Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915

Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915

Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915

Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915


Up from the Mudsills of Hell analyzes agrarian activism in Tennessee from the 1870s to 1915 within the context of farmers' lives, community institutions, and familial and communal networks. Locating the origins of the agrarian movements in the state's late antebellum and post-Civil War farm economy, Connie Lester traces the development of rural reform from the cooperative efforts of the Grange, the Agricultural Wheel, and the Farmers' Alliance through the insurgency of the People's Party and the emerging rural bureaucracy of the Cooperative Extension Service and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Lester ties together a rich and often contradictory history of cooperativism, prohibition, disfranchisement, labor conflicts, and third-party politics to show that Tennessee agrarianism was more complex and threatening to the established political and economic order than previously recognized. As farmers reached across gender, racial, and political boundaries to create a mass movement, they shifted the ground under the monoliths of southern life. Once the Democratic Party had destroyed the insurgency, farmers responded in both traditional and progressive ways. Some turned inward, focusing on a localism that promoted--sometimes through violence--rigid adherence to established social boundaries. Others, however, organized into the Farmers' Union, whose membership infiltrated the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension Service. Acting through these bureaucracies, Tennessee agrarian leaders exerted an important influence over the development of agricultural legislation for the twentieth century.

Up from the Mudsills of Hell not only provides an important reassessment of agrarian reform and radicalism in Tennessee, but also links this Upper South state into the broader sweep of southern and American farm movements emerging in the late nineteenth century.


During the bitter gubernatorial campaign of 1892, newspaperman and Democratic stalwart Edward W. Carmack held a rally in Obion County, the heartland of the Agricultural Wheel and the Farmers’ Alliance in Tennessee. in his harangue against the reelection of Alliance governor John P. Buchanan, Carmack referred to the Populists who supported the incumbent: “If you dig down under the mudsill of Hell,” he intoned, “you would find Populists down there!”

Carmack’s impassioned denunciation of Populists demonstrated how seriously Democrats took the threat posed by Populists, as former Democratic political adversaries put aside their divisions and committed themselves to party unity and victory against the agrarian insurgents. Throughout the 1880s, while the Bourbon and New South wings of the Democratic Party continued politics as usual, the state’s farmers had organized to address the problems of credit, transportation, and marketing that stymied agrarian efforts to shape commercial agriculture to fit the hopes and expectations of the yeoman class. in rallies across the state, rural leaders preached cooperativism in grassroots organizations that offered the greatest benefits to propertied, small-scale, commercial-minded farmers. the Agricultural Wheel and then the Farmers’ Alliance initially resisted pressures to create an agrarian political party and convinced a significant number of rural voters to set aside partisanship in favor of candidates who promised to represent agriculture’s interests. Largely ignored or dismissed by Democratic and Republican leaders, farmers added to their legislative strength with each biennial election, winning the gubernatorial office and a significant minority of the General Assembly seats in the 1890 election.

Acting on what one newspaper editor called the “Tennessee Plan,” the governor and the farmer-legislators proceeded cautiously with the expectation of retaining the executive office for a second term and increasing the Alliance numbers in the 1893 general assembly, thereby positioning farmers to name Tennessee’s next U.S. senator. the Democratic Party, which harbored the majority of the insurgents, reacted to that possibility with alarm. the Bourbons, who held both Senate seats, worried that tentative agrarian efforts to bridge both . . .

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