The Politics of Despair

The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars

Copyright Date: 1993
Edition: 1
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Politics of Despair
    Book Description:

    Shortly after 1900, tens of thousands of tobacco growers throughout Kentucky and Tennessee convulsed the region for nearly a decade in a revolt against the monopolistic practices of the American Tobacco Company. Though the revolt known as the Tobacco Wars remains one of the more remarkable insurgencies of rural America, it is also one of the more misunderstood. In this first major account of the uprising in over half a century, Tracy Campbell tells the story of these embattled farmers and casts a provocative new light on the issues that fueled the Tobacco Wars.

    When tobacco prices fell below the cost of production in the early 1900s, farmers in western Kentucky and Tennessee, faced with desperate economic circumstances, formed cooperatives through which they could pool their crops and withhold tobacco from the market until a satisfactory price was offered. Campbell recounts the organizational underpinnings of the notorious "Black Patch War" and the forces that drove farmers to seek violent solutions to their economic ills. Campbell then expands the story to the burley region, where a simultaneous movement was under way. In 1908, over thirty thousand burley growers undertook the only successful large-scale agricultural strike in American history. Campbell brings this drama to life and describes the emotional day when the farmers achieved their unprecedented victory over the powerful Tobacco Trust.

    The Tobacco Wars represented one of the last desperate gasps from the countryside before the onset of "agribusiness" drove millions of farmers and their families away for good.The Politics of Despairthus stands as a unique reminder of a tradition of protest that has, perhaps, been irretrievably lost. This book will interest not only rural and labor historians and students of the American South but anyone concerned with the profound issues surrounding the decline of rural America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4902-8
    Subjects: History, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations, Maps, and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    For most of American history, the bulk of the population has resided on the land. Consequently, the family farm is one of the more revered institutions in American culture. In Jefferson’s time the independent smallholder was viewed as the bedrock of democracy, and few ambitious politicians since have neglected to mention their earnest support for the family farm. Endless production statistics and charts combined with Norman Rockwell images shape our collective picture that, despite occasional disturbances, all is well on the land.

    This serene tableau is vividly contradicted by the sobering fact that most American farmers have lived in poverty...

  6. 1 A Legacy of Peonage
    (pp. 6-20)

    Farmers, by the nature of their occupation, are placed in a position in which they are vulnerable to exploitation. Those who live on the land must have the daily necessities to sustain life from the time seed is planted until the crop is harvested many months later. This circumstance governs agriculture in every region of the globe, in good years and bad. Farmers must necessarily rely on creditors to survive. In this vein, southern farmers after the Civil War were no different than the generations before or after them.

    Amid the enormous dilemmas confronting southerners in the aftermath of the...

  7. 2 Monopoly Comes to the Tobacco Belt
    (pp. 21-29)

    The financial conditions governing southern agriculture after Reconstruction—monetary constriction, the rise of the crop-lien system, and permanent indebtedness—were symptomatic of the ever-expanding role played by industrialism in the American economy. For farmers residing in the tobacco belt, the emerging corporate culture was no mere abstraction. In 1889 an industrial organization was born in New York City that would further compound the problems confronting tobacco farmers: lower prices and increasing flight into landless tenantry. Over the next decade the American Tobacco Company acquired virtually complete control over the nation’s tobacco industry. The ATC’s dominance soon extended well beyond the...

  8. 3 Organizing the Black Patch
    (pp. 30-52)

    On September 24, 1904, more than five thousand tobacco farmers gathered on the grounds of the Guthrie Fair Association in the tiny town of Guthrie, Kentucky, near the Tennessee border. The grandstand, which held four thousand, was quickly filled to capacity, and the speaker’s stage was soon engulfed by the throng. The farmers’ announced intention was to organize formally to combat the low price of tobacco, which they perceived directly resulted from the monopolization of the nation’s tobacco industry by the American Tobacco Company. Speakers exhorted the growers to unite for self-protection, and by afternoon's end, the Clarksville District Planters’...

  9. 4 Rumors of War
    (pp. 53-75)

    The prime organizing period of the cooperative movement in the dark tobacco regions of Kentucky and Tennessee only lasted five years. By 1909 the Planters’ Protective Association was in rapid decline. While the tobacco trust certainly did its share to break the cooperative effort, internal problems within the organization itself as well as a national financial crisis also caused considerable damage. The development of the tobacco cooperatives in the Black Patch, nevertheless, provides an excellent example of how insurgencies evolve—how they are created and how they endeavor to develop a workable strategy to address their problems.

    In the autumn...

  10. 5 Night Riders
    (pp. 76-97)

    The Tobacco Wars are generally not remembered as a long and ultimately fruitless effort to achieve effective large-scale marketing cooperatives by Kentucky and Tennessee farmers. The memory, rather, concerns night riding. Beginning in 1905 a new element began to insinuate itself into the tobacco movement, one that grew as the times became more desperate: bands of armed, hooded men on horseback appeared, determined to enforce cooperation by coercion. They primarily targeted farmers who failed to take part in the crop-withholding program and the warehouses and agents of the tobacco trust. Though some modern observers might see this development as evidence...

  11. 6 Organizing the Bluegrass
    (pp. 98-116)

    Historians traditionally refer to the struggles of the tobacco farmers of Kentucky and Tennessee as the Black Patch War. While extensive organizing activity and an extended series of nightriding episodes did occur in the Black Patch, the tobacco revolt was not limited to the dark tobacco country. Burley farmers in central Kentucky simultaneously organized themselves to pool and hold their crops in an effort to raise tobacco prices. The central region had its own fair share of night riding and witnessed many of the same dilemmas as did the western region. While Black Patch organizers struggled in their recruiting effort,...

  12. 7 Farmers on Strike
    (pp. 117-133)

    Despite the Guthrie meetings and the specter of night riding, the most significant development of the Tobacco Wars occurred in the burley district in 1908. Finding the trust unwilling to buy pooled tobacco, the Burley Tobacco Society embarked on an extraordinary strategy in late 1907: no burley tobacco would be grown in 1908. Never before had an agricultural strike on such a massive scale been attempted. As 1908 progressed, the struggle between the BTS and the trust intensified. Despite the collective confidence of the BTS members, however, it is doubtful that any of them was prepared for what occurred in...

  13. 8 The Demise of Agrarian Cooperation
    (pp. 134-154)

    The cooperative experiment among tobacco growers in Kentucky and Tennessee ended soon after 1908. Diverse reasons help explain this defeat. Overt intervention by the American Tobacco Company weakened the ability of organizers to persuade farmers to join the pool. This disruptive activity by the tobacco trust, however, did not occur in a vacuum. The 1907 panic on Wall Street tightened credit for all Americans, not just for farmers. Adding to the difficulties confronting advocates of agricultural cooperation were internal problems within farmer organizations. Undemocratic features that came to characterize both agrarian cooperatives eventually alienated farmers, especially smallholders and tenants. Without...

  14. 9 The Decline of the Countryside
    (pp. 155-170)

    The Tobacco Wars occurred at a prominent interval. The U.S. economy was being tranformed from one based on agriculture to one grounded in industrialism. The full effects of this transformation are still being felt. This study has demonstrated that the corporate takeover of the countryside was not accomplished without a frantic defensive struggle by the farmers of Kentucky and Tennessee. Indeed, in the Tobacco Wars, this fight reached stages of unprecedented intensity. It is important to sort out the historical legacy of this passionate struggle at the turn of the century.

    Quite simply, the farmers within the tobacco cooperatives were...

  15. Appendix
    (pp. 171-180)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 181-213)
  17. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 214-218)
  18. Index
    (pp. 219-223)