Kansas 1893: The Great Crankery
In Kansas, 1893 opened with Lorenzo Lewelling, victorious Populist Party governor elect, delivering his inaugural speech in the Hall of the House of Representatives in Topeka. Republican governors and legislatures had ruled the state since its inception in 1861, with the exception of a two year hiatus under a Democratic governor a decade earlier, but after the November, 1892, election, Populists controlled the Senate and governorship; only the House was in question.
Populists claimed Republicans had committed various kinds of fraud; they turned their case over to the State Canvassing Board, a Republican-dominated body, which ruled against them. They asked the state Supreme Court to order a ballot recount in contested counties. The Court, also Republican-controlled, declined to do so. The first meeting of the Legislature would be the day after the inauguration.
The Kansas City Star reported the inauguration was witnessed by “probably the greatest crowd that has ever assembled in Kansas on a similar occasion,” many of them rural folk who had never been inside the State Capitol building. They “viewed the surroundings with an air of ownership that made the Republicans, who stood like boys driven from their playground by bigger boys, indulge in piratical language.” The crowd gave Lewelling what the paper called a “mighty ovation.”
Lewelling, son of an abolitionist Quaker minister, began by denouncing the “survival of the fittest” ethos of the Gilded Age, a “government of brutes and reptiles” that must give way to a government “which recognizes human brotherhood.” He continued in a vein calculated to appeal to his rural base:
It is the province of government to protect the weak, but the government to-day is resolved into a struggle of masses with classes for supremacy and bread […]. It is the mission of Kansas to protect and advance the moral and material interests of all its citizens. It is its special duty at the present time to protect the producer from the ravages of combined wealth.
National legislation has for twenty years fostered and protected the interests of the few, while it has left the South and West to supply the products with which to feed and clothe the world and thus to become the servants of wealth. […] And thus while the producer labors in the field, the shop, and the factory, the millionaire usurps his earnings and rides in gilded carriages with liveried servants.
The Republican Journal of Kansas City, Missouri, said Lewelling’s speech was “incendiary,” and had met with “general disapproval among the better classes of people.” A Populist member of Congress Jerry Simpson, the Journal said, had “delivered himself of a vicious speech, calculated to encourage the Populists to resort to any means to organize the house to-morrow. He said the People’s party had elected the legislature and they should take charge of that as well as other branches of the state government. He was not in favor of revolution, he said, and urged that all abide by the law, but he would advise them not to haggle and split hairs over the interpretation of the law. […] ‘Organize the house,’ he cried, and a cry like the old rebel yell resounded through the hall. ‘If this is revolution or anarchy, make the most of it.’”
An editorial in the next day’s Journal was less condemnatory, saying that the Populists were not “anarchists, but their demands […] involve changes which, if suddenly made, would prove destructive.” Only the Republicans, the paper thought, could “hold the scales between anarchy and reaction,” between Populists and Democrats.
The Democratic Times of Kansas City, Missouri, thought Lewelling had stayed within “safe lines of thought,” although he had appealed “to one side of the class prejudice which is the cause of most of our bad laws. What might be excused in a stump speech may be out of place in the formal ceremonies of official induction.”
Kansas needs outside capital, said the editors, and the wrong policies will drive cheap capital away: “Governor Lewelling uses his imagination when he divides the people into ‘organized avarice and the helpless poor.’ There are no helpless poor in this country except the old, sick and weak […]. No man who has health and industrious habits is poor from any fault but his own.” Be careful, the editors warned the Populist leaders, “about using words and advancing theories which the republicans for political purposes will exaggerate into threats of mob legislation.”
On January 10th, Populists and Republicans, with a handful of Democrats, met to form the Legislature. The Republicans claimed 63 seats, the Populists 58, with an additional 18 seats contested. Each side claimed to have a majority and began electing officers, nominations greeted by a loud “Aye!” from one side and “No!” from the other.
“Such a stormy scene as followed has never been witnessed in the state,” the Times reported, “yet with it all there was extreme good nature shown.” Two speakers were elected, George L. Douglass for the Republicans, J.M. Dunsmore for the Populists; they sat side by side “putting contradictory motions at the same time, and two complete sets of officers attempted to enforce contradictory orders in the same assembly.”
“Small boys were admitted with buns and sandwiches,” the Times reported. “An enterprising Populist brought cigars and the accommodating house porters brought flasks of whiskey.” Thus fortified, the two houses remained in session all day and night without adjourning, neither side willing to leave the chamber for fear the other would pass bills in their absence. Members slept on the floor, watched by a crowd of office seekers and curious citizens. The two speakers were said to have slept under the same blanket, each clutching a gavel. Members soon decamped to nearby hotels.
On the 12th, the Populist Senate and Lewelling recognized the Populist House as the legal House, with the People’s Party having a one vote majority of 68 members, including some contested seats, over the other side with 63 Republicans plus three Democrats who had declared for the Republican House, and one Independent.
Harrumphed the Journal, “If anarchy consists in the defying and the violation of existing forms and laws, then Kansas is in a state of anarchy.” The paper argued that Lewelling’s declaration was an “assault upon the financial interests of the state,” quoting an array of bankers and businessmen in support. Republican Speaker Douglass told Lewelling he would not leave the stand “except at the point of a bayonet,” according to the Journal; the paper said that some Populist legislators were ready to support the Republican position but feared for their lives if they spoke out.
“The members of the Populist party in Kansas are not, as a rule, bad men or unpatriotic citizens,” the Journal editors conceded. “The majority of them are farmers, and there is no better class of people in Kansas or any other state, generally speaking, than the farmers.” The problem, the paper said, is the Party’s leaders, who are using “disgraceful means to secure partisan advantage in the organization of the legislature […}.” The Populist House members were inexperienced and unqualified for office; “They are merely instruments in the hands of reckless and demagogical leaders” like Simpson, who “have little regard for the public welfare.”
