Thursday, May 19, 2011

The History and Legacy of Kansas Populism

Just about exactly a month ago (April 22, to be exact), I was invited by the Wichita Pachyderm Club (yes, a Republican club--I'm an equal opportunity intellectual) to give a presentation at one of their downtown lunchtime meetings on the populism and politics in the state of Kansas. I was happy to oblige them, and I found the discussion after my lecture to be informative and thoroughly enjoyable. I've meant to get a copy of my presentation up for weeks now; for those who have been interested, my apologies for the delay. Anyway, here's pretty much the whole thing.

I begin this discussion with two figures: John Brown, and William Allen White. Neither of these men were populists in a formal sense (White, in fact, vigorously opposed them), and only one of them were truly Kansans. They are, nonetheless, important figures in the history I'm going to talk about, because Kansas populism has a complicated relationship--both parasitic and antagonistic--with the ideology of the Republican party in Kansas, and that ideology, at least within our local political culture, provides both insights into and reflections the motivations, career, words, and actions of both of these men.

It needs to be remembered that a political party is more than merely an organization of people and money designed to encourage people to vote a certain way, and to encourage those elected to write laws in a certain way; it is also a label, a signifier. The importance of one's political party as a signifier has waned since its high point in the late 19th century, but it still provides crucial terms upon which identities are built and socialization takes place. Never forget that that the single most accurate predictor of how someone votes is by asking them, “How did your parents vote?” Parties, as bodies of thought and as agents of action, have a profoundly shaping effect on the lives of citizens in a democracy like our own. And so, let’s consider the connection between populism and Republicanism (that is Republicanism with a capital-R, the party moniker, as distinct from classical small-r republicanism, a distinction that will become important later), beginning with John Brown.

Brown lived from 1800-1859, with only two of those years spent in Kansas, 1855-56. In his life he lived in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and elsewhere. Like many men of little education and less money in the mid 19th-century, he was constantly on the move and constantly on the make. He was also, however, a deeply committed abolitionist, with a even firmer commitment to racial justice and equality than most. (He was 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.) Given his background, it was probably inevitable that he would come to the Kansas Territory, or "Bleeding Kansas", at the height of the conflict over slavery. Let's review those events somewhat, since this is where the some of the first antecedents of populism come into the picture.

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. (Douglas himself also had a personal interest in making sure the northern parts of the Louisiana Purchase territories were settled, as he hoped to financially benefit from rail lines that would have Chicago as their eastern terminus.) 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 the congressional elections two years later though, they lost their dominant position in 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). Hence the original slogan of the Republican party--the profoundly "republican" (in the classical sense), but also profoundly American (in the Jeffersonian sense, though Jefferson himself owned slaves), "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men".

These were the ideas in the air when John Brown arrived in Kansas, in 1855. In a letter, one of Brown's sons, who had come to Kansas to be part of the free-state forces, complained that his fellow anti-slavery 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, 1856, Brown led four of his sons and three other men on a mission to the nearby pro-slavery 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 aspirational 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 various Republicans throughout the country who were unhappy with this retreat from the original, more radical Republican ideology; 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 or Independent Republicans or Silver Republicans contesting items in the party's official platform throughout the 1870s and 1880s. And it was at this time that the seeds of populism, nestled in some of the radicalism of the post-Brown political culture of Republican Kansas, began to grow.

Kansans, following the Civil War were, economically at least, an often frustrated lot. Many of those who came to the state for ideological or opportunistic reasons actually had little knowledge of farming, and what they knew was often totally inappropriate for the very distinct soil and weather conditions which they discovered on the Great Plains west of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. As they spread out, they had the Plains to themselves--by 1870, the west-bound railroads had reached Denver, and the masses of people heading further west for mining opportunities exterminated the bison herds. The last battle between Native Americans and white settlers occurred in 1878, after which any significant Indian population was pushed onto reservations in Oklahoma. And the glory years of the cattle drives were also actually quite short: they began in 1867, with Texas Longhorns being driven north along the Chisholm Trail and elsewhere to Abilene, Dodge City, and Wichita, but by the early 1880s changing economic conditions were bringing those drives to an end. What was left was farming, and Kansans spread throughout the state to try their hand at it.

