriate day, Independence Day 1873.
The framers Declaration of Independence informed those listening they were ready
to fight back. The Declaration stated they would use “all lawful and peaceful
means to free themselves from the tyranny of monopoly”. Many of the members
opened stores and other businesses so they could begin to buy and sell to each
other. However most of these were farmers, with families, not businessmen and
many companies didn’t survive because of their lack of real business knowledge
and the pressures of the middlemen who wanted them to fail. They worked as a
team to get candidates elected who agreed with the need for governmental control
of the railroads. With the control of the Legislatures they implemented
governmental controls on railroad rates and practices. However the railroad was
also very wealthy. They hired lawyers who soon destroyed the new regulations.
With these defeats and with the new rise in farm prices in the late 1870’s the
Grange began to lose strength and power, dwindling to a membership to only
100,000 by 1880.
The Grange was the springboard for another banding together of farmers,
the Farmers Alliances. This new movement began in the Southern states and
quickly spread beyond what the Grange had been. One of the most notable
differences within the Alliance, was the approval of women to vote and become
speakers and leaders for their cause. The Alliance however, had similar
problems as the Grange. Many of the cooperations, stores, banks, processing
plants and other resources began to suffer the same fate. Lack of solid
management and the market forces operating against them caused them to fail.
These disappointments aided the forming of a national political organization.
This merger held their own national convention in Ocala, Florida in 1889, in
which they introduced their Ocala Demands.
Going even further they met and formed a third party. In July 1892,
Omaha, Nebraska they met approved an official set of principles and nominated
candidates for the presidency and vice presidency. Thus the People’s Party,
more often called the Populist Party was born. In the years that soon followed
the Populist Party won the elections for Presidency (James B. Weaver of Iowa),
three governorships, five senate and ten congressional seats. Also elected were
many Republicans and Democrats who sided with the Populists. Most of the
Populist leaders were middle class, professional people or long time politicians.
Most were not small farmers.
Populism lasted for two decades as a third political party, however it
was a losing struggle. One main theory as to their fall was one of the nations
leading historians in the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter wrote in his book The Age of
Reform published and expounded this view of the Populism group and their
likeness to Communism. He stated ” the farmers were very committed to the
capitalist system they claimed to abhor.” He stated further that Populism “was
permeated with bigotry and ignorance” revealing “anti-Semitic tendencies and
their displayed animosity toward intellectuals, easterners, and urbanites.”
What began as a united group of “victims of economically marginal
agricultural regions victimized by drought and debt”. The Grangers turned into
an organized group who backed many politicians who won and made changes to
protect the small farmer, established a network of warehouses were farmers could
deposit their crops and use these as collateral for borrowing money from the
government at low rates and wait for the price of their crop to increase before
selling, and the acceptance of silver as a form of money. Because of these two
decades in our history we can see our power to influence and change politics.
Alone these unimportant, unpowerful, poor people could do nothing, however when
they came together elected leaders, their sheer numbers made people listen and
shaped laws protecting their lives and rights as citizens of these