Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 
Kansas Wheat

Article Index

 

THE FARMERS' ALLIANCE

The hope of welding the farmers into an organization which would enable them to present a united front to their enemies and to work together for the promotion of their interests--social, economic, and political--was too alluring to be allowed to die out with the decline of the Patrons of Husbandry. Farmers who had experienced the benefits of the Grange, even though they had deserted it in its hour of trial, were easily induced to join another organization embodying all its essential features but proposing to avoid its mistakes. The conditions which brought about the rapid spread of the Grange in the seventies still prevailed; and as soon as the reaction from the Granger movement was spent, orders of farmers began to appear in various places and to spread rapidly throughout the South and West. This second movement for agricultural organization differed from the first in that it sprang from the soil, as it were, and, like Topsy, "just grooved" instead of being deliberately planned and put into operation by a group of founders.

A local farmers' club or alliance was organized in 1874 or 1875 in the frontier county of Lampasas, Texas, for mutual protection against horse thieves and land sharks and for cooperation in the rounding up of strayed stock and in the purchase of supplies. That it might accomplish its purposes more effectively, the club adopted a secret ritual of three degrees; and it is said that at first this contained a formula for catching horse thieves. Affiliated lodges were soon established in neighboring communities, and in 1878 a Grand State Alliance was organized. Some one connected with this movement must have been familiar with the Grange, for the Declaration of Purposes adopted by the State Alliance in 1880 is but a crude paraphrase of the declaration adopted by the earlier order at St. Louis in 1874. These promising beginnings were quickly wrecked by political dissension, particularly in connection with the Greenback movement, and the first State Alliance held its last meeting in 1879. In that year, however, a member of the order who removed to Poolville in Parker County, Texas, organized there a distinctly non-partisan alliance. From this new center the movement spread more rapidly; a second Grand State Alliance was organized; and the order grew with such rapidity that by 1886 there were nearly three thousand local lodges in the State. The social aspect was prominent in the Alliance movement in Texas from the beginning. Women were admitted to full membership, and negroes were excluded. In 1882 the three degrees of the ritual were combined into one so that all members might be on the same footing.

The early minutes of the State Alliance indicate that the rounding up of estrays was the most important practical feature of the order at that time, but in a few years this was overshadowed by cooperation. Trade agreements were made with dealers, joint stock stores and Alliance cotton-yards were established, and finally a state exchange was organized with a nominal capital of half a million dollars to handle the business of the members. All the difficulties which the Grange had encountered in its attempts at cooperation beset the Alliance ventures: dissension was spread by merchants and commission men fighting for their livelihood; mistakes were made by agents and directors; too much was attempted at once; and in a few years the house of cards tumbled to the ground.

While its business ventures were still promising, the Texas Alliance came near being wrecked once more on the shoals of politics. The state meeting in August, 1886, adopted an elaborate set of "Demands," which included higher taxation of lands held for speculative purposes, prohibition of alien land ownership, laws to "prevent the dealing in futures of all agricultural products," full taxation of railroad property, "the rapid extinguishment of the public debt of the United States, by operating the mints to their fullest capacity in coining silver and gold, and the tendering of the same without discrimination to the public creditors," the issue of legal tender notes on a per capita basis and their substitution for bank notes, a national bureau of labor statistics, an interstate commerce law, and the abolition of the contract system of employing convicts. Provision was made for a committee of three to press these demands upon Congress and the State Legislature. At the close of the meeting, some of the members, fearing that the adoption of this report would lead to an attempt to establish a new political party, held another meeting and organized a rival State Alliance.

Considerable confusion prevailed for a few months; the president and vice-president of the regular State Alliance resigned, and the whole order seemed on the verge of disruption. At this point there appeared on the stage the man who was destined not only to save the Alliance in Texas but also to take the lead in making it a national organization--C. W. Macune, the chairman of the executive committee. Assuming the position of acting president, Macune called a special session of the State Alliance to meet in January, 1887. At this meeting the constitution was amended to include a declaration that it was the purpose of the order "to labor for the education of the agricultural classes in the science of economical government, in a strictly nonpartisan spirit"; and attention was then directed to a plan for "the organization of the cotton belt of America." The first step in this direction was taken in the same month when the Texas Alliance joined with the Farmers' Union of Louisiana and formed the National Farmers' Alliance and Cooperative Union of America.*

     * The Farmers' Union was the outgrowth of an open farmers' club organized in Lincoln Parish, Louisiana, in 1880. In 1885 this was transformed into a secret society with a ritual modeled after that of the Grange and with a constitution adapted from the constitution used by the Texas alliances. Before the year was over the order spread into the adjoining parishes and a state union was established.

