Depending upon one's point of view, the Farmers’ Transportation Convention was either a one-time event in Chicago in 1880 or a series of events that occurred almost annually for several years in that decade. Whichever way it is defined, the Farmers’ Transportation Conventions were important in the farmers’ fights against the railroads and in the formation and implementation of the Northern Alliance. Annual Farmers’ Transportation Conventions were held from 1880 to 1883, were skipped in 1884 and 1885, and were held again in 1886 and 1887. The first convention was, as the name implied, concerned primarily with the issue of transportation, which mostly referred to the railroad fees paid by farmers. The other conventions had broader concerns. At the 1887 convention, the Farmers’ Alliance members adopted a more radical, system-challenging posture than it had previously. After the 1887 convention, the nexus of the Farmers’ Alliance's story shifted from the conventions to the activities of the Alliance, as an organization, in and of itself.
In the 1880s, the issue of transportation of goods to market was a central business concern of farming. Farmers mostly had to rely on the railroads, and the railroads’ fees could, and often did, eat into farmers’ profit margins. Sometimes, railroad fees could turn an acceptable year economically into a marginal one and a marginal year into a bad one. Addressing farmers’ difficulties with the railroads was central to the mission of Milton George, an Illinois-based farmer turned newspaperman who, in the pages of his newspaper, the Western Rural, raged against the railroads. The railroads, he wrote, were literally starving farmers to death.
On April 15, 1880, George formed the Farmers’ Alliance in Cook County, Illinois. George's Alliance is today often referred to as the Northern Alliance to distinguish it from other, similarly named groups, most particularly one that is referred to as the Southern Alliance.
George was aware of the existence of other Farmers’ Alliances or similar groups and wished to see them coalesce in a nationwide farmers’ advocacy group. Though George appears to have had broader goals in mind for this nationwide coalition, transportation was clearly one of the most important business issues of the day for farmers, and thus it was around that issue that he called a convention, called the Farmers’ Transportation Convention, in Chicago on October 14, 1880.
George was thrilled with the success of the convention, and at some point it was decided, presumably by the conventioneers themselves, that the convention would be an annual event. The next one was also to be held in Chicago. It began on October 5, 1881. The third annual convention on October 4, 1882, was held in St. Louis, Missouri.
The first convention and the formation of the Farmers’ Alliance occurred in the midst of hard times for farmers. It was, perhaps, inevitable that the organization itself, and the convention series with which it was associated, would rise with the failures of farmers and fall with their successes. The year 1883 was a much better year for farmers than were the previous three, and hence the 1883 convention was sparsely attended. There was no convention held at all in 1884 and 1885, and also in 1885 George stopped putting Alliance news in his newspaper. In contrast, 1884 and 1885 were bad years for farmers, and in 1886, after the harshness of the previous two years had sunk in, the conventions started being held again. By the October 1887 convention, the Alliance and the convention itself had recovered some of their former glory.
At the 1887 convention, the Alliance drew up a new constitution and sought a greater degree of formalization. It set up state and local affiliate organizations and a dues-paying structure. Hitherto, the Alliance had been almost exclusively funded through Milton George's largesse. The convention adopted a new, more radical platform. It now advocated government ownership, as opposed to merely control, of the railroads. The Alliance's calls for government ownership and operation of the railroads would only get stronger from this point onward. It also adopted the now-infamous “free silver” rallying cry of the Populists and made overtures to the Knights of Labor, a more-or-less radical labor group that happened to holds its own convention nearby. The nexus of the story of the Farmers’ Alliance appears to shift dramatically from the Farmers’ Transportation Convention(s) to the Alliance itself after this final meeting.
Steven D. Koczak
See also: George, Milton ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Knights of Labor ; Northern Alliance ; The Press and Populism ; Railroad Regulation ; Railroads ; Western Rural
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