Wednesday, February 11, 2015
From Rifles to Ploughs
Whether they succeeded or failed, the two million people taking part in the redistribution of Southern land had a tremendous impact on the economy and politics of the New South. Of the four categories for free land, no class stood out as a major success. Be they soldier, freedman or poor it was character that made the difference between success and failure. They were all given the same plots of land. What in the 19th Century was forty acres and a mule became in the 20th forty acres and a tractor.
With so many people tacking up the plough, the demand for agricultural machinery skyrocketed. What was done only ten years earlier by hundreds of slaves could now be performed by the property owner and his family. In order to meet this demand, factories churning out armored vehicles and aircraft during the war converted to civilian machinery such as ploughs, harvesters and combines.
During the war years, very little in the way of consumer goods were produced, leaving surviving soldiers with all of their earnings as the Army fed and clothed them. Those who were shrewd and saved every penny easily afforded the machinery, which was at first expensive. With so few tractors to go around and so many farmer demanding them, prices soared through the roof. Of course to accommodate the demand and stay in business, factories had to produce more.
Most of the tractors were produced in States such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The distance added cost and one man sought a means of gaining an edge on the market. An employee of John Deer, William Niederkorn quit the company in 1918 and headed south. Unlike the vulture capitalists, he lacked the funds or political connections to gain control of a formerly State-owned industry. Instead, with money saved over the years and loans from New York banks, he purchased a small, run-down factory in Atlanta, establishing Forty Acres and a Tractor. He hoped taking the slogan of land Redistribution would help with sales.
What really helped with sales was location. It is the key aspect of business. He built in the former Confederacy’s industrial belt, much closer to the demanding market. He took a risk that most of the people purchasing his tractors would eventually pay them off. Not all did but most were able to earn sufficient income from farming to pay their bills. In 1924, Forty Acres grew large enough to purchase a competing tractor manufacturer and double their output. Niederkorn would never surpass his former employer but managed to gain his fortune in the South by honest means.
Those who easily paid off their tractors were the soldiers prudent enough to save their monthly income. At the end of the war, they amassed a small fortune and were able to take their forty to one hundred sixty acre and turn it into a peaceful corner of the world. They were the great successes, churning out crop after crop for the rest of their days. Few of the success stories ever sold their farms, preferring the peaceful country life after three long years of war.
Not all soldiers were so frugal or enterprising. A great number of them wasted their income on gambling, drinking and other vices in and out of the trenches. It was not uncommon for an enlisted man to spend their monthly check on a forty-eight hour leave. They were equally entitled to a tract of land, though when they claimed their land they were forced to seek out loans to purchase equipment. More than half of these would-be farmers managed to make a living, paying back the banks over the next ten years and carving out a home in the New South.
That was not always the case. Not everyone who starts a business succeeds. At the turn of the 21st Century, nearly half of newly started businesses fail within the first five years. The failure rate on farms during the 1920s was not quite that high but it was still significant. Those without the fiscal discipline needed to run a business soon dug themselves deep into a hole. Unable to pay their loans, banks (usually large, Northern banks) would seize their collateral. This often meant the deeds to their farms. Those who were forecloses sought an ally against what they saw as ruthless capitalists.
In a sense, the large banks were ruthless sharks though when one fails to pay back their loan, then one is not entirely faultless. Sensing a means to gain at the poll, the Labor Party stepped in to help these dispossessed farmers. America’s own socialist party called itself Labor because the party bosses believed that ‘worker’s’ party invoked images of Red Revolution and that the term socialist was too European, too alien to suit the American mind set.
The Labor Party made its early gains by supporting organized labor in American factories and mines. They lost ground against the Progressive Party when the Progressives pushed for universal manhood suffrage, which with the passing of the 15th Amendment in 1897 became a reality. They lost again with the land redistribution scheme of 1916. As banks foreclosed on small farms they did not miss an opportunity to gain support.
The banks were the enemy, stepping on the backs of the poor to gain more and more wealth. Their rhetoric served as an anchor to gain votes in the North as well when veterans released from duty found it difficult to regain their old jobs. The war forced organized labor to bend for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Unions were as patriotic as any other organization and even more enthusiastic about restoring the Union and expanding their influence in the restored States. It did not occur to them in the war years to try and organize the replacement workers, millions of American women.
Factories wondered why they should accept the return of their former Union employees when they could keep their replacements, who made as low as 60% of the previous wages. Women wondered why they should give up their jobs. Married women often relinquished work in favor of their husbands. With 1.7 million Union dead, many women would never find husbands and had little choice but to work. They needed the income to keep their heads above the water in a turbulent world. Only the post-war boom, a surprising outcome sparred partly on by the demand of machinery down south, prevented the predicted Labor Party gains in the 1918 election.
In the occupied States, Labor and Progressive Parties made the biggest inroads, with the dividing line between the two seeming to be the same as between those who succeed in life and those who fail. At least that was how the Progressive Party would portray their rivals in the 1920 election. The Democratic Party opposed land redistribution in principle, though it did approval of punishing Southerners, as well as supported business saying that those who failed have mostly themselves to blame. The Republican Party was silent on the issue, with the RNC knowing there was little chance of them seeing a single federal level official elected in the South even after the States re-entered the Union.