Agrarian Discontent in the Late 1800\'s

"Why the Farmers Were Wrong"

The period between 1880 and 1900 was a boom time for American
politics. The country was for once free of the threat of war, and many
of its citizens were living comfortably. However, as these two decades
went by, the American farmer found it harder and harder to live
comfortably. Crops such as cotton and wheat, once the bulwark of
agriculture, were selling at prices so low that it was nearly impossible
for farmers to make a profit off them. Furthermore, improvement in
transportation allowed foreign competition to materialize, making it
harder for American farmers to dispose of surplus crop. Finally, years
of drought in the midwest and the downward spiral of business in the

1890s devastated many of the nations farmers. As a result of the
agricultural depression, many farm groups, most notably the Populist

Party, arose to fight what farmers saw as the reasons for the decline in
agriculture. During the last twenty years of the nineteenth century,
many farmers in the United States saw monopolies and trusts, railroads,
and money shortages and the demonetization of silver as threats to their
way of life, though in many cases their complaints were not valid.

The growth of the railroad was one of the most significant
elements in American economic growth. However, in many ways, the
railroads hurt small shippers and farmers. Extreme competition between
rail companies necessitated some way to win business. To do this, many
railroads offered rebates and drawbacks to larger shippers who used their
rails. However, this practice hurt smaller shippers, including farmers,
for often times railroad companies would charge more to ship products
short distances than they would for long trips. The rail companies
justified this practice by asserting that if they did not rebate, they
would not make enough profit to stay in business. In his testimony to
the Senate Cullom Committee, George W. Parker stated, ...the operating
expense of this road...requires a certain volume of business to meet
these fixed some seasons of the year, the local business
of the not sufficient to make the earnings...when we make up a
train of ten of fifteen cars of local freight...we can attach fifteen or
twenty cars...of strictly through business. We can take the latter at a
very low rate than go without it. Later, when asked the consequences of
charging local traffic the same rate as through freight, Mr. Parker
responded, Bankruptcy, inevitably and speedy.... While the railroads
felt that they must use this practice to make a profit, the farmers were
justified in complaining, for they were seriously injured by it. A
perfect example of this fact can be found in The Octopus by Frank Norris.

A farmer named Dyke discovers that the railroad has increased their
freight charges from two to five cents a pound. This new rate, ...ate
up every cent of his gains. He stood there ruined. (Doc. H). The
railroads regularly used rebates and drawbacks to help win the business
of large shippers, and made up this loss in profit by increasing the cost
to smaller shippers such as farmers. As a result, many farmers, already
hurt by the downslide in agriculture, were ruined. Thus, the farmers of
the late nineteenth century had a valid complaint against railroad
shippers, for these farmers were hurt by the unfair practices of the

Near the end of the nineteenth century, business began to
centralize, leading to the rise of monopolies and trusts. Falling
prices, along with the need for better efficiency in industry, led to the
rise of such companies as Carnegie Steel and Standard Oil, which
controlled a majority of the nations supply of raw steel and oil
respectively. The rise of these monopolies and trusts concerned many
farmers, for they felt that the disappearance of competition would lead
to erratic and unreasonable price rises that would hurt consumers. James

B. Weaver, the Populist partys presidential candidate in the 1892
election, summed up the feelings of many Americans of the period in his
work, A Call to Action: An Interpretation of the Great Uprising. He
wrote, It is clear that trusts conflict with the Common law.

They are monopolies organized to destroy competition and restrain
trade.... Once they secure control of a given line, they are master of
the situation... They can limit the price of the raw material so as to
impoverish the producer, drive him to a single market, reduce the price
of every class of labor connected with the trade, throw out of employment
large numbers persons...and finally...they increase the price to