CHAPTER XII. DEMOCRATIC DEMORALIZATION

The result of the election was astonishing. Cleveland carried not merely the South but Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and California, while five of Michigan's fourteen electoral votes and one of Ohio's twenty-three went to him. In the last-named state, which had never gone against the Republicans, their vote exceeded that of the Democrats by only 1,072. For the first time since Buchanan's day, both Senate and House were to be Democratic. More surprising and more significant for the future, was the strength of the People's Party. Over a million ballots, twenty-two electoral votes, two senators and eleven representatives were included among their trophies. It was an important fact, moreover, that twenty-nine out of every thirty votes cast for the People's Party were cast west of Pennsylvania and south of Maryland. Something apparently was happening, in which the East was not a sharer. The politician, particularly in the East, was quite content to dismiss the Populists as "born-tired theorists," "quacks," "a clamoring brood of political rainmakers," and "stump electricians," but the student of politics and history must appraise the movement less provincially and with more information.

It was in the nature of things that the Populist movement should come out of the West. From the days of Clay and Jackson the westerner had been characterized by his self-confidence, his assertiveness and his energy. He had possessed unlimited confidence in ordinary humanity, been less inclined to heed authority and more ready to disregard precedents and experience. He had expressed his ideals concretely, and with vigor and assurance. He had broken an empire to the plow, suffered severely from the buffetings of nature and had gradually worked out his list of grievances. One or another of his complaints had been presented before 1892 in the platforms of uninfluential third parties, but not until that year did the dissenting movement reach large proportions.

It has already been seen that the people of the West were in revolt against the management of the railroads. They saw roads going bankrupt, to be sure, but the owners were making fortunes; they knew that lawyers were being corrupted with free passes and the state legislatures manipulated by lobbyists; and they believed that rates were extortionate. The seizure and purchase of public land, sometimes contrary to the letter of the law, more often contrary to its spirit, was looked upon as an intolerable evil. Moreover, the westerner was in debt. He had borrowed from the East to buy his farm and his machinery and to make both ends meet in years when the crops failed. In 1889 it was estimated that seventy-five per cent. of the farms of Dakota were mortgaged to a total of $50,000,000. Boston and other cities had scores of agencies for the negotiation of western farm loans; Philadelphia alone was said to absorb $15,000,000 annually. The advantage to the West, if conditions were right, is too manifest to need explanation. But sometimes the over-optimistic farmer borrowed too heavily; sometimes the rates demanded of the needy westerners were usurious; often it seemed as if interest charges were like "a mammoth sponge," constantly absorbing the labor of the husbandman. The demand of the West for a greater currency supply has already been seen, for it appeared in the platforms of minor parties immediately after the Civil War. Sometimes it seemed as if nature, also, had entered a conspiracy to increase the hardships of the farmer. During the eighties a series of rainy years in the more arid parts of the plains encouraged the idea that the rain belt was moving westward, and farmers took up land beyond the line where adequate moisture could be relied upon. Then came drier years; the corn withered to dry stalks; farms were more heavily mortgaged or even abandoned; and discontent in the West grew fast.

The complaints of the westerner naturally found expression in the agricultural organizations which already existed in many parts of the country. The Grange had attacked some of the farmer's problems, but interest in it as a political agency had died out. The National Farmers' Alliance of 1880 and the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union somewhat later were both preceded and followed by many smaller societies. Altogether their combined membership began to mount into the millions. When, therefore, the Alliances began to turn away from the mere discussion of agricultural grievances and toward the betterment of conditions by means of legislation, and when their principles began to be taken up by discontented labor organizations, it looked as if they might constitute a force to be reckoned with.