Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 
Kansas Wheat

Article Index

 

THE RISING SPIRIT OF UNREST

The decade of the seventies witnessed the subsidence, if not the solution, of a problem which had vexed American history for half a century--the reconciliation of two incompatible social and economic systems, the North and the South. It witnessed at the same time the rise of another great problem, even yet unsolved--the preservation of equality of opportunity, of democracy, economic as well as political, in the face of the rising power and influence of great accumulations and combinations of wealth. Almost before the battle smoke of the Civil War had rolled away, dissatisfaction with prevailing conditions both political and economic began to show itself.

The close of the war naturally found the Republican or Union party in control throughout the North. Branded with the opprobrium of having opposed the conduct of the war, the Democratic party remained impotent for a number of years; and Ulysses S. Grant, the nation's greatest military hero, was easily elected to the presidency on the Republican ticket in 1868. In the latter part of Grant's first term, however, hostility began to manifest itself among the Republicans themselves toward the politicians in control at Washington. Several causes tended to alienate from the President and his advisers the sympathies of many of the less partisan and less prejudiced Republicans throughout the North. Charges of corruption and maladministration were rife and had much foundation in truth. Even if Grant himself was not consciously dishonest in his application of the spoils system and in his willingness to receive reward in return for political favors, he certainly can be justly charged with the disposition to trust too blindly in his friends and to choose men for public office rather because of his personal preferences than because of their qualifications for positions of trust.

Grant's enemies declared, moreover, with considerable truth that the man was a military autocrat, unfit for the highest civil position in a democracy. His high-handed policy in respect to Reconstruction in the South evoked opposition from those

Northern Republicans whose critical sense was not entirely blinded by sectional prejudice and passion. The keener-sighted of the Northerners began to suspect that Reconstruction in the South often amounted to little more than the looting of the governments of the Southern States by the greedy freedmen and the unscrupulous carpetbaggers, with the troops of the United States standing by to protect the looters. In 1871, under color of necessity arising from the intimidation of voters in a few sections of the South, Congress passed a stringent act, empowering the President to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and to use the military at any time to suppress disturbances or attempts to intimidate voters. This act, in the hands of radicals, gave the carpetbag governments of the Southern States practically unlimited powers. Any citizens who worked against the existing administrations, however peacefully, might be charged with intimidation of voters and prosecuted under the new act. Thus these radical governments were made practically self-perpetuating. When their corruption, wastefulness, and inefficiency became evident, many people in the North frankly condemned them and the Federal Government which continued to support them.

This dissatisfaction with the Administration on the part of Republicans and independents came to a head in 1872 in the Liberal-Republican movement. As early as 1870 a group of Republicans in Missouri, disgusted by the excesses of the radicals in that State in the proscription of former Confederate sympathizers, had led a bolt from the party, had nominated B. Gratz Brown for governor, and, with the assistance of the Democrats, had won the election. The real leader of this movement was Senator Carl Schurz, under whose influence the new party in Missouri declared not only for the removal of political disabilities but also for tariff revision and civil service reform and manifested opposition to the alienation of the public domain to private corporations and to all schemes for the repudiation of any part of the national debt. Similar splits in the Republican party took place soon afterwards in other States, and in 1872 the Missouri Liberals called a convention to meet at Cincinnati for the purpose of nominating a candidate for the presidency.

The new party was a coalition of rather diverse elements. Prominent tariff reformers, members of the Free Trade League, such as David A. Wells and Edward L. Godkin of the Nation, advocates of civil service reform, of whom Carl Schurz was a leading representative, and especially opponents of the reconstruction measures of the Administration, such as Judge David Davis and Horace Greeley, saw an opportunity to promote their favorite policies through this new party organization. To these sincere reformers were soon added such disgruntled politicians as A. G. Curtin of Pennsylvania and R. E. Fenton of New York, who sought revenge for the support which the Administration had given to their personal rivals. The principal bond of union was the common desire to prevent the reelection of Grant. The platform adopted by the Cincinnati convention reflected the composition of the party. Opening with a bitter denunciation of the President, it declared in no uncertain terms for civil service reform and the immediate and complete removal of political disabilities. On the tariff, however, the party could come to no agreement; the free traders were unable to overcome the opposition of Horace Greeley and his protectionist followers; and the outcome was the reference of the question "to the people in their congressional districts and the decision of Congress."