The Kansas City Mail, which tended to support the Populists, agreed that Party supporters were “law abiding, conservative citizens. […] They believe that the republicans have attempted to steal the organization of the house and they are determined to prevent the consummation of the crime. As republicans have a bad record for stealing offices their suspicions are well founded.” The Times, similarly, insisted that Jerry Simpson’s “inflammatory bosh does not represent the sentiment of the better element of the populists, and it is a pity that he and others of his ilk are on the ground at all.” Democrats, the paper said, “should be at the front of law-abiding citizenship.[...]"There is not going to be any anarchy in Kansas,” the Times said in another editorial.
The term “anarchism” was bandied about in newspapers with as little regard for its meaning as “communism” or socialism” in later times. In the Times editorial it connoted disregard for laws, namely Jerry Simpson’s intemperate claim that, as the paper paraphrased it, he would not be bound by the technicalities of the law, “but rejoices at the prospect of trampling upon the law for the sake of liberty […].” Simpson, the editors argued, like “Paternalists, federalists, socialists and anarchists may deride legal forms, but democrats can not.”
Local newspapers engaged in partisan warfare over the Populists, the Republican Journal offering the most stinging criticisms, the Mail the most supportive comments. Lewelling wrote to the Mail thanking it for “valuable services rendered to the people’s party […] and to commend your efforts in support of the people in the struggle against the combined powers to overthrow the government by a system of legislation which deprives the laborer of a fair division of the fruits of toil and by humiliation rendering the producer an easy prey to the greed of corporations […].”
Journal editors offered a lecture to Governor Lewelling on his criticism of press coverage of his party and administration, calling his comments “unjust and cowardly. Unjust because the governor has been treated with marked forbearance by the correspondents and reporters. Cowardly because he is evidently trying to crawl out of responsibility for his own blunders and crimes by throwing the blame upon others.” Despite the Journal’s record of bashing Lewelling from the moment he was sworn in, the editors insisted that press coverage was “fair” and presented facts “well known to the leading citizens of Topeka […].”
Another Journal editorial accused “this new party of righteous purposes,” formed to “put down partisanship,” of now “defying law and the constitution in an attempt to carry out a most outrageous partisan undertaking.” If these are the “first fruits” of the Populist rule, “what may we expect when the reform organization becomes older and corrupting influences obtain the hold which time gives?” Kansas voters would have been better off, the editorial concludes, remaining with the “old party” of Lincoln and Grant.
The standoff in the House continued for several days, with Populists attempting to unseat Republicans in the House before the state Supreme Court could arrive at a decision on the contested seats. The deadlock “knocked into a cocked hat,” as the Times put it, the question of who would choose a U.S. Senator to replace a Senator who had died in office. In 1893, state legislatures – in the case of Kansas, House and Senate in joint session – chose U.S. Senators. The choice had to be ratified by the U.S. Senate which, until March 4th was under Republican control, making approval of a Populist nominee unlikely. After that date, Democrats would be in the majority, so a number of Kansas Populists agreed to vote for a “fusion” or “Dem-Pop” candidate for Senator, rather than one of their own.
John Martin was the favored “fusion” candidate, but many Populists supported John W. Breidenthal, chairman of their Party’s central committee. Most Republicans supported Joseph W. Ady for the Senate seat, but there were supporters of other candidates who engaged in what the Times called “dilatory tactics, and in a few moments what space was left was filled up with tobacco smoke and oratory,” leaving the Republicans with no viable candidate. Some Republicans even favored support for a Democrat so as to quash any Populist aspirations. “It is not that they care for a Democrat above a Populist,” the Times claimed, “but because they want to see the new party go to pieces that the leaders have worked to secure a combination which will give the senatorship to their old time enemies.”
The Times reported that the leading female Populist, Mary Lease, “the Populist princess,” as some papers called her, was so opposed to nomination of a fusion Democrat that she was collaborating with Republicans to prevent it: “If it had not been for fusing with the Democrats,” Lease told a reporter, “we would have had an overwhelming majority in both branches of the legislature.”
Lease lobbied diligently but did not get her way; John Martin of Topeka was nominated by the Populist caucus for Senator. Despite their small numbers – there were only five of them in the Legislature – Democrats held the balance of power and supported Martin, who proclaimed himself a Democrat rather than a “fusion” candidate. He would go to the Senate, pronounced the Times, “with no obligations except those of his party’s principles and his own judgment. […] Neither Judge Martin nor the Democratic Party owes anything to the populist leaders. They would never have elected him if they could have mustered enough votes to elect one of themselves.”
Martin then headed off to Washington, where it appeared even Republican Senators were prepared to accept him on the basis that Republicans were in the Hall in Topeka when Martin was selected. As one Senator observed, “They just appeared to have declined to vote.” After the Kansas Supreme Court recognized the legality of the Republican or “Douglass” house in late January, Martin’s approval became likely; senators were reported in the Times to be disgusted with “the Kansas muddle,” and wanting to finish up the Martin matter.
With the Senator issue settled in Kansas, at least, it was back to the Legislative wars. With future control of the House uncertain, the Populists put forward a series of novel proposals, hoping to win the favor of their constituency. Lewelling proposed a state loan commission by which the state would guarantee mortgages, a forward –looking idea anticipating the FHA of the 1930s. For the Kansas City Times, the proposal would not survive constitutional challenge and “would be treated by the courts as rubbish.” Jerry Simpson, the Populist congressman, opposed a congressional appropriation for improvements at Forts Leavenworth and Riley, saying “the plutocracy of the country wants to build up large military posts.” Opposition to military expansion was also arguably forward looking; it is overstating the case to say, as one congressman did, that If Simpson had his way,“he would wipe out the entire military establishment and never spend a dollar upon it.”
Among other enlightened ideas from the Populists were a maximum freight rate bill, an anti-Pinkerton detective bill, bills to protect shippers of grain and seeds and to protect towns against fraudulent public officers, and one to provide free text books. The Mail reported that Populist members were passing bills at such a rate that two reading clerks were at work “simultaneously each reading a separate bill at the same time.” A measure to implement the so-called “Australian” or secret ballot was passed in the Senate.
