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L. L. Polk (Leonidas La Fayette), 1837-1892
Agricultural Depression. Its Causes--the Remedy. Speech of L. L. Polk, President of the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union, before the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. April 22, 1890
Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, Printers, 1890.


The testimony of Leonidas La Fayette Polk—president of the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union from 1889 to 1892—before the 1890 United States Senate is here reprinted as the speech "Agricultural Depression. Its Causes--the Remedy." Here, Polk lays out his diagnosis of the illness plaguing American farmers. He relies on statistical data to demonstrate that manufacturing was steadily overtaking farming as the dominant force of the national economy and that farm values decreased while the nation's overall wealth increased. In addition, while agricultural production increased after the Civil War, the prices farmers received did not keep pace; Polk shows that in fact crops often cost more to produce than they were worth on the market. He also points out that the rates warehouses and railroads charged farmers to store and ship their crops; the cost of land, fertilizer, and seed; and state property taxes had all gone up over the preceding twenty years. In his view, this farming crisis amounted to a national emergency, and he uses examples from states such as Georgia, Illinois, and Pennsylvania to justify this view. Polk appeals to the senators' patriotism by reminding them of the scores of farmers, many of whose forefathers helped settle and build America, that have come to Washington to ask for aid. He warns that "retrogression in American agriculture means national decline, national decay, and ultimate and inevitable ruin. [T]he power and grandeur of this great country cannot survive the degradation of the American farmer." (pp. 25-26)

In sum, Polk blames the government for the farmers' plight, and a bill sponsored by an old friend, former North Carolina governor and incumbent United States Senator Zebulon Baird Vance, promised Polk's favored remedy for this crisis. This bill—which Vance did not support but which was created and backed by the National Farmers' Alliance—advocated the free coinage of silver to increase the supply of currency farmers needed to get out of debt. More importantly, it proposed establishing government-run warehouses to hold surplus crops on behalf of individual farmers until prices rose to a profitable level; this was known as the "sub-treasury plan" and aimed at relieving farmers' credit issues and increasing their cash flow. Polk's Senate testimony, however, fell on unsympathetic ears, and Vance's bill failed. The efforts across the nation of Farmers' Alliance members to win Democratic legislative seats in 1890 and 1891 also had only limited success. Polk and others became convinced that both major political parties, Democrats and Republicans, were too old and too wedded to business interests to be counted on to reform.

Works Consulted: Noblin, Stuart, Leonidas LaFayette Polk, Agrarian Crusader, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1949. For the history of the North Carolina Farmers' Alliance and Polk's involvement in it, see John D. Hicks, "The Farmers' Alliance in North Carolina," in North Carolina Historical Review, 2, (April 1925), pp. 162-187 and 6 (July 1929), pp. 254-280; and Robert C. McMath, Jr., "Agrarian Protest at the Forks of the Creek: Three Subordinate farmers' Alliances in North Carolina," North Carolina Historical Review, 51 (January 1974), pp. 41-63.

Michael Sistrom

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