The leading candidates for nomination for the presidency were Charles Francis Adams, David Davis, Horace Greeley, Lyman Trumbull, and B. Gratz Brown. From these men, as a result of manipulation, the convention unhappily selected the one least suited to lead the party to victory Horace Greeley. The only hope of success for the movement was in cooperation with that very Democratic party whose principles, policies, and leaders, Greeley in his editorials had unsparingly condemned for years. His extreme protectionism repelled not only the Democrats but the tariff reformers who had played an important part in the organization of the Liberal Republican party. Conservatives of both parties distrusted him as a man with a dangerous propensity to advocate "isms," a theoretical politician more objectionable than the practical man of machine politics, and far more likely to disturb the existing state of affairs and to overturn the business of the country in his efforts at reform. As the Nation expressed it, "Greeley appears to be 'boiled crow' to more of his fellow citizens than any other candidate for office in this or any other age of which we have record."

The regular Republican convention renominated Grant, and the Democrats, as the only chance of victory, swallowed the candidate and the platform of the Liberals. Doubtless Greeley's opposition to the radical reconstruction measures and the fact that he had signed Jefferson Davis's bail-bond made the "crow" more palatable to the Southern Democrats. In the campaign Greeley's brilliant speeches were listened to with great respect. His tour was a personal triumph; but the very voters who hung eagerly on his speeches felt him to be too impulsive and opinionated to be trusted with presidential powers. They knew the worst which might be expected of Grant; they could not guess the ruin which Greeley's dynamic powers might bring on the country if he used them unwisely. In the end many of the original leaders of the Liberal movement supported Grant as the lesser of two evils. The Liberal defection from the Republican ranks was more than offset by the refusal of Democrats to vote for Greeley, and Grant was triumphantly reelected.

The Liberal Republican party was undoubtedly weakened by the unfortunate selection of their candidate, but it scarcely could have been victorious with another candidate. The movement was distinctly one of leaders rather than of the masses, and the things for which it stood most specifically--the removal of political disabilities in the South and civil service reform--awakened little enthusiasm among the farmers of the West. These farmers on the other hand were beginning to be very much interested in a number of economic reforms which would vitally affect their welfare, such as the reduction and readjustment of the burden of taxation, the control of corporations in the interests of the people, the reduction and regulation of the cost of transporation, and an increase in the currency supply. Some of these propositions occasionally received recognition in Liberal speeches and platforms, but several of them were anathema to many of the Eastern leaders of that movement. Had these leaders been gifted with vision broad enough to enable them to appreciate the vital economic and social problems of the West, the Liberal Republican movement might perhaps have caught the ground swell of agrarian discontent, and the outcome might then have been the formation of an enduring national party of liberal tendencies broader and more progressive than the Liberal Republican party yet less likely to be swept into the vagaries of extreme radicalism than were the Anti-Monopoly and Greenback parties of after years. A number of western Liberals such as A. Scott Sloan in Wisconsin and Ignatius Donnelly in Minnesota championed the farmers' cause, it is true, and in some States there was a fusion of party organizations; but men like Schurz and Trumbull held aloof from these radical movements, while Easterners like Godkin of the Nation met them with ridicule and invective.

The period from 1870 to 1873 has been characterized as one of rampant prosperity, and such it was for the commercial, the manufacturing, and especially the speculative interests of the country. For the farmers, however, it was a period of bitter depression. The years immediately following the close of the Civil War had seen a tremendous expansion of production, particularly of the staple crops. The demobilization of the armies, the closing of war industries, increased immigration, the homestead law, the introduction of improved machinery, and the rapid advance of the railroads had all combined to drive the agricultural frontier westward by leaps and bounds until it had almost reached the limit of successful cultivation under conditions which then prevailed. As crop acreage and production increased, prices went down in accordance with the law of supply and demand, and farmers all over the country found it difficult to make a living.

