‘The Land Renters’ Union in Texas’ by T.A. Hickey from ISR. September, 1912.

‘The Land Renters’ Union in Texas’ by T.A. Hickey from International Socialist Review. Vol. 13 No. 3. September, 1912.

TO UNDERSTAND the renters union situation it is necessary to know the immense amphitheater upon which the tragedy of their lives is staged. Texas is the largest state in the Union in area. Between El Paso and Texarkana, a distance greater than from Boston to Milwaukee, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Panhandle, there lies 212,000 square miles. This is an area as large as Germany, with 55,000 square miles to spare and 57,000 square miles larger than France. It is sixth in population amongst states, containing 4,000,000 people. Less than five per cent of the population is foreign, thus making it the most American of all the states. The factory system is practically unknown, sixty-five per cent of the people living in small towns, villages, cross-road settlements and farms. More cotton is raised in Texas than in any other geographical division in the world, including the valley of the Nile. The enormous production of this great staple makes Texas the greatest agricultural state in the Union, for cotton still is king.

The people of Texas have never been noted for conservative methods. By tradition and training they are cast in a revolutionary mould. When the great cities of New England, New York and the middle west saw their proletariat bound to the chariot wheels of capitalism without much thought of protest, the Texas worker, the much despised one-gallus fellow at the forks of the creek, was striking fearlessly though blindly at his oppressors.

And thus it has come to pass that the Greenback party, the Union Labor party, the Populist party, the Farmers’ Alliance, the Grange, the Wheel and the Farmers’ Union have in the past reached their highest development in the Lone Star State.

Agricultural Evolution Plain Here.

In no place in the world can the trend of capitalism along the lines of agriculture be observed at first hand as it can in Texas. The great steam plows and mechanical cotton pickers on bonanza farms can be observed side by side with primitive methods of agriculture, that Potiphar’s men might have used in Egypt.

Of still greater benefit to the student of economic development is the fact that this tremendous area has been taken over, within the lives of men now living, by a few great capitalists who possess greater landed possessions than any landlord in Europe ever dreamed of.

I have ridden in buggies over dozens of Texas counties when on a schoolhouse campaign and have had pointed out to me by my driver the great cattle trails over which the cowboys drove their mighty herds to Kansas. The cowboy now is as extinct as the dodo so far as the open country is concerned, and a large number of the survivors are now washing dishes in Chinese restaurants in Fort Worth.

The trail is obliterated, the land is fenced in and the locomotive engineer has taken the place of the cowboy. It is of this fenced-in land that I would write, because, with the coming of the barbed wire the gaunt specter of tenantry raised its head in Texas.

Renters Unknown in 1860.

In 1860 land renters were unknown in Texas. Land could be secured literally for a song. This in spite of the gigantic land frauds that had been going on for years, particulars of which can be found in the chapters on Land Frauds in Texas in Myers’s great work, The History of the United States Supreme Court.

A story is told with much relish in Texas that vividly illustrates how easily land was secured at that time. A cattleman rode across the Concho River in ’60, dropped off his horse at a tent saloon and found himself unable to pour out his liquor because he was shaking all over with laughter.

“What are you laughing at, Mr. Brown?” inquired the bartender. Said Brown: “I met a durned fool across the line in Coke county this morning. I swapped him a section of land for a calf. The durned fool couldn’t read and I’ll be dad gassed if I didn’t work off two sections on him.” From this true tale it can be seen that landlordism did not menace the people when the guns roared out at Fort Sumter.

Enormous Land Holdings.

After the war renting commenced. The lines had commenced to tighten even while the armies were battling at the front. Cattle companies fenced in multiplied thousands of acres. The legislature gave away to individuals and corporations many millions of acres. Their gifts to railroads alone amounted to thirty-six and one-half millions of acres, and by the runover system the railroads come into possession of several million acres more. Three million acres was given for the building of the state capitol, which was a scab job. As a result of the wholesale gifts to sharpers the public domain dwindled and enormous land holdings became the order of the day.

Thus we find Mrs. King, who resides in Corpus Christi, holds title to 1,400,000 acres of land; it just fifty miles from her front porch to her back gate. Mr. Wagoner, the Fort Worth banker, owns 800,000 acres in the Panhandle. Colonel Slaughter has title deeds to 600,000 acres. C. P. Taft, the step-brother of the president, has 356 sections. Mr. Higginbottom, of Dublin, Tex., has 125 tenants in one portion of Nolan County, Texas. Mr. Swenson, Wall Street banker, has 1,100 sections in west Texas. Our old friend Post of sawdust fame has 200,000 acres on the plains.

I might go on to tell of other enormous possessions, but I have said sufficient to indicate the size of the holdings of the great landholders in Texas.

Obtained by Violence and Fraud.

These holdings came into the possession of their owners in the same manner described by Spencer in the ninth chapter of Social Statics:

“The original deeds were written with the sword ; * * * blows were the current coin given in payment, and for seals blood was used in preference to wax.”

