IE have deferred hitherto saying anything about the rising, as it is called, of the farmers against the Western railroads, in tine hope of being able to get from the various conventions and their platforms some idea as to the political intentions of the movers in the matter. The movement lias now gone on long enough to give the spectators a clear notion of its origin and causes, and the public are in a position to judge of its merits. Of course nothing is more common in the history of politics than the adoption, by bodies of men organized for a given purpose, of a new and unexpected policy. The Granges, Patrons of Husbandry, and Farmers’ Associations may adopt some plan at some future time which will give a wholly different look to their movement. We speak of it as it is now.
There seems to be in the public mind a grave misapprehension of the character of the operation known in the West as farming, which has done a good deal to create irrational sympathy for the farmers. The Western farmer is, as a rule, a man who has emigrated from the East in pursuit of wealth ; and, so far from representing the sacred cause of oppressed labor, he is himself in nine cases out of ten an employer of labor, or, in other words, a capitalist. He is just as necessary to the world as the man who drives his reaping-machine for him, or as the man who transports his grain to market for him, but not more so. He is very far from being a yeoman, and in fact very much nearer being a speculator. Ilis quiet farm is an establishment, containing from a few hundred to a few thousand acres, which he leases or owns, the funds not being generally a handful of gold dollars, the hard-earned savings of his father’s lifetime; on the contrary, his funds are to a great extent credits, the Western farmer being a borrower quite as much as the Western railroad. He is not, as a rule, anymore God-fearing or law-fearing than any of the rest of us. He is not bound to his farm by strong local affection and old traditional feeling ; on the contrary, he would as lief farm a thousand acres in one place as another, provided he can make enough from the soil to pay interest on his outstanding paper, and obtain a fair profit himself. He is, in short, a gentleman who goes into the business of producing grain from the earth for the same reason that other gentlemen embark their funds in the production of iron and coal from the earth, and still other gentlemen manufacture cotton and flax into cloth. He is as much entitled to pursue this occupation as they are theirs; hut there is no more reason for sympathizing with him in his hard lot when he is unsuccessful in money-making than there is for sympathizing with one of the shareholders in a Lowell mill or a Pennsylvania coal or iron mine when his hands are on strike. Sometimes they make, and sometimes they lose money; and whether they make or lose is a question depending partly on prudence, partly on chance, partly on the state of the market, partly on the condition of the weather; in fact, on precisely the same causes which determine the profits of the railroads thAnselves.
There is the best possible evidence — the evidence of men who have seen it with their own eyes — that within the past year or two the farmers have been producing too largely, or, as we might almost sav, speculating for a rise on a falling market. Two years ago there was already a glut. Along some of the lines leading to the Atlantic coast there were stacked thousands of bushels of grain, waiting for a market. In other places farmers had begun to burn their grain for fuel. Meanwhile the situation of the railroads was not much better. W hen it is said that tfie average net earnings of all the railroads in the country is 5.20 per cent on the actual cost, and 3.91 per cent on their capital stock, the reply may possibly be made that this does not represent the state of the case in Illinois ; indeed it does not, because in Illinois there are only four railroads paying regular dividends at all, and only one as much as seven per cent. This seems to show that it’ as the farmers assert, the railroads have been making such enormous profits during the last few years, they must have been frightfully defrauding their stock and bond holders, and it is these oppressed capitalists who ought to make common cause with the down-trodden agricultural population. No such movement has yet been heard of, though, speaking seriously, there is much antecedent probability that whatever railroad directors have enriched themselves unlawfully during the past few years have done so through robbery of those who placed them in their position of trust, and gave them their opportunity for fraud, rather than through oppression of those whose voluntary contributions support the roads. For freight, though truly enough in one sense a transportation tax, is in another sense something quite different from any tax; it can he collected only so long as t he producer or shipper chooses to pay it. If he find it unprofitable, he will not pay it ; he will either change his business or his residence, and thus still further diminish the income of the railroads. This fact is probably better known and more keenly appreciated by the railroad-men who assess and levy the transportation tax than by any one else in the country. The first thing any railroad has to do is to calculate at what rate freight will be shipped, and at what price it will not be shipped. On the other hand, if a body