Up from the Mudsills of Hell
download cover image ►

Up from the Mudsills of Hell

The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915

Title Details

Pages: 336

Illustrations: 6 b&w photos

Trim size: 6.120in x 9.250in



Pub Date: 03/25/2006

ISBN: 9-780-8203-2762-4

List Price: $50.95

Up from the Mudsills of Hell

The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915

Skip to

  • Description
  • Reviews

Up from the Mudsills of Hell analyzes agrarian activism in Tennessee from the 1870s to 1915 within the context of farmers’ lives, community institutions, and familial and communal networks. Locating the origins of the agrarian movements in the state’s late antebellum and post-Civil War farm economy, Connie Lester traces the development of rural reform from the cooperative efforts of the Grange, the Agricultural Wheel, and the Farmers’ Alliance through the insurgency of the People’s Party and the emerging rural bureaucracy of the Cooperative Extension Service and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Lester ties together a rich and often contradictory history of cooperativism, prohibition, disfranchisement, labor conflicts, and third-party politics to show that Tennessee agrarianism was more complex and threatening to the established political and economic order than previously recognized. As farmers reached across gender, racial, and political boundaries to create a mass movement, they shifted the ground under the monoliths of southern life. Once the Democratic Party had destroyed the insurgency, farmers responded in both traditional and progressive ways. Some turned inward, focusing on a localism that promoted—sometimes through violence—rigid adherence to established social boundaries. Others, however, organized into the Farmers’ Union, whose membership infiltrated the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension Service. Acting through these bureaucracies, Tennessee agrarian leaders exerted an important influence over the development of agricultural legislation for the twentieth century.

Up from the Mudsills of Hell not only provides an important reassessment of agrarian reform and radicalism in Tennessee, but also links this Upper South state into the broader sweep of southern and American farm movements emerging in the late nineteenth century.

Connie Lester’s Up from the Mudsills of Hell combines political and social history to explore the history of agrarian activism in Tennessee at the turn of the last century. Lester explains why Tennessee farmers organized on a 'class' basis to combat economic injustice, and describes how traditional community and religious ties both strengthened and limited farm-based reform movements. Lester makes it clear that farmers attempting to organize marketing and purchasing co-ops faced opposition at every level from the county seat to the state legislature. Her description of the forces rallied against agrarian reform in Tennessee is the best I have seen, bringing home to the reader the personal risks to life and property faced by would-be reformers. She documents the continuation of agrarian reform under different guises long after the Populist debacle of 1896, tracing continuities between the 19th century Wheel and Alliance and early 20th century Progressivism. This book will be essential for those seeking to understand the state’s tumultuous history from 1870 to 1915.

—Jeanette Keith, author of Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War

Interesting, informative, and original. Lester's work is impressively researched, well written, and carries an authoritative tone grounded in true expertise on its topic. Up from the Mudsills of Hell will undoubtedly join the short list of classic Southern state studies on the agrarian revolt of the Gilded Age, and should represent the last word on the subject in Tennessee for a long time.

Appalachian Journal

This is a well-written, carefully researched, solidly documented, intellectually sophisticated study of Tennessee's agrarian communities. . . . This is an excellent and welcome study of Tennessee agrarianism, which no doubt will earn for itself a prominent place on our list of sources.

American Historical Review

Connie L. Lester provides a penetrating analysis of the possibilities and pitfalls of agrarian movements in this study of Tennessee farming that covers farmer organizations from 1870 to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. . . . Her exhaustive research pays off with some remarkable observations from the farmers themselves. . . . Lester's book is one of the best available at analyzing the profound differences between large landowners and small farmers in building cooperative networks, as well as underscoring how Tennessee farmers crossed some significant racial and gender lines in organizing. This is a careful and nuanced analysis that should serve as a model for other scholars studying the disparate movements of farmers at the turn of the twentieth century.

Journal of Southern History

There is much to admire in this book. The research . . . is impressive indeed, and the extended chronological and organizational focus is welcome and valuable . . . this book effectively demonstrates the perseverance, complexity, and periodic effectiveness of farm protest movements. It is a significant contribution to a new crop of scholarship on rural history generally, and readers of this journal will particularly appreciate its bridging the sometimes artificial boundary between the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.

Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

This book demonstrates the complexities of this important aspect of Tennessee's political history. Lester does an excellent job of explaining the political challenges of Tennessee's geography as well as the significance of lingering feelings within the state about the Lost Cause. . . . This book is a welcome addition to the body of scholarship of agricultural and political history. It is also an excellent interpretation of the place of the farm movement in Tennessee history.

Journal of East Tennessee History

About the Author/Editor

CONNIE L. LESTER is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida and editor of the Florida Historical Quarterly.