The early chapters in the tale of European-American settlement of the Great Plains is a long, sad one, and aspects of it have been eloquently and passionately told by some of the finest bloggers of our age - Meteor Blades at Daily Kos and Winter Rabbit's front-page work at Progressive Historians and Never In Our Names spring to mind. Though the settlement of the plains by European-Americans, the construction of continent-spanning railroads, and oppressive policies toward Native Americans were all inter-related, it is beyond the scope of this diary to try to tell the whole, vast story – I'll try to focus on the rise of progressive politics as they were practiced in the new settlements on the plains, forgoing to a certain extent the opportunity to point out the differences between modern progressives and our past incarnations. I can think of very few people in my circles, for example, who support outright land grabs, forced assimilation policies, and corporate giveaway schemes that would make even Halliburton blush (a little bit), yet all were policies backed to a sometimes frightening degree by 19th century progressives.
Plenty of the folks who would wind up becoming progressives had no problem, for example, with taking advantage of government programs designed to encourage western settlement. Without really pondering who might hold a title to the land more traditional than theirs, about a half-million families availed themselves of claims under the Homestead Act of 1862 by the end of the century. Under the Act, the adult head of a family could acquire (basically free of charge for the land itself; filing fees ran around the $30 range) up to 160 acres by simply living and creating "improvements" on it for a period of five years.
It was a screaming deal – and one so rife with corruption possibilities that it brought out the Ken Lays in droves. Much of the choicest land, the river and rail frontage, for example, had already been deeded to railroad companies under the Pacific Railway Bill and similar legislation, which gave the companies land in exchange for railway construction. The railroad companies then sold the land, built upon it, or did any other those other things you can do when you have a complete economic chokehold upon an entire region.
The giant sucking sound made by railroad companies scarffing up much of the good land meant that upon arrival in the West, prospective settlers were faced with one of two options: take the government's wager and try to survive droughts and marginal farming on insufficiently-small plots of land – 160 acres is fine for a farm on the banks of the Missouri, but too small to be profitable in the drier areas of Nebraska or South Dakota – or pay dearly for the good stuff from the steam-driven overlords.
Hurrah for Greer County! The land of the free!
The land of the bedbug, grasshopper and flea!
I'll sing of its praises, I'll tell of its fame,
While starving to death on my government claim
And here's one from a 19th-century cut-and-runner:
Fifty miles to water,
A hundred miles to wood.
To hell with this damned country,
I'm goin' home for good.
In order to secure even more than they already had, railroad- and land speculation companies began running scams, some of which are now classics of the genre. Strawmen were sent in as dummy homesteaders, of course, but some of the more Abramoffian types got around the "improvements" stricture by erecting a "twelve by fourteen" dwelling somewhere on the 160-acre plot – presumably neglecting to tell the government that the "structure" they'd built measured twelve by fourteen inches.
Of course, the laissez-faire economics of the time meant that if you actually owned a railroad, you probably wouldn't need to stoop to the level of building dollhouses to justify government claims – you could just as easily make a fortune gouging the farmers along your rail lines, since they had no other viable means of getting their produce to market. Indeed, it was issues surrounding the fees charged for hauling farm freight that led to some of the earliest coalitions of farmers.
Farming is one of those rare occupations in which its practitioners are expected to buy at retail and sell at wholesale. As long as the weather permits and the crop yields are good, this is simply the unfortunate way of things – but when those two elements fail the farmer – as they did in the 1880s – it often spells disaster. Droughts hammered the Midwest for 6 years running, even as grain producers in Russia and Argentina enjoyed bumper crops, which caused the price of wheat, especially, to fall like a rock. In some cases the effective cost of a mortgage as much as doubled, since committing to pay off a $1000 note when wheat is selling at $1 per bushel (1855) is quite different from actually making the payments when a bushel can fetch only 50 cents (1890). Add to that the fact that the machinery they were taking out loans to buy was actually increasing their output, and thus driving down the price, plus interest rates of 8 to perhaps 40 percent, and you have yourself a market for predators not unlike the one we see around us today (or rather, did, until a month or two ago).
