Peripheral Agrarians

Elizabeth Sanders
Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State 1877-1917

Sanders argues that “agrarian movements constituted the most important political force driving the development of the American national state in the half century before World War I.” (1) This story has not been well told, she says, because of a “strong urban labor bias” among social historians, and because Marxist-derived social theory perceives the “industrial working class” as the only “significant constituency” opposing the state and its ruling “hegemonic capitalist class.” (2) Sanders says “the dynamic stimulus for Populist and Progressive Era state expansion was the periphery agrarians’ drive to establish public control over a rampaging capitalism.” (3-4) In 1910, “fewer than 9 percent of nonagricultural workers were members of trade unions,” so the agrarians were well-placed to drive their reform message into the mainstream. (5) And they did just that, she says: “the Democratic Party of the post-1896 period was an overwhelmingly agrarian vehicle that carried the legacy of populism.” (4)

Sanders argument is based on a very specific definition of agrarianism, that I think holds a lot of explanatory power. “The term ‘agrarian,’” she says, “is used here to reference those agricultural regions...that were devoted to one or two cash crops produced for national and international (as opposed to local) markets.” (28) Sanders distinguishes these “peripheral” agrarians from the more prosperous (?), diversified farmers of perishable and “truck” products for local markets. These “hinterland” farmers are dependent on their urban centers, and their political behavior will reflect this identification. In contrast, “periphery agrarians were more bound to the fate of a single crop (whose price was set in a world market), more distant from crop marketing, storage, and distribution centers; more likely to be dependent on a single rail line and monopolistic or oligopolistic purchasers,” in short, the powerless producers of undifferentiated staples we normally think of, when reading accounts of the farm movement.

But for me, the really interesting element of the story might be this wedge Sanders opens between these different types of farmers, as well as between different types of cities. Centers that served rich agricultural areas (Minneapolis, Spokane, even Chicago) displayed different political patterns than eastern cities whose economies relied less on agriculture. “Because of these differences in city functions, the urban-rural distinction per se has limited explanatory power in American politics.” (16) And farmers operating in the corn belt, responsible for “the greatest concentration of corn and meat production in the world,” clearly lived different lives and as a result had different political motivations from the periphery. (17) The fact that the South, “by virtue of its size and the intensity of its grievances...almost inevitably led the periphery voting bloc in Congress,” may be a clue to a relatively unexplored division between farmers. (27) Rather than think of them as sharing a common agenda, maybe we should be looking for the differences of opinion and political priorities that caused some of their major organizations to adopt an apolitical stance.

Sanders suggests that political constituencies might be grouped like economic “trading areas,” citing Bensel’s
Sectionalism and American Political Development, and his use of Rand McNally trade area maps. This seems like it might be a promising way to look at some of the issues I’m finding in my research, which covers a group of farmers and rural businessmen who seem to be un-accounted for in the traditional story of agrarian radicalism. She concludes that the agrarian-labor coalition failed because it was “rent by class, ethnic, and regional political economy differences that diminished their capacity for economic and political mobilization and--particularly in the case of southern racial segregation--their moral authority.” (412) But most interestingly, Sanders suggests that although the periphery agrarians naturally advocated national government action to right the wrongs of the production/distribution/finance system, they did not support the Progressive-style discretionary bureaucracy they ultimately got. They believed “Policy-making should not be the province of ‘experts’ socially and geographically far removed” from their constituents; it should be “local, decentralized, ad-hoc.” (388-9) So the question (and the story waiting to be told) is, wanting what they wanted, how is it they got what they got?


AHR, David Vaught (author of
Cultivating California and After the Gold Rush) says she is merely repeating the arguments of progressive historians like John D. Hicks and Solon Buck. He questions her division of the nation into industrial core, agrarian periphery and (disposable) diverse regions, based on a 1919 census she admits reflects WWI industrial concentration. And he says she attributes politicians’ positions to regionalism, when in many cases they may have been based on party loyalty. Most of all, Vaught regrets the lack of either farmers or laborers in the story.

JAH, James Weinstein (socialist author of
The Decline of Socialism in America, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State and The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left) calls it a tour de force that makes “an irrefutable case for the importance of agrarian movements” in shaping reform. He calls attention to Sanders’ point that although the agrarians wanted a strong state, “they opposed executive branch bureaucracies. They sought an expanded ‘statutory’ state. Their reforms required minimal regulation,” Weinstein says. This is a key point -- the growth of bureaucracy was not an inevitable result of agrarian claims for social justice. The idea that it is, is a case of the winners writing the history.

Journal of Southern History, Ronald Formisano suggests that Sanders “key assumption” that members of Congress “are exquisitely sensitive” to their constituents is too narrow; but praises the books revision of the traditional separation of the populist from the progressive movement.
Roots of Reform, he says, “should have a powerful impact on the content delivered by textbooks and lecturers in survey courses.” Interesting, from the perspective of how changes in the consensus narrative find their way into the classroom and popular history...

Farms as Factories

Deborah Fitzgerald
Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

This is another book in the Yale Agrarian Studies series. Lots of good stuff in this series...

