Episode 19: Farmers and the Rise of Populism
A New History of the American South
Dr Edward Ayers (2018)
Following Reconstruction, the majority of southern farming communities fell into deep economic crisis stemming from the Long Depression (1873-1876).
Ayers links the Long Depression to US banks’ demand for a return to the gold standard (after years on relying on government-issued Greenbacks). However he fails to make clear that this move was accompanied by bank lobbying to withdraw Lincoln’s Civil War greenbacks from circulation. This, in essence, returned the function of money creation to private banks.* They, in turn, responded by drastically shrinking the money supply, sinking the country into deep depression.
Ayers also describes how farmers (nationwide) began organizing in the 1870s to try to improve their living conditions. The first groups they formed were greenbackers groups and farming cooperatives. The latter allowed them to buy seed, animals and equipment in bulk, and to cut out middlemen by running their own gins, stores, and warehouses.
America’s first populist movement started in Texas in 1878 as the Farmers Alliance, which sent out farmer-lecturers throughout Texas and other parts of the South, Midwest and West to educate farmers and workers about bank corruption. When banks, railroads, grain elevators and supply merchants secretly conspired to bankrupt the farmers cooperatives, the Alliance formed the People’s Party.
Although Ayers neglects to mention it, the main platform of the People’s Party was a call to end the ability of private banks to create money.
In 1892, the Populist candidate for president won 1 million votes. In the 1894 election, the party elected state officials in a number of states, including South Carolina.
In 1896, the Populist Party essentially self-destructed by joining with the Democratic Party to support Free Silver candidate William Jennings Bryan. He was defeated by William McKinley.
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