Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Radicalism and Republicanism in Kansas

My apologies for yet another long delay in blogging. April was busy--too busy--and May was hardly less so; it seemed that just as the semester ended and I got a break from all these new committee responsibilities I'm adjusting to, that a bunch of new stuff was thrown at me, via home and church. I really need to organize my time better. But then, I've been saying that for years, haven't I? Oh well; on with the summer. We're not going to be traveling until August this time around, so hopefully (there's always a "hopefully," right?) there won't be the sort of interruption in my blogging as has been common in summers past. But we'll see.

As usual, I start back up with a long post. About a month ago Sunflower Community Action, a citizens and neighborhood organizing group here in Wichita, asked me if I'd be interested in contributing to a workshop on Kansas culture and politics by lecturing a bit on Kansas's radical past. I was happy for the chance to put all that I'd been teaching and blogging and talking about for the past several months into lecture form, and I'm including the result below, pretty much in its entirety. Hopefully some of you will find it interesting, as well as relevant to the ongoing arguments about populism on the prairie--and elsewhere--today.

Radical and Republican Legacies in Kansas Politics

John Steuart Curry was a talented artist, born in Kansas in 1897 but educated in New York City and Paris, who was caught up by--but who also benefited from and strategically promoted--the rush of interest in "Regionalism" in the 1930s. Curry had perhaps the most ambiguous relationship with his home state of any of the "Regionalist Triumvirate": while Thomas Benton Hart and Grant Wood were pretty thoroughly and solidly products of and committed to Missouri and Iowa, respectively, Curry came back to Kansas only reluctantly, and his defining work of art involving Kansas--the mural "Tragic Prelude," painted on the east corridor of the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka--was by no means embraced by the Kansas public or its politicians. "Prelude," with its towering figure of John Brown, armed with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, bestriding a scene of violence, danger, and conflict, was reproduced in Life in 1939; it was a sensation, but also the last straw for some who disliked Curry's emphasis on Kansas's bloody and radical beginnings. Refusing to support Curry's request that some marble slabs be moved to accommodate his work on the uncompleted murals, Kansas lawmakers essentially shut down his larger vision for the Capitol; Curry then left his existing paintings unfinished and unsigned. He died in 1946, but the figure of John Brown--a wild-eyed Colossus--remains.

In some ways it is fitting that John Brown is still there, unfinished, looking down on Kansas lawmakers, because John Brown's legacy for Kansas is similarly unfinished and unclear. Brown is hardly a central, or even a particularly important, figure in the historical record of the state--yet his legacy is an enormously important factor in Kansas having become both at one time the most radical, but also for much of its history the most Republican, state in the union.

The history of Kansas of concern here is the one which began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The pressure was building for Congress to open up the remaining unorganized land from the Louisiana Purchase for settlement, but southern politicians did not want to open up any new land to potential statehood that would fall under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, which forbade slavery north of the 36th parallel. This was a difficult position for Democrats like Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who wanted to maintain the support of those who wished to open up and move into the western territories, but couldn't afford to antagonize voters and powerbrokers in the South. The solution, of course, was the gutting of the Missouri Compromise and the establishment of "popular sovereignty"--or "squatter sovereignty" as some preferred to call it--as the principle under which the territories of Kansas and Nebraska would decide if they would become slave or free states. This move, perhaps more than any other development in the 1850s, radicalized abolitionist opposition to slavery and forced moderate Democrats to choose sides, with Douglas himself becoming a general champion of the state-sovereignty approach to slavery and the South beginning its long-lasting role as crucial to Democratic electoral plans. (In 1852, the Democrats had won all but two of the northern states; in Congressional elections two years later though, they lost all but two, thus setting the stage for the subsequent identification of the Democrats with the South, agitation and rebellion.)

In May of 1854 there were fewer than 800 permanent white settlers living in the Kansas territory--indeed, besides those stationed at Ft. Leavenworth, those traveling the Santa Fe Trail to California, and various Methodist and Quaker missionaries, the population of Kansas was then almost wholly indigenous. But within nine months the number residents of European descent had increased by a factor of ten. Pro- and anti-slavery forces pored into Kansas, determined to put down roots and shape a state government either supportive of or opposed to slavery. For Missourians, the "Border Ruffians" and "Self-Defensives" who would cross over into Kansas, stake claims or briefly vote or harass other settlers, and then retreat back across the state line, it was a matter of protecting their "rights" as slave owners and their economic position: as mostly small farmers with few slaves, without the power of the plantation system that existed in the Deep South to back them up (and thus maintain social control), the existence of a free state next door was profoundly threatening. And they quickly, and rightly, deduced that this would not be any "ordinary" free state; the possibility of winning an electoral battle against the "Slave Power" on the ground was enormously appealing to many New England abolitionists, and the battle for Kansas became a huge fundraising and recruitment opportunity. Organizations like the New England Emigrant Aid Company helped move--and arm with rifles and other equipment--hundreds of settlers, setting the stage for numerous early conflicts that only escalated as time went by. Most early Kansas communities became quickly identified as havens for either pro- or anti-slavery settlers--Atchison being one of the former, Lawrence one of the latter--allowing for literal political lines to be drawn almost from the start.

