William Warren Rogers, Sr. The One-Gallused Rebellion: Agrarianism in Alabama, 1865-1896. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001. 376 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8173-1106-3.
Reviewed by Clayton E. Jewett (Department of History, Austin Community College)
Published on H-South (January, 2002)
The Failure of Political Democracy?
The Failure of Political Democracy?
One-Gallused refers to those dirt-poor southern farmers that generally owned only one pair of overalls, held up by two galluses. Over time, one of the galluses would wear out, leaving the farmer with one gallus to hold up his overalls. Thus, this is the story of the poor Alabama farmers, white and black, and their grass-roots rebellion that not only transformed their world, but also had a lasting impact on southern society and national politics.
Originally published in 1970, One-Gallused Rebellion is an unrevised paperback version with a new introduction by the author. Using primary material from newspapers, archival sources, and unpublished works, William Warren Rogers, Sr. examines in scrupulous detail the agrarian movement in Alabama, discussing the Grange, the Agricultural Wheel, the Farmers' Alliance, and the People's Party. Rogers argues that the agrarian movement in Alabama initially was a non-political revolt against economic oppression. It was only after failing to harvest lasting economic relief that the movement turned overtly political. It is this journey that Rogers so judiciously details. The primary thesis of this monograph, according to the author, is that the Alabama agrarian movement represented a statement and test of political democracy, especially considering the Populist call for free and fair elections. Thus, in his view, the Populist movement is both "universal and timeless" (p. xvii).
Rogers begins the journey through agrarian discontent by aptly setting the stage with a discussion of the general economic woes. Beginning in the late 1860s, with the falling cotton prices and the exodus of black farmers to the cities, land problems emerged in Alabama. Many poor whites lost their land to larger landowners and many blacks failed to become landowners. Thus, land became concentrated in the hands of the few, and the one-gallused increasingly struggled to hold on to small tracts of land or drifted into share cropping. Not unique to Alabama, the crop lien system dominated the economy. Rogers reveals that large landowners desired to repeal the crop lien system, giving them greater control over labor. Merchants of course favored the law and surprisingly tenant farmers and sharecroppers favored the system because it insured them a means of obtaining necessary supplies. Rogers also discusses economic problems unique to the state, such as the scarcity of good fertilizers, the lack of agricultural information, and the theft of agricultural products. By thoroughly detailing the intricacies of the crop lien system and a myriad of other problems, the author reveals that the agrarian movement represented a class struggle that would shape the economic and political future of the state.
Politically, however, Alabama was not like other post-Reconstruction southern states; a virtual one party system ruled by the bourbon Democrats did not take shape. Instead, party alignments appeared somewhat fluid and murky. Rogers though does an excellent job of clearing the water by detailing the oppositional roots to the Democratic Party. The first significant attempt at organizational opposition came in the birth of the Grange movement, a distinctly non-political organization throughout the South that appeared most prominent at the local levels. The Grange carried the specific goal of educating the farmers and providing social benefits. Poor farmers became aware on a larger scale of the economic difficulties in the state, and educated on improved farming methods, crop diversification, and wage labor.
Nevertheless, the Grange failed to bring about lasting economic relief. Rogers attributes its failure to the lack of a distinct economic program (it blamed the merchant and retailing middlemen but offered no clear solution except going into business itself by establishing cooperatives that failed due to mismanagement and fraud), its concentration on fairs, and the fact that large landowners controlled the organization. The Grange in Alabama, he argues, while serving an important function, did not have a strong base of support. Nevertheless, the Grange was significant because for the first time educational and social benefits were offered to the poor farmers and they became cognizant of the large scale economic problems and potential solutions.
The next stage in the process involved the formation of the Alabama State Agricultural Society in the early 1880s. It emerged about the time the Grange lost ground. Though its leaders were committed Democrats, the society was far from being political. It stressed scientific agriculture and education, generally focusing on the plight of poor white farmers. As the one-gallused clamored for political action, partly because the society never really represented the average farmer, they lost interest in the society and gravitated toward the Agricultural Wheel and Farmers' Alliance. Though the society also failed to exact lasting economic relief, its significance is found in elevating to prominence a new agrarian leader, Reuben F. Kolb, who the author describes as "the single most important figure in Alabama's agrarian revolution" (p. 100).
