Western Expansion (1860–1895) for AP U.S. History (page 3)

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The Organization of the American Farmer and Populism

As stated previously, American farmers from the West were in economic trouble by the mid-1880s. Many farmers from the South shared their plight. Several policies originated in Washington that farmers felt greatly hurt them economically. Congresses of this era favored high tariffs, which helped Eastern businessmen. Farmers felt they were hurt by the high tariff policy, as it kept foreigners from buying their produce. The issue that farmers were most upset about, however, concerned currency.

The Issue of the Gold Standard

After the Civil War, federal budget officials enacted a "tight money" policy and took the paper money used during the Civil War out of circulation. In addition, the dollar during this period was for the first time put on the gold standard, meaning that every dollar in circulation had to be backed by a similar amount of gold held by the federal government. This action also served to limit the amount of money in circulation. These financial measures ensured that inflation would not occur, but Western farmers were convinced that depressed farm prices were largely a result of these policies. Several congressional acts to increase the coining and mining of gold and silver met with limited success and were opposed by the presidents of the era.

The Beginning of Organization: The Grange and the Farmers' Alliances

In 1867, the Grange organization was founded by Western farmers. By 1875, it boasted of over 800,000 members. Through the Grange, farmer cooperatives were formed, allowing farmers to buy in large quantities the products that they needed (and at lower prices). Farmers were also convinced that railroad rates were disadvantageous to them, and legislators in farm states began to receive communications from farmers urging regulation of railroad rates and policies. Some farmers supported the Greenback party, which supported getting more paper money into circulation, in the 1878 election. The Greenbacks managed to elect several congressmen from farm states but got little support elsewhere.

While the Grange organization largely operated on the local level, development of the Farmers' Alliances joined farmers at the statewide and even regional level. By 1889, the Southern Alliance claimed 1 million members, while a separate Colored Farmers' National Alliance also had 1 million members on the books. Membership in the Farmers' Alliances on the Great Plains was nearly 2 million. The policies endorsed by the Farmers' Alliances included federal regulation of the railroad, putting more money in circulation, the establishment of a state department of agriculture in every state, and readily available farm credits; it was proposed that the federal government have large warehouses where farmers could store their grain and get credit for it if prices were low during harvest season. These measures were spelled out in detail at a national Alliance convention held in 1890 in Ocala, Florida. The Ocala Platform stated the principles that motivated most political activity by farmers for the remainder of the century. Some federal policies did at least partially meet the demands of agricultural interests; the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 stated that the federal government could regulate interstate railway rates, and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 aimed to control the power of trusts and monopolies.

By 1890, some leaders of the Farmers' Alliances began to plan for political action on the national level. Alliance strength was particularly strong in the South, where four governors owed their election to Alliance support. Forty-seven congressmen in the South were also strongly supported by the Alliance. In the plains states, Alliance candidates were successful on the local level. Alliance support extended to women as well; several women held important leadership positions at the top levels of the Farmers' Alliances.

The Populist Campaign of 1892

On July 4, 1892, in a convention held in Omaha, Nebraska, a national convention of Farmers' Alliances created the People's party, whose followers soon became known as Populists. The Populist party was intended to appeal to workers of all parts of the country. Populists desired a much greater role of government in American society. The party platform expressed support for increasing the circulation of money, a progressive income tax (by which wealthy Eastern industrialists would pay the most and farmers would pay the least), government ownership of communication and transportation systems, and more direct methods of democracy (greater use of direct primaries, recall, referendum, etc.). To appeal to urban workers, the platform also supported an eight-hour workday. The Populists nominated James B. Weaver, a Union general from the Civil War, as their candidate.

Despite a spirited campaign by Populist supporters, the party only received 1 million popular votes and 22 electoral votes in the 1892 election. Few voters in the Northeast supported the Populists, and Democratic control of the electoral process in the South remained strong. Only in the western United States did Populism do well.

Populism in the 1890s

The reelection of Grover Cleveland angered the agricultural interests greatly, as he announced his continued support of the gold standard during his inauguration speech. A great depression hit America in 1893, with workers from all parts of the country being laid off (in some cities up to 25 percent of laborers were unemployed). Populist marchers joined with marchers from many groups protesting government financial policy in Washington in 1894.

