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Kansas Wheat

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The People's Party was mortally stricken by the events of 1896. Most of the cohorts which had been led into the camp of Democracy were thereafter beyond the control of their leaders; and even the remnant that still called itself Populist was divided into two factions. In 1900 the radical group refused to endorse the Fusionists' nomination of Bryan and ran an independent ticket headed by Wharton Barker of Pennsylvania and that inveterate rebel, Ignatius Donnelly. This ticket, however, received only 50,000 votes, nearly one-half of which came from Texas. When the Democrats nominated Judge Alton B. Parker of New York in 1904, the Populists formally dissolved the alliance with the Democracy and nominated Thomas E. Watson of Georgia for President. By this defection the Democrats may have lost something; but the Populists gained little. Most of the radicals who deserted the Democracy at this time went over to Roosevelt, the Republican candidate. In 1908 the Populist vote fell to 29,000; in 1912 the party gave up the ghost in a thinly-attended convention which neither made nominations of its own nor endorsed any other candidate. In Congress the forces of Populism dwindled rapidly, from the 27 members of 1897 to but 10 in 1899, and none at all in 1903.

The men who had been leaders in the heyday of Populism retired from national prominence to mere local celebrity. Donnelly died in 1901, leaving a picturesque legacy of friendships and animosities, of literary controversy and radical political theory. Weaver remained with the fusion Populists through the campaign of 1900; but by 1904 he had gone over to the Democratic party. The erstwhile candidate for the presidency was content to serve as mayor of the small town of Colfax, Iowa, where he made his home until his death in 1912, respected by his neighbors and forgotten by the world. Peffer, at the expiration of his term in the Senate, ran an unsuccessful tilt for the governorship of Kansas on the Prohibition ticket. In 1900 he returned to the comfort of the Republican fold, to become an ardent supporter of McKinley and Roosevelt.

But the defection and death of Populist leaders, the collapse of the party, and the disintegration of the alliances could not stay the farmers' movement. It ebbed for a time, just as at the end of the Granger period, but it was destined to rise again. The unprecedented prosperity, especially among the farmers, which began with the closing years of the nineteenth century and has continued with little reaction down to the present has removed many causes for agrarian discontent; but some of the old evils are left, and fresh grievances have come to the front. Experience taught the farmer one lesson which he has never forgotten: that whether prosperous or not, he can and must promote his welfare by organization. So it is that, as one association or group of associations declines, others arise. In some States, where the Grange has survived or has been reintroduced, it is once more the leading organ of the agricultural class. Elsewhere other organizations, sometimes confined to a single State, sometimes transcending state lines, hold the farmers' allegiance more or less firmly; and an attempt is now being made to unite all of these associations in an American Federation of Farmers.

Until recently these orders have devoted their energies principally to promoting the social and intellectual welfare of the farmer and to business cooperation, sometimes on a large scale. But, as soon as an organization has drawn into its ranks a considerable proportion of the farmers of a State, especially in the West, the temptation to use its power in the field of politics is almost irresistible. At first, political activity is usually confined to declarations in favor of measures believed to be in the interests of the farmers as a class; but from this it is only a short step to the support of candidates for office who are expected to work for those measures; and thence the gradation is easy to actual nominations by the order or by a farmers' convention which it has called into being. With direct primaries in operation in most of the Western States, these movements no longer culminate in the formation of the third party but in ambitious efforts to capture the dominant party in the State. Thus in Wisconsin the president of the state union of the American Society of Equity, a farmers' organization which has heretofore been mainly interested in cooperative buying and selling, was recently put forward by a "Farmers and Laborers Conference" as candidate for the nomination for governor on the Republican ticket and had the active support of the official organ of the society. In North Dakota, the Non-Partisan League, a farmers' organization avowedly political in its purposes, captured the Republican party a few years ago and now has complete control of the state government. The attempt of the League to seize the reins in Minnesota has been unsuccessful as yet, but Democratic and Republican managers are very much alarmed at its growing power. The organized farmers are once more a power in Western politics.

It is not, however, by votes cast and elections won or by the permanence of parties and organizations that the political results of the agrarian crusade are to be measured. The People's Party and its predecessors, with the farmers' organizations which supported them, professed to put measures before men and promulgated definite programs of legislation. Many of the proposals in these programs which were ridiculed at the time have long since passed beyond the stage of speculation and discussion. Regulation of railroad charges by national and state government, graduated income taxes, popular election of United States Senators, a parcels post, postal savings banks, and rural free delivery of mail are a few of these once visionary demands which have been satisfied by Federal law and constitutional amendment. Antitrust legislation has been enacted to meet the demand for the curbing of monopolies; and the Federal land bank system which has recently gone into operation is practically the proposal of the Northwestern Alliance for government loans to farmers, with the greenback feature eliminated. Even the demand for greater volume and flexibility of currency has been met, though in ways quite different from those proposed by the farmers.*

     * In July, 1894, when the People's Party was growing rapidly, the editor of the Review of Reviews declared: "Whether the Populist party is to prove itself capable of amalgamating a great national political organization or whether its work is to be done through a leavening of the old parties to a more or less extent with its doctrines and ideas, remains to be seen. At present its influence evidently is that of a leavening ingredient." The inclusion of the income tax in the revenue bill put through by the Democratic majority in Congress was described as "a mighty manifestation of the working of the Populist leaven"; and it was pointed out that "the Populist leaven in the direction of free silver at the ratio of 16 to 1 is working yet more deeply and ominously." The truth of the last assertion was demonstrated two years later.

In general it may be said that the farmers' organizations and parties stood for increased governmental activity; they scorned the economic and political doctrine of laissez faire; they believed that the people's governments could and should be used in many ways for promoting the welfare of the people, for assuring social justice, and for restoring or preserving economic as well as political equality. They were pioneers in this field of social politics, but they did not work alone. Independent reformers, either singly or in groups, labor organizations and parties, and radicals everywhere cooperated with them. Both the old parties were split into factions by this progressive movement; and in 1912 a Progressive party appeared on the scene and leaped to second place in its first election, only to vanish from the stage in 1916 when both the old parties were believed to have become progressive.

The two most hopeful developments in American politics during recent years have been the progressive movement, with its program of social justice, and the growth of independent voting--both developments made possible in large part by the agrarian crusade. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the farmers' movement to American politics has been the training of the agricultural population to independent thought and action. No longer can a political party, regardless of its platform and candidates, count on the farmer vote as a certainty. The resolution of the Farmers' Alliance of Kansas "that we will no longer divide on party lines and will only cast our votes for candidates of the people, by the people, and for the people," was a declaration of a political independence which the farmers throughout the West have maintained and strengthened. Each successive revolt took additional voters from the ranks of the old parties; and, once these ties were severed, even though the wanderers might return, their allegiance could be retained only by a due regard for their interests and desires.