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WHILE THE UNITED STATES WERE GROWING INTO THE WORLD’S leading industrial Power their people were busily completing the settlement of the continent. At the beginning of the Civil War, after two and a hall centuries of westward advance from the Atlantic coast, the frontier of settlement had reached roughly the line of the 97th meridian, which runs through Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Between this frontier and the towns and cities of the Pacific seaboard lay a thousand miles of wilderness. Here were the Great Plains, about a million square miles in extent, where roamed many Indian tribes, and little else except the immense herds of buffalo on which they lived. The sparse rainfall of the Great Plains and lack of timber had made them seem unsuitable for farming and unlikely ever to be peopled. Yet in less than a generation large parts of this huge area were settled by white men and the natural frontier disappeared. The population west of the Mississippi rose in thirty years from about five millions in 1860 to almost eighteen millions, while the number of states in the Union increased from thirty-three to forty-four. By 1890 only four more states remained to be carved out of the West. These were Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, all admitted to the Union by 1912, when the political shape of the country became complete.

White settlement of the Great Plains was first prompted by the discovery of precious metals. In 1859 gold was found at Pikes Peak, on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, and miners began to flock into Colorado. As fresh deposits of gold, silver, and copper came to light there was a rush to Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and Montana, and finally to the Black Hills of South Dakota. These sudden migrations in search of wealth did not always create lasting settlements, for many of the booms were short-lived. When precious ores ran low the whole population of the mining camps moved on elsewhere, leaving ghost towns to mark the site of their “diggings.” Yet by speeding the political organisation of the West and encouraging the building of railroads the discovery of gold and silver did much to open up the Great Plains.

It was the railway indeed, more than any other factor, which threw wide the Plains to settlers. This was the great age of American railroad construction. At the close of the Civil War the United States had possessed about 35,000 miles of tracks, but in less than ten years that figure had been doubled, and by 1890 doubled again. The most prodigious feat was the building of a number of transcontinental railways. The first to cross the continent was completed in May 1869, when a link was made in Utah between the lines of the Union Pacific, stretching westward from Iowa, and the Central Pacific, reaching out eastward from California. This project was financed by a grant from Congress to the two companies of millions of acres of public land, a method which was also used elsewhere. Towards the end of the century three more transcontinental routes had been added, and other great lines had opened up the country. Many of the railroad companies took a direct part in peopling the West, for they realised that their lines could hardly pay until the country on either side of the tracks was settled. An extensive campaign to popularise the West was undertaken both in the Eastern States and in Europe. Because transport was cheap and land could be acquired on credit thousands of settlers were induced to seek new homes in the Great Plains.

Emigrants to the West could also buy land very cheaply from the state Governments, each of which had received from the Federal authorities large areas of the public domain. They could even obtain it free by virtue of the Homestead Act, which granted a quarter-section (160 acres) of public land to all white adult males who undertook to settle there. Although a loophole in the Act allowed land speculators to profit by it, this measure enabled large numbers of settlers, estimated in 1890 at more than a million, to obtain free farms for themselves, mostly to the west of the Mississippi.

The settlement of the West could only take place if the Indian barrier were removed. Already the the time of the Civil War the Indian had been obliged to retreat across half the continent in the face of white advance. Now, as the Red man was harried out of his last refuge, a further tragic chapter was added to his story. The threat to their hunting grounds, and indeed to their whole existence, delivered by the onrush of civilisation impelled the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains to resist the invaders with determination and savagery. From the Sioux and the Crows of the North to the Comanche and Apache of the South, these warlike tribesmen were magnificent horsemen and intrepid fighters. Their bows and arrows were much more effective than the muzzle-loading rifles with which the Federal troops were at first equipped. Yet their final defeat was inevitable. The introduction of the Winchester repeating rifle and the Colt revolver gave armed supremacy to the whites, who were already superior in organisation, numbers, and strategy. But the fatal blow was the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo, chiefly by professional hunters employed by Eastern leather manufacturers. By the early 1870’s between two and three million buffalo were being killed annually for their hides, and ten years later a museum expedition seeking specimens could find only two hundred in the whole of the West. On the buffalo the Indian of the Plains had relied not only for food, but for a great variety of other things, from clothing to fuel. When the buffalo was virtually exterminated nomadic life became impossible. The Indians had to comply with the Government’s plans and be herded into reservations.

