On 29 October 1877, more than a thousand San Franciscans gathered in front of the home of millionaire Charles Crocker. Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins, three of the "Big Four," had all built mansions on Nob Hill. From there, these railroad tycoons could look out over the city – and the state – that they dominated. But this crowd of laborers and craftsmen had not come to celebrate these wealthy industrialists. They were there to demand that Crocker tear down the "spite fence" he had built around the home of one of his neighbors.
Crocker had planned on owning the entire block, but Nicholas Yung (Jung) refused to sell Crocker his home. Therefore, Crocker built a forty-foot wall along three sides of Yung's lot, forcing the local undertaker to live literally in the shadow of his powerful neighbor. Denis Kearney, the leader of the angry workers, pointed to the fence as a symbol of the malignant power exercised by a handful of men in the state. Railroad owners, land speculators, and corrupt politicians were principally to blame, but Kearney typically closed his speeches by denouncing the Chinese immigrants that filled the payrolls of these capitalist giants, drove down wages and took jobs from native workers. The fence must come down, Kearney declared, and "the Chinese must go."
City officials acted quickly to control this crowd and silence Kearney. They passed an ordinance prohibiting anyone from using such provocative language in front of crowds of more than 25 people. These officials remembered that just two months earlier a similar gathering had turned into a riot during which Chinese homes and laundries had been destroyed, and they realized that attacks on the Chinese could quickly turn into attacks on their own homes and businesses.
But Kearney and his followers fooled these local leaders. They did not riot on 29 October, nor did they in the weeks that followed. Instead, they built a political party that challenged the political establishment and forced changes to the state constitution.
To a certain extent, when California's small farmers and common laborers lashed out at Chinese immigrants and wealthy industrialists, they accurately assessed the sources of their economic problems. Chinese immigrants did pour into the state during the 1870s, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 meant that this large labor force now competed with native workers in the state's fields, mines and workshops. Moreover, the federal government seemed wholly indifferent to the threat these immigrants posed to native workers. In 1868, the United States and China signed the Burlingame Treaty, which allowed unrestricted entry – but no rights of naturalization – to Chinese immigrants. Twenty-two thousand Chinese entered San Francisco in 1876 alone.32
Native workers were also correct in concluding that large industrialists and landowners opposed them in trying to reduce immigration. They correctly realized that big business interests benefitted from an expanded labor pool. Workers were also correct in recognizing that the largest of these industrial giants – the Big Four – exercised an inordinate amount of economic power in the state. These railroad tycoons controlled not just the interstate railroads; they also established monopolies on the docks and rivers within the state. The Oakland and San Francisco waterfronts, the rail lines to southern California and Oregon, and steam traffic on the inland rivers were all controlled by this transportation superpower. Moreover, the railroads were the largest single landowner in the state. The Southern Pacific received close to 12 million acres in California from the federal government – about 20% of all privately owned land in the state.33 The majority of these lands, then, were sold to large ranchers, like Henry Miller and Charles Lux, and large real estate speculators, like James Ben Ali Haggin, rather than to small farmers.
Yet, while California's workers had plenty of real and legitimate grievances with industrialists like Crocker and Stanford, and the federal and state governments that seemed to serve them, many of the state's economic problems were tied to more complex developments.
Most everyone in the state from Charles Crocker to Denis Kearney expected that the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 would unleash an economic boom. But instead, hard times followed the driving of the golden spike in Utah. Well-backed eastern merchants now rushed to the west coast to take advantage of new commercial possibilities, driving out smaller local merchants and businesses in the process. Land prices also quickly rose in anticipation of the commercial boom, further reducing the opportunities for the state's small farmers. There was good news from the Comstock – the Nevada silver mines were hitting rich veins deep in the mountains – but this drew capital away from other investment channels that might have been more beneficial to the long term economic development of the state. What's more, in 1873, California's local problems were exacerbated by a national depression.
In other words, Kearney and workers that supported him were caught up in a series of economic changes that no one anticipated or could really control. But there was enough accuracy in their assessment emphasizing Chinese immigrants and industrialist monopolies to make it stick. Moreover, since it provided a clear target for their frustration and a set of tangible political objectives, this somewhat narrow assessment served to tie these struggling workers together into a cohesive political movement.
For years there had been wide-ranging criticism of the original state constitution. Drawn hastily by an unrepresentative small body in 1849, early attempts to amend or replace the document had failed. But a decade of economic trouble convinced a majority of the state's voters that political reform might be a step toward economic recovery. The convention, called to convene in September 1878, gave California's disgruntled working class the opportunity for which they were ready. Led by Denis Kearney, the new Workingmen's Party entered a full slate of candidates in the June elections for seats in the convention. The Democrats and Republicans were so intimidated by the size of the new party that they united in opposition. It's lucky for them that they did. Combined, and calling themselves "Non-partisan," they won 78 seats at the convention, while the Workingmen's Party secured 51 seats.