Another song, this one called "The Kansas Fool:"
The bankers followed us out West;
And did in mortgages invest;
They looked ahead and shrewdly planned,
And soon they'll have our Kansas land."
The people who manufactured the machines that kept the farmer farming didn't exactly have their fingers on the pulse of their customer's plight, either. Here's a couple of catalog covers – in other words, outhouse fodder – from the happy-go-lucky folks at the McCormick and Deering Companies [to the left]:
Oh, it got worse. A lack of understanding of the changes they were wreaking upon the environment led to erosion and susceptibility to drought. Crops faced more organic threats like boll weevils (firmly established in Southern cottonfields by the 1890s) and enormous (flocks? colonies?) of grasshoppers that would periodically descend, devour, and depart, leaving "nothin' but the mortgage." Since this was an era of Republican corruption only recently eclipsed in vileness, tax burdens were increasingly shifted onto those least able to pay, even as protectionist tariffs were raised to shelter their monopolies from the threat of foreign competition.
Those monopolies conducted themselves in a manner over which modern neocons must salivate: fertilizer trusts, barbed-wire trusts, and all sorts of other trusts screwed the little guy for every essential, while unavoidable shipping agents and middlemen maximized their own profits, and railroad barons let the harvests of uppity political agitators (and the generally uncooperative, or non-bribe-producing) rot in storage silos until it was valueless.
It wasn't until FDR made them in the 1930s that farmers ever managed to act in unison to reduce supply – people who willingly live in houses made of sod just aren’t the sort who are going to fall into line and do as they're told. Still, there were some early attempts to organize, and some pretty colorful characters who attempted to do it.
The farmers also found an appeal in the rituals Kelley – a Freemason – introduced. There were passwords, secret meetings, and a seven-tiered hierarchy ranging from Laborers (guys) and Maids (gals) to Husbandmen and Matrons. At the local levels, everyone belonged to a Subordinate Grange; several of these (often a county's worth) would be gathered together to form a Pomona Grange. The state level was usually the most politically active, with a State Master administering things all the way down to the Subordinate Granges, and able to exert (at times) considerable political pressure on state and federal legislatures.
Some of the Grange's early victories (most prevalent in the Upper Mississippi Valley) came at the expense of the operators of freight rail lines, grain elevators, and storage facilities. Here Grangers sought to impose regulation upon those private businesses deemed to be operating on behalf of the general welfare – and especially in Illinois, the state courts were inclined to agree. These measures were fought and appealed at every step along Federal Courthouse Way by armies of lawyers in the employ of the robber barons and their trusts, and though the good guys scored an early victory in 1876 with Munn v. Illinois (states have the power to regulate business, including railroads, within their borders), a decade later they had their asses handed to them by the foe in Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railroad Company v. Illinois, which said that states have no power to regulate interstate commerce.
Wabash led to the following year's passage of the Interstate Commerce Act and the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission. While some might trumpet these as a victory for the little guy, it really wasn't; as then-US Attorney Richard Olney wrote to a railroad exec buddy of his in 1892,
"The [Interstate Commerce] Commission, as its functions have now been limited by the courts, is, or can be made of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of railroads, at the same time that the supervision is almost entirely nominal. Further, the older such a commission gets to be, the more inclined it will be found to take the business and railroad view of things. It thus becomes a sort of barrier between railroad corporations and the people and a sort of protection against hasty and crude legislation hostile to railroad interests... The part of wisdom is not to destroy the Commission but to utilize it"
Chronology of the Northern Pacific & Related Land Grant Railroads
Historiorant: Boy, they don't make cynicism like that anymore! Oh, wait…
Still, the Act was important, if only because it asserted for the first time (in a large-scale sense, anyway) the authority of the federal government to regulate business in the interest of society at large. In another sense, it helped to stabilize the business environment by at long last codifying laws surrounding business practices. It was a welcome and overdue first blow against the unfettered excesses of the Gilded Age, even if it was rather quickly co-opted and assimilated by the coal-fired self-righteousness of the captains of industry.
