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Kansas Wheat

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An English observer of agricultural conditions in 1893 finds that agricultural unrest was not peculiar to the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but existed in all the more advanced countries of the world:

"Almost everywhere, certainly in England, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, and the United States, the agriculturists, formerly so instinctively conservative, are becoming fiercely discontented, declare they gained less by civilization than the rest of the community, and are looking about for remedies of a drastic nature. In England they are hoping for aid from councils of all kinds; in France they have put on protective duties which have been increased in vain twice over; in Germany they put on and relaxed similar duties and are screaming for them again; in Scandinavia Denmark more particularly--they limit the aggregation of land; and in the United States they create organizations like the Grangers, the Farmers' Leagues, and the Populists."*

     *The Spectator, Vol. LXX, p. 247.

It is to general causes, indeed, that one must turn before trying to find the local circumstances which aggravated the unrest in the United States, or at least appeared to do so. The application of power--first steam, then electricity--to machinery had not only vastly increased the productivity of mankind but had stimulated invention to still wider activity and lengthened the distance between man and that gaunt specter of famine which had dogged his footsteps from the beginning. With a constantly, growing supply of the things necessary for the maintenance of life, population increased tremendously: England, which a few centuries before had been overcrowded with fewer than four million' people, was now more bountifully feeding and clothing forty millions. Perhaps, all in all, mankind was better off than it had ever been before; yet different groups maintained unequal progress. The tillers of the soil as a whole remained more nearly in their primitive condition than did the dwellers of the city. The farmer, it is true, produced a greater yield of crops, was surrounded by more comforts, and was able to enjoy greater leisure than his kind had ever done before. The scythe and cradle had been supplanted by the mower and reaper; horse harrows, cultivators, and rakes had transferred much of the physical exertion of farming to the draft animals. But, after all, the farmer owed less to steam and electricity than the craftsman and the artisan of the cities.

The American farmer, if he read the census reports, might learn that rural wealth had increased from nearly $4,000,000,000 in 1850 to not quite $16,000,000,000 in 1890; but he would also discover that in the same period urban wealth had advanced from a little over $3,000,000,000 to more than $49,000,000,000. Forty years before the capital of rural districts comprised more than half that of the whole country, now it formed only twenty-five per cent. The rural population had shown a steady proportionate decrease: when the first census was taken in 1790, the dwellers of the country numbered more than ten times those of the city, but at the end of the nineteenth century they formed only about one-third of the total. Of course the intelligent farmer might have observed that food for the consumption of all could be produced by the work of fewer hands, and vastly more bountifully as well, and so he might have explained the relative decline of rural population and wealth; but when the average farmer saw his sons and his neighbors' sons more and more inclined to seek work in town and leave the farm, he put two and two together and came to the conclusion that farming was in a perilous state. He heard the boy who had gone to the city boast that his hours were shorter, his toil less severe, and his return in money much greater than had been the case on the farm; and he knew that this was true. Perhaps the farmer did not realize that he had some compensations: greater security of position and a reasonable expectation that old age would find him enjoying some sort of home, untroubled by the worry which might attend the artisan or shopkeeper.

Whether or not the American farmer realized that the nineteenth century had seen a total change in the economic relations of the world, he did perceive clearly that something was wrong in his own case. The first and most impressive evidence of this was to be found in the prices he received for what he had to sell. From 1883 to 1889 inclusive the average price of wheat was seventy-three cents a bushel, of corn thirty-six cents, of oats twenty-eight cents. In 1890 crops were poor in most of the grain areas, while prosperous times continued to keep the consuming public of the manufacturing regions able to buy; consequently corn and oats nearly doubled in price, and wheat advanced 20 per cent. Nevertheless, such was the shortage, except in the case of corn, that the total return was smaller than it had been for a year or two before. In 1891 bumper crops of wheat, corn, oats, rye, and barley drove the price down on all except wheat and rye, but not to the level of 1889. Despite a much smaller harvest in 1892 the decline continued, to the intense disgust of the farmers of Nebraska and Minnesota who failed to note that the entire production of wheat in the world was normal in that year, that considerable stores of the previous crop had been held over and that more than a third of the yield in the United States was sent forth to compete everywhere with the crops of Argentine, Russia, and the other grain producing countries. No wonder the average farmer of the Mississippi basin was ready to give ear to any one who could suggest a remedy for his ills.

Cotton, which averaged nearly eleven cents a pound for the decade ending in 1890, dropped to less than nine cents in 1891 and to less than eight in 1892. Cattle, hogs, sheep, horses, and mules brought more in the late than in the early eighties, yet these, too, showed a decline about 1890. The abnormal war-time price of wool which was more than one dollar a pound in October, 1864, dropped precipitately with peace, rose a little just before the panic of 1873, and then declined with almost no reaction until it reached thirty-three cents for the highest grade in 1892.

The "roaring eighties," with all their superficial appearance of prosperity, had apparently not brought equal cheer to all. And then came the "heart-breaking nineties." In February, 1893, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company failed, a break in the stock market followed, and an old-fashioned panic seized the country in its grasp. A period of hitherto unparalleled speculative frenzy came thus to an end, and sober years followed in which the American people had ample opportunity to contemplate the evils arising from their economic debauch.

