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The Economics of American Farm Unrest, 1865-1900
James I. Stewart, Reed College
American farmers have often expressed dissatisfaction with their lot but the decades after the Civil War were extraordinary in this regard. The period was one of persistent and acute political unrest. The specific concerns of farmers were varied, but at their core was what farmers perceived to be their deteriorating political and economic status.
The defining feature of farm unrest was the efforts of farmers to join together for mutual gain. Farmers formed cooperatives, interest groups, and political parties to protest their declining fortunes and to increase their political and economic power. The first such group to appear was The Grange or Patrons of Husbandry, founded in the 1860s to address farmers’ grievances against the railroads and desire for greater cooperation in business matters. The agrarian-dominated Greenback Party followed in the 1870s. Its main goal was to increase the amount of money in circulation and thus to lower the costs of credit to farmers. The Farmers’ Alliance appeared in the 1880s. Its members practiced cooperative marketing and lobbied the government for various kinds of business and banking regulation. In the 1890s, aggrieved farmers took their most ambitious steps yet, forming the independent People’s or Populist Party to challenge the dominance of the unsympathetic Republican and Democratic parties.
Although farmers in every region of the country had cause for agitation, unrest was probably greatest in the northern prairie and Plains states. A series of droughts there between 1870 and 1900 created recurring hardships, and Midwestern grain farmers faced growing price competition from producers abroad. Farmers in the South also revolted, but their protests were muted by racism. Black farmers were excluded from most farm groups, and many white farmers were reluctant to join the attack on established politics and business for fear of undermining the system of social control that kept blacks inferior to whites (Goodwyn, 1978).
The Debate about the Causes of Farm Unrest
For a long time, a debate raged about the causes of farm unrest. Historians could not reconcile the complaints of farmers with evidence about the agricultural terms of trade— the prices farmers received for their output, especially relative to the prices of other goods and services farmers purchased such as transportation, credit, and manufactures. Now, however, there appears to be some consensus. Before exploring the basis for this consensus, it will be useful to examine briefly the complaints of farmers. What were farmers so upset about? Why did they feel so threatened?
The Complaints of Farmers
The complaints of farmers are well documented (Buck, 1913; Hicks, 1931) and relatively uncontroversial. They concerned farmers’ declining incomes and fractious business relationships primarily. First, farmers claimed that farm prices were falling and, as a consequence, so were their incomes. They generally blamed low prices on over-production. Second, farmers alleged that monopolistic railroads and grain elevators charged unfair prices for their services. Government regulation was the farmers’ solution to the problem of monopoly. Third, there was a perceived shortage of credit and money. Farmers believed that interest rates were too high because of monopolistic lenders, and the money supply was inadequate, producing deflation. A falling price level increased the real burden of debt, as farmers repaid loans with dollars worth significantly more than those they had borrowed. Farmers demanded ceilings on interest rates, public boards to mediate foreclosure proceedings, and the U.S. Treasury to coin silver freely to increase the money supply. Finally, farmers complained about the political influence of the railroads, big business, and money lenders. These interests had undue influence over policy making in the state legislatures and U.S. Congress. In short, farmers felt their economic and political interests were being shortchanged by a gang of greedy railroads, creditors, and industrialists.
The Puzzle of Farm Unrest
Economic historians have subjected the complaints of farmers to rigorous statistical testing. Each claim has been found inconsistent to some extent with the available evidence about the terms of trade.
First, consider farmers’ complaints about prices. Farm prices were falling, along with the prices of most other goods during this period. This does not imply, however, that farm incomes were also falling. First, real prices (farm prices relative to the general price level) are a better measure of the value that farmers were receiving for their output. When real prices over the post-Civil War period are examined, there is an approximately horizontal trend (North, 1974). Moreover, even if real farm prices had been falling, farmers were not necessarily worse off (Fogel and Rutner, 1972). Rising farm productivity could have offset the negative effects of falling real prices on incomes. Finally, direct evidence about the incomes of farmers is scarce, but estimates suggest that farm incomes were not falling (Bowman, 1965). Some regions experienced periods of distress—Iowa and Illinois in the 1870s and Kansas and Nebraska in the 1890s, for instance—but there was no general agricultural depression. If anything, data on wages, land rents, and returns to capital suggest that land in the West was opened to settlement too slowly (Fogel and Rutner, 1972).