In May, the Populist administration declared it would enforce an eight-hour work day law enacted in 1891 but seldom enforced; the Times headlined its story on this “Bad for manufacturers,” and said the law was too far-reaching and would advantage contractors from neighboring states with no similar law. The state’s Lieutenant Governor, Percy Daniels, devised a progressive tax plan for presentation to Congress; it would apply only to the estates of the very wealthy: “The greater the estate the greater the rate of taxation,” the Times reported, in an ironic tone which suggested it regarded Daniels’ idea as another loony scheme of the “rainbow chasers,” as the Populists were often called.
Daniels received much mail, said the paper, “from the people who have an undying faith in the future regulation of the perfect picture of Bellamy,” referring to Edward Bellamy, whose Looking Backward (1887) was seen by some as the blueprint for a socialist U.S.A. Daniels projected the scheme would realize $2,000,000,000 a year, paid by what the Times called “10,000 unfortunate millionaires” – enough to support principal government functions including Civil War veteran pensions, infrastructure improvement, and equipping “a national guard.” In August, Daniels sent his plan to Washington for introduction in Congress; the plan included a heavy head tax on immigrants of $200 for adult males.
Populist policy also anticipated the “trust-busting” initiatives of the Progressive era. For example, when the so-called “paper trust” attempted to force the owner of a paper mill in Salina to sell the mill to the trust by threatening to inflate the price of its raw material, the Lewelling administration’s attorney general called on the Salina County Attorney to “seek out the agents of this great trust and arrest each and every one of them, and spare no pains in their prosecution […].” The national People’s Party pushed for nationalization of Eastern-owned railroad companies, not only because of high freight rates but because so many of them were going into receivership, threatening the economies of the Western states.
The Populists’ relentless pursuit of “reform” measures – some forward-looking, some bordering on the crackpot – earned them derisive titles like “rainbow chasers” and “calamity howlers,” and made Kansas a standing joke in conservative newspapers like the New York Sun, which referred to Kansas as the “great crankery”. Commenting on one Lewelling proposal to create a commercial division of the country, the Sun depicted the Governor dreaming “that he may yet be the boss of a Southwestern republic, a land of plenty and Populists, where pecks become bushels by act of the Legislature, and the sun rises in the West, deserting the monarchical and monopolistic East.”
The Times described such national images of Kansas as exaggerated, but hurtful to the state’s economy; the state’s leaders “are cranks and it is to them and their efforts alone that Kansas owes her name of ‘The Crank Reservation.’” The paper’s solution, of course, was to “throw these political firebrands into the outer darkness” at the next election. Believing, incorrectly as it proved, that the Republican Party had received “its death blow” in 1892, the paper believed it was up to Democrats to “redeem” the State.
Although primarily a rural movement, Lewelling’s administration was, in theory, pro-union, in contrast to the two major parties. The Kansas City Mail complained, however, that the “professed friends of labor,” Wyandotte County Populists, had taken the county printing contract from the Mail and given it to a non-union concern, just at a time when typesetting machines were throwing union printers out of work “by droves. In Kansas City there are about ten men for every job,” claimed the paper. The Populists claimed ignorance.
Lewelling’s administration expressed sympathy for Kansas coal miners engaged in a lengthy general strike for higher wages. The Journal accused Lewelling’s “ostentatious fellowship with labor” of being a play for votes even as he enjoyed the hospitality of corporations on “one of the palaces of the Missouri Pacific […].” Lewelling ate lunch in a railway dining car; the Journal enjoyed inflating it into a sybaritic orgy: “the choicest of food and drink from the colored servants of a corporation which a Populist candidate for congress lately arraigned for what he called its crimes against the people of this state.” The Journal was unsympathetic to the striking miners, arguing that they had been manipulated by Populist politicians into believing they were underpaid. The paper insisted they were not, and produced figures to support its case that, “as labor is generally paid, the miners of Kansas have little cause to complain.” The real problem, argued the editors, is with their Populist leaders, who take advantage of the miners’ lack of acquaintance with American politics and the English language. A later article revealed news “shocking to the Populists who have engineered the strike” that miners in one striking district were receiving about $2.80 for a day’s work, a considerable wage for a working man at a time when striking railway workers were offered $1 a day to return to work.
The paper said nothing of the owners’ plan to bring in black strikebreakers from the South, mentioning only that depressed economic conditions would make it easy for the owners to find replacements. One of the mine owners remarked to a Star reporter, “We might put [black miners] in, but we wouldn’t need to go far to get white men, as there are plenty of them out of employment.” Another mine official opposed bringing in black miners: “they are not a race of miners,” he said, “and I think my mines will be idle for some time before I put them in.”
Owners were reluctant to send African Americans into the mines as strikebreakers because they feared doing so would create a problem with Kansas Populists, the Star story noted -- not because Populists would object to strikebreaking but because they would protest blacks taking jobs from whites: “although the mine operators care very little for the political effect of their acts, they will hardly take the risk of arousing the anger of the men in control of that state.”
A by-product of the Populist effort to win miners’ favor was recruitment into their ranks of foreign-born miners, including Germans and Poles, who were staunchly opposed to women’s suffrage. When a Populist county convention in Leavenworth adopted a resolution in favor of women suffrage, a group of miners appeared to denounce the resolution and expel from the county Populist club a leading female organizer. The Times called the matter a “little rumpus” encouraging to politicians on the other side.
If Populist ideology was forward looking on women’s rights, it was far from progressive on matters of race. African Americans were routinely excluded from Populist councils and seldom nominated as candidates for offices or given patronage positions in state government despite being in significant numbers in some constituencies. Governor Lewelling had to be persuaded to offer a $300 reward in May for apprehension of those responsible for the lynching of an African American man in Salina, at the urging of a committee of black Topeka residents protesting the “wave of increasing prejudice, hatred and injustice now sweeping over the country against the negro race.” Ideologues like Mary Lease routinely blamed immigrants for the country’s financial straits. Lease proposed a complete, more or less indefinite stop to immigration in a letter published in the Daily Mail, arguing not only that the country was already overcrowded with the destitute, but that the new arrivals carried with them the “enginery of destruction”:
With our cities congested, industry dying, agriculture staggering to its grave and the dependent class increasing, why add to the deep discontent and unsatisfied wants of our own poor the deep ignorance, unspeakable destitution and rabid anarchy of the king ridden, landlord-cursed hordes of the old world, at a time, too, when tremendous enginery of destruction offers itself to every man? There never was a time in the history of this gray old world when an enemy of priestcraft and kingcraft could work such terrible destruction as today.