After Wabash, membership in the Grange fell off, but rebounded again around the turn of the century. It wasn't entirely the Supreme Court's fault: the Grange had overextended its management capabilities while trying to open co-ops (supplied by Montgomery Ward, est. 1872, d. 2001), halls and public facilities, even a failed attempt to manufacture their own line of farm machinery, and it wasn't living up to its promises. Things finally stabilized around a somewhat smaller, but still wholly impassioned, organization, and the Grange continued to fight for farm interests and progressive causes in the great social debates of the early twentieth century.
The Grangers deserve a lot of airplay in a diary like this, but they were by no means monolithic in their representation of farmer's interests. Indeed, several other major groups sprang up around the same time as the National Grange, and together they formed a factious loose canon composed of too many strong-willed idealist-types to ever be able to work together for long enough to win a presidential election. None was powerful enough to win on its own, and none conciliatory enough to form alliances.
Weird Historical Sidenote: The cabin in which the Farmer's Alliance was founded (located in Pleasant Valley, Texas) was uprooted in 1893 and displayed at the Chicago Exhibition. It was later chopped up, and the pieces were distributed like splinters of the One True Cross amongst Populist loyalists.
In 1886, the Alliance split along activist and conservative lines, with momentum favoring the activists. A showdown at the Texas state convention between activists and conservatives, for example, resulted in a platform that supported the Knights of Labor, agrarian land reform, and the use of silver as legal tender.
Weird Historical Sidenote: This put them at odds with the views of the old Greenback party - a/k/a the National Party, the Greenback-Labor Party, and the Independent Party - which had existed from 1876 until a pathetic end in 1884 - 20 people attended the state convention of a party that had won 14 seats in the U.S. Congress only six years before. The greenbackers had supported the issuance of paper currency backed by the federal government, the way things had been during the Civil War. They made the ludicrous assertion that a return to a strictly specie-based system would allow the Wall Street types to reassert their ability to define the value of goods and labor (it did), but lost support when they went overboard with the moonbatiness in 1880 and started supporting income taxes, woman suffrage, and an 8-hour workday. Many of its members, including 1880 presidential candidate James Weaver, resurfaced in the Populist Party later on.
The Southern Farmer's Alliance was concerned with issues like "subtreasury" schemes, currency reforms, and land redistribution, while the Northern Alliance started zeroing in on the idea of silver coinage. This hit at one of the more fractious domestic issues of the day, even if the arguments might strike us today as a tad esoteric – "bimetallist rascal!" aren't the fighting words they once were – with the availability of money as its central theme. Basically, Lincoln's issuance of greenbacks had helped to finance the Civil War, but had resulted in inflation. Hence, successive Republican administrations, through good times and in bad, pursued policies leading toward a withdrawal of greenbacks until such time as every piece of paper currency in circulation had a 100% backing in precious metal.
Historiorant: If you're thinking, "hey, isn't that the diametric opposite of what the Fed today would do if the economy was tanking?," you'd probably be right. But remember, this is in a pre-Keynesian, Henry-Paulson-fantasyland America, where bankers and lenders get federal protection on every loan they extend, and if prices deflate to the point where the little guy has to become a tenant on his own land, well, screw him for being a little guy.
For the political right, only gold should've counted as currency, and the further left one got, the greater the would-be supply of fiat paper grew. In the center-left, the consensus position was to mint up a bunch of that silver that was pouring out of the Comstock Lode at a rate of 16 ounces of silver to 1 ounce of gold. One would've thought this a reasonable compromise – silver is, after all, a precious metal – but to the misers of Wall Street, a flood of cheap dollars would severely cut in to the returns they were expecting on the loans they'd extended. Borrowers who were also supporters of "free silver" were equated with thieves in the Eastern papers, since they were seeking to deprive their creditors (who would've preferred to see the Comstock Lode smelted into flatware) of the hard-won outrageous profit to which their visionary investment instinct entitled them.
