Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/December 1887/The Rise of the Granger Movement



SOME wise men of the press are saying that the Knights of Labor are like the Grangers. As the exact points of resemblance are not stated, the assertion serves merely to call up a recollection of the unique secret society, which, a dozen years ago, seemed far more powerful than ever the Knights of Labor were. The Grange still lives, but its glory is departed, and its history is recorded only in the distorted statements of partisans and of misinformed review-writers.

In the latter part of 1868 certain Minnesota farmers received a printed sheet which began as follows: "In response to numerous inquiries in regard to our order, this circular is issued. The order was organized by a number of distinguished agriculturists of various States of the Union at Washington in December, 1867, and since then has met with most encouraging success, giving assurances that it will soon become one of the most useful and powerful organizations in the United States. Its grand object is not only general improvement in husbandry, but to increase the general happiness, wealth, and prosperity of the country." As an aid in accomplishing its author's design, this circular was certainly a success. As a statement of truth it was a conspicuous failure. Instead of having "met with most encouraging success," the order had scarcely been heard of; while the "distinguished agriculturists" who had "organized" it comprised one fruit-grower and six Government clerks, equally distributed among the Post-Office, Treasury, and Agricultural Departments. Of these seven Immortal Founder, as enthusiastic Grangers were calling them a few years later, six are living. Nevertheless, it is difficult to determine just how much of the plan and its execution was due to each. The truth seems to be about as follows: In 1866 one O. H. Kelley, a clerk in the Agricultural Department, was sent by the Commissioner of Agriculture on a tour of inspection through the Southern States. Impressed with the demoralization of the farming population, he hit upon the idea of organization for social and educational purposes, as a means for these people to better their condition. An ardent Mason, he naturally thought of an organization similar to the Masonic, in whose ritual, secrecy, and fraternity he saw the secret of that permanence which all agricultural societies had failed to attain. A niece in Boston, to whom he first mentioned the idea, recommended that women be given membership, thus originating an important feature. On returning to Washington, Kelley took the other six immortals into his confidence, and the seven set about developing the plan and constructing a ritual. It would be a long story to tell how, by two years' labor in the intervals of their regular work, they constructed a constitution providing for a national. State, county, and district organization, and a ritual with seven degrees; how the names—Patrons of Husbandry for the body in general and Grangers for the subordinate chapters—were finally hit upon, the latter being taken, not on account of its etymological meaning (Latin granum), but from the name of a recent novel. Suffice it to say that on December 4, 1867, a day still celebrated as the birthday of the order, the seven assembled, and, with an assurance almost sublime, solemnly organized themselves as the "National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry." There was none to dispute the title, and they enjoyed it alone for the next five years. It is hard to tell just what were the expectations of these men. Kelley has been called everything from an unselfish philanthropist to a scheming adventurer. One can not but admire the pluck with which he persevered through great discouragements, and the unselfish spirit in which he and his fellow-workers surrendered control of the movement when it had become a power in the land. Their first step was to organize a mock Grange among their fellow-clerks and their wives, to experiment with the ritual. The experiment proving satisfactory, Kelley resigned his clerkship and started out to proclaim the Grange to the world, armed only with a few dollars and a sort of introductory letter from the other six to mankind at large.

He was not a success as a lecturer. Moreover, he made the mistake of laboring in the larger towns, instead of in the country. The four or five Granges that he coaxed into life at once proceeded to die, and he finally reached Minnesota penniless, but not discouraged. Even while the six at Washington were becoming faint-hearted, and writing to him that the landlady was pressing them grievously for hall-rent, and that it would be wise to give up the whole business, he could issue the circular with which I began, dilating upon the success of the order and the distinguished agriculturists at Washington who founded it. At his home, near Itasca, he worked on furiously, now dodging a creditor, again obliged to postpone answering letters for want of means to buy postage-stamps, till finally signs of success began to appear. He had organized a few Granges in Minnesota, and was able to detect a growing interest in other States. The prime necessity now was to encourage this feeble beginning, and by all means to keep it under the delusion that it was part of a powerful national organization. To this end every cent that could be earned or borrowed was used in distributing photographs of the founders, along with a mass of circulars and documents purporting to come from the national office at Washington. Every important question was ostensibly referred by Kelley to the Executive Committee at the same place, and the decisions and power of this mythical body were held in great awe by the Patrons. But other men were becoming interested and going to work. In Minnesota they were able to organize a State Grange, having mustered the fifteen district Granges required by the constitution. Two years later the State Grange of Iowa was organized, and its Worthy Master crossed the country to attend what the founders were pleased to call the "Fifth Annual Session of the National Grange." He was the first member of the order to meet with the seven. What he thought on ascertaining the real state of things is not recorded. However, he did not give up the work, and later he became Worthy Master of the National Grange. The order kept growing. At the sixth annual session, held at Georgetown in January, 1873, there were delegates from eleven States, and four women were present; 1,074 Granges had been organized during the year. The founders now gave up their offices, not even reserving the right to vote, and delivered over the results of six years' labor to their successors. For the first time, the greatest of farmers' societies was in the hands of farmers!

