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Hard times for farmers, too

Major machinery became available to farmers in the 1880s. If you had a place big enough that you could afford it, a single machine could plow, plant, and work the seeds into the soil. The amazing combine coupled a machine that cut grain with another machine that threshed the grain off the stems and into bags, ready to sell. Impressed by these machines but naive about the cost, a lot of landowners got caught in a financial squeeze by over-borrowing and overproduction.

Pushed by the banks and exploited by big business, farmers fought back in almost every way they could, trying to regulate railroads, organize cooperatives, form a political party, and even inflate the currency. But they never did what the trusts did every day: limit production to raise prices. That strategy would have taken more organization and trust than independent farmers could muster.


Question: What did farmers do to improve their financial situation?

Answer: They tried to lower railroad charges, organize production cooperatives, and get political help. Unlike monopoly capitalists, however, they never held down supply to increase demand and price.

Because more land and better farm equipment were available, the price that farmers got paid for a bushel of wheat fell from $1 at the time of the Civil War to 50 cents in 1890. Loans that farmers had taken out to grow more wheat cost twice as much wheat to repay.

Meanwhile, the nation got used to paying cheap prices for beautiful California produce, harvested by poorly paid Mexican and Chinese labor, and shipped east in the railroads' new refrigerator cars. Small family farmers went deeper into debt.


Question: How did farms change in size and equipment in the late 1800s?

Answer: More and bigger farms were available, with better equipment.

Third parties

Farmers joined with laborers to support cheap money and progressive causes through the Greenback Labor Party (1878) and the Populist Party (1892). Neither party won the presidency, but each polled as much as 10 percent of the votes and elected enough legislators to sway the Democrats in their direction.

Third parties have played a big part in American history; don't get them confused. Here's a rundown of major third parties in the 1800s:

- In 1832, the Anti-Masonic Party, seeking the eradication of the Freemasons and other secret societies from the United States, received a few votes.

- In 1848, the Free Soil Party, a precursor of the Republican Party, nominated former President Martin Van Buren as its presidential candidate, splitting the vote in New York and causing the election of Zachary Taylor.

- In 1856, parts of the disintegrating Whig Party teamed up with the Know-Nothing Party, which opposed foreign immigration. Even as a team, the parties came in third behind Democrat James Buchanan and John C. Fremont of the newly formed Republican Party.

- In 1860, four major candidates ran for president, including candidates from the breakaway Southern Democratic Party and the last-ditch-compromise Constitutional Union Party. Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected with only 39 percent of the vote and wasn't even on the ballot in many Southern states.

- In 1892, the Populist Party won 22 electoral votes and 8.6 percent of the popular vote. The Democratic Party eventually adopted many Populist Party positions, making this contest a good example of a delayed vote for change.

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