Before 1870, the global economy was performing poorly because of widespread crop failures in other countries. American farmers took advantage of this and began growing large quantities of wheat, which they could sell for a high profit. However, by 1890 the global economy had rebounded causing wheat prices in the global market to plummet. Consequently, American farmers were hit hard and forced to sell their crop at lower prices. Similar to the “King Cotton” economy of the Civil War South, the nineteenth century Midwest economy was also “single crop” and thus prone to the effects of global market swings. The sudden increase of wheat quantities available in the world market caused a deflationary effect in the Midwest. There was simply not enough money to go around. Farmers were forced to mortgage their property and their crop in order to make ends meet. Many farmers lost their land to the “evils” of the “mortgage system” (Doc. B). As mortgage foreclosures increased, so did the number of farmers forced into tenancy. By 1900, the majority of Midwest farmers were tenants—unable to afford their own land. However, Midwest farmers were faced with other, more severe atrocities that eventually impacted national politics.
Government corruption also contributed greatly to the farmers’ discontent. From their perspectives, it seemed like the government was doing everything in its power to injure the Midwest region and thus, its farmers. Railroad companies charged exorbitant rates that were “up to four times as large as Eastern rates” (Doc. F). Farmers had no other choice but to pay the grossly inflated freight fees in order to get their crop to market. Eventually, farmers began to clamor for government control of the railroads. To the farmers, it was the duty of the government to protect the general public, even at the cost of corporations or private companies (Doc. C). The government finally responded to the farmers’ demands with the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The ICC was in charge of supervising railroad companies and ensuring that they conduct business ethically and post their rates openly. However, this organization proved to be ineffective at taming the ravenous railroads. In fact, many railroad insiders viewed the ICC as a tool to be utilized rather than an authority to be obeyed. Future United States Attorney General, Richard Olney, wrote in a letter to the president of the Chicago and Burlington Railroad, “The Commission . . . can be made of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of railroads, [and] at the same time that supervision is almost entirely nominal” (Doc. E). In this manner, railroad companies increased their participation in politics, often bribing legislators in order to tighten their own grip on the government (Doc. F). “Robber barons” like William H. Vanderbilt cared nothing for the plight of the Midwest farmers. These “robber barons” charged unreasonable rates to farmers in order to pay off financial obligations arising from the dishonest practice of “stock watering”. In 1883, Vanderbilt famously said, “The public be damned!”, once again showing the railroad companies’ lack of concern for public interests. However, this was not the only complaint Midwest farmers made about the U.S. government.
Midwest farmers expressed