George was the eldest son of a Quaker family, born in 1833 near Hillsboro, Ohio. His father moved the family when George was six years old to pursue opportunities in Illinois. They settled on a farm near Farmington in central Illinois. George helped on the family farm before establishing himself in agriculture. He married the daughter of prosperous merchant in 1860 and achieved considerable success in farming during and after the Civil War. By 1871, George was prosperous enough to move to Cook County, near Chicago, and purchase another farm. He and a younger brother operated it until 1889, when George donated it to become a home for boys.
In 1872, George took a position as the assistant editor of the Western Rural and Family Farm Paper, a weekly farm publication. The paper had an established reputation among the rural population as well as a greater circulation than the Prairie Farmer, its main rival. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, however, completely destroyed the paper's publishing and editorial facilities. The publisher, Horatio N. F. Lewis, received a $17,000 loan from George to continue in operation. By 1876, however, the Western Rural was in dire straits and George assumed control of it to protect his investment. He instituted a number of policies, including honesty in all advertisements, respect for subscribers, and editorials free from outside influence. George also hired David Ward Wood, a talented writer, to help with editorials.
George saw his paper as a way to help correct injustices suffered by farmers, whom he viewed as the foundation of American civilization. The concentration of wealth among a few people led to corruption of governments. Soon George was writing editorials calling on farmers to use their voting power to support farmer-candidates and to reject lawyers and “partisan blow-hards” who dominated the legislatures (Scott, “The Agrarian Movement,” 24 ). He renounced the idea of a third party, however, and believed that farmers could make changes through the existing major parties. The key to this was the organization of farmers into a nonpartisan and loosely organized farmers’ alliance. The alliance would educate farmers about issues that affected them. These issues included such things as the adulteration of foods and the replacement of butter by oleomargarine, the need for free school books for all children, and the high cost of insurance for crops and farms. Later, George included such issues as monopolies, the banking system, and equal taxation.
To obtain regulation of the railroads, George believed that farmers had to submit petitions with large numbers of signatures. He distributed thousands of petitions to farmers throughout the Midwest. Early efforts in 1879 were unsuccessful and caused him to realize that a national organization was needed. In November 1879, George used his editorials in the Western Rural to encourage farmers to create “cheap transportation clubs” to get petitions signed. He printed a model constitution for such a club as well.
No clubs organized, so George called a meeting of the local farmers at the office of the Western Rural on April 15, 1880. They adopted George's model constitution and elected Wood as president and George as secretary. They also accepted by-laws that George wrote and his offer to use the Western Rural office for semimonthly meetings. Other groups throughout the Midwest followed the Cook County club's example and received charters from them. By October 1880, George published claims that clubs existed from Ohio to the Pacific Coast.
The first national meeting of delegates from the clubs was held on October 14, 1880. George made all arrangements and paid the expenses involved. The delegates adopted a constitution for a national organization with local, state, and national alliances. The central board of officers had only limited control. The organization was named the National Farmers’ Alliance. George offered to pay all the expenses of the new organization for the first year. He discouraged the idea of assessing local alliance dues for members and hoped that contributions from private individuals would support the Alliance.
During the first year, the Alliance grew rapidly in numbers and chapters, spurred by hard times faced by farmers in the Midwest. By the time the second national meeting was held in Chicago on October 5 and 6, 1881, it had 24,500 members and 940 alliances in 10 states. Although he did not hold any office, George again dominated the meeting. The delegates accepted resolutions that he drafted. These included demands for graduated income tax; reduction of salaries for public officials in accord with their job; election, not appointment, of officials; and an interstate commerce law to allow the federal government to regulate the railroads. George again offered to pay all expenses for the organization.
George offered an honorary membership to any farmer and organized an agency for cooperative buying. The Economy Club took orders from farmers and passed them on to wholesalers, who sent the goods directly to the farmers. George bragged that members could save 20 to 60 percent off of retail prices. Meanwhile, the honorary memberships introduced the idea of organization to thousands of other farmers and helped create a database of names of people who might be willing to participate in Alliance actions.
The next annual meeting was held on November 11, 1886, in Chicago. George reported a membership of more than 500,000 in 16 states. Although the Alliance was reviving, delegates realized that changes were needed to reach the organization's goals. The next meeting, in Minneapolis on October 5, 1887, was the most important in the National Farmers’ Alliance. Changes to the constitution increased the power of state leaders and removed that of George. Assessments were made against local alliances so the national body was self-supporting and no longer dependent on George. Soon, the Alliance moved toward more direct political action. Other farm publications gave more space to National Farmers’ Alliance activities as it was no longer so closely connected with the Western Rural.
George continued to be active in issues related to farming concerns, but after 1887 he no longer dominated the national agricultural scene. The National Farmers’ Alliance continued to use the organization blueprint and ideas created by George, including such things as local groups of farmers and the same constitutions. When the Alliance was largely absorbed by the People's Party in 1892, the new party accepted many of George's ideas. The move towards political partisanship, however, went against George's beliefs. By 1896, he had moved to the Republican Party, ending his connection with the national farming organizations.
Tim J. Watts
See also: “Goodbye, My Party, Goodbye” ; Long-Haul/Short-Haul Discrimination ; Northern Alliance ; People's Party ; Railroad Regulation ; Western Rural
Scott, Roy V. The Agrarian Movement in Illinois, 1880–1896. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962 . http://www.archive.org/stream/agrarianmovement00scot/
Scott, Roy V. “Milton George and the Farmers’ Alliance Movement.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 45 (1): 90–109.