of directors wish to commit frauds, there is always stock and there are always bonds to do it with. How many railroads have we seen within tire past few years, with thousands of dollars’ worth of stock of a nominal value in the market, on which no one ever dreamed of receiving a dividend, but which was used solely for the purpose of managing the roads ! No attempt is made in the case of these roads to collect freight enough to pay dividends. The freight is collected as it can be ; the idea that any sensible fraudulent director would endeavor to increase his freight rates to a point which he knows to be exorbitant, when it is perfectly open to him lo issue a notice of the usual kind, announcing that, owing to circumstances connected with the purchase of some new line, or the lease of some old line, or the building of locomotives, or lor some other timehonored reason, it has been deemed advisable not to declare any dividend for the past six months, is utterly monstrous. If we take the most fraudulently managed road in the country, — the Erie, — we shall see how plain this is. The Erie Railway has somef 100,000,000 stock in the market, issued in great part by Fisk and Gould. No serious attempt has been made to pay dividends on this, except in one case, even since the “ reform directors ” took possession ; they, it is true, declared a dividend of three undone half percent. A dividend of three and one half per cent on the earnings of eight or ten years, however, may safely he considered as tantamount to no dividend at all ; so we may safely say that the Erie Railway pays no dividends. It must be obvious from this that the managers of the line have not been obliged to make any attempt at an exorbitant increase of freight rates for the purpose of paying dividends. Somebody undoubtedly has been defrauded; but it is also an undoubted fact that those who were defrauded were the old stockholders, at home and abroad, It was these old stockholders, too, who felt themselves defrauded, and who formed committees atid passed resolutions, and employed counsel, and ejected the corrupt management. We heard nothing in those days of the oppression of the farmers in the interior of New York and farther west. It will be admitted that the Erie frauds may well serve as the type of any frauds that have been committed in railroad management throughout the country during the last few years ; and we see that the people defrauded by them, or at any rate the people who thought themselves defrauded, were not the people who paid the transportation tax.
Very little can be said in favor of the railroad management of the country. Railroads are managed according to a system which enables directors to make enormous fortunes, at the expense of those whose interests they are bound in honor and equity to protect ; and if the object of the farmers’ movement were to secure the greater responsibility of directors, or to bring to justice directors already known to have engaged in frauds, we should cordially sympathize with it. But, as we have seen, the movement is directed against that already oppressed class, the very stockholders who arc now said to be so swindled by trustees. What is to become of the 5.20 per cent on the cost, and the 3.91. per cent on the stock, now paid to these unfortunates, if they are to be subjected on the one hand to “ raids ” from directors, and on the other to “ raids ” from the State legislatures is easy to see.
Besides the stockholders and the farmers there is another class of people whose interests are closely connected with the management of the railroads. In all the discussion which has been going on about the Granges, the Transportation, and reasonable rates of freights, very little has been heard about the rights of passengers. The Illinois law, if we remember right, does include passenger fares, but this branch of the subject attracts hardly any attention. If there is any class which railroads have an opportunity to impose upon, however, it is the travelling public. There is no class, certainly, to whose personal convenience railroads have paid less heed. They have been shut up in ill-ventilated cars, they have been seated in uncomfortable seats; they have been delayed, hustled, wounded and killed in great numbers. For this maltreatment many suits at law have been brought, and usual damages recovered. We have never heard, however, of any loud complaints on the part of the travelling public that the fares charged by the railroads were unjust. There have been suggestions that laborers’ trains might be run at low rates; but these suggestions, even, did not come from the laborers, but from official students of the railroad question. This strange apathy on the part of the travelling public we can only explain in one way : that of a general belief that the roads understand the business of establishing rates of fare better than any one else ; they know what rates passengers will pay, and what rates they will not pay. The control of the roads over the passengers is much more close than any which they can ever establish over the farmers. They depend far more on freight than on travel, and, besides, this cause of the producers is one easily made a common cause ; massmeetings and associations of passengers, like the Granges and Farmers’ Associations, are very unlikely things. Before the roads seriously impose on either passengers or farmers, however, they will first squeeze their own stockholders’ purses dry.
