Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Farmers in the Gilded Age

Clock 120 minutes

This lesson explores the experience of American farmers during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Students will gain an understanding and analyze the difficulties farmers endured in modern society and their proposed solutions through a historical narrative, primary sources, and several dynamic student activities. Students will better understand the farmers in the economy and politics in American history.

Founding Principles

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Freedom of Speech image

Freedom of Speech

The freedom to express one's opinions without interference from the the government is critical to the maintenance of liberty within a free society.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.



“Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master. The West and South are bound and prostrate before the manufacturing East. Money rules, and our Vice-President is a London banker. Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The [political] parties lie to us and the political speakers mislead us.” - Mary Elizabeth Lease (circa 1890)


After the Civil War, the nation’s farmers were poised to enjoy new opportunities and great prosperity. Cheap land in the west, a rapidly growing railroad network, technological advances such as the mechanical reaper and steel plow to increase productivity—all seemed to inspire confidence in the future. However, declining incomes over the next several decades caused them to turn to various methods of cooperative action to try to increase their political voice. They demanded that government act to address their grievances. They charged that monopolistic railroad practices, mortgage interest rates, and other factors beyond their control caused their incomes to fall, regardless of how hard they worked to achieve the American dream in the inherently uncertain work of farming.


  • Students will trace factors contributing to the farmers’ unrest in the period following the Civil War
  • Students will evaluate and compare primary source documents relating the concerns and objectives of farmers in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
  • Students will understand the farmers’ sense of disempowerment and what they did about it.
  • Students will identify constitutional principles and essential virtues at issue in the controversies related to farmers in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.


  • Handout A: Background Essay: Farmers in the Gilded Age
  • Handout B: “National Grange Meeting” Rocky Mountain Husbandman, Diamond City, Mont. 10 Jan. 1878
  • Handout C: Farmers Alliance platform, Texas (1886)
  • Handout D: Mary Elizabeth Lease Speech (1890)
  • Handout E: The Populist Party Omaha Platform (1892)
  • Handout F: Farm Wife (1900)
  • Handout G: Graphic Organizer: Comparing Reformers
  • Handout H: Debrief Questions

Key Terms

  • Homestead Act of 1862
  • Deflation
  • Rebate
  • Wall Street
  • Interest rates
  • Tariff
  • Trusts
  • Eastern interests
  • Xenophobia
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Scapegoats
  • Antebellum
  • Sharecroppers
  • Peonage
  • Granger movement
  • Munn v. Illinois (1877)
  • Farmers’ Alliance
  • Predatory
  • Subtreasury plan
  • Inflation
  • Subsidy
  • Agrarian
  • Free silver
  • Populist Party
  • Coxey’s Army
  • American Federation of Labor
  • Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890)
  • Wilson-Gorman Act (1894)
  • Federal Farm Loan Act (1916)

Essential Virtues

  • Civil discourse
  • Courage
  • Honor
  • Justice
  • Moderation
  • Perseverance
  • Respect
  • Responsibility


National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • 1) Thematic Standards
    • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    • VI. Power, Authority, and Governance
    • VII. Production, Distribution, and Consumption
    • VIII. Science, Technology, and Society
    • X. Civic Ideals and Practices
  • 2) Disciplinary Standards
    • 1. History
    • 3. Civics and Government
    • 4. Economics

Center for Civic Education

  • 9-12 Content Standards
    • V. What are the Roles of the Citizen in American Democracy?

UCLA Department of History (NCHS)

  • US History Content Standards
    • United States Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870 – 1900)
    • United States Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890 – 1930)

Background 15 minutes homework; 10 minutes class time

  1. Prior to the lesson, distribute copies and assign for homework the reading of Handout A: Farmers in the Gilded Age, and have students answer the review questions.
  2. In class, discuss student responses to the review questions and clarify any points of misunderstanding.

Activities 60 minutes

  1. Divide the class into two document groups. One half of the class will receive copies of Handout B: “National Grange Meeting,” Handout C: Farmers Alliance platform, Texas (1886), and Handout D: Mary Elizabeth Lease Speech (1890). (These documents are short.) The other half of the class receives a single, longer document, Handout E: The Populist Party Omaha Platform (1892) (Consider subdividing within each document group to provide for working groups of 3 – 5). Also provide each student with a copy of Handout G: Graphic Organizer: Comparing Reformers. Students work with their groups to analyze the document assigned, discuss its review questions, and fill in their row(s) of Handout H.
  2. In a jigsaw strategy, reassign students to new groups in which there is at least one person who studied each of the documents. Have students share their responses so that everyone completes the rows for Handouts B, C, D, and E on Handout H. Their discussion should center on comparing and contrasting the documents, not simply sharing facts to fill in the table.

Wrap-Up 45 minutes

  1. Distribute Handout G: Farm Wife, 1900. Have students read the excerpts of the author’s account of her life. Discuss the review questions.
  2. Use Handout H: Debrief Questions to conduct a discussion in which the whole class engages in analysis of constitutional principles and essential virtues as they are reflected in the farmers’ revolt of the Gilded Age.


  1. Investigate the life and contributions of Mary Elizabeth Lease.
  2. For further reading, Brooke Speer Orr, “Mary Elizabeth Lease: Gendered Discourse and Populist Party Politics in Gilded Age America.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 29 (Winter 2006–2007): 246–265. Brooke Speer Orr earned her Ph.D. from George Washington University in 2002. Her dissertation was a biographical study of Mary Elizabeth Lease. She is currently an assistant professor at Westfield State College in Massachusetts. 1. “Mary Never Said It; Mrs. Lease Says She Never Gave Utterance to the Expression: ‘Raise Less Corn and More Hell,’” Topeka State Journal, May 25, 1896;

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