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The Farmer's Movement of the Late 19th Century

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During the late nineteenth century, the agrarian movement evolved into a political force that energized American farmers to voice their political and economic grievances like never before. Although the movement essentially died after William Jennings Bryan's loss of the 1896 Presidential election, many of the reforms they fought for were eventually passed into law.

American farmers found themselves facing hard times after the Civil War. In the West, the railroad had opened up enormous opportunities. Farmers were now able to cultivate land that had previously been to far from the Eastern markets to make a profit. However, that opportunity came at a price. The farmers increasing dependence on the railroads and other commercial interests made them an easy target for exploitative business practices.

The growth in land also contributed to overproduction, which was another factor contributing to the farmer's hardships. The expansion of farmland combined with the mechanical advances in agricultural technology greatly increased production in the west.

In the south, sharecropping and the cycle of debt it generated led to overproduction. In order for a tenant farmer to get out from under debt to the landowner they needed to increase planting, creating a surplus of cotton and tobacco. In both sections of the country overproduction led to falling crop prices and soil exhaustion.

In 1867, Oliver Kelley saw the plight of the American farmer and created the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the National Grange. Loosely modeled after the Masons, the Grange originally set out to be more of a social and educational outlet to help combat the isolation felt by many farming families and included women among its members. Eventually ...

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...wanted to merge with the Democrats, who had begun to incorporate the farmer's message into their own. They believed that in America's winner-take-all political system, there was no chance for a third party to make significant gains. The other side consisted of purists who did not want to let the Democrats distort the original goals of the Omaha Platform.

With their numbers dwindling, the Populists decided to back the Democratic nominee for president, the pro-silver William Jennings Bryan, in the crucial 1896 elections, but with their own vice-presidential candidate. After Bryan's lost the party was essentially finished as a viable political contender on a national scale. However, although the Populists ceased to exist, their spirit lives on since the platforms they endorsed influenced politicians and legislations for years to come, with many of them becoming law.

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