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Joseph Kaminski

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November 21, 2019

Social Consciousness: The Ocala Demands and a ‘Bottom Up’ Economy

Key ideas: In what ways were the the developments in the South and West driven from the “bottom up”? How did the Ocala Demands benefit Populism?

Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the progressive reforms of the early 20th century, the United States government found itself on the world stage as an industrious nation with a rather successful economy that would eventually bolster ‘diplomatic’ manifestation of the later American power. The historiographical way of looking at this period of American history has shed light on different avenues of sociopolitical and economic changes in the way of the American South, West, and the urbanization of the country. While some historians would focus entirely on the political revenue generated between the ‘robber barons’ of monopolized, slush-funded industries, the changes that came from this period can also be related back to the everyday individuals that pushed for social, political, and economic changes. This paper focuses on the transformation of the ingenuity of an industrialized America, and how people led to the urbanization of cities and important political changes that drove the American system to rebirth itself in a way that allowed itself to be ‘modernized’ for the people.

Although the robber barons of industrialized monopolies and government pockets had quite an important role in “trickling down” industrialization throughout the states, it becomes blatantly obvious through both primary and secondary sources that entire subsections of the American geographical landscape were initially shut out from said movements. The Rockefellers, Morgans, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies had more than just their monopolization and power in common: they were all New Englanders when it came to the base for their businesses. The South began to industrialize in ways that varied from the rest of the countries. Lady Modernity didn’t follow a straight path like Manifest Destiny did half a century prior, it sprouted through pockets of wealth and urbanization that led to certain areas of the South remaining as poor as they ever were; and although we witness this poverty in the rural backwoods of the southern states, we still see the birth of a ‘New South’.

One of the greatest ways of looking at the so-called “New South”, one created by and used in ways to ‘cope’, sort to speak, with the Confederacy’s ultimate defeat and the shackles of Reconstruction, would be through Henry Grady, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1880s. In two separate speeches given three years apart, Grady discussed the very localized changes that had happened in between the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and 1886-1889, the midst of industrialization in American society. In a speech to the Bay State Club of Boston[1], he described the funeral of a man who fought for the Confederacy and the ‘rise’ of a Southern state of its own.

He vividly described the contradictions of the American resource economy of the time, as all the resources needed to bury the man were all within a literal stone’s throw from his final resting place; yet all the materials were ‘imported’ from the Northern states. But, in the same speech, he proudly exclaims that the South had “improved” on their industrial problem. He focuses on the ‘biggest marble-cutting establishment on earth’, the ‘half-dozen woolen mills’, the ‘iron mills, furnaces, and factories’[2] that didn’t exist during the time of Southern secession. What stands out the most would be Grady’s use of the term “noble revenge” and how he claimed the South would eventually “invade” the American economy with their resources in a way that would rival the way the North invaded the South during the Civil War. This wasn’t a system that was driven by the top that eventually allocated itself to the bottom, it was a system that pushed people from the bottom to create sociopolitical and economic change.

The South and West as a whole, much like Henry Grady, saw resource allocation and transportation systems as a threat to the communities that produced many of the ‘goods’ for American markets. Farmers of the west found it increasingly difficult to connect with the established political systems in a way that American patriots found it difficult to connect with London on the dawn of our revolution. In the meantime, they found it difficult to make a profit as railroad chains monopolized the industry, cut corners on the market, and up-charged whenever they felt like it; and although the railroad led to geographical and economic expansion, it wasn’t alone. Companies that started the railroad industry initially found themselves on a fragile boundary-line between cities.

They relied heavily on people and goods – said goods being produced by people – to use the railroads in a way to get to the markets quicker. It wasn’t the tycoons of a railroad industry that brought change overnight, but the farmers that found themselves curtailed by an industry that was well ahead of its time.[3] These farmers grew to depend on a new system to keep up with a market that needed the goods produced by the farmers to keep up with a growing consumerist economy, and thus they began feeling pressured in ways that had never been seen before in the now-shrinking, non-commercialized economy. Farmers needed a way to make the new system, that they themselves were a part of, work more in their favor…so what did they do?

They demanded change. In 1890, a group of organizations led by various assortments of farmers joined together in Ocala, Florida to draw up a blatant list of expectations that they wanted to push on the American political system. These farmers, drafting the Ocala Demands, ushered a movement that rode a rather successful wave of social consciousness. In a society that was becoming brutally industrialized by those playing cards on the market with the inventory produced and provided by those who felt like they were getting the short end of the stick, it became important to pursuit not only protection but benefits from the new industrialized way of marketing. The aforementioned problems that poorer, lower-class laborers had in this new economic system, were targeted in the Ocala Demands. From demanding the establishment of sub-treasuries that would allow people such as themselves to withdraw low-interest loans in time of need[4] and pushing for government intervention into public methods of communication and transportation[5] to demanding that Congress submit an amendment to provide a ‘direct vote’ from the people of each state[6], these irritated farmers set up an entire rift in American politics by setting up the foundation for and eventually founding the People’s (Populist) Party.

Although traditionalist, “Great Men” theorist historians tend to focus on the industrious monopoly men of the Gilded Age when it comes to the American market during this period, references provide ample research and information that shows us that individual people…the everyday dirt farmers of rural communities and those who dropped everything they had to reallocate their entire lives into the steadily evolving pockets of possible wealth and urbanization of the American ‘frontiers’. There are examples of these changes being produced from the “top down” through monopolization and political drafting, but it was truly the average people who helped develop political changes and played an important role in driving the new economy from the “bottom up”. As Cronon says in Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, “one can almost forget that people have something to do with the building of”[7] a new way of life.

[1] "Henry Grady Sells the "New South"." HISTORY MATTERS - The U.S. Survey Course on the Web. Accessed October 14,  2017. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5745/.

[2] Grady, Ibid. Henry Grady to the Bay State Club of Boston, 1889.

[3] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, Chapter 3: 97-98.

[4] Ocala Demands, 1b.

[5] Ocala Demands, 6.

[6] Ocala Demands, 7.

[7] Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis, Chapter 2: 55.

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