The next two years were years of astounding growth—a growth almost unparalleled in the history of secret organizations, and resembling that of the Know-Nothings twenty years before. At the end of 1872 about 1,300 Granges had been organized. In the year 1873, 8,668 more were added; and in 1874, 11,941, making a total of almost 22,000, with an average membership of forty. Some idea of the magnitude of these figures may be gained from the fact that the whole number of lodges of Masons and Odd-Fellows in the world is estimated at about 20,000. The order was represented in every State except Rhode Island (which has never found room for it). It had been established in the Indian Territory, whence it appealed for help to the National Grange because the governor of the Chickasaw nation looked on it with suspicion, and had ordered all Grangers out of the Chickasaw country. It had taken root in Canada, where, a few years later, there were 860 subordinate Granges. One deputy introduced it into England; others were laboring in France and Germany; and inquiries and invitations were coming even from Australia and Tasmania.

Grange treasuries were overflowing. In 1873 and 1874 the dues to the National Grange alone, according to the official statement, amounted to $348,532.20. The press was discussing the new order with alarm. Legislative committees were scurrying about the country to see what could be done for the farmer. In the words of the New York "Nation," "the farmer was the spoiled child of our politics." The House of Representatives at Washington was overawed at the new power that was apparently rising in politics, and those who claimed, for the most part falsely, to represent the movement enjoyed an astonishing influence. Among other legislation secured by these men, one bill was rushed through for printing and distributing to the farmers certain agricultural documents, at an expense of $500,000! W. W. Phelps opposed it, only to be bitterly attacked on the score of sympathy with monopolists and lack of sympathy with farmers. One fervid orator from Kansas went over his whole record for proofs of this, and alleged many damaging facts—among them that he was rich, that he was interested in banks and railroads, and that he had been graduated with honor from Yale College. “These Grangers,” exclaimed the orator, “mean business; . . . they are chosen to be the sovereigns of the mightiest republic of earth.” Various cities strove for the honor of having the National Grange offices located within their limits, one offering to give a splendid building, another, to furnish necessary office-room and an annuity of $5,000 for five years, but the Grange was rich and independent in those days. At the seventh annual session held at St. Louis in 1874, a declaration of purposes was adopted which still remains the official statement. I can quote but fragments of this creditable document: “We shall endeavor . . . to enhance the comforts and attractions of our homes, and strengthen our attachment to our pursuits; to foster co-operation; . . . to diversify our crops; to condense the weight of our exports, selling less in the bushel and more on hoof and in fleece; to discountenance the credit system, the mortgage system, the fashion system, and every other system tending to prodigality and bankruptcy. We propose meeting together, buying together, selling together. We wage no aggressive warfare against any other interests whatever; . . . we hold that transportation companies are necessary to our success, that their interests are intimately connected with our interests, and that harmonious action is mutually advantageous. We are not enemies of railroads. In our noble order there is no communism, no agrarianism; we emphatically assert the truth taught in our organic law that the Grange is not a political or party organization. No Grange, if true to its obligations, can discuss political or religious questions, nor call political conventions, nor nominate candidates, nor even discuss their merits in its meetings.” It is to be noted that this is 1874, at the height of the “Anti-Railroad” and “Farmers' party” excitement.

The Grange had now reached the zenith of its power. One year later, in the stormy meeting held at Charleston, a measure was passed for the distribution of the surplus revenue of the National Grange, which may be said to mark the beginning of Grange decadence. But a consideration of this decadence may well be postponed for a time.

