The Farmers’ Alliance movement emerged out of the experience of farmers in the Patrons of Husbandry, a popular social and financial alternative to farmers’ clubs in the late nineteenth century, during a period of national focus on urbanization and industrialization. Because the Patrons, also known as Grangers, disavowed political activity officially, the Farmers’ Alliance was born out of the need for farmers to act politically to achieve their goals, which included greater federal oversight of the railroads and telegraph services, a larger money supply to help them pay loans, a federal subtreasury to make loans to farmers, the direct election of U.S. senators, a graduated income tax, and direct democracy, especially access to the referendum and initiative. The Farmers’ Alliance was successful on the local level but eventually morphed into the People's Party in the 1890s.
Local Granges, originally conceived by Oliver Hudson Kelley in 1864, were the roots of the Farmers’ Alliance. He had lived on a farm in Minnesota and had worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kelley envisioned a national organization that could combine the education provided by agricultural societies with the camaraderie and elaborate ceremonies of the Masons.
The prospect of establishing cooperatives for the purchasing and marketing of crops and farm equipment attracted farmers to the Granges. By 1873, Grangers were acquiring materials at wholesale costs, cutting out the hated “middleman,” who seemed to hike prices beyond fair value for working farmers. They even dabbled in manufacturing their own farm machinery, although these efforts failed for various reasons, hampering their efforts. Granges usually had written constitutions with specifically outlined requirements for members. The system featured a hierarchy of local, county, state, and national associations. It was supposed to be a secret society, which were in fashion in the period. There was a hierarchy of members within the Grange system, and, like the Masons, members worked to reach various levels or degrees. The Grangers were able to maintain their educational and social aspects as intended, but as time passed, too many members crept into politics.
Inevitably, Grangers were unable to stay out of local politics. Granger laws in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin regulated railroads and grain elevators. In the South, Grangers looked to overthrow Reconstruction. Unlike many of the northern Grangers, these were not just yeoman farmers but planters, who had a stake in taking back local politics.
The Farmers’ Alliance emerged in this environment in 1877. The Northern Alliance, created by farm editor Milton George, spread from western New York to Chicago by 1880. Primarily due to the fact that there were no dues, by 1881 the National Farmers’ Alliance boasted 24,500 members. The majority of the members came from Kansas and Nebraska, and thus Alliance activity was centered in the northern Plains by 1886. The same broad organization was occurring across the South, especially in Texas, which had been home to 40,000 Grangers.
In Texas, the Lampasas County Farmers’ Alliance surged into politics by supporting the Greenback Party in 1880. The Greenback ticket for county office that year included two Alliance members. The Alliance came under attack by those who thought it was home to anarchists and communists. In response, the Alliance professed only including people thought to be of good character, who were of the “producing class” (McMath 70 ). Oddly, this translated into school teachers and ministers, but not African American farmers.
Farmers’ Alliances came and went across the South in the early 1880s, but by 1886, the Alliance had found strength across northern Texas and was looking to expand into the Plains. This was partially due to the growth of railroads across the region, which drew farmers into commercial cotton production. In January 1884, S. O. Dawes became a traveling lecturer and traversed the South, promoting the Alliance. Like the Granges, Alliances in Texas had formed cooperatives for buying and selling supplies for the commercialization of cotton, flour, and wheat.
Alliance men then joined with the Knights of Labor during 1885 and 1886 to strike against the network of railroads controlled by Jay Gould, including the Union Pacific, which attempted to fire workers and raise prices. In March 1885 the cooperation of the Alliance and the Knights forced Gould's corporation to rehire workers and raise wages at Sedalia, Missouri. Workers were sometimes members of their local chapters of the Knights of Labor and the Farmers’ Alliance at the same time.
In 1886, Texas Alliance members joined forces with a Louisiana Alliance, forming the National Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union. It created an exchange by which it could forgo the middleman on crop sales. Its president, C. W. Macune, organized a cotton crop sale directly to England and New England in 1887. The exchange did not last long, as capital was in short supply. But the Alliance was making more waves by mobilizing cotton farmers across the South to fight back against low prices. By the end of 1887 the Alliance was well established across North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
The Texas Alliance met in St. Louis on December 3, 1889, and named itself the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union (NFAIU). This Alliance managed to bring two of the most powerful alliances, those of Kansas and the Dakotas, under its fold, thus creating the largest Alliance in the country. In St. Louis the NFAIU adopted a platform that included public ownership of railroads and federal subtreasuries that would provide farmers with low-cost loans based on their crops. Some even hoped to eliminate banks, the futures market, commission merchants, and private warehousemen. When the annual meeting of the NFAIU convened in Ocala, Florida, in the next year, it added the direct election of U.S. senators and a graduated income tax to its platform.
The NFAIU leadership wanted the group to be a national political force and convened in Omaha in January 1891 to make plans to form a national party, which became the People's Party, better known as the Populists. The People's Party had success in some Alliance strongholds such as Kansas but could not bring the South and the East into the fold; thus it consolidated its efforts in the presidential election of 1896 with those of the Democratic Party to back William Jennings Bryan.
Bryan lost the election, but many of the interests of the Farmers’ Alliances lived on, such as the direct election of U.S. senators (the Sixteenth Amendment), the graduated income tax (the Seventeenth Amendment), and the subtreasury plans. In addition, the racism of the Alliance and the sexism of the Alliance remained long into the twentieth century. While the Alliance welcomed cooperation with African American Alliances, it never supported integration. Chinese exclusion planks existed in the by-laws of Western Alliances. Further, while at least one-fourth of Alliance members in the United States were women, woman suffrage was never an Alliance plank.
See also: African Americans and Populism ; Alliance ; Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Colored Farmers’ Alliance (CFA) ; Democratic Party ; George, Milton (1833–unknown) ; Granger Movement ; Greenback Party ; Illinois Woman's Alliance (IWA) ; Kelley, Oliver Hudson (1826–1913) ; Knights of Labor ; Macune, Dr. C.W. (1851–1940) ; National Woman's Alliance ; Northern Alliance ; Ocala Convention of 1892 ; People's Party ; Progressivism ; Subtreasury Plan ; Texas, Populism in ; Union Pacific Railroad ; Western Alliance ; World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition (1884–1885)
McMath, Robert C., Jr. American Populism: A Social History, 1877–1898. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.
McMath, Robert C., Jr. Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Wiebe, Robert H. The Search for Order, 1877–1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.