- Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South
Matthew Hild, in Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists, takes on two subjects, the farmer-labor revolts of the late nineteenth century and the New South, both of which have lacked continuity in previous studies. Rather than exploring the ties between the procession of movements that shared the themes of economic reform, they have too often been treated as separate phenomena. Hild answers the demands of reasoning and provides links between the Greenback movement, the advent of the Knights of Labor, and the rise of Populism.
As Hild documents, however, the idea of three movements is deceiving. Farmer-labor insurgency actually consisted of webs of coalitions of separate and associated organizations and parties. He paints a picture of regional and local complexities that belie the concept of homogeneity in the three struggles for reform. Hild’s work demonstrates, as often is the case, that national views of history are deceiving when examined at deeper levels. As a case in point, cursory views of national history align the Populists with the [End Page 109] Democrats in evolutionary progress—largely because of William Jennings Bryan’s endorsement by the Populists in 1896. However, earlier state and regional fusions existed between the Populists and the Republicans, such as in North Carolina, where in 1894 Democrats lost control of state government for the first time since Reconstruction to a Populist-Republican coalition.
Likewise, Hild’s in-depth study joins others in overturning generalizations about the South during the era. The impact of farmer-labor organizations, the extent of involvement by African Americans in reform politics, and the strength of the Republican and third parties all challenge the notion that the Redemption/Bourbon governments of the South enjoyed a long era of good feelings (for them) in the late nineteenth century. They also divulge the political, economic, and social diversity of the South. In Georgia, for instance, ninety independents who were sympathetic to the Greenback-Labor Party served in the state legislature by 1878.
The strength of Hild’s work lies in uncovering the complicated history of the farmer-labor movement in the South through thorough research and treatment of regional and individual accounts. Ironically, the broad coverage of the layers of the farmer-labor organizations in the southern states reveals two weaknesses. The first is that the differences in movements and experiences in the various states show that perhaps the lack of homogeneity in the South means that a study of farmer-labor insurgency in the context of the entire South is perhaps artificial. To be sure, there are common traits in the movements within all of the southern states—considerations of race, the issue of the convict-lease system, currency reform, and the domination of the Democratic Party, among others. Nevertheless, the differences among the states and regions of the South, even on these issues, shows that a discussion of farmer-labor movements in the South as a whole is a stretch. The South, indeed, was not homogenous in the late nineteenth century, and farmers and laborers in the trans-Mississippi region for instance were more concerned about cattle and railroads than those to the east, who were more concerned with courting the middle class and mountain Republicans in order to make political inroads.
A second weakness, related to the overreaching concept of the South, is that Hild emphasizes some parts of the South over others. He considers Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and to a lesser degree Tennessee, and South Carolina, but hardly mentions Florida and Virginia. He apparently does not consider Kentucky and West Virginia to be parts of the South, though their histories with the farmer-labor movements share common traits with the rest of the South. [End Page 110]
Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists provides some important perspectives that make the book very worthwhile to students of labor history or the South. It gives insightful explanations of the end of...