Means had still to be found in the semi-arid West for making agriculture pay. The miner was at first succeeded not by the farmer but by the rancher, who for twenty years after the Civil War used the Great Plains as pasture for his cattle on the long drive from Texas to the Middle West. Although the journey involved passing through territory inhabited by hostile Indians, who frequently stampeded the cattle vast herds were led each year from the ranches of the South-West to the cattle centres of Kansas and Nebraska. Then, after being fattened for market, the cattle were shipped to the stockyards and canneries of Kansas City or Chicago. But the farmer still hung back from the Great Plains. In this extensive grassland there were very few trees, and no lumber for building houses, barns, and fences. More serious still, the annual rainfall between the 98th meridian and the Rockies was usually below the 20-inch minimum needed for agriculture.

Science now stepped in. A technique known as dry farming was developed. Deep ploughing loosened the soil sufficiently to allow water to move upwards, and frequent harrowing prevented evaporation. New strains of wheat were introduced from Russia, which were resistant to drought and to the disease of wheat-rust, then common on the Plains. But it was large-scale industry that really made farming possible. A wide range of mechanical farm implements, reapers, harvesters, threshers, and improved types of plough enabled the Western farmer to cultivate large enough tracts of land to offset the low yield per acre. Moreover, the invention of barbed wire, though it ended the great cattle drives, solved the problem of fencing.

During the last quarter of the century large numbers of emigrant farmers were flowing into the Great Plains. By 1890 “the frontier”—which officially meant a region inhabited by more than two but less than six persons per square mile—had disappeared. The formerly unsettled area, the superintendent of the census explained, had now “been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there [could] hardly be said to be a frontier line.” The colonisation begun at Jamestown, Virginia, almost three centuries before was now complete. Hitherto the frontier had been America’s safety-valve. Through it had passed ardent ambitions and bold, restless spirits. Now the safety-valve was shut, and the problems and pressures of dynamic growth within the United States were greatly intensified.


After slumbering since the end of Reconstruction American politics suddenly awoke. The alarm-clock was Populism. Sprung from deep-rooted discontent among farmers, this new movement made rapid headway. A climax was reached in 1896, when the Populists, merged by then with the Democratic Party, made a supreme effort at the polls. The Presidential campaign of that year was one of the fiercest and most spectacular in American history. It was concentrated on a single issue, namely, whether there should be both a gold and a silver currency, or monometallism versusbimetallism. Known as the Battle of the Standards, this contest was a passionate attempt by the farming interests to wrest control of the Federal Government from the financiers and industrialists, who had enjoyed its favour since the Civil War.

Agriculture, like all other branches of American life, had grown immensely since the Civil War. Within forty years the number of farms and the acreage under cultivation about trebled. Production of wheat, corn, cotton, and other commodities rose in similar proportion. But life had also become more difficult for the farmer. As production rose farm prices steadily fell. At the same time farm costs were rising, and large numbers of farmers faced hardship. Many had to become tenants, and mortgages multiplied.

For this decline there were several reasons. In some areas, especially in the Old South and the Middle West, the soil was exhausted by wasteful methods of cultivation. Elsewhere, as on the Great Plains, the farmer faced peculiar natural hazards. Yet these were difficulties which he had always had to endure, and the real explanation of his plight lay in another quarter. In spite of the rise in population, the growth of the cities, and the enormous demand for food, he always produced too much. Canada, South America, and Australia, all of which were experiencing similar agricultural booms, freely competed with the American farmer in the world market. Yet at home he had to buy his equipment and every essential of life in a protected market. The tariff policy of the Federal Government and the power of monopolies and trusts, made the price of the manufactured goods he needed artificially high. He was exploited not only by the manufacturer but by the railroad companies. Dependent on a single line to carry his produce to market, the Western farmer was made to pay for the losses of the railroads in carrying industrial freight. The charges for farm products were so crushing that at one time it was cheaper to burn corn as fuel than to sell it. This and other railroad practices were strongly resented. Finally—and this seemed the most crippling burden—the high cost of money pressed heavily on a class which consisted overwhelmingly of debtors. More and more produce was needed to repay the same amount of money. Banking facilities in the West were inadequate, and this forced the farmer to borrow from Eastern financiers, whose interest rates ranged from 8 to 20 per cent. His grievances were inflamed by the deflationary fiscal policy of the Federal Government. At a time of unparalleled economic expansion the Government, in response to business interests which wanted a sound money policy, decided to contract the currency by ceasing to coin silver and withdrawing some of the “greenback” paper money issued during the Civil War.