The Workingmen platform called for a variety of reforms aimed at the coalition of forces they believed worked against them in the state. They called for the regulation of the railroads and elimination of discriminatory rates. They demanded that corporations and banks be made more accountable. They proposed modifications in the state tax structure that would shift the burden from land-owning farmers to industries and corporations like the railroads. They also called for restrictions on Chinese immigration. Furthermore, even though the Party did not hold a majority of the seats at the convention, they did muster enough support to place diluted versions of most of these planks in the new constitution. For example, the new constitution did establish a three-member railroad commission to regulate rates. It also contained a clause authorizing the legislature to protect the state from aliens and forbidding corporations and the state to hire Chinese workers.
The Workingmen's Party followed up this success with striking victories in the 1879 state elections. The party elected the chief justice and five of six associate justices to the state supreme court as well as eleven senators and sixteen assemblymen. The party also elected the next mayor of San Francisco, Isaac Kalloch.
The political revolution engineered by California's workers and small farmers was echoed in the West more broadly just a decade later with the formation of the Populist or People's Party. And like the Workingmen's Party, the Populists drew from an assessment of political and economic conditions that, although somewhat narrow, served to tie farmers together within a dynamic and cohesive movement.
America's farmers experienced a dramatic shift in their fortunes over the second half of the nineteenth century. In the years after the Civil War, growing urban markets and increased exports to Europe inspired agricultural expansion into the Midwest. Between 1860 and 1900, farmers placed 430 million new acres under cultivation. To assist them in their work, new technologies and new fertilizers rapidly increased productivity. And America's expanding network of railroads enabled Midwestern farmers to transport their crops to eastern markets and ports.
But by 1880, farmers' once lucrative markets had weakened. Increased production in Europe and South America, and European tariffs that blocked American exports, left American farmers with increased competition and falling prices. In addition, farmers experienced the flip side of their new technology – increased productivity meant that market saturation could be achieved by fewer men. By 1900, one farmer could produce as much wheat as it had taken twenty to produce in 1860.
As domestic and foreign markets shrank, farmers' prospects dimmed, especially since many carried large debt burdens optimistically taken on during the preceding boom decades. But rather than go broke quietly, they took a lesson from the rapidly expanding industrial sector of the economy. They began to organize and experiment with the benefits of cooperation and size. The Grange (founded in 1867) and the Farmers' Alliance (founded in 1877) introduced marketing and equipment cooperatives, collectively owned mills, and even credit unions. But by 1890, farmers had decided that they needed to take their organizational efforts to the next level – so they formed their own political party. In July 1892, 1300 delegates gathered at Omaha, Nebraska to write a national platform and select a presidential nominee – The People's, or Populist, Party was born.
Breaking ties with the established parties was often a painful process in an era when party affiliation was a critical part of personal identity. But easing this separation was the particular character of the farmers' analysis of their circumstances. In sorting out the causes of their economic distress they tended to focus less on the structural changes within international markets than on the "conspiracy" of Eastern money interests that they believed was working against them – banks that charged exploitive interest rates, railroads that levied discriminatory rates, and commodities middlemen that reaped the greatest rewards from the farmers' back-breaking labor.
There was a great deal of validity to their assessment. Railroads, in particular, were guilty of charging discriminatory rates on western goods – a producer paid 95 cents per ton from Chicago eastward, but $3.20 per ton west of the Missouri river.34 But more importantly than the actual accuracy of their assessment, was the way that it functioned to tie farmers together as a victimized class. In blaming bankers, middlemen, and railroad tycoons – all agents of the new industrial economy – farmers were able to transform their economic concerns onto a crusade on behalf of America's agrarian past. In blaming a conspiracy of money men rather than the vicissitudes of global markets, farmers were able to build a coherent movement rather than just a political coalition, a crusade for justice rather than just another political party.
United and given direction by their analysis, the Populist Party advanced an ambitious agenda that called for unprecedented levels of government involvement in the economy. Arguing that the Interstate Commerce Commission, created in 1877 to regulate the railroads, had proven completely inadequate to this task, they proposed that the government assume ownership of the railroads, as well as the telegraph lines. Complaining that the current network of national and state banks charged excessively high interest rates on rural borrowers, they recommended the creation of "postal savings banks" controlled by locally elected officials.
To address what they perceived were inequities in local and state tax systems, the Populists argued that property taxes should be replaced by a graduated income tax. After all, they argued, in an industrial economy acreage was a poor indicator of wealth. And to redress the inequities in land ownership, they proposed that the land reclaimed through the nationalization of the railroads be made available to agrarian settlers.
The Populist Party also proposed an innovative government agency labeled the regional subtreasury. Since farmers were often victimized by falling prices, yet were unable to hold onto their crop until prices rose because they had debts to service, the Populist proposed that the federal government create a network of storage/credit institutions that would lend farmers a percentage of their crops' value while they waited for prices to rise.
