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Shortly after 1900, tens of thousands of tobacco growers throughout Kentucky and Tennessee convulsed the region for nearly a decade in a revolt against the monopolistic practices of the American Tobacco Company. Though the revolt known as the Tobacco Wars remains one of the more remarkable insurgencies of rural America, it is also one of the more misunderstood. In this first major account of the uprising in over half a century, Tracy Campbell tells the story of these embattled farmers and casts a provocative new light on the issues that fueled the Tobacco Wars.

When tobacco prices fell below the cost of production in the early 1900s, farmers in western Kentucky and Tennessee, faced with desperate economic circumstances, formed cooperatives through which they could pool their crops and withhold tobacco from the market until a satisfactory price was offered. Campbell recounts the organizational underpinnings of the notorious “Black Patch War” and the forces that drove farmers to seek violent solutions to their economic ills. Campbell then expands the story to the burley region, where a simultaneous movement was under way. In 1908, over thirty thousand burley growers undertook the only successful large-scale agricultural strike in American history. Campbell brings this drama to life and describes the emotional day when the farmers achieved their unprecedented victory over the powerful Tobacco Trust.

The Tobacco Wars represented one of the last desperate gasps from the countryside before the onset of “agribusiness” drove millions of farmers and their families away for good. The Politics of Despair thus stands as a unique reminder of a tradition of protest that has, perhaps, been irretrievably lost. This book will interest not only rural and labor historians and students of the American South but anyone concerned with the profound issues surrounding the decline of rural America.

Tracy Campbell is professor of history and co-director of the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center at the University of Kentucky. His numerous books include Short of the Glory: The Fall and Redemption of Edward F. Prichard Jr.; Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition, 1742−2004; and The Gateway Arch: A Biography.

A must for anyone interested in Kentucky history. -- Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

A compelling history of ordinary people attempting to take control of their lives.” -- William Greider, author of Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (And Redeeming Promise) of Our Country

Thoroughly researched and well-written, The Politics of Despair is a major contribution to agricultural history -- Pete Daniel, author of Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Tobacco industry, Tobacco workers, Kentucky, Tennessee


United States History

The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars
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