The era of Populism came about during the late 1800s, throughout and after Reconstruction. The movement was one that consisted of farmers uniting to create political and economic change. Prices for crops were falling, land was scarce, and many farms were foreclosed. When farmers could not pay their mortgage payments, they lost their farms to the banks that loaned them money. Railroads were also charging high shipping rates, which hurt farmers.
Many factors put the USA economy in an unstable condition in the late 1800s. During the Civil War, hundreds of millions of dollars were disturbed in paper money called Greenbacks. Greenbacks could not be exchanged for gold. Greenbacks were worth far less than coins and paper money printed in yellow ink that could be exchanged for gold. After the Civil War, the government began gradually to stop using Greenbacks. This radically reduced the value of Greenbacks and drastically increased the value of currency of other types. This meant many farmers who took out loans when Greenbacks were used were now paying back a lot more on those loans in terms of value. This happened at a time when crop prices were also falling.
The economic problems with farmers increased because it became difficult to transport their crops through the railroad. The railroads had little competition and charged farmers very high prices to ship their crops. Farmers began to unite in hopes that their alliance would be able to take a stand against the business practices they felt hurt them economically.
Farmers united for economic reform. In 1867, Oliver Hudson Kelley started the Patrons of Husbandry; it became known as the Grange. The Grange began to challenge the business tactics of the railroad industry. The railroad industry had power in their wealth, but the Grange had strength in numbers. Like the Grange, The Famers’ Alliance formed to challenge the banks, railroads, and other businesses. They educated others on lower interest rates on loans, the business tactics of railroads, and how government intervention could halt those tactics. Mary Elizabeth Lease was a famous woman who traveled and lectured on these issues.
The Populist Party sought to use political power to create better economic opportunity for common people, like farmers. Lowering the money supply of Greenbacks made the savings and wealth of the rich, who had other currency, increase in value. Populists wanted to add more currency into circulation. This would lower the value of all currency, causing inflation, which would make it easier to pay off loans for farmers.
Populists felt Senators would serve the people better if they were directly elected by the people, instead of being appointed by governors. Populists wanted the money supply to increase to escalate the price of goods and make it easier to pay off loans. They also wanted an eight hour work day and limitations on immigration to decrease job competition.
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