Anti-Semitism was also frequently alleged against Populist ideologues such as Ignatius Donnelly, a Populist propagandist and author of a dystopian novel, Caesar’s Column. (1890) Less seriously, the Republican Journal mocked Populists for legislation in Minnesota that allegedly required Chinese to tuck in their shirts. It was, the paper said, “an instance of buffoonery,” exemplifying how state legislatures have been “brought to universal ridicule and general contempt through the success of the Populist movement.”
Matters in the two competing houses of the legislature began reaching a climax early in February, after Dunsmore, the Populist Speaker, told his republican counterpart Douglass that the Populist House, having been officially recognized by the Senate and Governor, was the legitimate body and would proceed to make laws with or without Republican support. “Many reports are current tonight,” the Times reported, “as to what steps the populists will take to gain full possession of the representative hall tomorrow.” There was speculation that employees of the Republican House would be denied admission to the hall. The Populists did deny admission to Republican employees, but not to Representatives, who took their seats and began considering bills.
Two weeks later, on February 14th, the Republican House adopted a resolution condemning Ben Rich, the Populist House Clerk, for "loud and boisterous language and unlawful noises" that “continuously interrupted the regular proceedings of the House,” and called for him to be arrested and brought before the House on contempt charges. [Journal Of The House, Kansas, p. 219] According to the Topeka Daily Capital, the proposed arrest of Rich was a stratagem by Republicans to get the matter into the courts, where they thought the whole crisis would be resolved. Populists vowed they would not allow Rich to be arrested.
“Open Warfare: Long Expected Crisis in Kansas Comes at Last,” ran the Journal headline about events on the 14th : a crowd of Populists, including Breidenthal, carried off the boisterous Rich but Republicans were described as determined “to bring the revolutionary proceedings of the Populists to an end. There was no disposition on the part of Republican members to resort to violence or force, but if this is necessary to uphold the law and the rights of the people, they are prepared to act.” The paper predicted an imminent conflict “which may end in riot and bloodshed. Republicans are determined to enforce the resolution demanding the arrest of Rich, and the Populists say they will never submit to his being taken before the Republican house.” Populists occupied the House with every door locked and guarded; Republicans threatened to break down the doors if denied admission.
The next morning the headline in the Star on February 15th was “War in Real Earnest,” as a crowd of Republicans entered the Legislature and confronted armed Populists guarding the entrances to the Hall. It was a near thing; the guards “flourished revolvers and Winchesters,” according to the Journal, but no shots were fired, and the Republicans went to the Hall of Representatives, where Speaker Douglass personally wielded a sledgehammer to break down the doors.
"Populist mob swept aside” ran the Journal headline: “A grander exhibition of courage than that displayed by the Republicans to-day in facing Winchesters and revolvers and entering Representative hall after the doors had been battered down by Speaker Douglass was never before witnessed in Kansas.” The Populists in the Hall were also armed, but left the Hall without violence. The Populist Sergeant-at-Arms claimed their guns were only a bluff, none being loaded.
Lewelling called out the militia, had them surround the State House, then went to Representative Hall to order the Republican invaders to leave, without result. He then ordered the officer in command of the Kansas National Guard, J.W.F. Hughes, to clear Representative Hall, but Hughes “flatly refused to obey the order, and told Governor Lewelling that he would tender his resignation before he would be a party to such an act.” Hughes later in the day spoke to the Republicans occupying the House to tell them he would not obey the governor’s order. “The hall shook with the cheers,” the Journal reported, “and Republicans stood on their desks and cried, ‘Good for Hughes!’” The Republicans were in possession of the Hall, and for the rest of the day and night deputized hundreds of people and called for assistance from workmen in the Santa Fe Railroad and students at Washburn University. A mock ceremonial presentation of the sledgehammer was made to Speaker Douglass by fellow Republicans.
While the Republican Journal presented the Republican action as a restoration of law and order, the Democratic Times called the situation “anarchy”: “Every partisan in the town carries a revolver and 200 Republican sergeant-at-arms either carry muskets or revolvers and some of them both. Today 5,000 armed citizens will be in Topeka from every section of the state. What the result will be no man can tell, but bloodshed seems the only possible solution.” It was reported in the Times that the Governor had sent to Wichita for an artillery company to come to Topeka and bring with them the company’s Gatling gun, probably hoping the Republicans would be frightened at this prospect.
Over the next few days, things quieted down. “Guns were everywhere,” the Journal reported on the 17th, stacked up in corners of hotel corridors, in the hands of militiamen, on the shoulders of men who had poured in from all parts of Kansas,” but there was no fighting as the two sides tried to find a compromise. The Republicans remained barricaded in the Hall, surrounded by armed guards, “mostly young boys,” the Journal reported, “and every one has either a Winchester rifle or a big club. Some sport both clubs and guns and for all of them don’t look warlike.” Inside the House, the Republican members played cards, smoked, and told stories.
Armed men continued to arrive from around the state, the Republicans being sworn in as deputy sheriffs by Sheriff Wilkerson, of Shawnee County, and the Populists enlisted as “provisional militia,” and furnished with guns and blue overcoats at the state armory. Over a thousand of Wilkerson's deputies had been sworn in by noon of the 16th.
Republicans were convinced they had won the battle; Lewelling disagreed, issuing a statement on the 20th that the “dastardly and far reaching purpose of the Republicans” to destroy the Populist House and thereby thwart “all possibility of any reform legislation” would fail. “Corporate greed is determined to prevent the enactment of the reform measures of the Populists,” the governor wrote, but the Populist House continued to exist and pass reform legislation which, the governor argued, would be sustained by the courts. Both Houses appeared before the state Supreme Court, the Populists arguing that the Court had no jurisdiction over membership of a House recognized by the Governor and Senate. It was apparent the Court would sustain the Republican side, so while awaiting the decision the Populist house rushed through more reform legislation.