In order to understand the farmers’ movement thoroughly, it is necessary to take into consideration, not merely their supposed grievances, but also the means they have taken to remedy them. Their resolutions have been multitudinous, but their actual operations can easily be enumerated. First, they have formed themselves into various organizations known as Granges, Patrons of Husbandry, and by other names (it is wholly immaterial for our present purpose what distinctions as to objects and methods there may be among them), and have announced their determination, first, that railroad charters must be controlled by State laws ; second, that freight charges must be determined by the State itself, and not by the railroads ; third, that they must be determined on the pro-rata principle; in the fourth place, they have carried the contest into the legislature of one State, and secured the passage of a law establishing a freight schedule in accordance with their views ; fifth, they have elected a judge of the Supreme Court in the same State, who announces that he will decide in any case arising before him that the railroad charters are subordinate in all cases to State law, and that the freight law of Illinois is constitutional.
The proposition that railroad charters must be controlled by State law seems fair enough, until we know what it means. When we find that it means the control of the charters by State law in the teeth of the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing the inviolability of contracts, we see that the proposition strikes a direct blow at all constitutional rights ; for even if, by elaborate regulations, the technical objections can be overridden, the fundamental objection remains. A charter is a contract between the company and the State, and if the State has reserved no right of regulation, the company has under the contract full powers within the limits of what is reasonable. This has been decided over and over again by the Supreme Court of the United States, and fifty inferior courts. If at this day it is to be disregarded by some transparent hocus-pocus of a board of railroad commissioners, we may as well give up all idea of having any law regarded that conflicts with the interest of the majority for the time being. *
The determination of freight charges by the State on the pro-rata principle has been tried in Illinois, and has proved a complete failure. The law was hardly passed when loud complaints were made on every side. Its effect was a general increase of rates.
The election of Judge Craig to take the place of Judge Lawrence on the Supreme bench of Illinois has been so widely commented on in the press that it is hardly necessary to say anything here. That Judge Craig was elected for the express purpose of deciding cases against what he knew to be law, and that this is an attack upon the independence of the judiciary quite as dangerous as the election of men like Barnard or Cardoza in New York, — so much is generally admitted. Whether Judge Craig had or had not already pledged himself in advance to the railroads seems to be still in doubt.
To sum up what we have said : the farmers’ movement declares itself a movement on the part of an oppressed class to redress its wrongs by honest reform of the abuses of which it complains. It is in reality a quarrel between producers and carriers as to profits. It is characterized by a great deal of ignorance; for it attempts to saddle the railroads with the blame properly belonging to the farmers themselves for their imprudent over-production ; and besides this, it mistakes the misfortunes which their imprudence has brought upon them for the result of impositions which have really been for the most part practised on the people with whom they are quarrelling ; it also displays the same ignorance in the development of the monstrous idea that a modern State legislature is a body competent to manage the complex business of a railroad; and it has manifested a profound contempt for law, justice, and honesty in its openly avowed declaration of an intention to intimidate the judiciary into unjust and illegal decisions.
