Arkansas's Gilded Age: The Rise, Decline, and Legacy of Populism and Working-Class Protest

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Date: Nov. 2019
From: Journal of Southern History(Vol. 85, Issue 4)
Publisher: Southern Historical Association
Document Type: Book review
Length: 671 words
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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Arkansas's Gilded Age: The Rise, Decline, and Legacy of Populism and Working-Class Protest. By Matthew Hild. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 206. $40.00, ISBN 978-0-8262-2166-7.)

Many scholars have plowed the historical field of farmer and labor protest during the Gilded Age. With Arkansas's Gilded Age: The Rise, Decline, and Legacy of Populism and Working-Class Protest, Matthew Hild takes his second turn at the handle. His first book, Greenhackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South (Athens, Ga., 2007), examined farmer and labor protest in the South using a wide-angle regional lens. This book focuses on Arkansas as a case study of Gilded Age inequality and corruption. Hild's central purpose is to write a political history of farmer and labor movements in the state. He argues that farmer-labor activism peaked between 1888 and 1890 with a robust, though unsuccessful, Union Labor Party (ULP) challenge to the one-party rule of the Democrats.

Hild finds that Arkansas proved fertile ground for farmer and labor organizing after the Civil War. He shows how farmers' discontent grew in the 1870s and early 1880s to produce new organizations that challenged monopolies, anaconda mortgages, and the political structures that facilitated both. In the 1870s Arkansas farmers participated in movements imported to the state such as the National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry and the Greenback-Labor Party. In 1882 Arkansas farmers formed two organizations of their own to carry the farmers' banner: the Agricultural Wheel and the Brothers of Freedom. As farmers joined these groups by the tens of thousands, Arkansas industrial and railroad workers began organizing Knights of Labor assemblies in some key cities, such as Hot Springs and Little Rock. In the mid-1880s farmer-labor third-party activists allied with Republicans and produced some electoral victories, which caused Democrats to spring into action to combat the threat in 1888 and 1890. Democrats resorted to fraud, violence, and appeals to white supremacy to neutralize both the ULP and Republican challengers. Hild notes that this timeline set Arkansas apart from most other southern and western states. Elsewhere the Populist Party surge in the 1890s represented the apex of third-party activity.

While Hild provides insightful details about Arkansas's politically active farmers and industrial workers, the Democratic Party operates more on the periphery of the narrative. Readers learn little about prominent Democratic leaders, their ideas, or campaign pledges. It is often unclear how the various third parties distinguished themselves from Democrats and Republicans, especially in the key elections of 1888 and 1890, and therefore why some Arkansans, even farmers and industrial workers, might have chosen to vote for Democratic candidates rather than for their ULP or Republican opponents. Democrats emerge on the scene to commit murder and fraud in the late 1880s and to advocate the Election Law of 1891, which, Hild suggests, led to disenfranchisement on a scale that killed the farmer-labor movement. As the fate of third-party activism hung in the balance between 1888 and 1892, Hild often seems content to tell what happened rather than explain why.

Arkansas's Gilded Age presents a clear narrative political history of farmer and labor organizing in the state. Hild effectively uses newspapers, election results, government reports, and the limited sources available from the farmers and workers themselves to identify key issues, personalities, and outcomes. Anyone unfamiliar with the Agricultural Wheel or the Union Labor Party in Arkansas will learn a lot from this book. Likewise, the book provides a solid introduction to the history of key Gilded Age strikes in the state and is sensitive to how national or regional strikes impacted Arkansans. Although Hild does not make race or gender central points of analysis, he is careful to note when different organizations under consideration welcomed black men and white women as equal members and when they did not. Hild shows a rich legacy of activism in Gilded Age Arkansas that makes the state's historical trajectory from Reconstruction through the twentieth century all the more remarkable.


University of Central Arkansas

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A606277536