The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 81, July 1977 - April, 1978 Page: 244

Southwestern Historical Quarterly

Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers' Alliance. By
Robert C. McMath, Jr. (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1975. Pp. xiii+s21. Appendices, bibliography,
index. $13.95.)
Until the advent of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the
Southern Farmers' Alliance was the largest and most influential farm-
ers' organization in the history of the United States. The Southern
Alliance evolved from a frontier protective association into an agency
for economic cooperation and then to a political pressure group. Popu-
lism sprang from the loins of the Alliance, and it was largely conflict
over the subtreasury issue that propelled Alliancemen into politics
and populism. McMath characterizes Alliancemen as belonging to the
middle range of rural southerners. They were neither socialists nor
reactionary yoemen, but hard-pressed "actors in the marketplace"
(p. 157), a phrase that strikes a chord but needs tuning. Leadership
often came from the ranks of rural teachers, physicians, journalists,
and preachers. Members had a deep involvement with southern white
Protestantism and used the rhetoric of religion and evangelical Prot-
estantism to justify their cause-a rhetoric similarly used by opponents
to defend the status quo.
The Alliance protest was in part a frontier phenomenon and its
great achievement was to build upon and consolidate a sense of com-
munity in the frontierlike regions of the South and West. Its reception
was greatest in the unsettled, inchoate regions. Its organizational struc-
ture, like that of rural Protestantism, was peculiarly suited to frontier
conditions. The Alliance lecturer-organizer, notes the author, may be
equated to the circuit rider. Massive Alliance experiments in coopera-
tion produced a "revolution of rising expectation" (p. 53) that failed
to achieve its goals, except for limited success against the jute-bagging
trust. Nonetheless, the Alliance offered a "promise of economic relief,
presented through a relatively efficient communications and organizing
network" (p. 46).
The Texas incubation of the Southern Farmers' Alliance is some-
what clarified in Populist Vanguard; the expansion of the organization
across state lines and its emergence as a loosely knit national federa-
tion is reasonably well-detailed. After its initial response to frontier
needs, the Alliance developed a distinct business orientation with
program emphasis on marketing and purchasing cooperatives, and
monetary policy. Its emergence as a political pressure group coincided
with a new social orientation. Although the author performs creditably


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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 81, July 1977 - April, 1978, periodical, 1977/1978; Austin, Texas. ( accessed September 20, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Texas State Historical Association.