Such consistent neglect of the farmers and their dependents by the Federal Government is surprising, since they still accounted for almost half the nation’s population. But they were politically disunited, and there remained a wide gulf between Westerners and Southerners because of the smouldering prejudices of the Civil War. The South was solidly Democratic, the West in general Republican. Until agrarian problems could be isolated from other political issues, there was little hope that the farmers could induce the Federal Government to pay any attention to their demands. Only if they formed their own organisations, as “big business” and the working man had already done, could they save themselves from exploitation by stronger economic groups.

Accordingly nation-wide farmers’ organisations began to grow. The first of these, an order called the Patrons of Husbandry, or, more popularly, the Grange, was established in 1867. For some years membership was not large, but after the depression of 1873 the movement quickly gained ground. Two years later Granges had been established in almost every state and there were 20,000 lodges and 800,000 members. By this time the movement had ceased to be purely social in character, as had first been the case. Many state Granges ran co-operative business enterprises for marketing their produce and purchasing manufactured goods. By means of co-operative creameries, grain elevators, warehouses, loan agencies, and even factories, it was hoped to cut out the middleman’s profit. In many states the Grange developed political offshoots, and Farmers’ Parties under various names came into being in the Upper Mississippi valley. All this may seem far removed from the realms of high politics, but America was the first country openly to show in her home affairs that great national decisions must depend upon the matching and mating of small, local causes. When control of a number of state legislatures had been won laws were passed to check the malpractices of the railroads, but these so-called Granger laws were not very effective. It proved impossible to frame regulations that the railroads could not evade. Enforcement was difficult because the judiciary sympathised with the railroads, and in the 1880’s a series of Supreme Court decisions severely limited the regulatory powers of the states.

The Grange went rapidly into decline during the improvement in farming conditions that came in the late 1870’s. Thus the first attempt at united action by the farmers ended in failure. When bad times returned, as they soon did, new farm organisations, known as the Farmers’ Alliances, began to appear in the North-West and in the South. The Alliances conducted much the same kind of social and economic activities as had the Grange, on which indeed they were largely modelled. But, unlike the Grange, the Alliances, almost from the outset, adopted a political programme which called for tariff reduction, currency inflation, and stricter regulation of railroads. As time went on the political emphasis of the movement grew sharper, until finally Populism was born.

The Populist outburst arose from the sharp agricultural depression that began in 1887 and steadily gained in intensity. Severe droughts caused widespread crop failures. There followed a wholesale foreclosing of mortgages and the bankruptcy of a large section of the farming community. Since it was now obvious to the farmers that they could hope for nothing from either of the two major parties, the Alliance movement spread far and wide and was itself transformed into Populism.

Though owing its origin, as well as the main body of its supporters, to farmers’ discontent, the Populist Party came to include many other groups. The struggling trade union organisation known as the Knights of Labour, survivors of such short-lived political organisations as the Greenback and Union Labour Parties, and a host of fanatics ranging from suffragists to single-taxers, all joined in. Such groups brought to the movement a number of cranks, but the farmers themselves provided Populism with a full share of picturesque and eccentric figures. From “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina and Jerry Simpson of Kansas, who enjoyed the nickname of “Sockless Socrates,” to the revivalist Mary Ellen Lease, who advised the Plains farmers to “raise less corn and more Hell,” the leaders of the Populist revolt were of a kind that American politics had not experienced hitherto.

After sweeping triumphs in the state elections of 1890 the Populists had high hopes of success in the Presidential election two years later. Their candidate was James B. Weaver, a former leader of the now defunct Greenback Party. But, for all their hardships, many farmers were still unwilling to abandon their traditional party loyalties. Though Weaver polled a million votes the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, was successful by a narrow majority over his Republican rival, Benjamin Harrison.