Macune, who was elected president of the national body, at once sent organizers into most of the Southern States; and local alliances, followed rapidly by state organization, appeared in State after State. When the next meeting was held in October, 1887, delegates were present from nine Southern States.* The "Demands" adopted at this meeting were very like those which had split the Texas Alliance in the preceding year, with the addition of sections calling for the reduction of the tariff to a revenue basis, a graduated income tax, promotion of industrial and agricultural education, restriction of immigration, and popular election of United States senators.

     * By December, 1888, it was claimed that there were 10,000 alliances in 16 States with a total membership of about 400,000. It was evident that the organization of the farmers of the cotton belt was rapidly being consummated.

As the Alliance spread into Arkansas and some of the adjoining States, it encountered another farmers' association of a very similar character and purpose. The Agricultural Wheel, as it was known, originated in a local club in Prairie County, Arkansas, in 1882, and soon expanded into a state-wide organization. After amalgamating with another agricultural order, known as the Brothers of Freedom, the Wheel began to roll into the adjoining States. In 1886 delegates from Tennessee and Kentucky attended the meeting of the Arkansas State Wheel and took part in the organization of the National Agricultural Wheel.* When the National Wheel held its first annual meeting in November, 1887, eight state organizations had been established, all in the Southwest, with a total membership of half a million.

     * Some difficulty was occasioned at this meeting by the question of admitting negroes to the order, but this was finally settled by making provision for separate lodges for colored members.

With two great orders of farmers expanding in much the same territory and having practically identical objects, the desirability of union was obvious. The subject was discussed at meetings of both bodies, and committees of conference were appointed. Both organizations finally convened in December, 1888, at Meridian, Mississippi, and appointed a joint committee to work out the details of amalgamation. The outcome was a new constitution, which was accepted by each body acting separately and was finally ratified by the state organizations. The combined order was to be known as the Farmers' and Laborers' Union of America.

While this development had been going on in the South, another movement, somewhat different in character and quite independent in origin, had been launched by the farmers of the Northwest. The founder of the National Farmers' Alliance, or the Northwestern Alliance, as it was called to distinguish it from the Southern organization, was Milton George, editor of the Western Rural of Chicago, who had been instrumental in organizing a local alliance in Cook County. This Alliance began issuing charters to other locals, and in October, at the close of a convention in Chicago attended by about "five hundred, representing alliances, granges, farmers' clubs, etc.," a national organization was formed. The constitution adopted at this time declared the object of the order to be "to unite the farmers of the United States for their protection against class legislation, and the encroachments of concentrated capital and the tyranny of monopoly;... to oppose, in our respective political parties, the election of any candidate to office, state or national, who is not thoroughly in sympathy with the farmers' interests; to demand that the existing political parties shall nominate farmers, or those who are in sympathy with them, for all offices within the gift of the people, and to do everything in a legitimate manner that may serve to benefit the producer." The specific measures for which the promoters of the Northwestern Alliance intended to work were set forth in a platform adopted at the second annual meeting in Chicago, October 5, 1881, which demanded: equal taxation of all property, including deduction of the amount of mortgages from assessments of mortgaged property; "a just income tax"; reduction of salaries of officials and their election instead of appointment, so far as practicable; regulation of interstate commerce; reform of the patent laws; and prevention of the adulteration of food. "The combination and consolidation of railroad capital... in the maintenance of an oppressive and tyrannical transportation system" was particularly denounced, and the farmers of the country were called upon to organize "for systematic and persistent action" for "the emancipation of the people from this terrible oppression."