Weird Historical Sidenote: The Comstock Lode, near Virginia City, Nevada, became public knowledge in 1859, and became nonoperational in 1878, when the miners dug too deep and awakened a Balrog. (Okay, it wasn't a Balrog; it was hot water, but it shut down the mine nonetheless. Still, in a wild couple of boomtown decades, the Comstock Lode coughed up $400 million dollars in gold and silver, worth about $500-600 billion – or five years of two wars – in 2005 dollars.)
Some say Nevada was rushed into statehood (Halloween, 1864, long before there were enough people living there to meet the constitutional requirements) because Lincoln needed Comstock's gold and silver for the war effort. This makes sense on one level, but on another, the Federals would've had more control over the Lode with Nevada as a territory. On the other hand, adding a couple more Senate and House seats from a brand-new Unionist state, just a few days before an election and with light at the end of a long and bloody war, makes sense in a lot of different ways…
The filthy, nasty, whining little communists who wanted free silver saw the Comstock Lode as a literal national treasure, not as a private piggy bank for the bold men with the strength and courage to get there first and buy up all the claims. With the Republican Party fully compromised (imagine that) and the Democratic splitting into progressive and sellout camps (imagine that, too), the issue of silver coinage increasingly became a flashpoint as the 1890's dawned – at the very least, it was a distraction from any debate that might have occurred over, say, Sanford B. Dole's theft of Hawaii, or yellow journalism's tawdry drumbeat for war with somebody.
The People's Party – better known as the Populists – grew out the left's activist-versus-milquetoast policy conflicts in the early 1890's, and (if I may pile on to a way-overused metaphor) spread like a prairie fire. The Populists did not pussyfoot around in their demands for a more equitable society: they called for outright nationalization of railroads and telephones, a graduated income tax, and the "subtreasury," a federally-sponsored system of warehouses where farm produce could be stored until prices rose.
An army of a half million men invading our shores could not have made us surrender the money of the people and substitute in its place the money of the rich. A few words in fifteen pages of statutes put through Congress in the rush of bills did it.
Weird Historical Sidenote: Harvey stuck to his guns throughout the contentious elections of 1896 and 1900 and beyond. He was there (on the fringes, at least) for the semi-victories and half-measures of the Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson years, and even stuck around under the fading colors during the resurgence of Republican corruption and anti-little-guy legislation in the 1920s. Indeed, Harvey was there at the bitter end:
In a crude tented amphitheatre set among the Ozarks of Arkansas last week was made the first presidential nomination for 1932. Nominee of the Liberty Party was William Hope ("Coin") Harvey, half-blind veteran of the "free silver" era of politics. His nominators were half a thousand discouraged Republicans, disgruntled Democrats, disgusted Socialists, Populists and Independents who gathered from 25 States. Plain, thin-pursed men with faces stamped with sun and soil, most of them were in overalls or shirt sleeves. Theirs, they needed no realist to tell them, was a hopeless gesture against the two major parties but at least it was a gesture springing from strong political convictions that U. S. economics are today sadly out of gear.
Time, "First Nomination," Monday, Sep. 07, 1931 (emphasis mine – u.m.)
And there were other giants in the Earth in those days, including one I historioranted about a few weeks ago, in an utterly different context. Ignatius L. Donnelly (Wikipedia) believed as firmly in progressive politics as he did in Atlantis, and those twain beliefs have caused others to view him in some widely disparate ways. Here's an Australian, singing Donnelly's praises as an early prognosticator of the dangers of globalization:
Although his name means nothing to the average young anti-IMF or anti-WTO protester Donnelly in fact presented a late nineteenth-century formulation of the same fears that agitate supporters of the current anti-globalisation movement. A melodramatic novel, rather than the internet or visual media images, was used to popularise a similar message. Readers of Caesar’s Column were presented with a menacing picture of a growing gulf between plutocrats and the powerless as a "vast conspiracy against mankind … organised on two continents" sought "possession of the world". The clash between demonstrators and the police in Seattle and Prague or outside the Crown Casino in Melbourne would fit neatly into one of its opening chapters.