By the late 1880s, the society gave way to the Agricultural Wheel and the Farmers' Alliance. Of the two, the Wheel appeared more class conscious, appealing to the small, oppressed farmers and railing against monopoly and oppression. It advocated co-operative stores and manufacturing. It challenged the railroads, the Interstate Commerce Commission and the state legislature for economic relief. In addition, the Wheel in Alabama was significant because it cut across party and racial lines. Unsuccessful in its attempts to remedy the economic woes of the small farmers, though, the Wheel merged with the Alliance in 1888. The Alliance had a broader appeal; it attracted not only the small farmers and sharecroppers, but also large farmers and ministers (especially Baptists). Though the Alliance also cut across racial lines, it remained weakest in the black belt. Unlike previous organizations, however, the failed economic ventures of the Alliance served only to strengthen the organization, which alarmed Democrats.
The enduring strength of county based Alliances, which generally adopted the Ocala Platform and hinted at forming a third political party, frightened the Democrats. Redeemers viewed political opposition as a threat to white supremacy, and feared the emergence of "Negro rule" should whites in Alabama become divided between the parties. By 1892, the one-gallused masses threw down the gauntlet by advocating the formation of a third party. In Alabama, a significant step in this process came in the formation of the Jeffersonian Democrats, led by Kolb. This attempt at a third party did not achieve political success, due primarily to political corruption. In their attempt to maintain political control and white supremacy, bourbon Democrats resorted to unprecedented political fraud. Such methods included stealing ballot boxes, stuffing ballot boxes, controlling the black vote through intimidation, and blatantly changing the voting returns in several counties. Without a constitutional provision to contest elections at the state level, Kolb and other Populist politicians could do little but swallow defeat and remain determined.
It is here in the state elections that Rogers is at his best by revealing the intricate political loyalties and the political game playing. While Jeffersonian Democrats and Populists were separate in name, both groups counted on the other for political support in specific counties. Rogers also does a superb job of revealing that in some areas of Alabama, the Jeffersonian Democrats fused with Republican factions to mount a legitimate threat to the bourbon Democrats. In addition, many disillusioned bourbon Democrats defected to the Jeffersonians or Populists. In this whole process, though, political ties were fragile at best; Jeffersonian Democrats, Populists, and Republicans all appeared apprehensive about fusion. However uneasy these ties might have been, Rogers makes clear that Democratic opponents were the victims of fraud and oppression, defeated by the corrupt bourbon machinery.
By 1894, the Jeffersonian Democrats led by Kolb, and the Populists in Alabama merged to challenge the Democrats in state elections. This did not mean though the Populists were without their troubles. Fusion with Republicans alienated many white farmers, Kolb and other leaders remained divided on how to best deal with the black belt and the black vote, and many questioned accepting the support of free silver Democrats. At times, reveals Rogers, the agrarian movement seemed unsure of itself.
Though the Populists mounted a strong campaign for free silver, and open and honest elections, again they were outdone by their oppressors in the 1896 state and national elections. Rogers reveals that the Democrats in Alabama stole Populist principles, nominated strong candidates, unfurled the banner of white supremacy, and stole black votes. In addition, the split Bryan ticket, and the defection of Kolb to support the Democrat's Bryan-Sewall ticket over the Populist's Bryan-Watson ticket, left the Alabama agrarian movement without a leader. Though in later years the Populists would continue to play a small role in Alabama politics, their defeat at the state and national level in 1896 signaled the downfall of the party and an end to the agrarian movement in Alabama. The one-gallused never again threatened the supremacy of the bourbon Democrats.
Rogers ends the monograph with a short summation of the enduring Populist influence: the income tax, the direct election of senators, women's suffrage, governmental regulation of the railroads and business, the subtreasury plan, and the resulting "political oblivion" for southern blacks (p. 333) We know that the majority of Populist goals were met during the Wilson and FDR administrations. Furthermore, examining the rhetoric of later political contests, we see that politicians continue to make at least a nod to the one-gallused masses. Given these results, the Populists do appear somewhat timeless. One can only smile and wonder, however, what Kolb and the Populists would have thought and done about the Kennedy, Nixon, and George W. Bush elections.
While Rogers provides the most thorough account to date of the agrarian movement in Alabama, his analysis is straight out of the Progressive school of thought, and thus somewhat dated. In addition, we could learn more about the tactics used by the Populists to gain black votes, and about politics in the Alabama black communities. Nevertheless, this study is an excellent example to historians wishing to study the intricacies of political alignments and factors influencing state politics; a must read for every scholar interested in state politics, economics, and agrarian discontent.
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Clayton E. Jewett. Review of Rogers, William Warren, Sr., The One-Gallused Rebellion: Agrarianism in Alabama, 1865-1896.
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