As expected, the Supreme Court decision declared the Douglass House the legal and constitutional body by a two to one vote, and invalidated all acts passed by the Dunsmore House. John Martin, the Senate nominee, said he was not surprised, having predicted that “the majority of the Court being Republicans, it would sustain the Republican position, and the minority, being Populists, would decide the other way.” It was, he thought, a “radically wrong” decision which undermined the separation of powers, but the final decision lay with voters in a future election. That remained the Populist position and hope as they capitulated, entering the House of Representatives and taking their seats, with Douglass as speaker; “The war was over,” the Times commented. “Peace reigned. But it reigned under protest,” with Populist representatives periodically rising to object to the Court’s decision.
In Washington, D.C., the Martin issue, which appeared to have been settled by the Kansas Supreme Court decision, was put back on the boil by three U.S. Senators from Kansas who objected to the idea of a “fusion” candidate entering the U.S. Senate in the guise of a Democrat and alleged a menacing conspiracy with Martin at the center. They accused Martin of having made “pledges” to the Populists, whose influence they described as “inimical to the interests of the commonwealth and extremely dangerous to its autonomy.”
Unmoved by the fact that Lewelling and his forces had quietly surrendered the House to Republicans, one Senator predicted the next Kansas election would see “conflict, bloodshed, inevitably […] unless the people can be educated out of their new beliefs, and of that I have little hope. The mass of them are wedded to their crazy theories […].” He described overhearing an alleged conversation in Kansas in which Kansas Adjutant General Henry Artz had boasted of having 100,000 armed men “ready to march when I say march, to shoot when I say shoot, to obey my directions implicitly. We will sweep the state in November, 1894.” Martin, the Senator claimed, was the “agent” for what he called “the Artz gang,” and as Senator would be able to appoint Populists to high patronage posts. A third Senator claimed that Populists were organized into cult-like secret societies that used Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column as their bible for military organization. “Those three men,” Martin responded, “are the three monumental liars of Kansas […]They are after office and the control of office. They will fail and fall flat.”
The question of Martin’s legitimacy as Senator was still alive in August, Republican Senators on the Senate Elections committee holding that he had never been properly elected, but by this time, Democrats were in control of the Senate and Democrats, as the Journal put it, “are often more partisan than logical.” [1893-08-16-DailyJournal-p4-Martin not elected] Nevertheless, the decision would still be in the air in December and the Journal thought that Martin would be turned down by the elections committee, on the basis that there had been no election by the legislature at the time; with that decision, the Republican legislature, the editors argued, would select a new senator, not the Governor.
By April, fortune seemed to be turning against the People’s Party: “The reign of Populism last winter seems to have brought men and women to their senses,” the Journal remarked of Kansas municipal election as Populist candidates were mostly rejected in favor of Republicans. The elections were conducted under a new law that prohibited “the use of money, the hiring of carriages and the distribution of ‘election’ cigars and whiskey” to influence voters on election day. The Times reported that it was causing Republicans “much uneasiness,” since they had always relied on such inducements to get their voters to the polls: “Many a Republican has held office on account of the excellent carriage service rendered by his party on election day.”
Even so, Kansas Republicans had a fairly successful outcome across the state: the law, the Journal reported, “kept from the polls the heelers and the rounders with hired carriages, who have hitherto given to the voting places a repulsiveness in the eyes of respectable people.” The implication was that the absence of such characters had encouraged women to come to the polls. Kansas women, who had voted in municipal elections since 1887, were reported to have voted “mostly Republican […] In Olathe, for example, the entire Republican ticket was elected over Democrats, Populists and Prohibitionists; 660 people voted, 150 of them women.
Republican gains in Kansas were, the Times argued, a lesson in the dangers of Democrats allying themselves with Populists and abandoning “straight Democratic principles.” Only a few Democratic politicians did so in hopes of personal gain, but in the eyes of voters wanting to register their disapproval of “the revolutionary tactics of the Governor and the Populist tactic,” all Democrats were suspect. The Democratic Party must “remove any impression that it is tainted with Populist disregard of sound principles of legislation […].” Most Democratic county conventions were refusing to put together a fusion ticket or, as the Times put it, to “have anything to do with the political scalawags whose crazy actions and crazier talk have done so much to throw discredit upon the State.”
The Populist Party also blamed its losses on “fusion” and resolved to abandon it. At the Shawnee County Populist convention in July, as the Journal depicted it, there was as much dissatisfaction with Lewelling and his administration as with the “fusion” idea. The pro-gold position of Cleveland’s administration was a significant bar to a future relationship with the Democrats; the Populists unanimously favored monetizing silver. “Fusion is not to be talked of,” said the Populist Secretary of State. “Populism and Democracy have ceased to have anything in common since the president’s message was issued.” The Populists were confident that they could go it alone and drive Republicans from the field: “Our party is big enough and strong enough to stand alone, and we don’t want to borrow from the Democrats or anybody else,” said Lewelling. “I look for a three-cornered fight next year, but we will gain enough converts from the Republican Party to offset the loss of any of our Democratic friends.” The Republican Party in Kansas, he predicted, would soon “die of brain fever – it will have nothing left but leaders.”
While Democrats and Populists were predicting the demise of the Republican Party, the Party was, as the Star put it, “very lively and decidedly opposed to being put under the sod.” They were busily hammering Populists on every issue, including Prohibition enforcement, another area where they could accuse their foe of lawlessness, although disregarding the Prohibition Law of 1881 had been rampant from the moment of its passage. A Canadian commission visiting Kansas to investigate prohibition found open violations of the law on all sides in Kansas City, Kansas, and “enough vice to stamp the city as the very worst place they had seen on their trip.” Frank ‘Pop’ Willard, the Populist mayor of Argentine, a smelting town near Kansas City, Kansas, was a notorious toss pot who was investigated by the County Attorney for his favoritism toward Populist owners of ‘joints.’ “Some of the most prominent and notorious ‘joints,” the Journal claimed, “are owned and run by leading Populists, who are personal friends and political supporters of Mayor Willard.”