They spread out so much partly because the railroad companies wanted them to--and as agricultural markets shifted with America became more and more urbanized and industrialized following the Civil War, their livelihoods became even more dependent upon the railroads which had encouraged them to settle far across these open spaces which they had advertised as a kind of new Eden. The federal government gave enormous land grants to railroads, seeing them as the engine to the prosperity of the nation; by 1871, the railroads controlled 170 million acres of land across America, equivalent to size of the state of Texas. Towns competed between each other fiercely, passing huge and burdensome bond issues to provide infrastructure and incentives to the railroad companies. As a result, many Kansas towns, particularly in the central and western portions of the state, were heavily in debt, a conditioned worsened by the fact that many who had originally come to Kansas through the 1850s, 60s, and 70s with the intention of farming, found there was more profit to be had in land speculation. Land was bought for the purpose of taking out mortgages on it, then either trading it away or fleeing with the cash (half of all the registered citizens of Kansas in the western part of the state simply left from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s). As a result, by 1890 over 60% of all the land in Kansas had a bank lien on it, whereas the figure for the US as a whole at that time was not even 30%. The debt load was staggering, and when bad times came with a prolonged drought which began in 1887, thousands were desperate.

The railroads, to be sure, were often to blame--the rates they charged to move grain or machinery west of Kansas City were often twice what they charged to move similar loads similar distances east of Kansas City. Working closely with the bankers which sustained the fragile, expanded economy of central and western Kansas, there was strong feeling of exploitation in the air. They felt exploited by the railroad combinations, by the banks with their political influence (the aim of the banks following the Civil War had been to keep the money supply low; the federal government had been slowly taking out of circulation the paper money or “greenbacks” which had helped finance the war, thereby tightening up the value of the available currency and raising interest rates, and had refused the calls by the Greenback party and others to either loosen up the money supply or expand it by way of "bi-metalism" (that is, the coining of silver as well as gold)), and by the superior conditions enjoyed by the Republican establishment in eastern Kansas at Lawrence and Topeka (of the eleven elected governors of Kansas between 1862 and 1893, all were residents of the eastern third of the state, eight of them from east of Lawrence); it was this feeling of exploitation which strengthened the grievances of dissident Republican groups against the national party, and gave a window of opportunity to the populists.

Remembering what I said before about parties being organized bodies of ideas, but also as something more, let's make certain it's understood that when I speak of "populism", I'm talking about the historic political movement, not the general (and usually just rhetorical) "anti-elite" attitude which often is given the populism label. Late 19th-century American populism, as an organized expression of resistance against those political and financial forces that were concentrating economic power in the cities and corporations of the post-Civil War world, emerged from a broad mix of entities--the Southern Farmers Alliance, the Grange movement, the Agricultural Wheel, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Knights of Labor, and more. All of them were associations of citizens concerned with negotiating with or fighting back against the tremendous (and, if you lacked the right combination of education, location, resources, and luck, often highly negative) consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

The most notable consequence of this mixing and coalescing of entities was the formation of the People’s Party in 1891. They held their first national convention in Omaha in 1892, and let me read to you an except from their platform:

Assembled on the anniversary of the birthday of the nation, and filled with the spirit of the grand general and chief who established our independence, we seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of “the plain people,” with which class it originated. We assert our purposes to be identical with the purposes of the National Constitution; to form a more perfect union and establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

We declare that this Republic can only endure as a free government while built upon the love of the whole people for each other and for the nation; that it cannot be pinned together by bayonets; that the Civil War is over, and that every passion and resentment which grew out of it must die with it, and that we must be in fact, as we are in name, one united brotherhood of free men.

Our country finds itself confronted by conditions for which there is no precedent in the history of the world; our annual agricultural productions amount to billions of dollars in value, which must, within a few weeks or months, be exchanged for billions of dollars' worth of commodities consumed in their production; the existing currency supply is wholly inadequate to make this exchange; the results are falling prices, the formation of combines and rings, the impoverishment of the producing class. We pledge ourselves that if given power we will labor to correct these evils by wise and reasonable legislation, in accordance with the terms of our platform.

We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.

This platform--which went on to call for the national government to manage the railroads, for the outlawing of land speculation by corporations and foreigners (excess land should be held in reserve for "actual settlers only"), and for the institution of a progressive income tax--is notable for several reasons. Note the fervent, almost apocalyptic–but intensely patriotic–rhetoric which characterized their declaration; the "plain people" of the nation needed to redeem the government from those forces which had corrupted it, drawing it away from classical Jeffersonian and republican ideas of independent men, capable of exercising real economic sovereignty and democracy. In its reference to "free men" and its explicit invocation of the Civil war, the document's aims--and indeed, the ideals of the People's Party as a whole--are revealed as, as I suggested at the beginning of this lecture, deeply entwined with that of the original Republican party.

It was perhaps because of that entwining that Populist party (it went by that name, as well as the People's Party) enjoyed greater success in Kansas than in any other state of the union. Through the 1890s, two Populist governors, 13 Populist senators and representatives, and dozens of Populist state legislators were elected. The election of 1890 in particular was considered a “Waterloo” defeat for the long-dominant Republican party in Kansas–it lost the state house and senate, it lost five congressmen, and most of all lost John James Ingalls, a senator of 18 years standing, and one of the most influential members of Congress.

