The Populist Vision

The Populist Vision

Charles Postel

Language: English

Pages: 416

ISBN: 0195384717

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


In the late nineteenth century, monumental technological innovations like the telegraph and steam power made America and the world a much smaller place. New technologies also made possible large-scale organization and centralization. Corporations grew exponentially and the rich amassed great fortunes. Those on the short end of these wrenching changes responded in the Populist revolt, one of the most effective challenges to corporate power in American history.

But what did Populism represent? Half a century ago, scholars such as Richard Hofstadter portrayed the Populist movement as an irrational response of backward-looking farmers to the challenges of modernity. Since then, the romantic notion of Populism as the resistance movement of tradition-based and pre-modern communities to a modern and commercial society has prevailed. In a broad, innovative reassessment, based on a deep reading of archival sources, The Populist Vision argues that the Populists understood themselves as--and were in fact--modern people, who pursued an alternate vision for modern America.

Taking into account both the leaders and the led, The Populist Vision uses a wide lens, focusing on the farmers, both black and white, men and women, while also looking at wager workers and bohemian urbanites. From Texas to the Dakotas, from Georgia to California, farmer Populists strove to use the new innovations for their own ends. They sought scientific and technical knowledge, formed highly centralized organizations, launched large-scale cooperative businesses, and pressed for reforms on the model of the nation's most elaborate bureaucracy - the Postal Service. Hundreds of thousands of Populist farm women sought education, employment in schools and offices, and a more modern life. Miners, railroad workers, and other labor Populists joined with farmers to give impetus to the regulatory state. Activists from Chicago, San Francisco, and other new cities provided Populism with a dynamic urban dimension

This major reassessment of the Populist experience is essential reading for anyone interested in the politics, society, and culture of modern America.

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newly settled farmers, railroads expanded from less than 1,234 miles of track in 1870 to 8,797 miles in 1890. Farm reformers such as William Peffer fully understood that farming and promotion went hand in hand. He recognized that the flood tide of development would have its ebb, and warned readers of his Kansas Farmer against going crazy about a "windy" boom. But neither Peffer nor his wide readership questioned new settlement and railroads as imperatives of progress. The Kansas Farmer featured

located in vacant barns, outbuildings, or churches.54 The politics of public schools for farm children proved problematic for agrarian reformers. The decentralized structure of the Texas school system, for example, tended to keep school reform at the district level. Farmers' Alliance members, however, focused on government regulation of textbook publishers and similar state and national remedies, perceiving that their problems flowed downward from state and national legislation. White supremacy

to extend ties of solidarity among women readers.43 That Birdie would describe such ties in terms of the "family circle" reflected a widely held opinion that women's position within the Alliance was analogous to their status in the family. As Bettie Gay explained this relationship, women's place in the Alliance was the same as it was in the family— "the companion and helpmeet of man." But women debated what it meant to be such a "helpmeet." They discussed the terms on which the family was to be

universally worked the cotton crop. Compelling women into the fields defied the progress of history. William Garvin and S. O. Daws described it as a throwback to the "savage mode of life" practiced by "the aborigines of this country."56 Other Alliance leaders likened women working in the cotton fields to slavery. For her part, Bettie Gay pledged the Farmers' Alliance to overthrow this condition of "industrial serfdom."57The Cabarrus County, North Carolina, Alliance resolved to "relieve the women

Improved womanhood demanded innovations in the farm and domestic economy. Part of the solution lay in new appliances, especially modern cook stoves and sewing machines. A typical newspaper advertisement for a hydraulic clothes washer boasted that it relieved women of the "killing labor" over the washtub and saved "labor, time, and money." Improved efficiency mainly depended on women gaining expertise in the running of the household. Rural reformers pushed for state universities to expand course

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