Agrarian leader, editor, and first North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, Leonidas L. Polk was born on April 24, 1837 in Anson County. He was the son of Andrew and Serena Autry Polk, successful farmers and owners of thirty-two slaves. By age fifteen, Leonidas lost his father and mother. Their estate was divided between him and three half-brothers, with young Polk’s share being 353 acres and seven slaves. Polk was educated in the local schools and at nearby Davidson College. In 1857, Polk married Sarah Pamela Gaddy of Anson County; they had six children.
In 1860, Polk was elected to the state House as a Whig Unionist. Like most Whigs, he only advocated secession after President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) in April 1861 issued a call for troops to quell the states that formed the Confederate States of America and bring them back into the Union. As a state representative, Polk chaired a joint committee that created the state militia that he soon led as a commissioned colonel. (He was known thereafter as Colonel Polk.) In May 1862, he joined the 26th North Carolina Regiment as a private; he was later promoted to the rank of sergeant-major. Later that year, he transferred to the 43rd Regiment. He served in it as a second lieutenant, until he was elected in 1864 to the state legislature.
After the Civil War, Polk restored his farm, started and edited the weekly Ansonian, and founded the town of Polkton. His newspaper was Conservative (a synonym then for Democratic), and in 1876, he supported Zebulon B. Vance (1830-1894) for governor. Meanwhile, he championed agricultural diversification and education. In 1877, Governor Vance and the newly established North Carolina Agriculture Commission appointed Polk the state’s first Commissioner of Agriculture. Dissatisfied with lack of legislative support for the agency, Polk resigned in 1880 and started working as a reporter for the Raleigh News.
Polk was an early leader of the Grange (the Patrons of Husbandry), an agricultural organization that had limited success in North Carolina. In 1886, Polk founded the Progressive Farmer and editorialized for agriculture improvement, farmer club organization, and establishment of a separate state agricultural college under the Morrill Act. In 1887, the North Carolina College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts (later N.C. State) was established; many believed this educational achievement would have been impossible without Polk’s support.
When the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, also known as the Southern Alliance, moved to North Carolina in 1887, Polk joined and quickly gained influence within the organization. Membership was a little over 100,000 in the Tar Heel State and over two million nationally. In 1889, Polk was elected president of the National Farmers’ Alliance; he was re-elected in 1890 and 1891.
As its president, Polk advocated all the core principles of the Alliance. He supported free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax on incomes over $10,000, and direct election of U.S. senators. Polk likewise supported a “sub-treasury plan,” an idea originally suggested in November 1889 by North Carolinian Harry Skinner (1855-1929) and soon adopted as an official proposal of the Alliance. The plan called for the establishment of a system of government warehouses, where farmers had the option to deposit crops for government certificates worth eighty-percent of their market value. The plan’s purpose was to eliminate forced seasonal crop sales at deflated prices and provide a means so that farmers could sell crops for a profit and pay off loans.
By the 1890s, the Democratic Party had thwarted Polk’s agricultural reform efforts, so he joined the People’s (or Populist) Party. Among Populist rank and file, his popularity soared like a meteor; he had finally found a political home. In early 1892, rumors abounded that Polk would be the Populist presidential nominee. As a former Confederate officer, Polk was an immediate success among many white Southerners, but some leaders of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—a Union veteran’s organization—and the western Farmers’ Alliance supported his candidacy, too. On June 11, 1892, however, Polk died from a hemorrhaging bladder, and some Populists’ hopes of reform died with him. James B. Weaver (1833-1912) took his place, but the former Union general as a political candidate fared poorly; Polk undoubtedly would have rallied more Southern support.
Polk had been financially successful in the 1880s. When he died, however, debt plagued the Polk family, for he had used his personal fortune to promote agricultural reform. Leonidas Polk’s close associate, Marion Butler (1863-1938), remarked: “Col. Polk died poor, and there probably has never lived a man who could have prostituted his position for greater financial gain.” Polk’s ideas lived long after his death. They later influenced many Progressives to enact agricultural reform at the state and national levels.
Grady L. E. Carroll, Leonidas Lafayette Polk and Samuel A’Court Ashe: Faithful Public Servants (Raleigh, 1980); Stuart Noblin, “Leonidas Lafayette Polk,” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 5 of 6 (Chapel Hill, 1979-96); Stuart Noblin, Leonidas Lafayette Polk, Agrarian Crusader (Chapel Hill, 1949); Lala Carr Steelman, “Leonidas Lafayette Polk, North Carolina Alliancemen, and Some Conflicts of Agrarian Leadership, 1887-1892,” ECU Publications in History (1981); Lala Carr Steelman, The North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance : A Political History, 1887-1893 (Greenville, 1985).