Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

James C. Cobb

Committee Members

Paul H. Bergeron, W. Bruce Wheeler, Susan D. Becker, Anne Mayhew


As with other southern states, the scholarly investigations of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party in Tennessee focus on the activities of political elites within the Democratic Party and the actions of elected officials in the state legislature. Scholars generally relegate the Tennessee agrarian reform experience to the historical sidelines, probably as a result of the quick demise of the People's Party as an important factor in the state's politics. The Tennessee agrarian reform movement has been characterized as unfocused and inconsequential, and its leaders dismissed as demagogues and self-serving office seekers.

This study proposes that although the agrarian movement in Tennessee attracted landowning farmers to its ranks, the Agricultural Wheel and the Farmer's Alliance developed cooperative agencies, educational programs, and political activism that both questioned and threatened New South industrialism and the political control of the Bourbon planter elite. The agrarian potential for disruption of the state's economic and political status quo united the New South and Bourbon leaders of the Democratic party against the rural reformers and ended agrarian political momentum

Late nineteenth-century Tennessee was divided by geography, history, political partisanship, culture, race, and agricultural production. In order to understand the agricultural problems and the development of the grassroots political organization, this study uses the 1891 Congressional districts to compare agricultural production, tenancy, and electoral behavior. Without the benefit of an 1890 manuscript census, the study reUes on aggregate census figures, state agricultural reports, and Congressional investigations to determine agricultural production and the problems associated with market changes and declining prices. The words and actions of the men and women who filled positions of leadership and made up the rank and file of the Agricultural Wheel, the Farmers' Alliance, and the People's Party in Tennessee provide the sources for understanding the nature of agrarian insurgency. Letters to the agrarian newspapers, Wheel and Alliance minute books, and diaries are the sources of the voices of dissent in rural Tennessee at the turn of the century.

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