The Farmers' Alliance made its first appearance in Tennessee in the winter of 1887, when J. T. Alsup, a national lecturer, organized the first Alliance in Wilson County. Perhaps Alsup selected Middle Tennessee for his first attempts because West Tennessee farmers had already joined the Agricultural Wheel, a similar agrarian reform organization that originated in Arkansas. In March 1888 farmers organized the Tennessee State Alliance and elected John P. Buchanan, a Rutherford County livestock man, as the first president.
In 1889 the National Farmers' Alliance and the Agricultural Wheel joined forces to become the National Farmers' and Laborers' Union (still popularly known as the Alliance). Tennessee was the first state to ratify the new constitution, and the merger was accomplished easily. Buchanan became the first president of the Tennessee Farmers' and Laborers' Union, and Eth B. Wade served as its first secretary. At the time of the merger, the Agricultural Wheel claimed more than sixteen hundred subordinate wheels, and the Alliance counted approximately eight hundred units. The combined membership topped ninety-nine thousand men, women, and boys.
The Alliance proposed to improve the lot of farmers by focusing attention on local, state, and national issues. The Alliance urged farmers to adopt scientific and business practices, diversify their crops, and become self-sufficient in order to break the debt cycle imposed by the crop lien system. To aid in this process, county and state Alliances instituted cooperative buying and marketing agencies to reduce the cost of farm equipment and seeds and obtain the highest prices for agricultural products. The Tennessee State Cooperative Agency had offices in Nashville, Memphis, and Morristown to handle the buying and selling for county business agents in the three grand divisions. At the state and national levels, the Alliance pressured legislatures and Congress to adopt regulatory, anti-banking, and antimonopoly laws favored by farmers.
The Alliance, like the Wheel, advocated nonpartisan support for candidates who supported the organization's demands. In Tennessee, however, most candidates claiming Alliance support were Democrats. In the 1890 election, Alliance president John P. Buchanan captured the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with the help of the state's farmers. Buchanan won the November election and became one of four Southern Alliance governors. The 1891 Tennessee General Assembly had fifty-four Alliance members.
The Tennessee Farmers' Alliance was unable to build on its initial success, however, and after the 1890 high point, declined rapidly. As national organizational demands became more radical, Tennessee farmers, encouraged by Alliance critics, became less certain of the organization and its goals. Many would-be reformers worried about the “subtreasury scheme,” which called for government-sponsored construction of warehouses where farmers could store nonperishable agricultural products to await higher prices. To meet immediate needs, farmers could obtain low interest loans on the stored cotton, tobacco, or grain, repaying the loan when the produce sold. The plan offered an escape from the crop lien and gave farmers access to capital rather than credit. In an attempt to broaden the plan's appeal, the national organization later added land as collateral for loans. Tennessee delegates to national meetings supported the first plan, but not the second one. Only Congressmen Rice Pierce of West Tennessee supported the subtreasury plan. Alliance critics used the expanded plan to argue that the organization benefited the wealthy. The Tennessee Alliance also suffered from internal problems ranging from financial instability to divisions based on political differences, historical conflicts, and diverse agricultural production.
After successfully capturing the election of 1890, and seemingly the Democratic Party, the Alliance lost its advantage in 1892. The Bourbon and New South wings of the Democratic Party laid aside their differences and combined their efforts to make Peter Turney the Democratic nominee and ultimately governor. When more radical Alliance members bolted and organized the People's Party (Populists) in late spring of 1892, the more conservative members had little choice but to follow, despite sentiment against the move. Buchanan announced his candidacy for reelection as an Independent, or Jeffersonian, Democrat, but his support came from the Populists. The defeat of the Alliance and the Populists in 1892 ended agrarian reform influence in Tennessee, although the Populists remained a feared force in several counties until the turn of the century.
Roger L. Hart, Redeemers, Bourbons and Populists: Tennessee, 1870-1896 (1975); Connie L. Lester, “Grassroots Reform in the Age of New South Agriculture and Bourbon Democracy: The Agricultural Wheel, the Farmers Alliance, and the Peoples Party in Tennessee, 1884-1892” (Ph.D. diss., University of Tennessee, 1997)