It must be noted, however, that as the decade progressed the lure of land was at least as important as the struggle over slavery; fully a third of Kansas's white residents by 1860 had come from the Midwest, not New England or Missouri (or points further south). This is not to say that they had no interest in the partisan battles over slavery, only that their interest in it was not a direct moral or economic one. This was the decade when the Republican party emerged as a national alternative to the Whigs, and the Republican slogan of "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men" must be understood for what it truly was. The Republican opposition to the expansion of slavery was not grounded in a deeply abolitionist sentiment, though many Republican leaders did hate slavery; mostly, their opposition was grounded in the belief that slavery was a corrupting social system, which placed too much power in the hands of non-working slave owners and plantation masters, thus undermining the freedom of the white wage-earner or proprietor--an independent man with dignity and a family to support (such patriotic and patriarchal rhetoric was important)--to expand his property, advance economically, and control his own destiny politically. For early Kansas politicians like James Lane, opposition to slavery had nothing to do with sympathy for slaves and African-Americans; on the contrary, part of the reason why Lane opposed slavery in Kansas was because he wanted to keep Kansas entirely white. Such racial animosity clearly did not typify the Republican party as a whole, of course, but it captures a major part of the thinking of early Kansas settlers. The problem was not, for the most part, the degradations and discrimination suffered by people of African descent in a society which tolerated slavery; rather, it was the inequality and indecency embodied by a system which denied the fruits of liberty to ordinary independent freeholders (who theoretically could have been of any race, but who in the rhetoric and thought of most of America's voters were clearly white).

But then came John Brown--and not just Brown, but the revolution in partisan thinking about slavery he represented. Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800, and was a zealous Christian, deeply influenced by the language and power of the Old Testament and committed to the abolitionist cause. Unlike many abolitionists, however, he was also personally devoted to the cause of racial equality. He firmly denounced those who opposed slavery yet promoted racial separationism, and once was expelled from a church in Ohio for inviting an African-American family to attend with and sit in the pew beside his own. A wanderer without roots or much economic success in life, it was perhaps inevitable that he would be drawn to the struggle in "Bleeding Kansas." One of his sons came first, settling in Franklin County in early 1855, and was immediately caught up in the formation of antislavery militias, designed to defend free-state settlements and protect their representatives in the territorial government. (This protection was much needed; in the chaotic early months of Kansas's settlement, the rule of law was minimal at best, and fraud, intimidation, and mob action was common.) In a letter, Brown's son complained that the free-state settlers were sorely lacking in any kind of military organization, and this inspired Brown himself to relocate--leaving behind his wife, a new baby, and a host of debts and lawsuits--in the fall of that year. Within weeks, the Browns were in the thick of the conflict. In December of 1855, John Brown joined others in turning Lawrence into an armed camp, in preparation for an expected attack upon the free-state legislators living in the town by a group of intoxicated Missourians gathered along the banks of the Wakarusa River--the so-called "Wakarusa War." In this case, Marx's dictum was reversed, as the farce preceded the tragedy: while in December the territorial governor has been able to broker a deal to get the aimless yet angry mob to disperse, six months later Lawrence truly was attacked--by an organized force with artillery, no less--and the residents and legislators living there fled for their lives.

John Brown was infuriated that he had been too late to fight in the "Siege of Lawrence," and dismissed Republican free-state leaders like Charles Robinson as a "perfect old woman" who was "more talk than cider." Brown's cider, by contrast, was fiery and pure. On May 24, Brown led for of his sons and three other men on a mission to the nearby proslavery settlement of Pottawatomie, where they dragged five men--none of whom owned slaves or had participated in the attack on Lawrence--from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. In later years, Brown would be coy about whether or not he had directly killed any man that night; in an early formulation of terrorist language which has become unfortunately familiar to us all, Brown rather insisted that he had done God's work that night, and that the deaths of those men--however it happened--did not displease him, the servant of the Almighty, in the least.