Any discussion of the causes of the Grange's astonishing growth has been deferred to this point, in order that they may be considered in connection with the railroad legislation of the early seventies, wdth which the Grange, to most minds, is so entangled. The spirit of enterprise following the war found vent in developing the resources of the upper Mississippi Valley. Emigration from Europe thither increased greatly after the close of hostilities, and the tide was swelled by men turned adrift in the disbanding of the armies. The cry was for railroads to open the country, and the speculative spirit, induced by an inflated currency, was quick to second it. Land-grants of enormous extent were made by the General and State governments, and Western municipalities vied Avith each other in bonding themselves to offer inducements to railroad-building. In the years 1865-'71, $500,000,000 was invested in Western railroads. D. C. Cloud, in his “Monopolies and the People,” makes the statement that “one acre out of every eight and a half of the entire area of Iowa has been given away to railroad corporations. . . . There were land-grants, subsidies, bonds, subscriptions, and taxes to the amount of five per cent of our entire valuation in one year.” Every farmer wanted a railroad, and every one with any pretense to economic knowledge wanted two, to keep down charges by competition! Railroads and population reacted on each other. The consequence was, that both railroads and population moved too far west, accumulating debt in the inflated currency as they went. There was little traffic for the railroads in anything but grain. So long as the price of this was high, all went well, and they were suffered to go on their reckless way with little remark save a clamor for more competing roads where the pinch of discrimination was felt. But conditions changed. The price of wheat began to show the effect of the enormous increase of production. The demand caused by the Prusso-Austrian and Franco-German wars ceased. The grasshopper became a burden. The farmers, who had gone into debt in flush times, felt the pinch of an appreciating currency. A villainous tariff, increasing the cost of transportation and of everything they bought, conspired with the rest to produce unavoidable distress. Add to all this the crisis of 1873, and it is not strange that there was a “Farmers' Movement.” “Organize!” was the universal cry, and there were as many reasons for it, in the farmer's mind, as he had needs and grievances, fancied or real, and these were legion. Owing to the change in economic conditions, wheat could no longer pay transportation charges and be profitable. According to the report of the Senate Committee on Transportation to the Seaboard, the average price of wheat in Chicago fell thirty-three cents from 1868-'72, while the charge for transportation to the East fell but nine cents. The farmer was forced to feed his grain to his cattle or use it for fuel. In this state of things the railroad loomed up before him as the only obstacle between himself and his hungry Eastern brother, whose needs he was anxious to supply—for a fair compensation. A toll for transportation exceeding the price he received seemed a priori a monstrous extortion. To aggravate matters, the railroads were run with unparalleled short-sightedness. The term “railroad ofiicial” was a synonym for insolence. There had been great corruption in the building of many of the roads, and such imperfectly comprehended terms as “Crédit Mobilier,” “watered stock,” and “Wall Street speculation,” were in everybody's mouth. Most of the stock was owned in the East and in Europe, and the expression “absentee ownership” began to arouse somewhat the same feeling as in Ireland. The “Nation” pleaded for the widows and orphans who were kept from want only by their railroad-stock, but the farmer replied that the stock was in the hands of such orphans as Commodore Vanderbilt and Jay Gould, who could look out for themselves. Add the fact that the railroads felt the hard times as much as the farmers; that for very self-preservation the traffic at competing points was so furiously fought for as to make rates ruinously low, while each road extorted all it could squeeze where there was no competition, and it will not seem strange that the “Farmers' Movement” developed, on one side, into a political organization to fight railroads. But this was not the Grange. A misconception exists on this point. In everything published on the subject, the anti-railroad movement is called the Granger movement; the resulting legislation, the Granger legislation; the cases that arose, the Granger cases. It must be granted that the same farmers often were engaged in both movements, and that certain subordinate parts of the Grange did sometimes disobey their organic law so far as to engage as bodies in the agitation, chiefly by memorializing Legislatures. It was impossible to control completely the rank and file of such a vast order. But, with these reservations, the Grange, as an organization, took no part in the anti-railroad agitation. The two were not cause and effect, but parallel effects of the same general causes. In the way of proof the “Declaration of Purposes” of 1874 has already been quoted, to the effect that the Grange is not hostile to railroads, and that all political action and discussion is totally excluded. The published proceedings of the National Grange show the same thing. In 1874 the executive committee reported: “Unfortunately for the order, the impression prevails to some extent that its chief mission is to fight railroads.” In 1875 a resolution from Texas favoring railroad legislation was suppressed. In 1873 the Master of the Minnesota State Grange, being informed that certain Granges in his jurisdiction had appointed delegates to a State anti-railroad convention, ordered the offending Granges to recall their delegates. Congressman D. W. Aiken, of South Carolina, long a member of the National Executive Committee, said in an address four years ago: “Frequently had the Grange to bear the odium of other men's sins. . . . For instance, there existed in Illinois and Wisconsin, and other sections of the Northwest, agricultural clubs whose province seemed to be to wage war against transportation companies. Anathemas were hurled upon the Grange for making this attack, whereas every Patron of Husbandry knew that the Grange as such was not a participant in the fight from beginning to end.” It may seem surprising that such an error should have arisen, but it is not inexplicable. The newspapers first applied the name “Grangers” to Western farmers in general, and consequently to those fighting railroads. From this it was an easy step to the assertion that the Grange was the fighting organization. There were some exceptions. The “Tribune” sent a special correspondent West, and afterward published a “Farmers' Extra,” in which it is expressly recognized that the Grange is not fighting railroads, though some Grangers are. The “Times” published the same discovery with the comment that the general impression on this point was a mistaken one. But the “Nation,” which talked loudest of all, and the press in general, made no such distinction. It is not strange that Mr. C. F. Adams and other writers on railroads have followed this leading, as it was of no consequence to them whether the Western agitators were known as “Grangers” or by any other name. The principal difficulty is with those who wrote from the farmers' standpoint. It can only be said that they wrote before the railroad legislation had been given a fair trial, and that they wanted to claim for the order the credit of what looked like a success. Their books, in general, are of a hortatory and prophetic rather than historical character.