No sooner had Cleveland’s second term begun—he had already been President from 1885 to 1889—than economic disaster befell. A financial panic led to countless failures in the business world and heavy unemployment in the great cities. There was an outbreak of violent strikes, and a further collapse of agricultural prices. Cleveland could find no means of ending the depression, and discontent spread among his supporters. Many of them disagreed with his tariff policy and with his use of Federal troops to break the great Pullman strike in Chicago in 1894, which had immobilised half the country’s railroads. But it was his refusal to follow an inflationary policy that drove despairing Democrats into the ranks of the Populists. The President’s offense in the eyes of the inflationists was his use of the patronage at his disposal to force the repeal of the Silver Purchase Act of 1890, a measure which by doubling the amount of silver to be coined had sought to increase the volume of currency in circulation and improve farm prices. Its failure to achieve either of these aims showed, according to the bimetallists, that the Act had not gone far enough and that the only remedy was the free and unlimited coinage of silver. Cleveland, on the other hand, believed that the Act had sparked the panic of 1893, and that accordingly the gold standard must be upheld.

The free-silver question had been debated for some years before this, but the repeal of the Silver Purchase Act brought it into new prominence. Between 1893 and 1896 it gradually came to dwarf all other issues. The farmers, as we have seen, had long favoured inflation as a cure for low farm prices. Some of them had flirted earlier with the Greenback Party, which had promised inflation by printing more paper money. Now the agrarians hoped to restore prosperity by remonetising silver and coining all of the metal that the mines could yield. To business interests this seemed a sure road to bankruptcy, for inflation, they pointed out, was easier to start than to check. To them the gold standard seemed indispensable to stability. The next Presidential election was thus fought on the question of cheap money.

Whether the Populists would nominate a candidate of their own or amalgamate with the Democrats was at first in doubt. But the decision was given when the Democratic Convention met at Chicago in July 1896. With cheap-money men in control of the party machinery the Convention adopted a free-silver platform, and nominated as their candidate William Jennings Bryan, of Nebraska. Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech to the Convention, containing an impassioned attack on the supporters of the gold standard, was to become one of the most celebrated examples of American oratory. Content with such a candidate and such a platform, the Populists endorsed Bryan. Though they did not entirely abandon their plans for a separate campaign, they marched with the Democrats against the Republican candidate, William J. McKinley, who stood for the gold standard. Byran had formidable disadvantages to overcome. His own party was sharply split, and against him were ranged the Press and the business and financial elements. He embarked on a strenuous campaign, in which his great rhetorical powers were employed to the full. Yet all his efforts were unavailing. McKinley, who stayed at home throughout the campaign, won by more than half a million votes.

Having staked all on Bryan’s election, the Populists found it difficult to re-establish themselves once he was defeated. Although the Populist movement did not formally disband until much later, its demise may be dated from this election. Most of the measures that its followers demanded were taken up by new reform movements in the twentieth century, and nearly all were passed into law. Free silver was never attained, but the farmers reached their objective by another road. Through the discovery of new deposits in the Klondike and South Africa the world’s supply of gold rose sharply in the last years of the nineteenth century. The volume of money in circulation increased, and when in 1900 Congress passed a Currency Act to place the United States on the gold standard it met with hardly any opposition. The free-silver agitation was all but forgotten.


When Bryan again unsuccessfully opposed McKinley in the Presidential contest the passions aroused four years earlier were wholly absent. The depression was over and prosperity had returned. Home affairs were ignored and American eyes were fixed on larger horizons, for between the two elections the United States had begun to play in world affairs a part commensurate with their strength.

Since the fall of Napoleon the American people had been so engrossed in settling the continent and in exploiting its natural resources that foreign affairs had interested them little. Now, with the process of settlement complete, and the work of economic development well in hand, they sought fresh fields in which to labour. By the 1890’s the idea of Empire had taken hold of all the great industrial Powers. Britain, France, and Germany were especially active in acquiring new colonies and new markets. This European example was not lost upon America. For these and other reasons a vigorous spirit of self-assertion developed, which first became manifest in the Venezuelan boundary dispute with Britain in 1895.