Brown stayed in Kansas only a little while longer; he was a wanted man, a guerrilla fighter, whose reputation--for violence and visionary leadership--increased with every week and month and year he was able to elude capture and outfight those sent after him. He and his loyal troops participated in what some historians consider to be the first organized military encounter of the Civil War in June of 1856. He fled the territory after troops were sent to destroy the free-state settlement of Osawatomie where he had been hiding, returned a couple of times after freeing slaves in Missouri and leading them through Kansas on their way north, but by 1859 was gone for good. His path took him, as everyone knows, to Harper's Ferry and death by hanging. But in Kansas, his legacy remained. Most importantly, the way he was celebrated and condemned throughout the nation for his implacable hatred of slavery and commitment to racial justice and the overthrowing of "Slave Power" was seared into the self-understanding of Kansans. As the years went by and the Civil War was fought, the battle between the north and south seemed in Kansas almost a continuation of the vicious, personal, neighbor-against-neighbor conflict that its residents had seen and had contributed to throughout the 1850s. (Which in many cases it actually was; the fighting between Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War years was particularly localized and bloody.) With the success of the free-state forces in Kansas, and then the success of the Union forces across the country, Kansans had reason to believe that they been more deeply committed to the struggle over slavery than any other state, and that belief had real political consequences.

For one thing, it made the Republican party absolutely dominant in the state. So many Union veterans settled in Kansas that it came for a time to be known as the "Soldier State," and these veterans almost to a man voted as they had shot--that is, they voted for the party of Lincoln, and against the traitorous Democrats. Waving the "bloody shirt," accusing the Democratic party of being in sympathy to slavery and treason, was commonplace throughout America in the 1870s and 1880s, but nowhere more than in Kansas. In the first fifty years of Kansas's statehood, there was only one Democratic governor, and that aberration was corrected after a single term in office. Moreover, the memory of the Bleeding Kansas era, and the impact of John Brown's revolutionary commitments, had made Kansas Republicans somewhat radical; in their proposed state constitutions in 1858 and 1859, they not only outlawed slavery (which made it into the final version), but also advanced a measure to protect the rights and votes of blacks and women (which did not, but not for lack of trying). Following the war, Kansas Republicans moved even more rapidly than those Radical Republicans in Congress did in their fervor to punish the South and fulfill what they took to be President Lincoln's dream; the state of Kansas held a referendum of providing African-Americans with the vote in 1867, before the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was even ratified.

But not only did Kansas Republicans' radicalism move more quickly than the national version did, it lasted longer. The energy and influence of the Radical Republicans in Washington DC was soon spent; by the late 1870s Reconstruction in the South came to an end, and the white power structure of the former Confederacy immediately began to re-assert itself, overwhelmingly through the Democratic party. With the "Solid South" completely lost to them, the Republican party needed to shore up its own majorities, and it increasingly found these in the rising corporate, trading, and banking interests of the cities of northeastern and upper midwestern states. In time the national Republican party, and state Republican party establishments throughout the country, shed much of the aspiration hopes of Lincoln, to say nothing of the crusading demands of Brown; the Republican party as the party of entrepreneurs and businessmen and the upper-class was born. Obviously, there were Republicans who were unhappy with this; hence the Mugwumps, who spurned the Republican party of the 1880s and embraced Grover Cleveland, a Democrat for president. Kansas Republicans were even more divided, as the apparent corruption and increasing complacency of what was once an intense and even revolutionary movement in American politics seemed a rebuke to all that they had identified themselves as over the previous 30 years. There were numerous split-off groups amongst the Kansas Republicans, with variously titled Liberal Republicans of Independent Republicans contesting items in the party's official platform throughout the 1870s and 1880s. The arrival of large numbers of African-Americans kept this struggle, the struggle to keep the Republican party faithful to the principles of conflict from which it had emerged, very much in the minds of Kansans. The "Exodusters," lured to Kansas by the promise of cheap land and the hope of settling in that state where the blessed John Brown had begun his war for equality, confronted and tested the good intentions of Kansas Republicans; the state's black population went from under 1000 in 1860, to over 15,000 in 1870, to three times that in 1880, and at least a dozen all-black communities were established throughout the state. As the years went by, as conditions for farmers worsened in the age of centralized monopolies and tight credit, as Jim Crow laws and a racial backlash in the form of the Ku Klux Klan strengthened their grip through the country, the Kansas Republican leadership had more cause and more opportunity to lead than was the case perhaps anywhere else in the nation.

