Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 26. Agrarian Agitation

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXI. Political Writing Since 1850

§ 26. Agrarian Agitation

Now the prevailing doctrine was that of economic individualism, which emphasized the sanctity of private property, the development of natural resources under private direction only, and the laissez faire theory of economics. With this the agrarian experiments in co-operation and the demand for state control were at variance. The conflict of ideals deeply influenced jurisprudence, for it raised the question of public regulation of railroads and other utilities versus the rights of property guaranteed by the Constitution. Undoubtedly one purpose of the fourteenth amendment was to afford protection to property interests against hostile legislation; but the Supreme Court of the United States was not prone to extend the scope of Federal supervision, and in 1876 it upheld an Illinois statute regulating grain elevators. “For protection against abuses by legislatures the people must resort to the polls, not to the courts.” Twelve years later, however, in the celebrated Minnesota Rate Case the court took the opposite opinion, holding that the reasonableness of railroad rates was a question for judicial review.

  • The question of the reasonableness of the rate of charge for transportation by the railroad company, involving as it does the element of reasonableness both as regards the company, and as regards the public, is eminently a question for judicial determination. If the company is deprived of the power of charging reasonable rates for the use of its property, and such deprivation takes place in the absence of the investigation by judicial machinery, it is deprived of the lawful use of its property, and thus in substance and effect, of the property itself without due process of the law and in violation of the Constitution of the United States.
  • Deep was the significance of this decision; property interests now found protection against public regulations, and naturally the courts became the object of increasing criticism by those who were discontented with the existing social and economic order.

    The Grange and the minor political parties identified with it declined, but a second wave of discontent in the eighties was the background for the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist party of the early nineties. In the whole range of American political literature no document is more remarkable than the Populist platform of 1892; it summarized the existing discontent and recommended remedies which, generally regarded at the time as too radical ever to be applied, today are a part of our orthodox political system. Most of the literature relating to Populism is ephemeral; but of real artistic merit is The Kansas Bandit, or the Fall of Ingalls, a dramatic dialogue inspired by the defeat of Senator Ingalls of Kansas in his contest for re-election to the United States Senate.