Ever since the end of the Civil War Anglo-American relations had been distinctly cool. In spite of the settlement of the Alabama claims by Gladstone’s Government, Britain’s sympathy for the South during the great conflict had left its mark upon the Union. Constant bickering agitated the two countries over such matters as seal-fishing in the Behring Sea, the rights of American fishermen in Canadian waters, and interpretations of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 about the proposed Panama Canal. But all these disputes paled before the question of the Venezuelan boundary. The frontier between this South American republic and British Guiana had long been unsettled, and although the United States had frequently offered mediation her advances had always been declined by Britain. In the summer of 1895 the American State Department made yet another move in a communication which President Cleveland described as “a twenty-inch gun note.” Britain was accused of violating the Monroe Doctrine, and was required to give a definite answer as to whether she would accept arbitration. Lord Salisbury bided his time, waiting for passions to cool. He replied in December, rejecting arbitration and telling the American Government that its interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine was at fault. At this Cleveland sent Congress a message announcing that America would fix the boundary line independently and oblige the disputants to accept her decision.

For a few days war with Britain seemed possible, and even imminent. 1 But the first patriotic outburst in America soon gave way to more sober feelings. In Britain opinion had reacted less violently. At the height of the crisis news arrived of the Kaiser’s telegram to President Kruger in South Africa, congratulating him on the repulse of the Jameson raid. These Imperial perplexities, which are recounted in a later chapter, distracted attention in London. British wrath turned against Germany rather than the United States. Too involved in Europe and South Africa to think of quarrelling with America, the British Government agreed to arbitration. Their claims in Guiana were largely conceded by the tribunal. There followed a steady improvement in Anglo-American relations, chiefly because Britain was awakening to the dangers of her isolation. Her growing alarm at German naval expansion led her to make friendly overtures to which the United States were fully ready to respond.

The exuberant pride of Americans could not long be held in check. In the Cuban revolt against Spanish rule it found an outlet. Ever since this revolt began in 1895 American popular sentiment had sympathised with the rebel fight for independence. Tempers rose at tales of Spanish atrocities. General Weyler’s policy of herding civilians into concentration camps, where thousands died of disease, was vehemently denounced. These atrocities, sensationally reported and embellished by two rival New York newspapers, led to demands for American intervention. In 1898 popular clamour for war with Spain reached its height. In February the American battle-ship Maine, sent to Cuba to protect American lives and property, was blown up by a mine in Havana harbour, with the loss of most of her crew. At this the Spanish Government hastily made concessions to the United States, which President McKinley was at first disposed to accept. But public indignation was too strong for him, and on April 11 war was declared.

The conflict lasted only ten weeks, and was marked by a succession of overwhelming American victories. In Cuba an American expeditionary force, despite complaints about the mismanagement of the War Department and incompetent leadership in the field, won a series of rapid battles which brought about the surrender of all the Spanish forces in the island. At sea Commodore Dewey immobilised the main Spanish fleet in an engagement in Manila Bay on May 1. The Caribbean squadron of the Spanish Navy was sunk outside the Cuban port of Santiago. In August Spain sued for peace, and in December a treaty was signed at Paris whereby Cuba became independent. The United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

All this did much to heal the wounds remaining from the Civil War. In the wave of patriotism that swept the country Northerner and Southerner alike took pride in the achievements of their common country. Young men from both regions rushed to join the expeditionary force and fought side by side for San Juan Hill. The famous Condederate cavalry leader Joe Wheeler exclaimed that a single battle for the Union flag was worth fifteen years of life. The venture also showed that the American people were now fully aware of their own strength as a world-Power. Their new colonial rôle was further stressed by the acquisition between 1898 and 1900 not only of the territory wrested from Spain, but of Hawaii, part of Samoa, and the vacant island of Wake in the Pacific. The United States, though not yet abandoning isolation, henceforward became less preoccupied by home affairs. They began to play an important rôle in the international scene. The Spanish War helped to promote a new and wanner friendship with Britain, for Britain, alone of the European nations, sympathised with the United States in the conflict. This the Americans appreciated, and as the nineteenth century drew to its end the foundations were laid for a closer concert between the two peoples in facing the problems of the world. We must now return across the Atlantic from the dazzling prospects that lay before the United States to the English party scene at Westminster.

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