Prices of agricultural products continued their downward trend. Wheat touched bottom in 1894 with an average price of forty-nine cents; corn, two years later, reached twenty-one cents. All the other grains were likewise affected. Middling cotton which had sold at eight and a half cents a pound in 1893, dropped below seven cents the following year, recovered until it reached nearly eight cents in 1896, and was at its lowest in 1898 at just under six cents. Of all the marketable products of the farm, cattle, hay, and hogs alone maintained the price level of the decade prior to 1892. Average prices, moreover, do not fully indicate the small return which many farmers received. In December, 1891, for instance, the average value of a bushel of corn was about forty cents, but in Nebraska, on January 1, 1892, corn brought only twenty-six cents. When, a few years later, corn was worth, according to the statistics, just over twenty-one cents, it was literally cheaper to burn it in Kansas or Nebraska than to cart it to town, sell it, and buy coal with the money received; and this is just what hundreds of despairing farmers did. Even crop shortage did little to increase the price of the grain that was raised. When a drought seriously diminished the returns in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan in 1895, the importation from States farther west prevented any rise in price.

Prices dropped, but the interest on mortgages remained the same. One hundred and seventy-four bushels of wheat would pay the interest at 8 per cent on a $2000 mortgage in 1888, when the price of wheat was higher than it had been for ten years and higher than it was to be again for a dozen years. In 1894 or 1895 when the price was hovering around fifty cents, it took 320 bushels to pay the same interest. Frequently the interest was higher than 8 per cent, and outrageous commissions on renewals increased the burden of the farmer. The result was one foreclosure after another. The mortgage shark was identified as the servant of the "Wall Street Octopus," and between them there was little hope for the farmer. In Kansas, according to a contemporary investigator,* "the whole western third of the State was settled by a boom in farm lands. Multitudes of settlers took claims without means of their own, expecting to pay for the land from the immediate profits of farming. Multitudes of them mortgaged the land for improvements, and multitudes more expended the proceeds of mortgages in living. When it was found that the proceeds of farming in that part of the State were very uncertain, at best, the mortgages became due. And in many instances those who had been nominally owners remained upon the farms as tenants after foreclosure. These are but the natural effects in reaction from a tremendous boom." In eastern Kansas, where settlement was older, the pressure of hard times was withstood with less difficulty. It was in western Kansas, by the way, that Populism had its strongest following; and, after the election of 1892, a movement to separate the State into two commonwealths received serious consideration.

     * G. T. Fairchild, Pol. Se. Q., vol. 11, p. 614.

Even more inexorable than the holder of the mortgage or his agent was the tax collector. It was easy to demonstrate that the farmer, with little or nothing but his land, his stock, and a meager outfit of implements and furniture, all readily to be seen and assessed, paid taxes higher in proportion to his ability to pay than did the business man or the corporation. Although his equity in the land he owned might be much less than its assessed value, he was not allowed to make any deduction for mortgages. The revenue of the Federal Government was raised wholly by indirect taxes levied principally upon articles of common consumption; and the farmer and other people of small means paid an undue share of the burden in the form of higher prices demanded for commodities.

Low prices for his produce, further depressed by the rapacity of the railroads and the other intermediaries between the producer and the consumer, mortgages with high interest rates, and an inequitable system of taxation formed the burden of the farmer's complaint during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. These grievances and all sorts of remedies proposed for them were discussed in farmers' gatherings, in agricultural weeklies, even in city dailies, and ultimately in legislative chambers. Investigations demonstrated that, even when reduced to a minimum, the legitimate grounds for complaint were extensive; and the resultant reports suggested a variety of remedies. Generally, however, popular sentiment swung around again to the tack it had taken in the late seventies: the real cure for all the evils was more money. Wall Street and the national banks could suck the blood from the western community because of their monopoly of the money supply. According to one irate editor, "Few people are aware of the boundless advantages that the national banks have under our present accursed system. They have usurped the credit of the people and are fattening a thousand-fold annually from the unlimited resources at their command." Another editor wrote:

We find the following printed card on our desk: "The last report of the Secretary of the Treasury shows the banks as loaning $1,970,022,687"! Four times the amount of money there is to loan. Four interests in every dollar! They are drawing from the people enough to run the National Government. How long will it take them to gather in all the money of the nation? This does not include the amounts loaned by state, private, and savings banks. Add to this the billions of dollars of other loans and think if it is any wonder times are hard. Will the American people never wake up to the fact that they are being pauperized? Four people are paying interest upon each dollar you have in your pocket--if you have any. Wake up! Wake up!

Whatever the ultimate effects of an inflated and consequently depreciated currency might be, the debtor class, to which a large portion of the Western farmers belonged, would obviously benefit immediately by the injection of large quantities of money into the circulating medium. The purchasing power of money would be lower; hence the farmer would receive more in dollars and cents and would be in a better position to pay his standing debts. Whether or not the rise in the prices of his products would be offset or more than offset by the increased prices which he would have to pay for the things he purchased would depend upon the relative rate at which different commodities adjusted themselves to the new scale of money value. In the end, of course, other things being equal, there would be a return of old conditions; but the farmers did not look so far ahead. Hence it was that less attention was paid to taxation, to railroad rates and discriminations, to elevator companies, to grain gamblers, or to corporations as such; and the main force of the agrarian movements from 1875 onward was exerted, first for an increased paper currency and then for free silver.