Fitzgerald’s argument is that “although individual technologies, particular pieces of legislation, new sorts of expertise, and the availability or disappearance of credit opportunities are all key to understanding what happened in twentieth-century agriculture, it is essential to grasp the overarching logic of change that was taking place in bits and pieces and the industrial system that was being constructed across the country” (4). This modernization was oriented toward improving “efficiency” to the ideal point when “rational management techniques” took over farm life: “Every Farm a Factory” comes from and International Harvester ad (5).

And this has got to be a big part of the story. There’s tremendous pressure on both sides of the family farm throughout the twentieth century, as both ag. markets and ag. inputs become dominated by fewer, larger businesses. A combine is a huge investment, so the story of credit flows, and the control that goes with them, is key to understanding this change. It’s not just the farmers who are influenced by industrial logic. It’s their suppliers, their customers, and increasingly, the creditors (when they’re third parties and
not those same suppliers and customers), who the farmer has empowered by way of the collateral they hold in the farm and its continuing production.

One of the issues noted by Country Life interviewers, Fitzgerald says, was that “As land values increased...farm size increased as well” (29). Partly, this change must be attributed to an “understanding” of economies of scale on the part of both equipment manufacturers and farmers (cf
Postel). It was not inevitable that harvesters and combines needed to be built that would be so big and cost so much that it made no sense to run one on less than a full section of land. It was not inevitable that individual farmers would buy these, rather than groups of neighbors, local associations, or harvest contractors. But it may have seemed inevitable to Progressives steeped in this “logic,” and especially to IH marketing people and boosters of rural prosperity.

Fitzgerald begins Chapter 2 with a quote from George Warren (I assume this is George F. Warren, the author of
Farm Management), who says “Statistics are very much better than opinions.” This resonates for me right now, since I’ve been thinking about the uses of data and anecdote in history. Facts and stories. The assumption buried in Warren’s claim, of course, is that his statistics are based on something other than opinions. The binary nature of the types of questions that lead to statistics can hide the fact that many of these “yes/no” choices exist in a wider range of possibility that the question simply ignores. Even prices (the ultimate “hard data”) can be understood as momentary still points in a turning world of dancing exogenous variables -- so maybe we should think twice about building too much certainty on statistics. But I can agree with Fitzgerald that a belief that the complex, analog multivariance of a living system like agriculture could be reduced to “the numbers,” was a strong motivator. It might also explain why actual farmers looked at scientific Progressives with ongoing skepticism, and continued to resist “book farming” prescriptions by well-meaning Country Life reformers.

I’ve really got to read
Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management soon. Seems like it’s every bit as important as many of the standard American Studies sources. On p. 116 AM Todd appears in a paragraph that begins with Pullman. Todd must be spinning in his grave! I’m going to come back to this, and read it more closely -- for now, though, this book has been recalled by the library, so it’s going back.

Hofstadter's Age of Reform

Richard Hofstadter
The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R.

Introducing his subject in 1955, Hofstadter says, “Our conception of Populism and Progressivism has...been intimately bound up with the new Deal experience” (4). While he admits it would have been impossible “without the impetus given by certain social grievances,” Hofstadter prefers to separate out a more-or-less cultural spirit of progressivism, which he says was “not nearly so much the movement of any social class,” as “a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation” (5). Why? Because by distinguishing a generalized, apolitical spirit of improvement called progressivism, he can cut its ties with the Populist political movement that proceeded it. And the Populist Party, in Hofstadter’s judgment, is at best anachronistic and backward-looking, and at worst a haven for racist, xenophobic kooks.

But this separation leads to a paradox Hofstadter recognizes as “One of the more ironic problems confronting reformers...that the very activities they pursued in attempting to defend or restore the individualistic values they admired brought them closer to the techniques of organization they feared” (7). Hofstadter wants to separate the Populist and Progressive movements, because he “found much that was retrograde and delusive, a little that was vicious, and a good deal that was comic” in populism, and he wanted to purge those elements from progressivism (11). Populism leads, he says, to “the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time,” and he wants progressivism to lead somewhere purer, nobler, and more useful in the present day (15).

The problem is, Hofstadter’s definitions and the bundles of ideas he calls liberalism and conservatism are presentist (in 1955), and his concerns are very much those of his own day. “The United States,” he famously begins Chapter One, “was born in the country and has moved to the city” (23). It’s a mistake, then, to project contemporary, urban ideas back onto the radical farmers of the Gilded Age. The “continued coexistence of reformism and reaction” and the contradiction of “liberal totalitarianism” might look substantially different, if viewed from a 19th century, rural point of view (20). And on some level, Hofstadter is clearly aware of this. He reminds us that “in origin the agrarian myth was not a popular but a literary idea, a preoccupation of the upper classes” (25). Hofstadter concludes too readily, I think, that farmers took on the Jeffersonian agrarian myth -- which he admits was a political device, “the basis of a strategy of continental development” (29). That this led to a political rhetoric of “producers,” and later of “an innocent and victimized populace” does not prove that this was the way most rural people really thought of themselves and their world (35). I think Hofstadter loses sight of the “most characteristic thinking” of the “ordinary culture” he wanted to find (6).