The Northwestern Alliance did not attempt cooperation in business so extensively as did its Southern contemporaries, but a number of Alliance grain elevators were established in Minnesota and Dakota, cooperative creameries flourished in Illinois, and many of the alliances appointed agents to handle produce and purchase supplies for the members. It was in the field of politics, however, that the activity of the order was most notable. The methods by which the farmers of the Northwest attempted to use their organizations for political ends are well illustrated by the resolutions adopted at the annual meeting of the Minnesota State Alliance in 1886 which declared that "the Alliance, while not a partisan association, is political in the sense that it seeks to correct the evils of misgovernment through the ballot-box," and called upon all the producers of the State "to unite with us at the ballot-box next November to secure a legislature that will work in the interests of the many against the exactions of the few." The specific demands included state regulation of railroads, free coinage of silver, reduction of the tariff to a revenue basis, revision of the patent laws, high taxation of oleomargarine, and reduction of the legal rate of interest from 10 to 8 per cent. The secretary was directed to forward copies of these resolutions to federal and state officers and to the delegation of the State in Congress; and the members of local alliances were "urged to submit this platform of principles to every candidate for the legislature in their respective districts, and to vote as a unit against every man who refuses to publicly subscribe his name to the same and pledge himself, if elected, to live up to it."

The resolutions adopted by the National Alliance in 1887 show that the political purposes of the order had become considerably more comprehensive than they were when it was getting under way in 1881. First place was now given to a plank favoring the free coinage of silver and the issuance of "all paper money direct to the people." The demand for railroad regulation was accompanied by a statement that "the ultimate solution of the transportation problem may be found in the ownership and operation by the Government of one or more transcontinental lines"; and the immediate acquisition of the Union Pacific, then in financial difficulties, was suggested. Other resolutions called for government ownership and operation of the telegraph, improvement of waterways, restriction of the liquor traffic, industrial education in the public schools, restoration of agricultural colleges "to the high purpose of their creation," and popular election of Senators. The national body does not appear to have attempted, at this time, to force its platform upon candidates for office; but it urged "farmers throughout the country to aid in the work of immediate organization, that we may act in concert for our own and the common good."

The culmination of this general movement for the organization of the farmers of the country came in 1889 and 1890. The Farmers' and Laborers' Union and the Northwestern Alliance met at St. Louis on December 3, 1889. The meeting of the Southern organization, which was renamed the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union, was attended by about a hundred delegates representing Indiana, Kansas, and every Southern State from Maryland to Texas, with the exception of West Virginia. The purpose of the two orders in holding their meetings at the same time and place was obviously to effect some sort of union, and committees of conference were at once appointed. Difficulties soon confronted these committees: the Southern Alliance wanted to effect a complete merger but insisted upon retention of the secret features and the exclusion of negroes, at least from the national body; the Northwestern Alliance preferred a federation in which each organization might retain its identity. Arrangements were finally made for future conferences to effect federation but nothing came of them. The real obstacles seem to have been differences of policy with reference to political activity and a survival of sectional feeling.

With the failure of the movement for union, the Southern Alliance began active work in the Northern States; and when the Supreme Council, as the national body was now called, held its next meeting at Ocala, Florida, in December, 1890, delegates were present from state alliances of seven Northern and Western States, in addition to those represented at the St. Louis meeting. The Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association, a secret order with about two hundred thousand members, had a committee in attendance at this meeting, and the Colored Farmers' Alliance, which had been founded in Texas in 1886 and claimed a membership of over a million, held its national meeting at the same time and place. Plans were formulated for a federation of these three bodies, and of such other farmers' and laborers' associations as might join with them, to the end that all might work unitedly for legislation in the interests of the industrial classes.

Signs of approaching dissolution of the Alliance movement were already apparent at the Ocala meeting. The finances of the Southern Alliance had been so badly managed that there was a deficit of about $6000 in the treasury of the Supreme Council. This was due in part to reckless expenditure and in part to difficulties in collecting dues from the state organizations. Discord had arisen, moreover, from the political campaign of 1890, and an investigating committee expressed its disapproval of the actions of the officers in connection with a senatorial contest in Georgia. The decline of the Southern Alliance after 1890 was even more rapid than that of the Grange had been. The failure of many of the cooperative ventures contributed to this decline; but complications and dissensions resulting from the establishment of a new political party which took over the Alliance platform, were principally responsible. The Northwestern Alliance continued for a few years, practically as an adjunct to the new party but it, too, lost rapidly in membership and influence. With the year 1890 interest shifts from social to political organization, from Alliances to Populism.