Historical Background & Content Overview:

The times between wars are often quite rich with human drama and reform efforts. By examining our history, we see that this observation has proved correctly during the times between the American Revolution and the War of 1812; between the War of 1812 and the Civil War; between the Civil War and World War I. These eras represent times when many voices of altruism asked us to make America a better place for all Americans. We witnessed a similar phenomenon during the 1950’s and 1960’s as America was immersed in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

From my studies, I have observed a somewhat predictable cycle when it comes to war efforts. Regardless of the causes or motivations, once a country is engaged in a war, the nation will expend all available resources to achieve victory. The stakes are too high to do anything else. Having other "agenda items" is considered unpatriotic. As the fighting becomes more prolonged, domestic issues are set aside for honor, victory, and glory. When the fighting ceases, the internal sacrifices become more evident. This calls forth the reform minded citizenry who strive to make life better for their countrymen and women. These altruistic efforts quickly subside as a country mobilizes for the next military conflict.

This theoretical model does indeed fit our reformers, the Populists and Progressives. The Populists had their genesis shortly after the Civil War as their economic situation worsened. In the 1870s farmers tried to solve their dilemma by working harder and/or relocating. Not only did these efforts not improve their situation, but the overall picture grew bleaker. In the 1880s farmers began to organize into cooperatives in order to purchase necessities in larger quantities, hoping to become more financially solvent. This was the birth of the Grange Movement, which was fairly short lived, despite its growing numbers. One of the major successes of the Grange Movement was to make American farmers an integral part of national politics. The government was forced to acknowledge the Grange Movement and begin providing rural services. The Grange broke ground for further political reforms.

In the 1890s the Grangers evolved into the Populist Party. As a political party these reformers were successful in getting a few people elected to Congress, but were not able to advance much farther. This may seem to be a rather ironic situation since the party continued to grow in numbers. The Populist reformers had a great impact on at least one of the Progressive reformers. Robert La Follette wrote in his autobiography, "As a boy on the farm in Primrose Township, I heard and felt this (Populist) movement swirling about me. I felt the indignation which it expressed in such a way that I… have never fully lost the effect of that early impression." (Beals, 72)

Upon deeper studies of the Populist Movement, we understand that the very essence of this party was made up of many divergent beliefs and ambitions. In addition to the farmers, the Populist Party also consisted of Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Union Laborites, Prohibitionists, Isolationists, and Greenbackers. Indeed, politicians make strange bedfellows. Partly due to so many differing agendas, the Populist Party pretty much ended with the Presidential Election of 1896 when William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan.

The Populists had several other problems that interfered with their potential for success. First, the Populists’ geographic locations and concerns were pretty much rural-based as America was becoming a more urban nation. This factor gave the impression that the Populists were self-serving and not really interested in reforms for the majority of Americans.

Second, as America became more industrialized, it became difficult for the family farmer to compete with the emerging phenomenon of agribusiness. The days of small farmers being able to provide for their families and save for the probable rainy day were rapidly vanishing. Additionally, as farm families grew larger in an attempt to "breed" the necessary helping hands, farmers were unable to offer adequate amounts of land to their offspring. This necessitated an urban migration for younger generations.

Third, Populists predominantly held many of the same ideas as had the Southern Democrats. This made race relations tenuous, at best. Populists did attempt to bring in the newly freed African American tenant farmers, but segregation was still the law of the day. The Populists’ solution to incorporating these tenant farmers was to organize the Colored Farmers’ Alliance. This idea failed because it re-ignited sectionalism and further split the Populists. Northern Populists liked this idea because an increase in numbers meant an increase in political power. The Southern Populists were just as content to lynch their African American counterparts.

This was also the time when many African American families migrated to the North, hoping to make a better life. Let us not be deluded into thinking that the North offered a utopian lifestyle for its newly arriving citizens. The Ku Klux Klan was just as alive and active in the North as it was in the South. Racism does not yield to regional boundaries on a map.

Fourth, as conditions worsened for many farmers, they sought to lay blame on others for their burdens. Some of the logical groups to make scapegoats were the newly arriving foreign immigrants. Cries went up around the country that "They’re invading our country and making our problems worse."

While historians cite the 1896 election as the end of the Populist Party, they also define the Progressive Movement as having its birth in 1900. Certainly in 1901 with McKinley’s assassination and Teddy Roosevelt becoming President, the Progressives had been launched into infamy. When trying to affect change, it always helps to have top guy in the country sympathetic and supportive to your agenda.

The demographics and relative urban geographics of the Progressives helped contribute to their success as reformers. Being urban-based provided the Progressives with greater opportunities to organize, recruit, and politicize. The Progressives were concerned about a variety of issues ranging from social to political reforms. Also the Progressives tended to be economically middle to upper class. Generally speaking, the Progressives had usually obtained higher levels of education than had their rural counterparts. This factor helped produce a larger class of writers, speakers, thinkers, artists, and activists.

The Progressives were able to affect many of the reforms from the Populist platform such as the direct election of Senators, the initiative, and the recall as part of the American political process. The Progressives believed that government must bear some responsibility in helping to alleviate the suffering and exploitation of its citizens. This ideology was a stark left turn to the more traditional practices of a "hands off" laissez-faire role of government. The Progressives were able to affect change regarding women’s suffrage, consumer health & safety, labor laws, and living conditions for the most vulnerable and impoverished of America. While the Progressives achieved success in reforming many aspects of American society, their efforts were also short lived as America became involved in World War I.

It would not be until the 1950s and 1960s that America would again experience a reform era of such major significance. Reform movements try to provide citizens with greater liberty and equality. Some voices would say that much has been accomplished, while others claim that much still needs to be done. In studying history from the perspective of reformers and movements, students learn to better understand the concepts inherent within our civil liberties and the promise of America


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