Kansas Republicans did not wholly fail the test--but the did not wholly pass it either. In terms of racial politics, there were notable successes: for example, the Republican legislature for several years acquiesced to the request from the NAACP to ban the hideously racist film Birth of a Nation in Kansas, all while the movie was a sensation elsewhere. But in time, the radical element of Kansas Republicanism was superseded by something else: the appropriation by the Republican party of the new moderate, small-town, "middle-class" voice of America, so expertly embodied by William Allen White, a newspaper editor and eventual Republican mouthpiece for the nation from Emporia. By the turn of the century, the transformation of the U.S. from an mostly self-sufficient and localized, agrarian and rural society to a mostly specialized and national, industrial and urban society was nearly completion. The deep conceptual heart of the old call for "free soil, free labor, and free men" could have been source of resistance to the emergence of an interconnected and corporatized capitalist state, and a demand for real economic democracy, but instead it was adapted--as Lincoln himself had done some clever adapting of what America supposedly stood for in his Gettysburg Address--into a call for conserving small-town virtues and (white, Protestant) ways of life in the midst of a world where economic sovereignty and political power was being rapidly, and perhaps inevitably, concentrated in the hands of educated and cosmopolitan elites. Thus was the Kansas Republican party, like White himself, slowly transformed into a perfect vehicle for the "modern" and moderate--yet nostalgic and homey, always mindful of the bourgeois ways of the small prairie town--policies of the Progressive Republicans. Racially, Kansas had what it considered to be a mild and reasonable amount of segregation (Republican lawmakers in the 1950s would complain about how a court case which began in Topeka led to Brown v. Board of Education, saying that it was unfair that Kansas's sort of segregation should be associated with the presumably much different sort that existed in the Deep South); the need for more collective, affirmative actions to bring real social equality to blacks was something they never considered. Economically, the Kansas Republican party was flexible enough to respond to the Populist challenges of the 1890s and 1900s, returning from severe and surprising electoral defeats with proposals for change in the regulation of railroads and banks that got them returned to power in short order. (The fact that the Populists, through William Jennings Bryan, were from 1896 on closely associated with the Democrats made all the easier, of course, for Kansas Republicans to attack them as traitors in disguise.) White lambasted the Populists as wild-eyed fools and uneducated bumpkins, yet he fought the Klan with Brownesque fervor, and happily endorsed much of the Populist platform once it was moderated and modernized by Republicans like Robert LaFollette--to say nothing of Democrats like FDR. In these ways, White exemplifies the way John Brown's radical, egalitarian legacy long influenced the Republican party he helped make dominant in Kansas, but was also, in time, almost completely sublimated within it.

I say "almost completely sublimated," not entirely. For one doesn't have to look any further than to the innumerable analyses of "Red America" and rise of the "Christian Right" and so forth, all so well--if often profoundly inaccurately--realized by Thomas Frank in his bestselling screed What's the Matter with Kansas?, to realize that Kansas's almost unique mix of radical moralism and conservative populism is still present, lurking somewhere beneath the surface. Of course, the political surface itself has almost wholly changed; the issues which characterized the search for economic sovereignty and racial justice a century or more ago have been, in Kansas at least, almost definitively buried by the transforming effects of World War II and modern farming technology on the one hand, and numerous Supreme Court decisions and civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s on the other. And meanwhile, a host of moral and social issues--abortion most prominently--that never would have occurred to the free-staters and Exodusters and Populists of yore now define much of the political landscape.

So perhaps John Brown's legacy, the ideals and tensions which his radical, violent, visionary actions bequeathed to Kansas and the Republican party which embraced his memory (at first devotedly, in time reluctantly), is really and truly on its way out. Over the past decade, after all, the progressive and conservative factions of the Kansas Republican party have torn each other apart, so much so that Democrats nationally are looking at Kansas--and our rising star of a governor, Kathleen Sebelius--as a state of serious opportunity for them for the first time since...well, maybe for the first time ever. Craig Miner ends his wonderful history of the Sunflower State by claiming that Kansas has resisted homogenization as long and as successfully as any other state in the country (in no small part because its intense past became so entwined with its institutional memory), but that now becoming "like the nations" is unavoidable. Will ordinary, nonpopulist, nonprogressive, just straightforward Republican (and Democratic) politics therefore be our future?

For my part, I'll keep my eyes on that unfinished, unsigned mural of John Brown, watching with burning eyes the passing scene, and wait.