When Populist Attorney General Little, in a not unrealistic move, threw in the towel on prohibition enforcement, conceding that cities needing the revenue could issue saloon licenses if they wished, he was immediately accused by Republicans of counseling law-breaking. “He ought to be impeached for it,” an unnamed “prominent Republican” told the Journal. The attorney-general, he said, was courting the vote of the “slums,” lower class city dwellers who were presumably saloon habitues. A later Journal story claimed that scuttling prohibition in cities who opposed it while making a “slipshod effort” to support the law elsewhere had been Populist policy all along.
In August the court martial of J.W.F. Hughes, the officer who had refused the Governor’s order to expel “armed and insurrectionary” Republicans from the Legislative Hall, began in Topeka. Hughes, a loyal Republican and member of the Topeka Republican Flambeau Club, pleaded not guilty to the charges. Debate by attorneys soon resolved into three questions: whether there had been a “riotous body of men” assembled in the Hall or a group of elected representatives who had a right to be there, whether an officer in command is ever justified in disobeying the orders of his commander-in-chief, and whether Lewelling had the right to give such orders. It was, the Times observed, “a rehash of last winter’s war […]. "
One of the principal accusations against Hughes, that he had told Republicans in the House that he was their “friend,” was denied by Hughes, his denial confirmed by every witness for the defense, according to a Journal account. Another accusation brought by the prosecution was that the Republicans in the House were “riotous” because they were all drunk was also discredited by witnesses who testified to the sobriety of those in the hall.
Colonel Hughes had become a public figure, and a likely Republican candidate for some future high office; the Times speculated that he might become Secretary of State in a future Republican government, this long before the outcome of Hughes’ trial was known. In his testimony, Lewelling admitted he could not say with certainty that Hughes had actually disobeyed his orders, since Hughes had never discovered who had a right to remain in the hall and who didn’t. Hughes had been ordered to clear the Hall of those “not members of the legislature or lawful officers of the house.”
The next day, the two sides summed up their cases. The Judge Advocate General Frank Doster, who had been Lewelling’s adviser at the time of the legislative crisis, spoke for an hour on Hughes’ willful disobedience of the Governor’s order, saying the defense could offer no justification for Hughes telling the assembled Republicans he had been ordered to eject that “they could rest easy and that he was their friend.” Hughes’ defense responded that the order Hughes disobeyed was illegal because the hall was in the possession of the legal House of Representatives. The Times called the defense speech “probably the greatest effort every made before a court in Kansas.” The Journal commented that the main contention of the prosecution, that Hughes’ disobedience was putting the whole social order at risk, was “clap trap.” The defense, it maintained, had showed that Hughes had disobeyed an illegal order, since the governor had no authority over a parliamentary body.
While the court’s decision was awaited, the Times reviewed the cost of the trial, including payment of court members and witnesses, the former receiving $2 a day, except for the presiding officer, who received $4, the latter $1.50 a day. The cost of the trial, which had run over a month, was estimated at $1,500. It was not known where the money would come from to pay even this measly sum.
As expected, the court martial found Hughes guilty and sentenced him to be dishonorably discharged from the state’s military service. The dishonor, commented the Journal, belongs instead with Lewelling, Doster “and his law-defying coterie […]. Nobody expected any other verdict. It was beyond the limits of reason that the cabal of conspirators against the best interests and the fair fame of Kansas would convict themselves of anarchy.” The Journal reprinted comments from newspapers across the state echoing its view that Hughes had been honored by the guilty verdict; typical was the Ottawa Republican’s view that Hughes was “guilty of refusing to drench Topeka in blood to satisfy a crazy governor.”
Governor Lewelling’s next bashing at the hands of the press came over the question of who had been responsible for writing the settlement agreement that had averted an armed clash during the February “legislative war.” The Republican Speaker, Douglass, claimed it had been written by George R. Peck, lawyer for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad after Peck had summoned the Governor to a midnight meeting in the U.S. District court. Douglass clearly wished to embarrass Populists by suggesting they were meekly taking orders from the hated railway monopolists.
According to the Times, Douglass' claim was confirmed by J.C. Wilson, clerk of the U.S. District court, who was present at the meeting. Wilson said the Governor was “wrought up into a fearful state of excitement” at the dangerous situation. Peck said the only solution was to give up the Hall to the Republicans. “Peck had suggested,” Wilson is quoted as saying, “that the Governor was a coward and we could work on him in regard to his personal safety if everything else failed. In accordance with this idea, Peck then said to the Governor that he must know that if a war was brought about he must be one of the first to be slain.”
Lewelling, too excited to write out an agreement, handed the paper over to Peck, who wrote out five “articles of agreement” by which Populists would leave the Hall of Representatives, disband the militia, and leave the matter to the courts.
Lewelling had a different version of the story. He claimed the Populists had made many overtures to the Republicans to end the standoff peacefully, all of them rejected. He conceded that Peck had sent for him at the Topeka hotel where and his family were staying, and that “notwithstanding the tears and entreaties of my wife and daughter, who were alarmed for my safety,” he agreed to meet him, to avert the bloodshed that would have occurred had Hughes and his 1,200 men gone over to the Republicans.
Lewelling said he had dictated terms of a settlement to Peck, the same terms, he said, as had been repeatedly proposed and rejected by the Douglass house. The Populists, Lewelling said, were always willing to compromise on the Hall, but not on principle: “they contended for a chance to legislate for the people. Their chief clerk had been arrested. There was a studied attempt to decimate the Populist strength by arrests and otherwise until they should have no quorum, then their power to legislate would be destroyed.”
Yet another version came out in the Times the next day: it was “all turkey for the Democratic party” said the paper about the efforts of Kansas Republicans and Populists to make each other look bad over the Lewelling-Peck affair. An issue was whether Lewelling was so distressed he wept in the presence of Peck; one of those present, Allen Sells, local police chief, a Populist, said he had not and that he was “remarkably cool for a man who had been threatened with death by the Republicans.” In this account, the Governor had not been excited or fearful; Peck and the Governor had both drafted several proposals before arriving at one they could agree on, which was “substantially the proposition submitted by the Governor to the Douglass House February 16, and rejected.” Peck then wrote up the terms and they were signed. Sells said that the story that the Santa Fe railroad had been responsible for the settlement agreement was “the most absurd yarn I ever heard.” Lewelling met with Peck not as a Santa Fe Railroad attorney, he said, but as a leading Republican.
