The roots of today’s outcry against corporate control of just about everything can be traced to the countryside—all the way back to the agrarian populist uprisings that reached their pinnacle with the 1896 presidential campaign of Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan. In the “Cross of Gold” speech that electrified the Democratic National Convention on that year, Bryan declared that “the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day—who begins in the spring and toils all summer—and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain.”
Rejecting the fantasy that prosperity extended from “the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world,” Bryan dared to argue that the great economic, social and political contest “was a struggle between the idle holders of idle capital and the struggling masses who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country.”
The clarity that Bryan brought to the discourse was grounded in the frustration of farmers and small-town merchants with the unreasonable demands of distant bankers and grain processors. It transformed American politics, clearing the way for progressive reforms and a New Deal moment in which Franklin Roosevelt would announce: “We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.”
As we celebrated the life and legacy of John Kinsman Saturday in the lovely Holy Family Catholic Church on a snow-covered hill above tiny La Valle, Wisconsin, I thought a good deal about Bryan and Roosevelt and the great populist farm activists of the past—folks like Mary Elizabeth Lease, the great Kansas orator who warned in the 1880s: “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.”
Lease was still alive, still agitating, when Kinsman was born in 1926 on his family’s farm near the village of Lime Ridge, Wisconsin. And Kinsman, with a remarkable yet seldom recognized circle of activists that included Nebraska’s Merle Hansen, built the bridge that carried the populist critique of corporate power through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Kinsman was a dairy farmer—with a herd of thirty-six cows that he grazed on eighty acres—he always introduced himself as such. Yet he was, as well, an epic activist with deep roots in the Catholic social justice tradition and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was a pioneering advocate of the ideals that would come to underpin the international slow-food and food-sovereignty movements, and one of the great global organizers of popular resistance to the economic inequality and injustice that extends from corporate-defined and corporate-driven globalization.