Saturday, March 21, 2015

Populism Gave Rise To Fairhope Experiment

Fairhope, Alabama. (

History lecture at library.

In the third of eight scheduled lectures, History Museum Director Barrett talked about how the late19th century political movement called 'Populism' played a major role in the founding of Fairhope in 1894.

(video below)

The Populist (aka People's) movement at that time began as a reaction by farmers to negative social/economic impacts of the Industrial Revolution and economic crises after Reconstruction; and has been described as a desire to return to the country's agrarian roots.
Dictionary definition: "A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite."

Variations of it are still active today around the world. 

Alabama City

Barrett said the city's eventual site was first just a "dream" of French colonizers in the early 1700s --  and later land speculators who planned to build Alabama City here in the 1830s; they drew up detailed plans and actually tried to sell the lots in east coast cities like New York.

That "scheme" turned out to be a disaster and everybody lost their money: but it "saved the area for the single taxers" who arrived later.


According to Barrett, after the Civil War rapid industrialization and growth of corporations and monopolies like the railroads caused "the rich to get richer and poor, poorer."

Only one percent of the population owned 98% of the wealth in the country by the 1890s.

Farmers in the west, mid-west and south were particularly hard-hit by falling commodity prices and after the Panic of 1873 they banded together to form the Farmer's Alliance, which eventually included manufacturing workers as well.

Their alliance eventually became the Peoples Party, the strongest third party movement ever in the United States; and elected Senators, Governors, Mayors, etc.,  to office nationwide.


Barrett said one of the party's leaders was James Baird Weaver, whose book Call to Action "railed against corporations and monopolies controlling the country."
General Weaver

'General' Weaver, a Civil War hero,  also owned the 'Farmer's Tribune' newspaper and hired a 21-year-old Des Moines resident Ernest B. Gaston as reporter.

Gaston later became Secretary of the Iowa Populist Party and assisted Weaver in his unsuccessful 1892 campaign for President of the United States.

The party's platform was called the Ocala Demands, after the Florida town where their convention was held,

Georgia's charismatic Tom Watson was also a major leader and spokesman for the party.

Despite their best efforts, in 1896 it proved to be the party's "undoing" after uniting with Democrats behind William Jennings Bryan for President and losing to Republican William McKinley.


According to Barrett, Gaston had joined the "Investigation Club" in 1892: an organization that studied the many Utopian communities that had sprung up around the country and" he knew what had and had not been successful."

Among others, the Club also studied Utopian socialist philosopher Charles Fourier and economist Henry George whose 1878 book 'Progress and Poverty' was very popular at the time.

Perhaps as a last resot, Gaston and a few other Iowans eventually formed the Fairhope Industrial Association and re-located to Alabama in 1894; it later became the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation.


Barrett said  it was Gaston who in 1894 came up with the original Fairhope Industrial Association's core-concept of cooperative individualism after studying the many Utopian philosophies at the time.

From Gaston's 1894  essay 'True Cooperative Individualism':

"The present social and economic order is doomed. In the height of its marvelous achievements it bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Clear headed economists and warm hearted philanthropists long ago pointed out and denounced its enormous waste of human energy and natural resources and its hideous injustice and cruelty. It has been "weighed in the balance and found wanting." It must go! that is settled! but the very serious fear presents itself that we who now recognize and denounce its evils and are striving to unite a majority of its victims for its overthrow, may go before it goes -- in waiting the slow movement of majorities."

Barrett: "He (Gaston) took the attributes of Populists, George, others ... he's the one with boots on the ground ... to make the Utopian thing work ... ."

Barrett said George never acknowledged Fairhope at all, never visited once and there have been many internal fights over the years regarding "the George thing":  the ownership of leases, everybody or the corporation? 

"Instead of saying the single taxers came to show how George's principals work ...  say ... they came to show Gaston's worked ... and they did!"

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