The Beginning Of Government Assistance

The westward movement was characterized by periods of good prices for farm products followed by periods of low prices. The farmers who bought or homesteaded their land near the beginning of an upswing were likely to prosper. They could make money on the sale of their crops, and could often sell their land for relatively good prices. However, the farmers who began near the crest of a cycle were usually in trouble. They faced a succession of years of low prices for their products and often lost all of their farms except for the homesteads. Some of those who lost their farms became tenants, working for someone else -- a pattern especially prevalent in the South, where freed slaves often became tenant farmers, or "sharecroppers," on land owned by whites. Other farmers moved farther west to reestablish themselves on other farms as squatters or homesteaders. Most farmers of the era were basically optimists, believing in the American ideal that anyone could be successful through hard work and reasonably good fortune.

By the 1870s, farmers had become more astute vis--vis national politics. They recognized that federal government policies either helped or hindered their livelihoods, and began to call out for redress of certain grievances. In particular, farmers began to demand government help in stabilizing prices by slowing down the opening of new lands. In addition, they demanded reforms in the banking system that would benefit them when they needed credit, because lack of credit was a major problem for both the Western and Southern farmers. The farmers wanted a policy that would provide "cheap money," or low interest rates, on the money they had to borrow.

Other demands included an improved system of transportation, including regulation of the railroads, which exerted a stranglehold over the farmers' ability to get their products to distant markets. Railroad companies often charged unequal or unfair rates. The vital role of the railroads in transporting crops to American markets and to ports for shipment overseas is underscored by the fact that, prior to the 1870s, an estimated one-fifth of all farm products spoiled before reaching consumers. But during that decade, railroad cars were refrigerated and heated, helping preserve perishable goods.

Farmers also wanted a low tariff on imports, so that they could buy consumer goods more cheaply. Perhaps their most controversial demand was for an inflationary currency backed by both silver and gold, instead of by gold alone. The farmers hoped that expansion of the supply of money would lead to higher prices for farm goods.

The farmers' revolt reached its height in 1896, when one of their champions, William Jennings Bryan, received the Democratic Party's nomination for president. On the whole, city dwellers and Eastern business interests viewed the farmers' demands with distrust, causing Bryan's defeat at the hands of the Republican candidate, William McKinley. This marked the end of the more radical phase of the farmers' movement; however, a number of the reforms they had favored -- including regulation of transportation -- were eventually enacted at federal and state levels.