In the later half of the 19th century, a political protest movement broke out in America’s farmlands, which advocated a radical program of economic reconstruction. It was called The Grange.
A Grange poster
Until the Civil War, the United States had been an economy primarily based on subsistence farming, where small family farms raised enough food for themselves and a small surplus to trade for the manufactured items they could not make on their own.
The war changed all that. Many farms were abandoned as people moved to the cities. The farms that remained became more mechanized, as industrial growth produced farm machinery that allowed a single farmer to produce far more than he could before. Farm incomes grew steadily.
This improved standard of living had costs, though. Where before the farmer had been independent and virtually self-sufficient, now he became beset on all sides by the Robber Barons. In order to purchase the machinery that made his life better, the farmer had to obtain credit from the banks, and the bankers were no longer the neighborhood bankers of the past—now they were impersonal financial corporations that did their best to fleece the farmer for every dime of profit. Farmers also found themselves dealing with food marketers or food processing companies that were no longer small local operations, but big national corporations. They, too, squeezed every dime they could out of the farmers.
The farmer’s biggest grievance, however, was with the railroads. The increased output that mechanized farmers were now capable of producing required access to a larger market to absorb it, and it was the railroad networks that provided the only means for farmers to transport their produce to that market. The farmers were utterly dependent on them, and the railroads took full advantage. Most farming communities were served by short “spur lines” that connected them to the larger railroad arteries, and nearly all of these spur lines were built and run by single companies who therefore had total monopoly. Freight charges on these spur lines were often several times as high as on the longer lines. The farmers, who had no alternative way of getting their produce to market, had no choice but to pay whatever the railroads charged.
And to make matters worse, the rapid increase in output that mechanization made possible soon outran the purchasing power of the population. Large stocks of food went unsold, prices on agricultural products declined steadily, and those farmers whose living was already being squeezed by the railroads, the food processors and the banks, now also found their incomes dropping. For many, the pressure was too much; they either sold their farms and moved to the city, or they found themselves unable to pay their bank loans and were foreclosed. In one four-year span, over 11,000 farms were foreclosed in the state of Kansas alone.
In desperation, the farmers turned to political organization to fight back.
The Patrons of Husbandry, popularly known as the National Grange, was a society of farmers that was formed in 1867 by an employee of the US Department of Agriculture, Oliver H Kelly. Organized as a benevolent fraternity, its focus was on setting up local halls, or Granges, where farmers could gather for social events like dances, and educational programs like lectures, libraries and tutorial classes.
As discontent spread among the farming communities, however, the Granges began to serve as meeting places where farmers could discuss their mutual problems, and soon began to plan political action to do something about them. The Panic of 1873, which caused credit to crash and prices to plummet, swelled the ranks of the Grangers. In Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois and other parts of the Farm Belt, the Grange became a local political power. Nationwide, it swelled to over 750,000 members.
To the Robber Barons, the solution to the farming problems was simple: there were too many farmers producing too much food, and the resulting market glut was driving down prices; the only solution was fewer farms and less production.
The Grangers, though, reached a much more radical conclusion. To the rural farmers and their urban factory worker relatives, who lived in crushing poverty and hunger, the very idea of “overproduction” was absurd. How, the Grangers asked, could there possibly be “too much food” if people everywhere were still going hungry? As the Grangers saw it, the basic problem was not that there was more food than people needed; there was instead more food than people could buy, and that was solely the fault of the monopolist corporations who paid all their workers starvation wages. The corporations, after all, did not trade in food so starving people could eat—they traded in food so they could sell it and make profits, and if people could not afford to pay for it, they got no food, even if they were hungry and starving. The same situation, the Grangers realized, was also true of clothing, housing, and all the other necessities of life.
The program advocated by the Grange, therefore, was to use the government to break the power of the corporate monopolies (especially the railroads), and to cooperate with the labor union movement to raise wages and thus allow people to buy the food they needed and which the farmers could produce. Among the things advocated by the Grange movement were: anti-trust laws which would outlaw the monopolies; the legal regulation of railroad freight rates and eventually the nationalization of industries such as railroads, shipping, meatpacking, oil and telegraph; the right of workers to organize unions; state-run programs of unemployment insurance and old-age pensions; an end to child labor; and a heavily graduated income tax which would place the tax burden on the rich.
In 1875, due to political pressure from the grassroots farmer-worker alliance, Illinois passed the “Grange Laws”, which gave the state authority to regulate the rates that railroads charged for freight shipping. It was the height of the Grange movement’s power.
By 1875, the Grange political message had been taken up by larger groups like the Greenback Party and Populist Party, and the Grange movement faded back into its original role as a farmer’s fraternal society.