Organized in Texas in the late 1870s, the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, along with its segregated counterpart the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance, addressed the problems of debt and depressed commodity prices that confronted much of rural America. From Texas, the Alliance spread rapidly across the South and the Great Plains in the 1880s. “Travelling lecturers” established a network of suballiances that educated local farmers on Alliance programs. In particular, Alliance leaders advocated cooperative enterprises, such as bulk purchasing or marketing exchanges, which would bypass merchants and other “middlemen” who siphoned off farmers’ income. As it grew, the Alliance gave rise to a defiant agrarian consciousness across the South.
In South Carolina, the Alliance movement “swept over our state like a wave” in the late 1880s, first appearing in the Pee Dee region. The state’s first county alliance was organized in Marion County in 1887, followed by a statewide South Carolina Alliance in July 1888 and a Colored Farmers’ Alliance in June 1889. By 1890 over one thousand suballiances existed in the state, which claimed over eighty thousand members, black and white.
To provide an alternative to the oppressive crop lien system, the South Carolina Alliance established a state exchange (a central retail market) in Greenville in 1889, which moved to Columbia in 1891. The exchange amassed $225,000 in capital and a $17,000 surplus in 1894. But by operating on a cash-only basis, the benefits of the exchange reached only a limited number of farmers. Less successful commercial ventures included over twenty cooperative enterprises, among them warehouses, stores, publishing companies, and a planned Alliance bank. But Alliance men lacked business expertise and capital, and their commercial ventures seldom succeeded. The Alliance exchange in Columbia closed in 1899.
The Alliance’s economic focus soon included political action. The state Alliance organized a successful boycott of jute bagging from 1888 to 1890, forcing a decline in jute prices and demonstrating the potential influence of the organization. By 1890 the Alliance provided a forum for anti-Bourbon politicians as Alliance man Ben Tillman was elected governor, state Alliance president Eli T. Stackhouse was elected to Congress, and almost a third of state legislators were Alliance members. In office, Tillman remained an Alliance member but emphasized his own organization, the Farmers’ Association, as the responsible alternative to conservative Democrats. Frustrated with the unwillingness of Tillman and other “Alliance Democrats’” to act on Alliance demands, Alliance leaders began to advocate a third party.
No South Carolina Alliance member was present at the 1892 St. Louis Convention, where the Farmers’ Alliance endorsed the People’s Party and the language and agenda that came to be known as populism. Tillman abhorred populism’s biracial appeal and third-party tactics but needed Alliance support to promote his own ambitions. Campaigning for reelection in 1892, Tillman neutralized the ideological influence of the Alliance and co-opted its organizational strength into his political machine. Once back in office, Tillman subsumed the state Alliance’s political identity into his Democratic faction and did little to advance the Alliance’s agenda. The Alliance soon collapsed in South Carolina, with the populist presidential ticket receiving just 2,410 votes statewide in 1892. The demise of the Farmers’ Alliance reflected the difficulty of establishing a biracial political movement in South Carolina and was a harbinger of the movement’s fate throughout the South.
Church, Joseph. “The Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist Movement in South Carolina (1887–1896).” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1953.
Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Kantrowitz, Stephen. Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
McMath, Robert C., Jr. Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.