Dr. Charles Macune was a physician and journalist from Texas who also became a charter member of the Texas Farmers’ Alliance. In the late 1880s, he called for a national organization to unite all of the Alliances in the West and across the Cotton Belt. His efforts resulted in the creation of the National Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union, which became the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union in 1889. He was the editor and publisher of the National Economist, a weekly newspaper and organ for the organization, until 1893, when the paper folded and publication ceased. He constantly campaigned for an expanded money supply, a more active role of the federal government in the lives of hard-pressed farmers, and an end to the crop lien system that impoverished southern farmers and drove them into tenancy. He is most known for the subtreasury plan, which he developed and advocated, as an answer to the country's financial crisis in respect to farmers.
Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as the third child and only son of William and Almira S. (McAfee) Macune, young Charles’ early life was unsettled. His father, a blacksmith and minister, caught gold rush fever and decided to move his family to California. Along the way, he contracted cholera and died at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, leaving his children orphaned. His mother moved the family to Freeport, Illinois, where Macune received his education, but for financial reasons he was forced to drop out of school.
As a young man, Macune struggled to find a suitable profession, and during the 1870s he pursued a variety of careers. He worked as a farm laborer for a while until he became a doctor's apprentice. Still unsettled, he painted houses and even worked for a circus in Kansas. He moved to Texas after that, where he gained experience as a hotel manager and a journalist. At this time, he continued his medical studies under a local physician in San Saba. In 1879, after his certification to practice medicine in Texas, he settled in Cameron with his wife, Sallie Vickery, and established his practice.
Macune's interest in money theories and greenback politics led him to become involved in the newly emerging Alliance movement in Texas. In 1886, he became a charter member of the local Alliance in Milan County. Within the year, he was elected as a delegate to the state Alliance convention, and he soon became the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Texas State Alliance. At the time, Texas Alliances were expressing antimonopolist sentiments, and they demanded some form of help for starving, cash-strapped, drought-stricken farmers across the state.
Macune was an organizer and a visionary. By 1887, he was trying to expand the cooperative activities of the Texas Alliance to include other states in the Cotton Belt and in the West. He was the driving force behind the creation of the National Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union, which unified the various alliances into a single entity. During that same year, he founded the Farmers’ Alliance Exchange of Texas in Dallas. The Exchange, it was hoped, would give farmers easier access to credit and loans, but it failed after only two years due to a lack of operating capital and poor business management.
By 1889, Macune gave the movement cohesion and direction. He was already lobbying Congress and mailing out Alliance literature in an effort to bring about reform and change. As the movement grew (it boasted more than 1,000,000 members in 1890), it became necessary to create a formal publication for the organization. To this end, Macune established a weekly newspaper called the National Economist, which became the Alliance's official voice. He remained editor of the National Economist until 1893, when he left his position and the newspaper folded.
Meanwhile, the situation for farmers across the South seemed to worsen. Trapped in a crop lien system, they found themselves in perpetual debt to merchants, banks, and landlords, and the ranks of farm tenants swelled. At the same time, prices for agricultural products, which steadily decreased during the late 1800s, hit new lows. The answer to these economic woes, Macune believed, should come from the federal government. It was time, he thought, for the government to abandon its laissez-faire attitudes and adopt a more proactive approach to helping its suffering citizens. One response, argued Macune, was to adjust the currency supply and increase the money in circulation. A more flexible money system would bring great relief to farmers.
Even more important, though, was Macune's advocacy for something he called the subtreasury plan. His idea was officially proposed and adopted at the five-day National Alliance convention in St. Louis in 1889. The plan was unique, calling for the federal government to establish and operate storage warehouses in every county where nonperishable agricultural produce exceeded more than $500,000 annually. Farmers would be able to store their crops in the warehouses until prices increased and they could reap a better profit on their goods. Additionally, crops acted as collateral. Loans, with an interest rate of only 1 percent, could be made by the government based on 80 percent of the crops’ value. Warehouses would issue receipts to farmers that could then be used to pay debts. Under the plan, the middlemen, like bankers and merchants, who raked profits away from farmers would be removed and the crop lien system could be replaced. Instead, the government became the bank. A further benefit was that the money supply could be expanded at harvest time, when the farmers most needed it.
Macune, himself a Democrat, did not advocate a third party. Nevertheless, he continued to agitate for an expansion of currency and the national adoption of the subtreasury. In 1890, he went to Congress with other Alliance leaders and testified to the Senate Agriculture Committee on the merits of his plan. At the Alliance's Ocala Convention in 1890, Macune created, and became the president of, the National Reform Press Association. Its goals were to coordinate all of the Alliance newspapers and to emphasize a grassroots understanding of the Alliance, its issues, and its goals.
After 1890, momentum built in the Alliance to form a third party. Macune expressed caution and preferred to work for reform within the two-party system. This stance brought him into open conflict with Leonidas Polk, a past Alliance president and the most vocal proponent for the independence movement. Indeed, it was Polk who presided over the meeting that created the People's Party in 1892.
By 1893, Macune's influence in the movement he helped to orchestrate waned. The conflict with Polk, the collapse of the National Economist, and the new direction of the party caused him constant frustration. Consequently, he distanced himself from the Populists, even though the party adopted his subtreasury plan as part of its 1896 platform.
By the end of the decade, Macune was again in search of a career. He dabbled in law for a few years until he settled on the ministry as a Methodist preacher. In 1902, he pastored his first church. He continued to preach for the rest of his life, and after World War I he became involved in foreign missions. He believed, until the day that he died, that the Alliance had left a significant mark on American history. In 1920, he wrote a history of the Alliance and deposited the manuscript in the library at the University of Texas. He died on November 3, 1940, in Fort Worth, Texas.
See also: Peonage ; Polk, Leonidas L. (1837–1892) ; The Press and Populism ; Subtreasury Plan ; Tenant Farming ; Texas, Populism in
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McMath, Robert C., Jr. Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
Piott, Steven. American Reformers, 1870–1920: Progressives in Word and Deed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.