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In Farmers Alliance Farmers Alliance In the 1880 s, 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 1890 s, as the depression worsened, some industrial workers shared these farm families views on labor and the trusts. By the end of the 1880 s, farmers had formed two major organizations: the National Farmer? s Alliance, located on the Plains west of the Mississippi and know as the Northwestern Alliance, and the Farmers? 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. Mature 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 Farmers? 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 Farmers? 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 movement.
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 Farmers? 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 companies. 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 partys 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 of the Farmers Alliance and the Knights of Labor. In that year the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, won over one million votes. Between 1892 and 1896, however, the party failed to make further gains, in part because of fraud, intimidation, and violence by Southern Democrats. By 1896 the Populist organization was in even more turmoil than that of Democrats.
Two main factions had appeared. One, the fusion Populists, sought to merge with the Democrats, using the threat of independent organization to force changes in the major partys platform. The Populist organization in Kansas had already " fused" over the bitter protest of those who considered this a sell-out. Fusionist's argued that the regionally based third party could never hold national power; the best strategy was to influence a major party that could.
The second faction, called " mid-readers, " suspected (with good reason) that Democratic leaders wanted to destroy the third-party threat; fusion, they argued, would play into this plot. These Populists advocated staying " in the middle of the road, " between the two larger parties, and not merging with either. In practice, these Populists were not " in the middle, " but more sweeping in their political goals than either of the major parties, while Fusionist's were more willing to compromise in hopes of winning powerful Democratic allies. Mid-readers like Tom Watson warned that " fusion means the Populist party will play Jonah, and they will play the whale. " Inside the Peoples Party, mid-readers sought to schedule the national convention before those of the Republicans and Democrats. They lost this fight, and Fusionist's selected a date after the major-party meetings, hoping that silver Democrats would win a dramatic victory in the Chicago convention.
When this happened with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan on a free-silver platform mid-readers found themselves in a difficult spot. By the start of the convention in Saint Louis July 24 - 26, 1896, relations between mid-readers and fusionist's were tense; the latter were clearly in communication with Bryan's manager, James K. Jones of Arkansas. One of the most popular and eloquent mid-readers, Tom Watson of Georgia, stayed home either because he sensed disaster, or more likely because hoped mid-readers would win control of the convention and nominate him for president. According to tradition (which McKinley followed and Bryan did not), presidential hopefuls did not appear at the partys convention, but waited modestly at home for news of their nomination. The convention was a disaster for mid-readers, as the convention endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee, making William Jennings Bryan the candidate of both the Democratic and Populist parties.
When mid-readers tried to stage a counter-rally, the lights in their meeting hall mysteriously went out though they were burning brightly fifteen minutes after the group gave and went home. Mid-readers did defeat the nomination of Arthur Sewall, Democrats vice-presidential choice, who was too conservative and anti-labor for the Populist convention to stomach. Instead, Populists chose Tom Watson of Georgia. Watson, editor of the Peoples Party Paper, was a dedicated Populist who had endured abuse and death threats from some Democrats in his state who feared the Peoples Party. Watson accepted the nomination only because he believed a deal had been struck with Jones, in which Bryan would renounce Sewall, making " Bryan and Watson" both the Democratic and Populist ticket. Fusionist leaders had not obtained such a promise, if they had, they were betrayed afterward by their erstwhile Democratic allies.
Upon discovering this when the convention was over, Watson refused to campaign for Bryan, denouncing the deceit. At the same time, he refused to step down in favor of Sewall. Watson and other mid-readers argued that their partys platform was substantially different from the Democrats Chicago platform, even if the latter represented a substantial shift for that party. Watson and others focused on issues rather than individuals, hoping to rescue the third party from the 1896 debacle and revive it another year. Fusionist Populists campaigned enthusiastically for Bryan; many Republicans and Gold Democrats depicted " Populists" and " Silver Democrats" as a united opposition, though this was far from the case. Some mid-road Populists, like the Kansas orator Mary Lease, reluctantly campaigned for Bryan while calling attention to Populists broader goals.
Compared with silver Democrats, Populists advocated more sweeping federal intervention to offset the economic depression, curtail corporate abuses, and prevent poverty among farming and working-class families. They made a stronger statement than the major parties in support of Cuban independence and raised other issues such as statehood for Territories and the District of Columbia that Republicans and Democrats did not address. The platform was, however, less radical than the state-level platforms of Western Populist organizations, some of which had called for woman suffrage. Because the presidential campaign hinged on the currency issue, this plank (which Populists had held since the early 1890 s, and now shared with the Democrats) received most attention and debate. In the national campaign, Populists served mostly as a symbol for Republicans, who warned that the silver Democrats had allied themselves with ignorant " hayseeds" and " anarchists. " Bryan virtually ignored the Peoples Party, even though he was its nominee. While the nomination of Bryan had destroyed the hopes of mid-readers, Bryan's defeat demoralized the fusionist's, leaving the whole party in shambles.
As Watson had predicted, fusion on the? free
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