Charles William Macune, leader of the Texas and National Farmers' alliances, was born on May 20, 1851, at Kenosha, Wisconsin, the third child and only son of William and Almira S. (McAfee) Macune. His father, a blacksmith and minister, was evidently a native of Saratoga County, New York. His mother came from the Ontario village of Bertie. The family moved to the Iowa frontier in 1843. They then lived in northwest Illinois until 1852, when Charles's father was lured by the prospects of the California gold fields, where he died of cholera. Charles Macune was thus reared by his widowed mother in Freeport, Illinois, where he acquired limited public-school education. At the age of ten he went to work for a nearby German farmer. In 1866, at the age of fifteen, he began employment as an apprentice in a pharmacy, the first step toward his later profession as a physician. In 1869 he went to California, where he worked as a ranch hand. By the fall of 1870, however, he was in Kansas working with a circus. By the summer of 1871 he had moved to North Texas, where he spent several years as a cattle drover between Fort Worth and Mineral Wells. By the spring of 1874 Macune had moved to Burnet, where he briefly supported himself painting houses. Between September 1874 and the spring of 1875, he made his initial venture into journalism as editor of the Burnet Bulletin, a Democratic weekly newspaper. He called himself a Jeffersonian Democrat and was a vigorous critic of radical Reconstruction. In June 1875 he was elected secretary of the county Democratic party executive committee. In September 1875 he married Sallie Vickrey, the Kentucky-born daughter of a Salado, Texas, stonemason engaged in building the Burnet County Courthouse. Six children were born of this marriage. After a brief attempt in 1875 to manage a hotel in Georgetown, Macune moved to San Saba and reportedly continued painting houses while he studied medicine with a local physician. By 1878 he was in Junction City, where in 1879 he was certified by a state medical examiner to practice medicine. He worked for several months as a doctor in Junction City, then in Fredericksburg, before finally setting up his practice in 1881 in Cameron. There he invested in town and nearby farm properties, including a farm at Ad Hall, where he and his family lived. Another man, however, operated the farm. In the summer of 1886 Macune and local physician Thomas A. Pope purchased the Cameron Herald.
Macune had also become a charter member of the local chapter, formed sometime in the spring of 1886, of the state Farmers' Alliance. He was promptly named one of the county organization's three delegates to the annual state convention in Cleburne in August 1886. There he was elected chairman of the state executive committee. At that tumultuous gathering the delegates split over a series of resolutions demanding radical economic reforms by the state and national governments. As acting president, Macune sought to stave off division of the order with a two-pronged program, which he offered at a special conference he summoned in Waco in January 1887. He proposed to expand the level of cooperative activity within the alliance and to expand the state Farmers' Alliance across the whole South with a new national organization, the National Farmers' Alliance and Cooperative Union.
The cooperative efforts of the Texas Farmers' Alliance grew out of alliance farmers' efforts to get better prices for their cotton and escape the burden of the crop-lien system, a mechanism for financing the cotton crop with crop mortgages. It produced a capital-starved South in the years after the Civil War and drove millions of southern farmers, Black and White, into severe poverty and loss of land. The difficulty local alliance stores had in defeating the concentrated opposition of local merchants and banks, as well as the savings promised to the farmers by large-scale cooperative purchasing and sales, underlay Macune's plans for the Farmers' Alliance Exchange of Texas. The exchange, with Macune as business manager, opened in September 1887 with very little capital in a building donated by the city of Dallas. The first year of the exchange's operation demonstrated that the benefits of statewide cooperation could not reach most lien-harassed farmers without some adjustment. In November 1888 the Texas Farmers' Alliance announced the "joint note" plan, developed primarily by Macune. This plan called for more prosperous farmers to take mortgages on the crops of their less prosperous neighbors, including tenants and sharecroppers. It failed when Texas and regional bankers refused to take the notes as collateral on loans, although these institutions had been doing the same thing with merchants for years. Despite an effort to raise the money within the Texas alliance in the summer of 1889, by the early fall of that year the Farmers' Alliance Exchange of Texas had collapsed. Inspired nonetheless by this precedent, exchanges were established by alliances in other southern states.
The other half of Macune's 1887 proposal succeeded enormously. The National Farmers' Alliance and Cooperative Union spread rapidly across the South and into the West between 1887 and 1889 and claimed 1,200,000 members by the summer of 1890. Macune served as president until the alliance convention at St. Louis in December 1889. In March of 1889, with $10,000 borrowed from wealthy Texas alliance man R. J. Sledge, Macune established the National Economist in Washington, D.C., and opened the Alliance Publishing Company to go with it. The National Economist became the official voice of the National Farmers' Alliance and Cooperative Union, which at St. Louis in December 1889 was renamed the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union.
Macune's final effort to solve the farmers' credit problem was his subtreasury plan. The plan, written into the alliance platform and amended slightly by the national council meeting at Ocala, Florida, in December 1890, provided for government owned and operated warehouses to store nonperishable agricultural commodities. Farmers depositing commodities could borrow, in United States Treasury notes, up to 80 percent of the market value of their stored crops or their land from the federal government, with a minimal charge for handling and operation. The national government would replace the lien system. Ironically, this plan led to Macune's defeat within the National Farmers' Alliance. The Democrats' refusal to support the subtreasury plan allowed Macune's opponents within the alliance to push the organization closer and closer to independent politics. In February 1892, at the St. Louis convention held to plan for the new People's party, Macune apparently gave in. He supported the new party until late October 1892, when he permitted his associate J. F. Tillman to send out Democratic campaign literature to alliance members. At the December 1892 meeting of the National Farmers' Alliance, Macune lost his bid for the presidency to Henry L. Loucks of the Dakota Farmers' Alliance. In the wake of the revelation of his last-minute switch to the Democratic party and questions about his finances as editor of the National Economist, Macune resigned his position on the national executive committee. The National Economist lost its status as the official organ of the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union in February 1893 and folded soon after Macune left the newspaper.
Macune reputedly remained in Washington, D.C., as an editor with the Evening Star until 1895, when he moved his family back to Cameron, Texas. There he founded, edited, and published a twice-weekly newspaper, the News, until it failed after a few months. Simultaneously, in May 1895 he was licensed in Cameron by the district court of the Twentieth Judicial District to practice law in Texas. Around 1896 he opened a law office in Beaumont. After a brief effort to recapture control of the National Farmers' Alliance during a trip to Washington, D.C., Macune reportedly returned to Beaumont determined to enter the ministry of the Methodist Church. When his daughter developed tuberculosis, he moved his family in 1900 back to Central Texas. At Star Mountain, near Goldthwaite, and then at Center, Macune practiced medicine for about a year, waiting for an opening in the ministry. He received his license to preach in June 1901 and in 1902 took his first pastorate at Copperas Cove. For approximately the next sixteen years, Macune served as a supply preacher in a number of small Central Texas communities, including Florence, Rising Star, Thurber, Wortham, Coolidge, and Hillsboro. In 1918, during World War I, he sought appointment as a naval chaplain but was refused permission because of his age. He then turned his attention to foreign mission work, joining in 1919 his youngest son, Rev. Dennis Macune, in Piedras Negras, Mexico. He also worked in Ciudad Acuña, farther up the Rio Grande. In 1920 he wrote a history of the Farmers' Alliance and deposited the manuscript in the University of Texas library. Macune served as pastor of a Methodist church in Miami, Arizona, in 1923 before retiring to Fort Worth. In that city he resided until his death on November 3, 1940. He was buried there in Mount Olivet Cemetery.