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Kansas Historical Quarterly - Notes on the Literature of Populism

by James C. Malin

February 1932 (Vol. 1, No. 2), pages 160 to 164
Transcribed by lhn; HTML editing by Tod Roberts
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

TO THE general reader of historical literature the word Populist usually carries with it a simple and elemental meaning. But as one becomes more inquisitive regarding its causes and its relations with other political, economic and social movements he finds himself facing an extremely baffling subject. Pursuit of satisfactory explanations will lead him halfway around the world. So far as Populism was an agricultural movement it involved two different features. First agriculture as an industry had not developed as rapidly as urban industry in its application of scientific discoveries, in its use of machinery and power, in its utilization of scientific management in farm operations, or in its organization of business methods as applied to marketing its products. This fact applies to agriculture in Europe as well as in America and in New England and the Middle States as well as in the West and South. The development of railroads, steamships, refrigeration and the telegraph toward the end of the nineteenth century produced a revolution in much of the machinery for marketing such basic farm products as grain, cotton and meat. The prices came to be made in world markets on the basis of world-wide competition. These changes occurred so rapidly that much of the marketing machinery worked inefficiently because adjustments were not made as rapidly as needed and on occasion these conditions invited unfair manipulation in the interest of speculators. All of these matters affected the whole of the agricultural industry.

The second aspect of Populism was the local complications which aggravated the problems presented by the first group of factors. In the South there was the heritage of the Civil War reconstruction and carpetbaggers the peculiarities attached to the production of cotton and the social demoralization aggravated by racial antagonisms and lack of education. Poverty had become the most cherished institution of the rural South and every feature of the prevailing farm life seemed to be designed to preserve it. In the West the complicating factor was frontier conditions complicated by what was probably the greatest agricultural expansion the world had ever witnessed in a similar length of time. More land was brought into cultivation in the United States between 1870 and 1900 than in the whole preceding period of American history. In



the Northeast, agriculture was demoralized and by 1880 the abandonment of farm land had become a subject of concern. The farmers' revolt centered in the South and West, however, and an altogether adequate answer has never been given which will explain why the revolt did not take a stronger hold upon the Northeast.

The Farmers' Alliances preceded the People's party and in their beginnings approached the farm question primarily from the point of view of improving rural social conditions. This approach to their problems soon led the farmers to shift the emphasis to the improvement of economic conditions especially to methods of marketing farm products. There were two of the Alliances the Southern and the Northwest as they were conveniently referred to. In 1889 and 1890 attempts were made to unite them and other farm groups into one national organization. The plan even contemplated bringing into the combination certain groups of organized labor. The plan of union failed and this failure marks the transition of the movement to the third or political approach to farm relief -- the People's party -- and the high point of this period of rural agitation.

The Alliance and Populist movements gave rise to a voluminous literature of exposition and argument and inspired several of their members to write "histories" which resembled communiques from the field of battle rather than judiciously phrased historical narrative. One of the first of these histories was that of William L. Garvin and S. O. Davis History of the National Farmers' Alliance and Cooperative Union of America (Jacksboro, Tex., 1887) . Garvin was one of the state Alliance leaders in Texas where the Southern Alliance originated and the book was written before the national aspect of the organization had developed very fully so it centers around the Texas region. By 1891 the Alliance movement had reached its high point or passed it. The Populist phase was already in the offing. The farmers were threatened with overproduction of histories as well as field crops but only three will be mentioned here: W. Scott Morgan History of the Wheel and Alliance (several editions, 1889-1891) ; J. E. Bryan The Farmers' Alliance: Its Origin Progress and Purposes (Fayetteville, Ark., 1891) ; and N. A. Dunning (editor in chief) The Farmers' Alliance History and Agricultural Digest (Washington, D. C., 1891). A later book was that of F. G. Blood Handbook and History of the Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union (Washington, D. C., 1893). The Populist


movement had its literature, also, but less of it was historical as is indicated by the following titles: William A. Peffer The Farmers' Side (New York, 1891) and James B. Weaver A Call to Action (Des Moines, Iowa, 1892). Peffer was the Populist senator from Kansas and Weaver was the presidential candidate for the party in 1892. No doubt many readers if they look through their bookcases or attics can find copies of some of these books as well as others not mentioned here. If the books have not been read for thirty-five or forty years to reread them would be an excellent method of measuring whether the world or the reader has changed any in that time.

During recent. years Populism has become a favorite subject of historical research. A few of these studies are of book length: Alex M. Arnett, The Populist Movement in Georgia (New York, Columbia University Press, 1922) ; F. B. Simpkins, The Tillman Movement in South Carolina (Durham, N. C., Duke University Press, 1926) ; Paul R. Fossum, The Agrarian Movement in North Dakota (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1925) ; F. E. Haynes, James B. Weaver (Iowa City, Iowa, The State Historical Society of Iowa, 1919). Shorter studies of the length of magazine articles are more numerous than the longer studies and deal with the movement in Minnesota Iowa Nebraska Kansas Indiana North Carolina Louisiana and Texas.

