On March 4, 1833, Jay Burrows was born in Mayville, New York. While growing up in western New York, he worked as a printer for several local newspapers. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Burrows supported the use of coercive action by the federal government to preserve the Union. In 1862, Burrows enlisted in the military service, where he served in the Ninth New York Cavalry during the Civil War. Under the command of Major General Philip H. Sheridan and Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, Burrows participated in several military campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley. At the conclusion of the Civil War, Burrows and his family moved to Iowa to pursue agricultural interests. By 1880, Burrows relocated his family to Nebraska, where they purchased a homestead in Gage County. During the next 10 years, Burrows and his family built a comfortable life for themselves as they cultivated their land and sold agricultural products at nearby markets.
During the late 1880s, Nebraska farmers suffered economic hardships as agricultural prices declined rapidly while the price of consumer goods and railroad freight rates continued to rise. The lack of currency and credit as well as burdensome mortgages added to the farmers’ grievances during the late nineteenth century. Accordingly, the depressed economy created an agrarian revolt throughout the United States. In October 1887, members of the National Farmers’ Alliance held a convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they adopted a series of demands to solve the farmers’ social and economic problems. These demands called for federal ownership of the railroads as well as the unlimited coinage of silver money. The following month, Alliance members elected Burrows as president of the National Farmers’ Alliance. During the late 1880s, Burrows endorsed Alliance demands, and he promised to improve western farmers’ lives.
With the growing discontent among western farmers, the Nebraska Farmers’ Alliance established several cooperatives stores, which offered farmers economic relief by marketing their agricultural products and selling consumer goods at wholesale prices. Aside from the Alliance's cooperative programs, the organization also relied on traveling lecturers and newspapers to advance its goals. In 1889, Burrows moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he founded the Alliance. Serving as the official newspaper for the Nebraska Farmers’ Alliance, the Alliance addressed the concerns of local farmers who were at risk of losing their homes and landholdings.
During the early 1890s, Burrows continued to serve as the editor of the Farmers’ Alliance, which promoted cooperative programs among western farmers. In the summer of 1892, Burrows sold his interest in the Farmers’ Alliance after he became disillusioned with the agrarian movement in Nebraska. While Burrows had recommended that the National Farmers’ Alliance and the National Famers’ Alliance and Industrial Union work together to solve farmers’ problems, he opposed a consolidation of the two groups. Burrows maintained that the sheer size of the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union would subordinate western farmers’ interests to the demands of the southern organization. Accordingly, Burrows's argument influenced Alliance members to block the merger between the National Farmers’ Alliance and the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union during the late nineteenth century.
Despite the failure of the National Farmers’ Alliance and the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union to merge as a national coalition, Alliance members in Nebraska endorsed a fusion among the Populists and Democrats during the mid-1890s. Burrows asserted that the political alliance would enable the Populists to win state and national elections. Nevertheless, the fusion strategy led to the downfall of the People's Party as Democratic candidates ignored the Populists’ political demands. By the late 1890s, Nebraska Populists struggled to reorganize the third-party movement because the People's Party had lost its political identity.
Following the demise of the People's Party in Nebraska, Burrows travelled throughout the Lincoln area, where he lectured on various issues including prohibition and the nationalist movement. On January 16, 1900, Burrows died in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Kevin M Brady
See also: Agricultural Newspapers and Farmer Unrest ; Alliance ; Granger Movement ; Knights of Labor ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; People's Party ; Powers, John H. (1831–1918) ; Willits, John F. (unknown–1910)
Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People's Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1931.
Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
McMath, Robert C., Jr. Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.