Next, consider farmers’ claims about interest rates and mortgage debt. It is true that interest rates on the frontier were high, averaging two to three percentage points more than those in the Northeast. Naturally, frontier farmers complained bitterly about paying so much for credit. Lenders, however, may have been well justified in the rates they charged. The susceptibility of the frontier to drought and the financial insecurity of many settlers created above average lending risks for which creditors had to be compensated (Bogue, 1955). For instance, borrowers often defaulted, leaving land worth only a fraction of the loan as security. This story casts doubt on the exploitation hypothesis. Furthermore, when the claims of farmers were subjected to rigorous statistical testing, there was little evidence to substantiate the monopoly hypothesis (Eichengreen, 1984). Instead, consistent with the unique features of the frontier mortgage market, high rates of interest appear to have been compensation for the inherent risks of lending to frontier farmers. Finally, regarding the burden on borrowers of a falling price level, deflation may have been not as onerous as farmers alleged. The typical mortgage had a short term, less than five years, implying that lenders and borrowers could often anticipate changes in the price level (North, 1974).
Last, consider farmers’ complaints about the railroads. These appear to have the most merit. Nevertheless, for a long time, most historians dismissed farmers’ grievances, assuming that the real cost to farmers of shipping their produce to market must have been steadily falling because of productivity improvements in the railroad sector. As Robert Higgs (1970) shows, however, gains in productivity in rail shipping did not necessarily translate into lower rates for farmers and thus higher farm gate prices. Real rates (railroad rates relative to the prices farmers received for their output) were highly variable between 1865 and 1900. More important, over the whole period, there was little decrease in rail rates relative to farm prices. Only in the 1890s did the terms of trade begin to improve in farmers’ favor. Employing different data, Aldrich (1985) finds a downward trend in railroad rates before 1880 but then no trend or an increasing trend thereafter.
The Causes of Farm Unrest
Many of the complaints of farmers are weakly supported or even contradicted by the available evidence, leaving questions about the true causes of farm unrest. If the monopoly power of the railroads and creditors was not responsible for farmers’ woes, what or who was?
Most economic historians now believe that agrarian unrest reflected the growing risks and uncertainties of agriculture after the Civil War. Uncertainty or risk can be thought of as an economic force that reduces welfare. Today, farmers use sophisticated production technologies and agricultural futures markets to reduce their exposure to environmental and economic uncertainty at little cost. In the late 1800s, the avoidance of risk was much more costly. As a result, increases in risk and uncertainty made farmers worse off. These uncertainties and risks appear to have been particularly severe for farmers on the frontier.
What were the sources of risk? First, agriculture had become more commercial after the Civil War (Mayhew, 1972). Formerly self-sufficient farmers were now dependent on creditors, merchants, and railroads for their livelihoods. These relationships created opportunities for economic gain but also obligations, hardships, and risks that many farmers did not welcome. Second, world grain markets were becoming ever more integrated, creating competition in markets abroad once dominated by U.S. producers and greater price uncertainty (North, 1974). Third, agriculture was now occurring in the semi-arid region of the United States. In Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, farmers encountered unfamiliar and adverse growing conditions. Recurring but unpredictable droughts caused economic hardship for many Plains farmers. Their plights were made worse because of the greater price elasticity (responsiveness) of world agricultural supply (North, 1974). Drought-stricken farmers with diminished harvests could no longer count on higher domestic prices for their crops.