From this point of view it may seem foreign to our subject to discuss the railroad agitation further. Its intimate connection with the Granger movement, however, and the causal relation between the two in the public mind, may furnish excuse. In 1867, when the Grange was founded at Washington, most of the Western States were still passing laws to facilitate municipal and other aid to railroads. A few, however, were beginning to take the alarm, and about 1867 six made feeble attempts to check the growing abuses; from Iowa, which merely affirmed the full liability of the railroads as common carriers, to Ohio, where a “Commissioner of Railroads and Telegraph” was provided for. The feeling grew during the next three years. Illinois, for example, passed an act in 1869 providing that “all railroad corporations shall be limited to a just, reasonable, and uniform toll.” These facts are mentioned to show—not tangible results, for they were not attained, but the growth of public feeling prior to the adoption of the new State Constitution by Illinois in 1870, which, with the bills immediately following, first awakened the country at large to the fact that something was brewing among the Western farmers. The Constitution of 1870 declares: “Railroads . . . are hereby declared public highways, and the General Assembly shall . . . pass laws establishing reasonable maximum rates. . . . No municipality shall ever become subscriber to the capital stock of any railroad.” The attack was followed up in 1871 by an act establishing a system of maxima, and providing for a Board of Commissioners to put to each company forty-one specified questions and as many more as their ingenuity might devise. The railroads, relying on the Dartmouth College case, declared the law unconstitutional and refused to obey it. In the suits that arose. Judge Lawrence, of the State Supreme Court, pronounced the fixing of maxima by statute unconstitutional with reference to the new State Constitution, expressing no opinion on the point claimed by the railroads—that this Constitution itself was contrary to the clause in the United States Constitution in regard to impairing the obligation of contracts. Coming up for re-election, Judge Lawrence was defeated, to the astonishment of himself and everybody else, by a combination of farmers. Emboldened by success, the farmers held nominating conventions, and managed to elect several circuit judges, and county tickets in nearly half the counties. A great mass-meeting was held at Springfield during the session of the Legislature in that city, to urge upon it the necessity of a new railroad bill. The Legislature, nothing loath, passed the law of 1873, avoiding the point made by Lawrence against that of 1871 by providing for “reasonable” instead of “maximum” rates, and making it the duty of the commissioners to draw up a schedule of such rates. Provision was made that they be ideally unfit for the task in the following section: “No person shall be appointed who is in any way connected with any railroad company, or who is, directly or indirectly, interested in any stock or bond.” It is no wonder that their schedule was as fearfully and wonderfully made as a United States tariff list. The “Nation” called it “a crazy table of rates drawn up by a mob of ignorant and excited politicians.” The system had one advantage, however, over a cast-iron set of maxima fixed by statute. It could be modified or made inoperative as the information of the commissioners grew, and this is what was done in Illinois. Early in 1873 the “American Cheap Transportation Company” was organized at the Astor House, and later in the year two other great mass-meetings were held in Illinois. They accomplished only a great waste of pyrotechnic eloquence. Demagogues and sharpers had taken control, and the real movers had quietly dropped out.

