Farmers and the
Farmers united to address
their economic problems,
giving rise to the Populist
Terms & Names
WHY IT MATTERS NOW
Many of the Populist reform
issues, such as income tax
and legally protected rights of
workers, are now taken for
One American's Story
As a young adult in the early 1870s, Mary Elizabeth Lease left home to teach school on the Kansas plains. After marrying farmer Charles Lease, she joined the growing Farmers’ Alliance movement and began speaking on issues of concern to farmers. Lease joked that her tongue was “loose at both ends and hung on a swivel,” but her golden voice and deep blue eyes hypnotized her listeners.
A PERSONAL VOICE MARY ELIZABETH LEASE
“ What you farmers need to do is to raise less corn and
more Hell! We want the accursed foreclosure system wiped
out. . . . We will stand by our homes and stay by our ﬁresides by force if necessary, and we will not pay our debts to the loan-shark companies until the Government pays its
debts to us.”
—quoted in “The Populist Uprising”
Farmers had endured great hardships in helping to transform
the plains from the “Great American Desert” into the “breadbasket of the nation,” yet every year they reaped less and less of the bounty they had sowed with their sweat.
daughter of Irish
was a leader of
the Populist Party.
Farmers Unite to Address Common Problems
In the late 1800s, many farmers were trapped in a vicious economic cycle. Prices for crops were falling, and farmers often mortgaged their farms so that they could buy more land and produce more crops. Good farming land was becoming scarce, though, and banks were foreclosing on the mortgages of increasing numbers of farmers who couldn’t make payments on their loans. Moreover, the railroads were taking advantage of farmers by charging excessive prices for shipping and storage.
Changes on the Western Frontier
THE PLIGHT OF THE FARMERS
Farmers were particularly hard hit in the decades leading to the ﬁnancial panic of 1893. They regarded big business
interests as insurmountable enemies who were bringing
them to their knees and leaving them with debts at every
turn. This cartoon is a warning of the dangers confronting
not only the farmers but the entire nation.
SKILLBUILDER Analyzing Political Cartoons
1. How does this cartoon depict the plight of the farmers?
2. Who does the cartoonist suggest is responsible for the
SEE SKILLBUILDER HANDBOOK, PAGE R24.
ECONOMIC DISTRESS The troubles of the
farmers were part of a larger economic problem affecting the entire nation. During the Civil War, the United States had issued
almost $500 million in paper money, called
greenbacks. Greenbacks could not be
exchanged for silver or gold money. They
were worth less than hard money of the
same face value. Hard money included both coins and paper money printed in yellow ink that could be exchanged for gold. After the war, the government began to take the greenbacks out of circulation.
Retiring the greenbacks caused some discontent. It increased the value of the money that stayed in circulation. It meant that farmers who had borrowed money had to pay back their loans in dollars that were worth more than the dollars they had borrowed. At the same time they were receiving less money for their crops. Between 1867 and 1887, for example, the price of a bushel of wheat fell from $2.00 to 68 cents. In effect, farmers lost money at every turn. A Throughout the 1870s, the farmers and other debtors pushed the government to issue more money into circulation. Those tactics failed—although the BlandAllison Act of 1878 required the government to buy and coin at least $2 million to $4 million worth of...
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