These are all the facts from which at present we can make inferences as to the future of the farmers’ movement, and the question which has been agitating many people’s minds during the summer,—whether the new party of which we have heard so much for the last few years, is to fintl its foundation in this movement. It seems to us perfectly safe to say that, unless some violent change takes place, the farmers’ rising will come to little or nothing. The foundation of a party depends upon other things than the assemblage in public places oflarge numbers of men, excited by a temporary depression of business, for the purpose of denouncing monopolies, “salarygrabs,” and iniquity of all sorts. No great party has ever been formed without some definite policy and some definite practical method of attaining that policy. The Republican party desired to exclude slavery from the Territories, and the means were very simple, for they consisted of gaining the control of Congress. The Democratic party was founded on a theory of government which, though erroneous, was popular, had been elaborately thought and written about for a generation or more, until its ideas had permeated every mind, and, indeed, become part of the mental constitulion of the age. On the other hand, the Labet party, as it calls itself, has never been able distinctly to let the world know either what it wants or how it wishes to attain what it wants. One labor-reformer desires to throw ah the possessions .of the capitalists into a common fund and divide it per capita ; another wishes all “industrial corporations which refuse to adopt the co-operative principle at once abolished’’; another wants his trade made into an hereditary caste. A few years ago we heard a great deal about the Labor party. It was rising in its might, and very soon it would have control of the country. It has done nothing of the kind, however, and will probably in the future do less than in the past. To take another instance, the Prohibitionists, who have indeed a definite aim, have never been able to discover any means of securing it. They have had, year after year, local triumphs in one State or another, and there was at one time some talk of a national Prohibitory party. The movement, however, makes no effect on national politics, because it is impracticable.
The farmers are in the same position. They are tilled with a vague dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs, and a vague notion, derived principally from reading newspaper editorials on railroad frauds, that the railroads are to blame for it. They accordingly set to work to remedy their troubles by attacking the judiciary for having rendered a perfectly just decision, and then turning to the legislature, they secure the passage of a law which aggravates all their evils. More than this, they propose to hand over to this same legislature the absolute control of railroad management,— a business which any one can see no legislature knows anything about. Under these circumstances, we can only regret the apparent probability that the farmers’ movement will come to nothing. Even if it should obtain a temporary control of some of the Western States, its chances would not be improved, for it has undertaken to accomplish what it cannot accomplish. Its action may lead to a great deal of anarchy and confusion, may injure the business of some roads and build up that of others, but it cannot make the production of wheat profitable where it is unprofitable, nor is it likely to attract very deep interest in that part of the community which, being at a distance from the scene of action, looks on impartially.
That this should be so is undoubtedly a pity. Any party which could really bring forward an intelligible scheme of railroad management would establish distinct claims upon the gratitude of the country. But it is a thousand times better to leave such matters to be governed by the laws of trade, and managed by those who have made them a special study than that they should fall into ignorant and incompetent hands, for the sake of wholly unlikely reforms which the change may by some magic produce.
The Prohibitory movement, the LaborReform movement, and the Woman-Suffrage movement have all three been marked by one peculiarity, which lias often been noticed,— the prevalent feeling that all evils can be cured by legislation. It is not very difficult to see how this fallacy sprang up. The legislature having been looked upon down to the middle of this century as the body which stood between the people and the oppressors of the people,—kings, emperors, and other autocrats, — a habit of mind was generated which made it natural to continue to look in the same direction. Popular bodies had meantime become time-serving, ignorant, and corrupt; but to these facts no sort of attention was paid. Any demagogue who discovered a crying evil anywhere in the social order was certain to assure his constituents that, if they would only send him once more to Congress or the legislature, he would certainly repeal it. The people were willing enough to believe his promises, forgetting that reformers of the popular kind, that is, agitators, are very indifferent to methods, provided, the noise goes on. The foes of what is known as rum were assured that the legislature should pass a law which would drive every rum-seller out of every State. The Labor Reformers were promised a legislative enactment which should make them all capitalists ; and the Suffrage Reformers were assured that the physical, mental, and moral equality of man and woman should be soon made a palpable fact by its insertion in the statute-book. It is pretty evident to most people these promises were specious. The farmers will find, in the same way, that legislation is no panacea for natural evils ; it merely aggravates them.