There are lots of great details in the book, that I’d like to learn more about. I didn’t know that “In 1914, Canadian officials estimated that 925,000 Americans had moved...to the lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan” (53). Didn’t know that Ignatius Donnelly’s book
Caesar’s Column was one of the most widely read books of the 1890s (67). These are both interesting facts, and I think they both complicate Hofstadter’s claim that because of the agrarian myth, the “utopia of the Populists was in the past,” and country people really wanted to “restore the conditions prevailing before the development of industrialism and the commercialization of agriculture” (62). I guess the interpretation hangs on which conditions they wanted to reverse. When Hofstadter calls attention to Populists‘ use of the Jacksonian slogan “Equal Rights for All, Special Privileges for None,” I think he hits the nail on the head, and simultaneously undermines his argument. Maybe the core of the issue is an even earlier misinterpretation by John Hicks, who characterized populism as “the last phase of a long and...losing struggle...to save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America” (quoting The Populist Revolt, 237, 94). What if the populists weren’t objecting so much to the changes that were happening in modernizing America (as Postel says), but to who benefited from them, and how power was being misused to achieve those results.

Fixing Populist History

Charles Postel
The Populist Vision

This book won the Bancroft Prize, and it deserved to win. It is about “how Americans responded to the traumas of technological innovation, expansion of corporate power, and commercial and cultural globalization in the 1880s and 1890s.” (vii) Populists, Postel says were “influenced by modernity and sought to make America modern.” (vii) Throughout the book, Postel shows rural people embracing change, and especially technological change that made their work and lives easier and more rewarding. This view, he says, challenges the dominant strain of thought (especially
Hofstadter), that sees rural people and especially populists as cranky victims of change, who looked back nostalgically to an earlier age when the rest of the world shared their agrarian “producer” philosophy. A key example is the populist approach to railroads. Nowhere does Postel find the suggestion that this new technology hadn’t radically improved life in the countryside. The issue was, how should these enterprises be organized, and for whose benefit?

This is a refreshing change. Postel gives regular people a lot of credit for intelligence, political awareness, and active involvement in the key issues of the day. He begins his introduction with a description of how a voluntary association of florists (a coop) “embraced the new technology” of the telegraph, which had “annihilated time and space” (3). They standardized their businesses and products to allow the customer to order uniform products that could be delivered across town or across continents: FTD. Populists "believed in the transforming power of science and technology,” Postel says. “They believed in economies of scale...they believed in the logic of modernity” (4). Just as important, he shows that they
understood these issues, perhaps better than we do now. “Populism was known as ‘a reading party’ and a ‘writing and talking party’” (4). It is important to understand what the Populists “were for” as well as what they were against, says Postel. If they were pessimistic (as Turner and Hofstadter claimed), then it was with Hamlin Garland’s “kind of pessimism which is really optimism...that is to say, people who believe the imperfect and unjust can be improved upon” (11).

Postel also explores the connection between Populists and labor activists. Although the standard story is that they could never get together because farmers were proprietor/employers and wage workers were not, Postel finds many examples of cooperation, especially with rural workers. “Farmers were often part-time coal miners, and coal miners often farmed to supplement their diet and income” (19). This approach shows a greater sensitivity to conditions on the ground than many other historians who stick to the categories. But Postel is also quick to point out problems with the populist vision, such as when it veered toward racism and advocated majoritarian, government/industrial organization on a scale that would later (elsewhere) be called fascist.

If farmers had any antipathy toward universities, Postel says, it was only because rather than catering to their needs, the schools “seemed to lavish resources on future lawyers, doctors, ministers, and other professionals” (47). So once again, their objection is not to change, but to who benefits from the change. Farmers took their education into their own hands. It was the “great equalizer in commerce, technology, and social standing,” so they “built lecture circuits across some thirty states, and a network of approximately one thousand weekly newspapers” (49).

I have to pause here a moment. This is jumping out at me right now, as I think about preparing to be a college-level teacher. To a great extent, the early 20th century rise of professionalism and universities in America killed off this 19th century type of self-education. But today, the web opens a possibility for people to take control of their own educations again. I think I need to spend some quality time thinking about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and for whom?

Interesting people and things to research someday: Charles Macune, Luna Kellie, Marion Cannon, National Cordage and the National Union Company (did the 1893 National Cordage bankruptcy precipitate the stock market crash?), the Gulf and Interstate Railway Company (north-south transcontinental), William Peffer, 2nd class postage and RFD, Anna Fader Haskell (who sounds like a 19th century female version of Tyler Durden, and doesn’t even have her own wiki page!), Marion Todd (1893,
Railways of Europe and America -- is she related to AMT??), Daniel Weaver (a Chartist who tried to organize coal miners in the 1860s), and of course Darrow v. Bryan at the Skopes Monkey Trial (1925), and Eugene V. Debs.