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 the purpose of the grange expanded into the political sphere. The Grange became the head of a nationwide agrarian movement, serving a purpose similar to that of a union to industrial laborers. Membership rose rapidly after the Panic of 1873, peaking at one and a half million members in 1875.
The chief political goal of the Grangers was relief from the exorbitant carriage fees charged by the railroads and warehouses. They created hundreds of buying cooperatives, founded banks, pushed through legislation regulating railroads, and campaigned for political candidates who were sympathetic to their cause.
Their campaign for government regulation of the railroad led to their most significant victory. In 1877, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Granger cause in Munn v. Illinois. In this case it upheld the power of the states to regulate the rates of railroads and other businesses since their conduct affected the community at large. This shows a departure from the prevalent laissez-faire economics of the time and sets precedent for government regulation of business.
As agricultural conditions improved, membership declined. Although few of their economic initiatives succeeded, much of their political agenda was...