In the 1893 off-year elections, Kansas Populists lost considerable ground to Republicans. Every political view had its own explanation for the outcome. For the Democratic Times, it was the result of the “fusion” alliance between Democrats and Republicans and the election marked “the death of fusion.” Democrats who had given up their principles “to this mongrel makeshift in politics in the hope of aiding the national ticket” should have learned their lesson: “Fusion is repugnant to conscience and belittles American manhood.” The other conclusion from the election, said the paper, “is the certain decline of Populism and Populistic heresies,” among them the “cheap money” doctrines of the pro-silver advocates. Of the 81 counties, the Republicans carried 43, Populists 6, with the remainder divided.
For Republicans, the election outcome was proof of the charges it had made against the Populists. Kansas was a “redeemed state,” the Journal crowed. The editor of the Topeka Capital was quoted saying that the returns “illustrate the total incapacity of the Populist officials for public affairs, and their utter inability to manage ‘the first People’s Party government on earth.’” A banker announced that he would be extending mortgages for five years because of “renewed faith in Kansas and Kansas people.”
Even the Democratic Star saw the elections as a move “from Kansas drunk to Kansas sober.” Kansas had “spurned Socialism and all its kindred heresies.” Beset by falling agricultural prices and overdue on his mortgage, the Kansas farmer had been persuaded to vote for the Populists: he was “suffering from a mental disease. He believed that he believed a lot of rubbish that wouldn’t pass current for wisdom outside an insane asylum.” Then his economic situation improved, and he returned to being “a rational being,” voting out the Populists.
The Populists were reported in the Times to be putting on a bold front, claiming to have made gains over 1891, “but it is plain to see that they feel their defeat keenly and regard the future with doubt.” Jerry Simpson thought that the great unrest in the country as a result of the economic depression was calling for the organization of a new party, “to be composed of people who want equal rights under the law.” A prominent socialist, Laurence Gronlund of Washington, D.C., was proposing to go to Kansas to organize a new party, “the corner stone of which will be socialism – a party which he confidently predicts will be ‘the successful third party,’” according to a report in the Journal.
Kansas Senator Peffer announced a movement to merge the People’s Party into a new organization that would include free silver advocates who had not accepted other aspects of Populist doctrine, such as government ownership of railroads. Another well-known Populist, George Clemens, said that Populists had lost because they had been for two years “politicians instead of apostles" and it was time for the Party to “accept socialism as part of its doctrine” and “begin at once to make every school house and hall in Kansas resound with lectures on the subject which he calls ‘teaching the people the sublime truth and hope of socialism.’”
Mrs. Lease was described in the Times as “plunged into grief” over her Party’s defeat, blaming it on Lewelling and his administration for clinging to what she called “the iniquitous bargain with the Democrats,” as well as for appointing seasoned “boodlers” to state offices. In addition, she said, Populist legislators “disgraced the party and disgusted the people” by choosing John Martin for the Senate. Lease’s comments were, the paper thought, “an open revolt against the party machine” and likely to get her in trouble with Lewelling, who had appointed her to the State Board of Charities and could remove her.
Lewelling himself was philosophical: “It is an off year,” he told the Times. Farmers, the main support of the Alliance, hadn’t left their fields while Republicans had turned out; in addition, “hard times” cost his Party votes. Hard times had also let loose on the state a body of unemployed men who became the subject of Lewelling’s next encounter with a hostile press. In December he sent a lengthy letter to police commissioners in the state’s five largest cities denouncing vagrancy laws under which men with no visible means of support could be arrested, jailed, and put to work on the municipal rock pile. Lewelling thought, reported the Journal, that city authorities were “unnecessarily severe on this class of offenders and overzealous in their efforts to collect revenue for the city by consigning such unfortunates to the ‘rock pile’ and ‘bull pen,’ sometimes for the simple offense of sleeping in a box car.” Under the Kansas vagrancy statute, he asserted, “thousands of men, guilty of no crime but poverty, intent upon no crime but that of seeking employment, have languished in the city prisons of Kansas or performed unrequited toil upon ‘rock piles’ as municipal slaves, because ignorance of economic conditions hate made us cruel.”
Lewelling wanted the practice to end, saying it was a “relic of barbarism.” It was another forward-looking stance that struck Lewelling’s contemporaries as absurd. The Journal titled its story on his proposal as “A Paradise for Tramps” and inflated Lewelling's limited amnesty into a vision of criminal-minded hoboes from all over the country flocking to Kansas, knowing they could not be arrested for vagrancy. The Times headlined its story “Joy for the Tramp.” The Star insisted that the governor did not sufficiently discriminate and includes “the vicious with the merely unfortunate”: “In spite of the Governor’s theory that all poor people are good and deserving, the contrary is true in many cases. There are ‘sturdy vagrants’ and ‘incorrigible vagabonds,’ now, just as there were in the hard old times of Queen Elizabeth.” In fact, Lewelling did made the distinction in his letter between vagrants bent on crime and unemployed laborers looking for work; his argument was that the vagrancy laws of Kansas did not make it.
Lewelling revealed to a Star reporter that he had been one of those “vagrants” after the Civil War, when he had been in Chicago, out of work and money, and had to walk the streets all night. “I was no thief,” he said, “but I was a ‘tramp’ in the present acceptation of the term […]. My circular applies only to men whose sin is their enforced idleness. For that class the rock pile shall be abolished in Kansas as long as I am governor. Men who commit offenses against society are not protected by the circular […].”
