• What were the origins and the significance of Populism?

• How did the liberties of blacks after 1877 give way to legal segregation across the South?

• In what ways did the boundaries of American freedom grow narrower in this period?

• How did the United States emerge as an imperial power in the 1890s?

One of the most popular songs of 1892 bore the title “Father Was Killed by a Pinkerton Man” It was inspired by an incident during a bitter strike at Andrew Carnegie’s steelworks at Homestead, Pennsylvania, the nineteenth century’s most widely publicized confrontation between labor and capital. The strike pitted one of the nation’s leading industrial corporations against a powerful union, the Amalgamated Association, which represented the skilled iron - and steelworkers among the complex’s 3,800 employees.

Homestead’s twelve steel mills were the most profitable and technologically advanced in the world. The union contract gave the Amalgamated Association a considerable say in their operation, including the right to approve the hiring of new workers and to regulate the pace of work. To Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, his local supervisor, the union’s power increasingly seemed an intolerable infringement on management’s rights. In 1892, they decided to operate the plant on a nonunion basis. Frick surrounded the factory with a fence topped by barbed wire, constructed barracks to house strikebreakers, and fired the entire workforce. Henceforth, only workers who agreed not to join the union could work at Homestead. In response, the workers, including the unskilled laborers not included in the Amalgamated Association, blockaded the steelworks and mobilized support from the local community. The battle memorialized in song took place on July 6, 1892, when armed strikers confronted 300 private policemen from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Seven workers and three Pinkerton agents were killed, and the Pinkertons were forced to retreat. Four days later, the governor of Pennsylvania dispatched 8,000 militiamen to open the complex on management’s terms. The strikers held out until November, but the union’s defeat was now inevitable. In the end, the Amalgamated Association was destroyed.

The Carnegie corporation’s tactics and the workers’ solidarity won the strikers widespread national sympathy. “Ten thousand Carnegie libraries,” declared the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “would not compensate the country for the evils resulting from Homestead.” The strike became an international cause celebre as well. British newspapers pointed out that their country restricted the use of private police forces far more severely than the United States. Britons, they claimed, understood economic liberty better than Americans.

Homestead demonstrated that neither a powerful union nor public opinion could influence the conduct of the largest corporations. The writer Hamlin Garland, who visited Homestead two years after the strike, found the workforce sullen and bitter. He described a town “as squalid and unlovely as could be imagined,” with dingy houses over which hung dense clouds of black smoke. It was “American,” he wrote, “only in the sense in which [it] represents the American idea of business.”

Andrew Carnegie’s ironworks at Homestead, Pennsylvania.

In fact, two American ideas of freedom collided at Homestead—the employers’ definition, based on the idea that property rights, unrestrained by union rules or public regulation, sustained the public good, and the workers’ conception, which stressed economic security and independence from what they considered the “tyranny” of employers. The strife at Homestead also reflected broader battles over American freedom during the 1890s.

Like the Homestead workers, many Americans came to believe that they were being denied economic independence and democratic self-government, long central to the popular understanding of freedom.

During the 1890s, millions of farmers joined the Populist movement in an attempt to reverse their declining economic prospects and to rescue the government from what they saw as control by powerful corporate interests. The 1890s witnessed the imposition of a new racial system in the South that locked African-Americans into the status of second-class citizenship, denying them many of the freedoms white Americans took for granted. Increasing immigration produced heated debates over whether the country should reconsider its traditional self-definition as a refuge for foreigners seeking greater freedom on American shores. At the end of the 1890s, in the Spanish-American War, the United States for the first time acquired overseas possessions and found itself ruling over subject peoples from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. Was the democratic republic, many Americans wondered, becoming an empire like those of Europe? Rarely has the country experienced at one time so many debates over both the meaning of freedom and freedom’s boundaries.



Even as labor unrest crested, a different kind of uprising was ripening in the South and the trans-Mississippi West, a response to falling agricultural prices and growing economic dependency in rural areas. Like industrial workers, small farmers faced increasing economic insecurity. In the South, the sharecropping system, discussed in Chapter 15, locked millions of tenant farmers, white and black, into perpetual poverty. The interruption of cotton exports dining the Civil War had led to the rapid expansion of production in India, Egypt, and Brazil. The glut of cotton on the world market led to declining prices (from 11 cents a pound in 1881 to 4.6 cents in 1894), throwing millions of small farmers deep into debt and threatening them with the loss of their land. In the West, farmers who had mortgaged their property to purchase seed, fertilizer, and equipment faced the prospect of losing their farms when unable to repay their bank loans. Farmers increasingly believed that their plight derived from the high freight rates charged by railroad companies, excessive interest rates for loans from merchants and bankers, and the fiscal policies of the federal government (discussed in the previous chapter) that reduced the supply of money and helped to push down farm prices.

Through the Farmers’ Alliance, the largest citizens’ movement of the nineteenth century, farmers sought to remedy their condition. Founded in Texas in the late 1870s, the Alliance spread to forty-three states by 1890. The farmers’ alternatives, said J. D. Fields, a Texas Alliance leader, were “success and freedom, or failure and servitude.” At first, the Alliance remained aloof from politics, attempting to improve rural conditions by the cooperative financing and marketing of crops. Alliance “exchanges” would loan money to farmers and sell their produce. But it soon became clear that farmers on their own could not finance this plan, and banks refused to extend loans to the exchanges. The Alliance therefore proposed that the federal government establish warehouses where farmers could store their crops until they were sold. Using the crops as collateral, the government would then issue loans to farmers at low interest rates, thereby ending their dependence on bankers and merchants. Since it would have to be enacted by Congress, the “subtreasury plan,” as this proposal was called, led the Alliance into politics.

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