It was even so in Texas. The cattle companies when stealing the public domain employed gunmen more vicious than the western mining corporations ever dreamed of, and indeed some of the thugs were borrowed by the Mine Owners’ Association, notably Bob Meldrum, of whom Haywood could tell a wonderful tale. These gunmen were used to scare away the “Nesters,” as the bona fide settlers were called who went out into the wilderness to carve out a home for their wives and babies. Hundreds of them refused to leave and were shot like dogs, when the sun went down!

So plain is this trail of blood and fraud that I am serenely confident that did we but possess a Socialist legislature at Austin, that would be responsive to the best interests of the disinherited masses of Texas, they would appropriate $100,000 to investigate the Land Commissioner’s office and the result would be, I am sure, that a number of the smug gentlemen who own great tracts of land in Texas would be deprived of their stolen goods and to save themselves from the penitentiary would seek sanctuary in a less healthy clime than Texas.

In the face of the conditions just sketched it was inevitable that Texas, in spite of her enormous area of free land, should soon find tenantry developing. In 1870 five per cent of the men who tilled the soil in Texas were renters. In 1900 50 per cent were renters, while in 1910 71 per cent is operated by renters, while in the richest black land counties, such as Bell and Falls, 82 per cent of the land is operated by renters. In connection with this I may say that I have had some discussions with some of our socialist statisticians who claimed that the figures were somewhat less than I have given, but they overlooked the important fact, however, that the average renter needs from 80 to 160 acres, according to his family, to make a living, and that there are 29,118 farmers who own less than nineteen acres, a large proportion of whom are compelled to become renters so that they may live, and this is also true of the 98,363 farmers who own from twenty to forty-nine acres, hence my figures are conservative.

Increasing Rentals.

These renters of Texas, for two generations, have been accustomed to pay the landlord the traditional third and fourth, which means that of every three bushels of corn and grain that they produce, the landlord takes one; of every four bales of cotton the tenant produces, the landlord takes one. To the intense disgust of the renter, this third and fourth system is passing away. The landlords have commenced to demand a third all round, which means that the tenant must give up one bale out of every three instead of one out of every four.

Then the landlords commenced to demand of the tenant $1 an acre bonus, and some landlords have demanded as high as $2 and $3 an acre bonus as well as the third and fourth. The putting through of these reductions in the renter’s income produced a storm of discontent and was the main factor that led to the organization of the Renters’ Union, and inasmuch as the economic laws of capitalism will not permit of a reduction in these burdens now being piled upon the renters, it is inevitable that the Renters’ Union shall grow until it it the largest union in the United States.

I will now sketch the reasons why the landlords will not and cannot reduce these burdens.

Within the past fifteen years there has been a steady flow of capital to Texas. It was mostly brought to the state by wealthy farmers of Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois, who had sold out their lands at an enormous increase over what their fathers had secured them for. They believed they could come to Texas, buy lands at a “reasonable” price and trust to the growth of the state to enable them to secure large piles of unearned increment. They found, however, that the gentleman already on the ground was able to maintain the price of land at a very high figure, largely because of the fact that the public domain had disappeared and all hands were inclined to hold the land which, unlike other things, is a fixed quantity.

Thus it happens that land that in the 70’s sold for $2 per acre jumped to $40, $50, $100 and even higher. I was on one section of black land in Bell county near the town of Rogers last year that had just been sold to a Northern man for $150 an acre. The renters who worked this land when it was selling at $50 an acre paid a third and fourth and the landlord was satisfied with receiving a good return upon his investment, but when this land went to $150 an acre the new purchaser found that after meeting the fixed charges he could not secure 2 per cent on his investment, hence he was compelled, in order to receive what he considered an adequate return, to demand, as well as the third and fourth, $3 an acre bonus.

On the poorer lands, where production is not half what it is in the rich black land, a corresponding condition obtains, but the land being cheaper in price causes the landlord to ask a smaller bonus than in the black land belt. In either case the renter finds himself in the same position as the city wage earner. That is, he just receives enough to keep body and soul together and enable him to prepare for the next day’s toil.

Land Speculators in Clover.

The second reason for the inevitable growth of the Renters’ Union is found in the fact that, owing to the antiquated constitution under which the State of Texas is being ruled and that was drafted originally in the interests of the landlords, it is impossible to place an adequate tax upon idle land that is held out of cultivation for speculative purposes. The constitution provides that land shall not be taxed more than 35 cents on the $100, and the actual tax is considerably less than half of that sum.

Hence the million-acre land owners pay this petty tax on the millions of acres of land that they have fenced in and lie back in silent satisfaction as they watch the population growing by the natural growth within the state and the immense immigration from without. To give my readers an idea of the blighting effect upon the renter that results from this policy I will quote from an article published in the Chicago Tribune some months ago that was written by the present governor of Texas, O.B. Colquitt. He said:

“There are 146,000,000 acres of land in Texas that has never felt the caressing touch of the plow; 46,000,000 acres of this land is of a mountainous and arid character, but there is 100,000,000 acres of fine arable land that has never been tilled.” The governor goes on to say. “All the public domain has gone. All of this land is now fenced in, in private hands.“

Tenants Increasing.

