Let's Have A (Populist) Party!
I stopped to ask him what the machine was and what it did. He told me it was a manure spreader - a 'sh*tslinger', he said.
Oh! It's a big ol' thing, isn't it? I asked.
Well, he explained, it takes a LOT of sh*t to make stuff grow.
Isn't THAT the truth, I thought. Always.
Farmers in the late 19th century were frustrated.
To be fair, some of their struggles were not entirely unexpected. As the west ‘filled up’ with white homesteaders, choice farmland was increasingly rare. The U.S. Government had run out of peoples to remove, and even at their most Manifestly Destined could find no justification for another war with Mexico.
The 1890 Census would soon declare the frontier ‘closed’, to the chagrin of men like Frederick Jackson Turner who believed the westward struggle against nature and deprivation both defined and strengthened American character. Things were so desperate that white guys began looking lustfully at Oklahoma as their last best hope – the same ‘Indian Territory’ (I.T.) to whom the bulk of surviving Amerindians had been forcibly removed.
I.T. had been chosen both for its distance from existing ‘civilization’ and the tacit assumption it represented the most god-forsaken plot of unloveable soil on the continent. Now it was being eyed with a desire born of desperation and a few hopeful shots of delusion. By 1889, the first sections were being opened to white settlement via land run, and eventually Oklahoma would become the 46th State of the Union.
But not yet.
As the century approached another turn, farmers across the Great Plains – even those in slightly more cooperative climes than Oklahoma’s – were enduring hard times. This was not unprecedented, but it did seem to be persisting – and advances in both literacy and communication facilitated an awareness that not everyone seemed to be sharing similar struggles.
It wasn’t always a lack of production. Many farmers across the Plains were quite successful - at least in the traditional sense. They were growing and raising more good stuff than ever before! Wheat! Corn! Cotton! Moo-cows! Chickens! Tomatoes! Quiche!
But thanks to the laws of supply and demand, the more they raised, the lower the selling price. That’s great for those purchasing, but suck city for those producing. Throw in improved agriculture in Europe, and the American farmer was in a world of hurt.
As individualists, they reacted in an individually sensible, hard-working way – they looked to produce MORE.
Farmers already worked 365 days a year, sun-up to sun-down. They worked on Sundays, birthdays, Christmas, and when they were sick. They labored in the earth and cared for any animals they held, enduring drought and deluge, heat waves and freezes, in hopes of coaxing forth from the earth sustenance for themselves and the world.
They grew and raised stuff you could eat, or wear, or – back in the day – smoke. They were useful. Heck – they were essential!
But this was a time of the ‘newer and better’ – machinery, fertilizers, and other technological wonders (“just look at this scientifically shaped point on this metal – that’s right, folks… REAL METAL – shovel!”) With ‘newer and better’, they could bring even more land into production! Purchase more acres, more machinery, more seed, more productivity - PROGRESS!
But… this meant they’d need money. Borrowed money.
Looking east they saw a world of bankers and businessmen, of numbers and percentages, stock markets and manipulation. Men in suits, working what had already become known as “bankers’ hours” – 5 days a week minus holidays, done by mid-afternoon, and inside by the stove when it was cold or near an open window when it was hot.
They didn’t actually grow anything, or produce anything your kids could eat, or wear, or even that you could smoke, drink, or otherwise enjoy.
Instead, they scribbled in little books, mysterious ciphers covered in obscure terms, and this somehow meant they got to keep part of your money. You couldn’t for the life of your loved ones tell exactly WHAT they were doing, but you knew you needed them – they held access to loans, to financing, to equipment, seed, and survival during patient years. How did THIS make sense, they wondered?
There’s a reason Dickens only a generation before had written Ebenezer Scrooge as a money lender (albeit a British one) – what could be more cold-hearted and useless in this life?**
It wasn’t JUST the banks, of course – farmers felt taken advantage of by railroads, the operators of grain elevators and silos, and pretty much anyone with money or influence in a system they instinctively believed warped in favor of the Ebenezers, but lacked the time or worldviews to master themselves.
So the banks loaned money to the farmers, and the farmers purchased land and equipment. And it worked, in a sense – they became even harder-working, even more productive. They raised even MORE stuff you could eat, smoke, and wear!
Which meant, of course, that prices went even LOWER. In some cases, less than was necessary to break even. Some couldn’t pay back their loans. So, they renegotiated, perhaps borrowed more, bought more, raised more…
See a pattern?
For the first time in American history, it seemed, a large demographic was doing everything right – they were honest, hard-working, productive, and responsible – and they were failing.
Individuals had of course failed before, despite their best efforts, but individual failure can always be blamed on fate, or sin, or some personal shortcoming perhaps hidden in the mix. When the most idealized segment of American Dreamers – those whom Jefferson declared “the chosen people of God” – were facing bankruptcy and starvation, however…
Either malicious players were subverting the system, or the system was broken. They weren’t quite ready to go full Tom Joad (“Damn right, I’m bolshevisky!”), but they were – for the first time en masse – willing to call on the one earthbound entity big enough to tackle perceived corruption and necessary correction on such a grand scale. Those who most clearly defined ‘individualism’ in the American psyche began talking, and joining together, to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
The Populist Party was born.
They wanted what in their minds would be a return to a level (or fertile?) field. Government regulation or control of railroads, grain storage, even telegraphs – not to make things ‘easier’, but to make things ‘fair’. (The railroads and other owners likely quibbled over the precise definition of that term in such circumstances.)
They also wanted to turn bi. Not just themselves, but the entire country.
That’s probably best covered next time.
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**I should, um… clarify for any of my creditors who might be reading this that these are not MY sentiments, of course. These are the approximated impressions of a thousand long-dead homesteaders. I love everyone the same and value our varied contributions to the Great American Melting Pot of Commerce.
Also, I’m expecting a check and should be caught up by Monday.