His explanation made no difference to the Times, which called the governor’s proposal “one of the most remarkable of all the hair-raising gubernatorial eccentricities of this year of bloody bridles, State grog-shops, idiotic Thanksgiving proclamations, north and south railway projects and 17,000-word pardons.” The governor has, the paper jeered, “looked out into the cold, cold world, and his heart has bled for the homeless gentry whose most luxurious coach is an empty freight car […].” Like the Journal, the paper imagined the governor was issuing an open invitation to “tramps” to make Kansas their headquarters and anticipated the plague of “murders and arson and law-breaking of every description” to follow.
The African American weekly American Citizen made a more subtle point, that it would be difficult to distinguish between the honest working man and the “whiskey-soaked tramp […] Criminality is the result of vagrancy,” the paper claimed, “and it is no more than right that all vagrants shall be jailed.”
Surprisingly, the Journal editors later came to Lewelling’s defense, if only as a device for scoring Cleveland administration policies, which they were pleased to make responsible for the worst economic depression in the nation's history to date. Though critical of the sentimentality of Lewelling’s letter, they found in it “stalwart sentences and philanthropic ideas” confronting the problem of increasing unemployment: “Thousands upon thousands of men and women that had good wages and steady work a year ago are now idle and penniless, for no fault of their own […]. These people must not be treated as vagrants and criminals.” They have “the right to demand the right and privilege of earning their bread. If this is denied them, the law should feed them – and not make the poverty imposed by law a crime – punishable by fine and imprisonment at hard labor. Whatever literary or other criticism may say of Governor Lewelling’s utterances, his protest against law-imposed idleness and destitution being treated as a crime does him honor.” The Times, implicitly defending the Democratic administration, was having none of this: it editorialized that Lewelling’s letter showed no sympathy for the truly unemployed, but was aimed “purely and simply, at the tramps,” with whom Lewelling proposed to “colonize the State […] under a similitude of virtue.”
Support for Lewelling’s position came from other sources. An associate of Laurence Gronlund, the socialist who was attempting to build a socialist political party in Kansas, called Lewelling’s letter “the grandest State document every penned since the foundation of the Republic.” The Advocate, a Populist paper, defended the Governor from accusations that he wanted to shield criminals from justice; his argument was only that idleness – even voluntary idleness – and poverty are not crimes. The paper added that Lewelling had received letters of approval from all over the West, principally from unemployed men “struggling to obtain the necessities of life without resorting to criminal practices.”
Mary Lease, who had lately criticized Lewelling, now praised him: “He has more Christianity in his heart than all the editors who have attacked him. I am proud of Governor Lewelling. His circular had the right kind of a ring to it, and it will result in great good for humanity.” The Journal published a story on letters the Governor had received from around the country endorsing his view. A man from Cincinnati wrote that the police chief there had ordered all lodgers and boarders at “cheap houses” to report at the police station and register “for the purpose of reference in case of robberies, etc.” The former Populist speaker J.M. Dunsmore wrote that he too had experienced poverty and homelessness. A Denver police judge wrote of the abuse of vagrancy laws, calling them “an engine of oppression against the unfortunate poor […].”
The Board of Metropolitan Police Commissioners in Topeka likewise commended Lewelling’s proclamation and asked the Mayor and Council to stop making prisoners who have committed no criminal act work out their fines by breaking stones in the “rock pile.” A jailor was quoted in the Times as complaining that if the rock pile were abolished, there would no longer be “any inducement for a man to stay out of jail.”
Mrs. Lease’s honeymoon with Lewelling was brief: he had not forgotten her revolt against "fusion" politics and accusations of boodling against his administration. As the tumultuous year ended, she was axed from her position as president of the State Board of Charities, the announcement coming “like the proverbial thunderbolt from a sky conspicuous for clearness,” in the Journal’s report. Trouble within the Board had been a factor; Lease and Lewelling had dueled over appointments of State Charities officials. Lease claimed she wanted competent officials appointed while Lewelling wanted the places for his political cronies. To the Times she said that when Lewelling saw she was going to do her duty, “he proceeded to annoy and harass me through his servile tools,” the other Populist members of the board. She went on to lambaste the Governor for all the “blunders” of his administration.
Lewelling said, mildly, that Lease had to be let go “for sweet harmony’s sake.” The Secretary of State described her to the Times as a “mischief maker” who had tried to run the administration. It was a question, he said “who was Governor, Mrs. Lease or Lewelling.” Former Governor Lyman Humphrey thought that Lease would be forgotten in six months: “She lives on notoriety,” he told the Times, “and the papers keep on feeding her. There are 500 smarter and better women in Kansas than Mrs. Lease, and the talk that she can split the Populist or any other party is silly.”
The year that had started out promisingly for the Populists was ending badly, symbolized by the deep division between Lease and Lewelling and their factions. The quarrel was evidence for the Journal that reformers like Lewelling and Lease made poor administrators: “Both are out of place, because both are professional reformers […] and turning them into the kitchen and giving them charge of the cooking stove only makes matters worse.” Mary Lease was defiant, saying that Lewelling did not have the legal right to fire her. It must have seemed to Lewelling an echo of accusations from Republicans he’d heard in February during the legislative wars.
“I demand a statement and investigation of the charges preferred against me,” Lease wrote him “that I may have an opportunity to concede the manifest justice of your decree, or defend myself from the imputations of hireling politicians.” Lewelling wouldn’t comment to the Times on Lease’s letter, except to say that he did have the authority to remove appointive officials. The Topeka Capital offered him sarcastic congratulations for upholding “machine politics” over competency in his appointments: “This action on his part shows the shallowness of the ‘reform’ in his administration. Every close observer of the politics of the State recognizes […] that Mrs. Lease has greater influence and power with the rank and file of her party, and did more for the success of Populism in Kansas than all the members of the State administration put together.”
Mrs. Lease was reported to be deluged with supportive letters and telegrams at her room in the National Hotel in Topeka. She told the papers she was pleased to be released from her Board responsibilities: “it gives me a chance to again go upon the lecture platform. I have calls from Oregon, Alabama, and California, and with my present duties, I can not get away.”
In his study of Kansas Populism, O. Gene Clanton attributes the Populist Party’s defeat in 1894 to Lease’s split with Lewelling.
July 13, 2014