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In the 1880s, as drought hit the wheat-growing areas of the Great Plains and
prices for Southern cotton sunk to new lows, many tenant farmers fell into deep
debt. This exacerbated long-held grievances against railroads, lenders,
grain-elevator owners, and others with whom farmers did business. By the early
1890s, as the depression worsened, some industrial workers shared these farm
families' views on labor and the trusts.
By the end of the 1880s, farmers had formed two major organizations: the
National Farmerís Alliance, located on the Plains west of the Mississippi and
know as the Northwestern Alliance, and the Farmersí Alliance and Industrial
Union, based in the South and known as the Southern Alliance.
The southern alliance began in Texas in 1875 but did not assume major
proportions until Dr. Charles W. Macune took over the leadership in 1886. Its
agents spread across the South, where farmers were fed up with crop liens,
depleted lands, and sharecropping. By 1890, the Southern Alliance claimed more
than a million members. Like the Grange, the Alliance distributed educational
materials, and it also established cooperative grain elevators, marketing
associations, and retail stores.
Loosely affiliated with the South en Alliance, the separate Colored Farmersí
National Alliance and Cooperative Union enlisted black farmers in the South.
Claiming over a million members, it probably had closer to 250, 000. Blacks
organized at considerable peril. In 1891, when black cotton pickers struck for
higher wages near Memphis, the strike was violently put down; fifteen strikers
were lynched. The abortive strike ended the Colored Farmersí Alliance.
On the Plains, the Northwestern Alliance, a smaller organization, was formed
in 1880. But it lacked the centralized organization of the southern alliance. In
1889, the Southern Alliance changed its name to the national Farmers Alliance
and Industrial Union and persuaded the three strongest state alliance in the
Plains to join. Thereafter, the new organization dominated the Alliance
The Alliance turned early to politics. In the West, its leader rejected both
the Republicans and the Democrats and organized their own party. The Southern
Alliance resisted the idea of a new party for fear it might divide the white
votes, thus undercutting white supremacy. Instead, the Southerners wanted to
capture control of the dominant Democratic Party. But regardless of their
political positions, such figures and Leonidas Polk, president of the National
Farmersí Alliance, Jeremiah Simpson of Kansas, and Mary E. Lease provided the
movement with forceful leadership.
Meeting in Ocala, Florida, in 1890, the Alliance adopted the Ocala Demands,
the platform it pushed for as long as it existed. First and foremost, the
demands called for the creation of a sub-treasury system, which would allow
farmers to store their crops in government warehouses. In return, they could
claim Treasury notes for up to 80 percent of the local market value of the crop,
a loan to be repaid when the crops were sold. Farmers could thus hold their
crops for the best price. The Ocala Demands also urged the free coinage of
silver, an end to protective tariffs, and national banks, and federal income
tax, the direct election of senators, and stricter regulation of the railroad
The Alliance strategy worked well in the election of 1890. Alliance leaders
claimed thirty-eight Alliance supporters elected to Congress, with at least a
dozen more pledged to Alliance principles. In 1890, Populists won control of the
Kansas state legislature, and Kansan William Peffer became the party's first
U.S. Senator. Peffer, with his long white beard, was a humorous figure to many
Eastern journalists and politicians, who saw little evidence of Populism in
their states and often treated the party as a joke. Nonetheless, Western and
Southern Populists gained support rapidly. In 1892 the national party was
officially founded through a merger o...
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