From 1880-1906, western farmers were affected by multiple issues that they saw as threats to their way of life. The main threats to the farmers were railroads, trusts, and the government, because these institutions all had the power to drastically affect the ability of the farmers to make profits. Therefore, the farmers were not wrong to feel frustration toward those institutions when the institutions caused the farmers to live lives of increasingly extreme poverty.
The main source of agrarian discontent with the railroads was a result of the rising railroad rates that made it increasingly difficult for the farmers to make a decent living by shipping their crops via freight trains. In a book called The Octopus, a farmer named Dyke planned to ship his hops and was shocked upon discovering that the railroad rate had increased from two cents per pound to five cents per pound, rendering him unable to make any profit at all (Document H).
This practice of raising the railroad rates without warning was unfair to the farmers and made it virtually impossible for any farmer to make a profit by shipping his crops. The farmers were also largely affected by the activity of trusts and banks and the control that trusts exerted on their particular lines of business. In a book by James B. Weaver the argument is made that trusts were in complete control of the situation, having power over both the producer of raw materials and the consumer of the products (Document F).
In most cases, the farmers fell under both categories, and the trusts often took full advantage, buying raw goods from farmers at very low prices that made it very difficult for farmers to profit and selling back the completed goods at high prices the farmers could barely afford if at all. The Eastern banking conglomerates were especially powerful due to their ability to call in debts and repossess homes of the farmers. The picture in The Farmer’s Voice, a Chicago newspaper from the late 1880s, depicts the power an eastern banker held over the poor western farmers who are unable to pay their bills.
The trusts did have an extremely high degree of control with little to no opposition, so the farmers were right to disapprove of trusts and call for legislation to disband them. The government’s actions concerning the inflation of the American dollar were extremely detrimental to the ability of the average farmer to make a living. In president William McKinley’s acceptance speech in 1896 (Document B), McKinley argues that free silver would decrease the value of money, and “no one suffers so much from cheap money as the farmers and laborers. The decrease in the value of money caused by inflation would make the farmers’ crops almost worthless. The farmers’ complaints regarding the government were valid due to the failure of the government to stop inflation, which is shown in the table comparing the population to the money in circulation (Document C). The amount of money in circulation increased constantly from 1880 to 1895. It could be argued from the railroads’ point of view that if the prices weren’t increased to keep up with inflation, the railroads would be unable to make profit.
In a testimony before the Senate Cullom Committee, George W. Parker, vice-president of the Cairo Short Line Railroad, testified that if the railroads kept their prices at constant levels, they would go bankrupt (Document G). However, the main problem with the railroads the farmers had was not necessarily the rising prices, but the fact that the prices rose without warning. It was extremely difficult to plan shipments and end up making profits. J. Lawrence Laughlin wrote that the farmers are wrong to blame the decrease in prices of wheat on the scarcity of gold (Document E).
Laughlin claimed that such a decrease was simply a result of global overproduction of wheat. While he made a valid point, it did not change the fact that wheat prices were still extremely low and the government could still have been at fault. The farmers still had reason to be angry at the government due to the government’s failure to protect the farmers from such a global overproduction by implementing a tariff on foreign wheat and its failure to regulate railroads and trusts, leaving them free to excavate the pockets of the farmers as deeply as they pleased.
It was certainly not easy being a western farmer in the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The farmers were complete slaves to the more powerful industries, especially the railroads. The farmers had valid reasons to be discontent with the circumstances. The railroads and other trusts had complete control of the markets and trade systems, while farmers faced constantly rising shipment prices and constantly decreasing crop prices and sales. The government simply stood idly by and watched the farmers be manipulated and taken advantage of by the titans of industry, forcing the farmers into increasingly severe poverty.
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