In the centenary of his death Ignatius Donnelly remains a strangely relevant figure. He was one of the many lonely prophets who have emerged from North America to influence other societies with aspirations to democracy, including Australia. He dramatised issues and concerns that will, in one recycled form or another, remain alive for as long as we confront impersonal forces which are always new and yet always the same.
A prophet of globalisation: Ignatius Donnelly
A less flattering picture of the man is painted by J.M. Tyree in August, 2007, edition of Believer - it's a longish quote for this late in a long diary, but it's so reminiscent of certain contemporary newsworthy folk that I'll go ahead a cite a couple of paragraphs:
The opposite of a Renaissance man, presumably, would be someone who tried his hand at a number of different things and failed at all of them. Mostly forgotten today, Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901) is worth a second look because he is quite possibly the greatest failure who ever lived. Donnelly, a bestselling writer and reform-minded congressman from Minnesota, might be dubbed the Great American Failure. Among the things that Donnelly failed to do were: build a city, reform American politics, reveal the facts about Atlantis, discover a secret code in Shakespeare, and prove that the world’s gravel deposits were the result of a collision with a comet. His dire political prophecies of class warfare and the imminent collapse of civilization also failed to come true.
Donnelly genuinely believed he was a genius, and that, by applying his mental powers to any problem, no matter how tangled or intractable, and regardless of the established body of relevant scholarship or scientific tradition, he could solve it with a fresh look. He was a kind of secular prophet, a combination of demagogue and revivalist tent-preacher, destined, he believed, to do great things. If Donnelly were alive today, he would probably be a “guru” on the lecture circuit, fervently putting forward his latest Theory of Everything. Congressman, master orator, pseudoscientist, student of comparative mythology, crackpot geologist, futurist, amateur literary sleuth, bogus cryptologist, Donnelly did it all with a charmingly boundless energy and a voracious intellectual appetite that utterly outstripped his real abilities. One of Donnelly’s nicknames, meant mockingly, was “The Sage of Nininger,” after the town he attempted to establish failed due to an economic crisis that wiped out the capital for the venture. (Other nicknames used to taunt Donnelly were “The Prince of Cranks” and, because of his political rabble-rousing, “The Apostle of Discontent.”)
Igmatius Donnelly, Prince of Cranks
Ouch. From that perspective, Donnelly sounds a lot like a certain Preznit I know…except that he actually nurtured, developed, and published real opinions. Redact the actual accomplishments and grudging admission of multitasking talent from the above paragraph, and I think we may have found ourselves a fitting historical epithet for George W. Bush.
There were dozens more fiery pundits of progressivism who stepped onto soapboxes and gave the "money trust" hell in the 1890s, but they'll have to wait for next week's historiorant – this one's already gotten Indianapolis-to-Denver long. Tune in next Sunday, same bat-time, same bat-channel, for a look at silver bugs, crosses of gold, and yet another generation of hell-raisin' Kansans.
If you're in the mood do some hell-raisin' yourself, you might want to consider dropping by Road2DC.com, where some committed modern progressives are tapping into the spirit of old-time populism and organizing folks for the big September 15th protest in D.C. Meeting up with like-minded people and giving voice to a nation's anguish – sounds like something of which our progressive forebears would have approved.
R. Scott Peoples is perhaps better known as the resident historian at the liberal American web site Daily Kos, writing under the nom de plume "Unitary Moonbat." For about a year and a half his "History for Kossacks" series has been appearing most every Sunday.