In the 1896 presidential election, the Republican candidate was William McKinley, who followed Cleveland in his support of the gold standard. The Democratic candidate, endorsed by the Populists, was William Jennings Bryan, who campaigned on a policy of free silver and an expanded availability of currency, stating, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" Many Populist leaders hit the campaign trail for Bryan, yet with little success. Bryan carried the South and the West, but was unable to garner support in the Midwestern or Northeastern states.

As the depression ended at the end of the decade, Populists and others in the agricultural sector began to recognize the massive changes that had taken place in the American economy since the end of the Civil War. The American economy was now a national economy and not a sectional one; the railroad had been largely responsible for this change. In addition, slowly, but surely, the United States was becoming an industrial nation and not an agricultural one.

The Impact of the West on American Society

The myths we now associate with the frontier began to be created as early as the 1870s in dime-store novels by Edward L. Wheeler and others. Wheeler's story of Deadwood Dick: The Prince of the Road portrayed a Western America filled with gamblers, hard drinkers, and stagecoach robberies. The Wild West shows that began in 1883 and were promoted by Buffalo Bill Cody contributed to the myths begun by Wheeler: spectators were shown log cabins, rodeos, and mock battles between cavalrymen and seemingly deadly Indians.

A different view of the West was presented by Frederick Jackson Turner, an academic who in 1893 published his "frontier thesis." The Turner Thesis states that Americans were forced to adapt and innovate as they moved westward. The thesis also explains how western expansion helped to ingrain these characteristics into the fabric of American society. Turner stated that their frontier had created a society of men and women who were committed to self-improvement, who supported democracy, and who were socially mobile. In short, the Turner Thesis maintains that much of the nature of America comes from our experiences in the West.

Each of these views is partially correct. The view of western expansion espoused (and later partially rejected) by Turner ignores the fact that not everyone who settled in the West were whites. In addition, the massacre of large numbers of Native Americans violates the basic principles of democracy. There is also some truth to Buffalo Bill's view of western settlement, yet his view ignores the cultural and material progress that took place in the West as a result of western expansion. In 1893, the Turner Thesis and Buffalo Bill's shows both drew incredible interest. During that year, it became clear that the Western frontier was closed, for all practical purposes, and Americans were attempting to make sense of what that actually meant for the country. Historians today still revisit this question on a regular basis.


To achieve the perfect 5, you should be able to explain the following:

  • The Homestead Act and the Morrill Land-Grant Act encouraged thousands to go westward to acquire land for farming.
  • Farming on the Great Plains proved to be very difficult and was oftentimes accomplished by help from one's neighbor; many farmers were not successful on the Great Plains.
  • Bonanza farms were part of a transformation of agriculture that began in the late 1860s.
  • Western states were the first states where women received the vote.
  • Mining and lumbering also attracted many settlers to the West.
  • Native American tribes were gradually forced off their lands because of American expansion to the West; some resistance to this by Native Americans did take place, such as at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and through the Ghost Dances.
  • The 1887 Dawes Act did much to break up the remaining Native American tribal lands.
  • American farmers organized beginning in the late 1860s through the Grange, through the Farmers' Alliances, and eventually through the Populist party.
  • Dime-store novels of the era and the Turner Thesis present contrasting views of western settlement and its overall impact on American society.

    Time Line

      1848:   California Gold Rush
      1859:   Silver discovered in Comstock, Nevada
      1862:   Homestead Act, Morrill Land-Grand Act
          Department of Agriculture created by Congress
      1867:   Founding of the Grange
      1869:   Transcontinental Railroad completed
      1870s:   Popularity of Deadwood Dick, stories by Bret Harte, and other dime-store novels on the West
      1874:   Barbed wire invented by Joseph Glidden
      1876:   Battle of the Little Bighorn
      1879:   Exoduster movement leaves South for the Great Plains
      1880s:   Large movement of immigrants westward
      1883:   "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show" begins
      1886:   Beginnings of harsh weather that would help destroy the cattle industry
      1887:   Dawes Act
      1889:   Indian territories open for white settlement
      1890:   Massacre at Wounded Knee
          Wyoming women get the vote
          High point of political influence of the Farmers' Alliances
      1893:   Beginning of great depression of the 1890s
          Publication of the Turner Thesis
      1896:   William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech

Test your knowledge with these practice questions:

Western Expansion (1860–1895) Review Questions for AP U.S. History

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