Cavaliers and Mudsills : the Farmers' Alliance and the Emergence of Virginia Populism

Link, William Allen, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

The late nineteenth century was a period of troubling change for most Americans. Railroad construction during the 1870's completed the expansion of the national market economy into even the most isolated areas of the United States. The structure of the economy also changed, and American patterns of work and leisure altered considerably. In the South and West, this rapid transformation in the late nineteenth century greatly affected the farmer. His fate, and his reaction to it, has been the subject of considerable controversy. To varying extents, John D. Hicks, C. Vann Woodward, and Lawrence Goodwyn have all portrayed the rise of Populism in economic terms and they have sympathized with the agrarians' intentions. From the inception of the Alliance in 1886 to the collapse of the Populist Party in 1896, they write, farm protesters first posed valid solutions to real agricultural problems and then offered a productive and attractive third-party alternative. Led by Richard Hofstadter, an opposing school of historians has argued that southern farmers' motives and goals were irrational, and that they had a destructive impact upon the nation's political structure.1

Nonetheless, no historian has adequately explained Populism's origins, successes, or failures. The most ambitious attempts, by Hicks and Goodwyn, fall short on critical problems, and both tend to confuse regional manifestations of agrarian protest with the national movement.2 Both Hicks and Goodwyn did not research extensively enough on the state level to generalize about the movement. More important still, because both authors formulate their questions about Populism in states where it was relatively successful, the direction of their inquiry has been prejudiced. Perhaps future historians of agrarian protest might more fruitfully ask why the movement failed instead of why it succeeded.

Partly because Virginia provides such an excellent example of the failure of Populism, historians have neglected it for more than forty years. William DuBose Sheldon's Populism in the Old Dominion, which was written as a senior thesis at Princeton University in 1935, has been the standard reference for students of Virginia Populism.

Sheldon's work addressed the question of why Populism was "not quantitatively important" in Virginia. Sheldon accepted Hicks' explanation of the farmers' frustration in the late nineteenth century. Economic distress-- primarily falling prices and the rise of share tenancy-made an agrarian revolt possible in Virginia, according to Sheldon. "To its credit," moreover, "must be placed an awakened interest in the plight of the farmers, a determination on the part of the more progressive among them to better their mm condition, and a widespread and distinctly audible acquaintance with the perplexities of the farm question.3

Sheldon listed four reasons why Populism did not follow the Alliance in Virginia. By the late 1880's, the Democratic "ring"--a collection of urbanized industrial and mercantile interests, their lawyers, and professional politicians--held an effective grip on Virginia politics. Led by men such as Senators John Warwick Daniel, John S. Barbour, and Governor Fitzhugh Lee, the Democratic Party had a huge personal following. They also ran their campaigns skillfully and avoided real substantive issues (such as farm problems) by shifting the debate to the race question. Finally, a mass conversion from the Alliance did not occur simply because the rank and file of the order declined to follow their leaders.4

All students of Virginia Populism owe a great debt to Sheldon. He collected most of the currently available sources, including the Virginia Sun and the papers of the prominent Populist and allianceman Charles Herbert Pierson. Since this enormously useful work was published, however, little has appeared on the subject. Although it explores much of the same ground, this study differs from Populism in the Old Dominion. As it will show, Populism in Virginia encountered significant obstacles. As was the case throughout the South, farmers in the Old Dominion were a deeply divided economic group. In Virginia, many agriculturalists grew tobacco, but many others raised wheat, corn, peanuts, and even vegetables for urban markets. Some farmers owned large portions of land; others owned none, and subsisted as sharecroppers or tenants. Virginia's topography created distinct natural regions in the state, and farmers' loyalties tended not to rise above their own area. Virginians were also deeply divided racially by the 1890's and tended to place racial solidarity above economic interest.

While it is significant to understand why Populism never took root in Virginia, it is equally important to understand that the agrarian crusade was not a continuous event. The Alliance attracted many farmers who wanted to modernize agriculture and to make their vocation more receptive to the obvious advantages of industrialization. As an exclusively agricultural organization, the Alliance was relatively successful, and the organization probably peaked at about 80,000 members by the summer of 1890. When the order moved toward direct involvement in politics, Virginia farmers sensed a threat to the social and racial order, and deserted both the Alliance and the Populists altogether.

MA (Master of Arts)
National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union, Populism -- Virginia, Agriculture -- Virginia -- History

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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