The history of Populism as a whole has been attempted only a few times. The first such study was that of Frank L. McVey, The Populist Movement (New York, 1896) and it was written in a highly critical spirit. The second landmark in this field was the book by F. E. Haynes, Third Party Movements Since the Civil War (Iowa City, Iowa, The State Historical Society of Iowa, 1916) . As the title indicates this book is not limited to Populism but it brought together within the covers of one book a good summary of what was then available. Of similar character but more superficial is Solon J. Buck, The Agrarian Crusade (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1920) . As most. of the special state studies indicated in the preceding paragraph were written after the World War the time is ripe for a new book based on this wider range of specialized information.

During the late summer of 1931 the University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis) published a book by John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt. It was advertised as a "definitive" history of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's party. Readers should not be


misled by such advertising, however, even when it comes from one of the large university presses. The book is not definitive within any accepted meaning of that term even if one grants the possibility of any history being definitive. The book does not deal with the international economic situation which was a major contributing cause of the depression of the nineties in the United States. The chapter on silver is similar to much of the writing of the "goldbugs" of the McKinley era. There is no analysis of the machinery for marketing and distributing farm products which would afford the reader a background by which to judge Alliance and Populist grievances against the middlemen. More broadly speaking there is a serious want of a comprehensive survey of agriculture for the whole period in question. When judged from these points of view, the book is a conspicuous example of what most American historians have been doing -- trying to write the history of the United States in a vacuum, assuming tacitly if not explicitly that this country is isolated from the rest of the world and insulated completely from the influence of economic and political events outside. There are serious gaps in the local material. The author has made systematic use of the Minnesota and Nebraska newspapers and has used similarly one paper in each of the following states: Illinois Texas North Carolina South Carolina and Georgia together with two papers published in the interest of the Alliance and the People's party respectively in Washington D. C. The author has made good use of these but Kansas readers may ask why no paper representing their state is in the list as Kansas was generally understood to be one of the leading Populist states. Kansas men appear only occasionally and then scarcely more than as names in spite of the prominence they held in the headlines of contemporary newspapers. This is not the provincial criticism of a Kansan but it illustrates similar deficiencies in the narrative for other states especially those whose newspaper files Professor Hicks has not examined personally. In the field of manuscript sources the limitations are even greater. Only four important collections are listed: Those of Donnelly of Minnesota Weller of Iowa and Allen and Maxwell of Nebraska. Labor union connections with the Alliances and People's party are alluded to at various times but no systematic study was made of that field. There is reason to believe that an investigation of these connections is essential to the solution of several peculiar turns of events in Populist history.

Prof. John D. Hicks was for several years head of the history de-


partment at the University of Nebraska and at present is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. For about a decade he has been making the Populist movement his special field of historical research. He brings to the writing of this book a mature background of knowledge of his chosen subject. In his preface Professor Hicks calls attention to the book of McVey to that of Haynes and then states his own position thus:

"But Haynes lacked monographic material on which to rely and in the case of a movement so widespread and so many-sided as Populism the work of a single investigator was bound to be inadequate. Since the time when Haynes wrote books and articles dealing with various phases and segments of the Populist movement have multiplied amazingly and for this reason if for no other the time is ripe for another general treatise on the subject."

Here then is a statement of what Hicks set out to do and his book should be measured by the degree to which he accomplished his own purpose and not by the exaggerated claim of his publishers. From this point of view an estimate of the book becomes a very different matter. He has supplemented his own investigation with the special studies of others and has fused the whole into an effective book. He has developed to a high degree his ability to write in a simple and direct language a story which in itself is highly complicated. Criticism might be directed at some minor questions but there are rather few points in which he has failed to appreciate fully the significance of monographic materials he has used. The present writer is of the opinion that more emphasis should properly be given to the work of H. C. Nixon "The Cleavage within the Farmers' Alliance Movement" in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 15 (June, 1928) 22-33. In this study Nixon emphasizes the sharp differences which developed over the oleomargarine and lard -- compound questions. The cotton and range-cattle interests of the South defended these products and the dairy and hog-corn interests of the North demanded federal legislation which would limit if not destroy those industries. This controversy illustrates a fundamental truism in the whole field of economic legislation that what is relief to one industry may be disaster to another. On some other of these sectional differences Hicks has given a most illuminating treatment. Such conflicts as these help to explain more adequately why the Populist farm-relief program went on the rocks at that time. Taking the book as a whole it sums up in a quite satisfactory manner what is known about the Alliance and Populist movements.