In the West and South--the great agricultural districts of the country--the farmers commonly bought their supplies and implements on credit or mortgaged their crops in advance; and their profits at best were so slight that one bad season might put them thereafter entirely in the power of their creditors and force them to sell their crops on their creditors' terms. Many farms were heavily mortgaged, too, at rates of interest that ate up the farmers' profits. During and after the Civil War the fluctuation of the currency and the high tariff worked especial hardship on the farmers as producers of staples which must be sold abroad in competition with European products and as consumers of manufactured articles which must be bought at home at prices made arbitrarily high by the protective tariff. In earlier times, farmers thus harassed would have struck their tents and moved farther west, taking up desirable land on the frontier and starting out in a fresh field of opportunity. It was still possible for farmers to go west, and many did so but only to find that the opportunity for economic independence on the edge of settlement had largely disappeared. The era of the self-sufficing pioneer was drawing to a close, and the farmer on the frontier, forced by natural conditions over which he had no control to--engage in the production of staples, was fully as dependent on the market and on transportation facilities as was his competitor in the East.

In the fall of 1873 came the greatest panic in the history of the nation, and a period of financial depression began which lasted throughout the decade, restricting industry, commerce, and even immigration. On the farmers the blow fell with special severity. At the very time when they found it most difficult to realize profit on their sales of produce, creditors who had hitherto carried their debts from year to year became insistent for payment. When mortgages fell due, it was well-nigh impossible to renew them; and many a farmer saw years of labor go for nothing in a heart-breaking foreclosure sale. It was difficult to get even short-term loans, running from seed-time to harvest. This important function of lending money to pay for labor and thus secure a larger crop, which has only recently been assumed by the Government in its establishment of farm loan banks, had been performed by private capitalists who asked usurious rates of interest. The farmers' protests against these rates had been loud; and now, when they found themselves unable to get loans at any rate whatever, their complaints naturally increased. Looking around for one cause to which to attribute all their misfortunes, they pitched upon the corporations or monopolies, as they chose to call them, and especially upon the railroads.

At first the farmers had looked upon the coming of the railroads as an unmixed blessing. The railroad had meant the opening up of new territory, the establishment of channels of transportation by which they could send their crops to market. Without the railroad, the farmer who did not live near a navigable stream must remain a backwoodsman; he must make his own farm or his immediate community a self-sufficing unit; he must get from his own land bread and meat and clothing for his family; he must be stock-raiser, grain-grower, farrier, tinker, soap-maker, tanner, chandler--Jack-of-all-trades and master of none. With the railroad he gained access to markets and the opportunity to specialize in one kind of farming; he could now sell his produce and buy in exchange many of the articles he had previously made for himself at the expense of much time and labor. Many farmers and farming communities bought railroad bonds in the endeavor to increase transportation facilities; all were heartily in sympathy with the policy of the Government in granting to corporations land along the route of the railways which they were to construct.

By 1878, however, the Government had actually given to the railroads about thirty-five million acres, and was pledged to give to the Pacific roads alone about one hundred and forty-five million acres more. Land was now not so plentiful as it had been in 1850, when this policy had been inaugurated, and the farmers were naturally aggrieved that the railroads should own so much desirable land and should either hold it for speculative purposes or demand for it prices much higher than the Government had asked for land adjacent to it and no less valuable. Moreover, when railroads were merged and reorganized or passed into the hands of receivers the shares held by farmers were frequently wiped out or were greatly decreased in value. Often railroad stock had been "watered" to such an extent that high freight charges were necessary in order to permit the payment of dividends. Thus the farmer might find himself without his railroad stock, with a mortgage on his land which he had incurred in order to buy the stock, with an increased burden of taxation because his township had also been gullible enough to buy stock, and with a railroad whose excessive rates allowed him but a narrow margin of profit on his produce.

When the farmers sought political remedies for their economic ills, they discovered that, as a class, they had little representation or influence either in Congress or in the state legislatures. Before the Civil War the Southern planter had represented agricultural interests in Congress fairly well; after the War the dominance of Northern interests left the Western farmer without his traditional ally in the South. Political power was concentrated in the East and in the urban sections of the West. Members of Congress were increasingly likely to be from the manufacturing classes or from the legal profession, which sympathized with these classes rather than with the agriculturists. Only about seven per cent of the members of Congress were farmers; yet in 1870 forty-seven per cent of the population was engaged in agriculture. The only remedy for the farmers was to organize themselves as a class in order to promote their common welfare.