In spite of the assertions of Mr. C. F. Adams and others, it can be shown that the Grange was not responsible for the Illinois legislation. When the Constitution of 1870 and the law of 1871 were passed, the Grange had scarcely a foothold in the State. The State Grange was organized in March, 1872. The real organ of agitation was the “State Farmers' Association,” whose subordinate lodges were called “Farmers' Clubs.” Its president, W. C. Flagg, testified before the Windom committee in 1873 that he was not a Granger, that his organization was an open and political one, while the Grange was secret and non-political, disavowing and preventing, as far as it could, any political action.

By 1874 seven States had passed so-called “Granger” laws, either fixing maxima or providing for a commission to make out a schedule of rates. The Iowa bill, on the former model, devoted twenty-six pages to a classification of freight. But all this was surpassed in Wisconsin. In 1873 there appeared in the State Senate a certain Potter, from Wautoma, Waushara County. It was said that his county did not contain a mile of railroad, and he probably knew as little about railroads as any other man in the Legislature; at least, to believe the contrary would require a very pessimistic view of Wisconsin intelligence. March 11, 1874, the famous “Potter Bill” became a law. Mr. Potter is said to have made it up by calling for suggestions and incorporating those most disadvantageous to the railroads. At any rate, it was bad enough at first, and the railroad interest worked to increase its enormities, hoping to get it into a shape that they could defeat. They were mistaken. The bill passed, and the Governor celebrated some speedy victories in the courts by firing cannon.

Meanwhile cases were before the Supreme Court on the validity of all this legislation. The court recognized the gravity of the question and reserved its decision, affirming the constitutionality of the laws, for more than a year after the test case (Munn vs. Illinois) was argued. The gist of the decision is in the following words: “When one devotes his property to a use in which the public has an interest, he, in effect, grants the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good to the extent of the interest he has thus created.” The decisions in this, and the six other “Granger” cases, were pronounced by Chief-Justice Waite, Justices Field and Strong dissenting.

In the courts the farmers were victorious. But, unfortunately, the Supreme Court does not pass upon economic laws, and to these the movement had already succumbed. By the time the cases were decided, in 1876-'77, scarcely one of the statutes in question remained in force. In the second year under the Potter law, no Wisconsin road paid a dividend, and only four paid interest on their bonds. Foreign capitalists refused to invest further in the State. On the recommendation of the Governor, the very men who had passed the law hurriedly repealed it. In the next year Mr. Potter faded out of American politics, and his place in the Senate was filled by another. Most of the other States also beat a precipitate retreat, poorly covered by a faint demonstration against unreasonableness in general.

So the victors were beaten, and bad times made the defeat seem worse than it was. But they claim, and not without reason, to have done lasting good. The attitude of railroad corporations is very different from what it was twelve years ago. More of the old grievances have disappeared than is generally supposed. To this movement we owe the railroad commissions found in so many States. How much they are worth is, of course, a matter for dispute. The power of the railroads to reward or punish is so real and present, while that of the people at large is so indefinite and far away, that it is not strange if the ordinary commissioner inspires about the same terror as does the gingerbread lion. Of late the Grange, forgetting its record, has been claiming the credit for all the good accomplished. It is gravely asserted that a resolution of the National Grange in 1874 caused the appointment of the Windom Committee on Transportation in 1872. In New York, Grangers boast of the Hepburn Commission of 1879, and claim to have defeated a railroad man, C. M. Depew, for the Senate in 1881. And doubtless the Interstate Commerce Bill will be hailed as one more achievement.

Note.—The progress and decline of the Granger movement will be considered in a later article.—Ed.