And finally, the Populists suggested that the federal government should increase the amount of currency in circulation. By maintaining at least $50 of currency in circulation per person, crop prices would rise, and borrowers could more easily pay down their debts. In order to maintain this volume of money in the economy, Populists endorsed the free coinage of silver.
By the middle of the 1890s, the farmers had built a national political party with growing memberships throughout the South and Midwest. And unlike the other major parties of this period, they had advanced a creative and pragmatic solution for the farmers' problems. Unlike the other parties, they had managed to shake off many of the philosophical and historical inhibitions that had limited the national government for the previous thirty years. And, for better or for worse, they had forced the other parties to take notice.
There are striking similarities in these western political movements. Both recognized that extraordinary economic power wielded by large industries – railroads and banks, in particular – weakened their economic prospects. Both recognized that government – state and federal – needed to play a larger role in refereeing the economic playing field. Both ignored many of the structural changes and broader economic forces that combined to undercut their economic situations. And both benefitted from the narrowness of their assessment; by focusing blame on the tangible contributors to their economic woes, they were able to forge cohesive party identities and define concrete reform agendas.
There are also striking similarities in the fates of both parties. The Workingmen's Party faded away almost immediately after its successes of 1879. To a large extent, this was due to the economic recovery of the 1880s. Economic prosperity reduced political antagonisms and convinced many that the diluted measures achieved in 1879 had done as much as was necessary. In addition, the federal government capitulated to California's demand and suspended Chinese immigration. The ten-year exclusion act passed in 1882 was renewed in 1892 and made ongoing in 1902. Republican and Democratic policymakers in Washington decided, in other words, that the most effective way to combat this political threat was to absorb it.
Economic improvements also contributed to the rapid demise of the Populist Party. The discovery of gold in the Yukon dramatically increased the nation's gold supply and, consequently, the nation's money supply, as Populists had wanted. Furthermore, poor European harvests raised prices for American agricultural products abroad, yielding far better foreign and domestic prices for American foodstuffs.
In addition, the political party most threatened by the Populists decided that the best way to combat the threat was to absorb it. At its 1896 National Convention, the Democratic Party stole one of the Populists' central issues and the majority of the insurgent party's thunder. Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan delivered a ringing call for the free coinage of silver. Declaring that "you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this cross of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," Bryan brought convention delegates to their feet; a few days later he was named the party's nominee for the presidency.
The Populists were left in quandary. Many among the rank and file had earlier encouraged joining forces with the Democrats. These "fusionists" now urged their fellow-Populists to join the Democrats in nominating Bryan for the presidency. A second group, labeled "mid-roaders," argued that the Democrats would never embrace the breadth of the Populist agenda – after all, silver was just one plank of their platform. If they allowed themselves to be absorbed by the Democrats, the breadth of their agenda and the distinctive character of their movement would be lost. But the fusionists prevailed; the Party named Bryan their nominee while the mid-roaders succeeded only in placing one of their own, Tom Watson, on the ticket as the vice-presidential candidate.
It may have been the judicious course, but the Populist Party would never be the same. A lot of the crusade-like enthusiasm that had animated the rank-and-file was lost in the decision to accept the candidate of the old, established party. Then, when Bryan was defeated by Republican nominee William McKinley in the general election, many Populists lost confidence in political action altogether.
The political revolt from the West thus proved short-lived. Both the Workingmen's Party and the Populists disappeared within a decade of their emergence. Today, many analysts find the brevity of their existences disheartening. These dynamic movements, proposing significant far-reaching reforms, simply ran out of gas when economic conditions improved. Even worse, their more ambitious agendas were abandoned when the political establishment threw them a bone – for instance, Chinese exclusion and free silver.
A longer view, however, suggests that these movements had more enduring and significant impacts. By 1920, the federal government had assumed far greater responsibilities within the economy, banks and railroads were more aggressively regulated, and the tax system had been restructured.
Patience, in other words, brought the Workingmen's Party and the Populists much of what they wanted.
Patience also ultimately brought a resolution to the Crocker-Yung dispute. Crocker's spite fence, built in 1876, made life unlivable for the Yung Family on Nob Hill. Unwilling to give in, they jacked up their home and moved it to another location. But they still refused to sell Crocker the lot on Nob Hill. Even after Nicholas Yung died in 1880, his widow, Rosina, refused to surrender to the railroad giant. Charles Crocker died in 1888, no doubt still fuming over his inability to gain control over the rogue lot. But in 1902, Rosina died and the Yung's daughters, apparently lacking their parents' moxie, agreed to sell to Crocker's heirs. But if the Crockers celebrated, they did not celebrate for long; San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the Crocker mansion. Perhaps seeing the hand of God, perhaps wishing to atone for his father's spiteful behavior, Charles's son, William, donated the Nob Hill estate to the Episcopal Church. Today Grace Cathedral graces the site of this old dispute.