After pondering over this statement of the governor I would like to then point out that the number of tenants is continuously increasing. In 1900 there were 174,991 white tenants; by 1910 they had increased to 219,106, an increase of 44,115 in ten years.

If we take a pencil and divide the 219,000 tenants into the 100,000,000 acres of arable land that Governor Colquitt speaks of, we find that each renter could have a farm of 456 acres of good arable land, while the other 46,000,000 acres of land is good for stock grazing.


I will pass over the great, broad fact that all the proletariat of all the nations has all the world to gain by the establishment of the Socialist Republic. My readers will note that I am writing about an industrial union and not about the general philosophy of Socialism. Let us mass the facts that I have set forth.

Here is land far greater in area than the German nation that has been grabbed by a few exploiters in fifty years. From being practically worthless the land has gone to a price that the workers cannot think of purchasing. The great public domain has disappeared. Where there were no tenants there are now 219,000. The bonus system has been introduced. The landlord has increased his demand on the crop, and each year finds the tenant sinking to an ever lower level.

Renters’ Union Organized.

These facts have led to the organization of the Renters’ Union of North America.

On the fourth day of last November in the Labor hall in the city of Waco, 110 delegates, from twenty-four counties, met in convention for the purpose of launching the Renters’ Union. Every man paid his own expenses, some of them stopped at the dollar-a-day hotels and others slept in he wagon yards. I attended the convention and in consideration of the fact that I had written the first call for the organization in The Rebel on the 15th day of last July, the convention honored me by placing me on the committee on by-laws and constitution in an advisory capacity. I have attended many conventions during my twenty years in the labor movement, but never one that displayed more singleness of purpose, unity of action, clearness of thought or had a cleaner personnel than the men who formed this convention.

The slogan of the convention was: LANDLORDISM MUST GO.

When our labors were completed I returned to my home confident that the groundwork had been laid for an industrial union that possesses greater potential strength than any other union in the nation. This is what the convention decided upon as its course of action:

First, they declared with Chancellor Kent and Sir William Blackstone that use and occupancy was the only genuine title to land.

Second, they declared that a confiscatory tax should be placed on all land held out of cultivation for speculative purposes.

Third, they declared that the organization should be strictly non-political and non-sectarian.

Fourth, they demanded a change in the State Constitution that would secure the objects outlined above.

Fifth, they declared that when the organization was well under way that a committee from the union should be sent to the political conventions of every party in Texas with a request to place in their platforms a plank demanding an amendment to the constitution that would enable them to tax the land held for speculative purposes and that would make use and occupancy the title to land. They further pledged themselves to use all honorable methods to destroy the political party, be it Republican, Democrat, Prohibition or Socialist, that would not accede to their demands.

Sixth, they took a positive stand for industrial autonomy, and while declaring Texas state division No. 1 the parent organization, it should have the right to issue charters in other states, but as soon as forty local organizations were chartered in the state, then a state convention should be called that would elect state officers and secure autonomy within that state.

Seventh, they struck new ground in a farmers’ organization by absolutely prohibiting from membership anyone who was not a bona fide tiller of the soil.

Eighth, they provided that a man who owns his small home might be eligible to membership, but any man who rented as much as one acre of land could not pass the portals of the union.

Ninth, they demanded that the bonus system should cease, that no man· should give a third of the crop. That the third in grain and the fourth in cotton should be the limit that they would give the landlord.

Tenth, they arranged for a widespread educational propaganda for the renters, their wives and their children under eleven separate heads.

Eleventh, they placed the dues at the lowest possible level, 50 cents initiation, 15 cents a quarter.

Twelfth, they demanded that all of their affairs, as far as possible, should be conducted by the initiative, referendum and recall.

Headquarters Established.

Headquarters have been established at Hallettsville, Texas, with E. O. Meitzen acting as Secretary-Treasurer. The President is Hugh Moore, who resides at Chilton, Texas. Organizers have been appointed, pamphlets have been written, a constitution and by-laws adopted, a large number of locals have been chartered and when the second annual convention occurs at Waco on November 8 the Renters’ Union delegates will meet prepared to take such steps as will bring the entire renting proletariat of the South within the sphere of their influence.

One significant thing may be noticed in connection with this Renters’ Union, and that is that it has been of great value to us in building up the Socialist party. It has broken down a wall of prejudice that stood between the renters and the Socialist party. The Democratic party renters have had the big fact rubbed under their nose that it was the Socialists of Texas that were the most active spirits in coming to their assistance when the difficult work of organization was projected. They are commencing to understand the necessity of using both the political and economic arm. Their old-time leaders are being put to the test and found wanting. Their union is drawing the class line taut. Before the launching of the Renters’ Union the landlord and tenant would walk arm in arm to the same primary, but now they separate at the union door and the renter is beginning to vote for the interest of himself and his class.

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and loyal to the Socialist Party of America. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

Ford PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v13n03-sep-1912-ISR-gog-ocr.pdf

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