A growing body of research now supports the hypothesis that discontent was caused by increasing risks and uncertainties in U.S. agriculture. First, there are strong correlations between different measures of economic risk and uncertainty and the geographic distribution of unrest in fourteen northern states between 1866 and 1909 (McGuire, 1981; 1982). Farm unrest was closely tied to the variability in farm prices, yields, and incomes across the northern states. Second, unrest was highest in states with high rates of farm foreclosures (Stock, 1986). On the frontier, the typical farmer would have had a neighbor whose farm was seized by creditors and thus cause to worry about his own future financial security. Third, Populist agitation in Kansas in the 1890s coincided with unexpected variability in crop prices that resulted in lost profits and lower incomes (DeCanio, 1980). Finally, as mentioned already, high interest rates were not a sign of monopoly but rather compensation to creditors for the greater risks of frontier lending (Eichengreen, 1984).
The Historical Significance of Farm Unrest
Farm unrest had profound and lasting consequences for American economic development. Above all, it ushered in fundamental and lasting institutional change (Hughes, 1991; Libecap, 1992).
The change began in the 1870s. In response to the complaints of farmers, Midwestern state legislatures enacted a series of laws regulating the prices and practices of railroads, grain elevators, and warehouses. The “Grange” laws were a turning point because they reversed a longstanding trend of decreasing government regulation of the private sector. They also prompted a series of landmark court rulings affirming the regulatory prerogatives of government (Hughes, 1991). In Munn v. Illinois (1877), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the legality of the Granger laws, famously ruling that government had the legal right to regulate any commerce “affected with the public interest.”
Farmers also sought redress of their grievances at the federal level. In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Wabash, St. Louis, and Pacific Railway v. Illinois that only the federal government had the right to regulate commerce between the states. This meant the states could not regulate many matters of concern to farmers. In 1887, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission regulatory oversight over long distance rail shipping. This legislation was followed by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which prohibited monopolies and certain conspiracies, combinations, and restraints of trade. Midwestern cattle farmers urged the passage of an antitrust law, alleging that the notorious Chicago meat packers had conspired to keep cattle prices artificially low (Libecap, 1992). Both laws marked the beginning of growing federal involvement in private economic activity (Hughes, 1991; Ulen, 1987).
Not all agrarian proposals were acted upon, but even demands that fell on deaf ears in Congress and the state legislatures had lasting impacts (Hicks, 1931). For instance, many Alliance and Populist demands such as the graduated income tax and the direct election of U.S. Senators became law during the Progressive Era.
Historians disagree about the legacy of the late nineteenth century farm movements. Some view their contributions to U.S. institutional development positively (Hicks, 1931), while others do not (Hughes, 1991). Nonetheless, few would dispute their impact. In fact, it is possible to see much institutional change in the U.S. over the last century as the logical consequence of political and legal developments initiated by farmers during the late 1800s (Hughes, 1991).
The Sources of Cooperation in the Farm Protest Movement
Nineteenth century farmers were remarkably successful at joining together to increase their economic and political power. Nevertheless, one aspect of farm unrest that has largely been neglected by scholars is the sources of cooperation in promoting agrarian interests. According to Olson (1965), large lobbying or interest groups like the Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance should have been plagued by free-riding: the incentives for individuals not to contribute to the collective production of public goods—those goods for which it is impossible or very costly to exclude others from enjoying. A rational and self-interested farmer would not join a lobbying group because he could enjoy the benefits of its work without incurring any of the costs.
Judging by their political power, most farm interest groups were, however, able to curb free-riding. Stewart (2006) studies how the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance did this between 1885 and 1890. First, the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance provided valuable goods and services to its members that were not available to outsiders, creating economic incentives for membership. These goods and services included better terms of trade through cooperative marketing and the sharing of productivity-enhancing information about agriculture. Second, the structure of the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance as a federation of township chapters enabled the group to monitor and sanction free-riders. Within townships, Alliance members were able to pressure others to join the group. This strategy appears to have succeeded among German and Norwegian immigrants, who were much more likely than others to join the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance and whose probability of joining was increasing in the share of their nativity group in the township population. This is consistent with long-standing social norms of cooperation in Germany and Norway and economic theory about the use of social norms to elicit cooperation in collective action.
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Citation: Stewart, James. "The Economics of American Farm Unrest, 1865-1900". EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/stewart.farmers