It's not as though the Republican establishment in Kansas was content to allow all these changes to sweep over them. Their strategy was two-fold: first, to adopt certain elements of the People's Party platform, at least those that wouldn't challenge too thoroughly the business-oriented mainstream of the party; and second, to articulate that mainstream as the "responsible" counter to the what they characterized as the wild-eyed borderline socialism of the Populists. In this, the Republicans strongest voice was William Allen White.

White (1868-1944), an author and newspaper publisher who made his home in Emporia, did more than perhaps any other single person to wisely articulate a "conservative" idea of a “Main Street” in American thought: it was a place of ordinary citizens and local businesses, thriving in their hypothetical (and always thoroughly traditional) small towns, where the American capitalist system was allowed to responsibly work its prosperity-granting magic. And in this, White--and the turn-of-the-century Republican party in general--was prescient about the long-term chances of the People's Party. After all, by the beginning of the 1900s, 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--the work of 50 years of relentless industrial expansion (and many would add, especially considering the treatment of immigrants and Native Americans during this same period, industrial exploitation as well)--was nearly completion. The old call for "free soil, free labor, and free men" could have been a source of resistance to the emergence of an interconnected and corporatized capitalist state, and a demand for real economic democracy (which is how many of the Populists either consciously or unconsciously made use of it), 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 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. White himself, like most other members of the early 20th-century Republican bourgeoisie, and particularly those in Kansas, was no automatic friend of the Eastern elites that had most profited from the shenanigans of the railroads and banks over the decades; in fact, as the years went by White happily endorsed much of the People's Party platform once it was moderated, modernized, and made "progressive" by Republicans like Robert LaFollette--to say nothing of Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (While White himself never officially supported FDR, he supported many New Deal policies, and one should remember that in the election of 1936, Republican candidate Alf Landon couldn't even win here in his home state of Kansas on his way to being crushed by Roosevelt.) So perhaps the Populist message to the heartland of America, when confronted by the rival message send by Republicans of White's era, was simply too little, too late: despite their attempt to broadly articulate an alternative conceptualization of America, it was, paradoxically, too thoroughly a product of a rural, Kansas-type world that by the 1890s was already disappearing.

But none of this, perhaps, was obvious in the crucial election of 1896, when William Jennings Bryan stood as the nominee of both the Populists and Democrats (and, in Kansas, of the Silver Republicans as well). Bryan won Kansas in that election, but lost the country and the presidency; in fact, the results in 1896 imitated those of the election of 2000, in the spread of colors across the country, only the parties are reversed: McKinley, the Republican, won the west coast, the northeast, and the upper midwest, while Bryan won everything else. White made it pretty clear where his sympathies lay in an essay he wrote afterwards:

"The fight came squarely. Mr. Bryan arrayed class against class. He appealed to the misery of the poor; he spotlighted the luxurious appointments of the rich. He attempted to draw to his side all of those on the debit side of the ledger....McKinley and the Republicans fought out their fight on the principle of individual responsibility for tindividual failure and success...the GOP’s position was that of laissez faire or hands off....they stood for vested rights. They said, in effect, you cannot cut off the rich man’s wealth without curtailing the poor man’s income.

In time White would come to regret some of these harsh words...but he was ultimately a man of the 20th-century, a man of America's towns and cities that accommodated themselves to railroads and banks and corporations, that accepted that belief that "the plain people", even if they are citizens, nonetheless had no fundamental right to control their own economic destiny and ensure their own economic sovereignty through the agency of the government--not in the face of the legitimate opportunities for expansion, development, and growth. The Republican party, as a party of economic opportunity, was born. The Democratic party, by contrast, accepted far more of the fervor of the People's Party, and became a party of economic security, through the Great Depression up and the War on Poverty and beyond.

But what of the Populists themselves? Economic security in the hands of the Progressives and the Democrats became primarily a matter of wages and welfare and insurance: that is, protections against the ravages of the marketplace. But as for actually taking control of that marketplace itself--real local, communitarian, participatory, personal control? That Populist idea (which was, as we have seen, also an early and radical Republican idea, as well as a Jeffersonian one) is mostly gone: nationally, of course, but more certainly here in Kansas.

Except...perhaps not. Perhaps through the vicissitudes of both John Brown and William White, something of that Populist spirit still lurks in our political culture, though primarily in a social or moral sense. One doesn't have to look any further than to the innumerable analyses of "Red America" out there, or considerations of the rise of the "Christian Right" and so forth (all so well--if I think fundamentally 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 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. Yet there is still John Brown's mural in the State Capitol building in Topeka, staring down at legislators. With such a legacy and history, could Kansas Populism ever cease its sometimes antagonistic, sometimes parasitic dance with the Republican party? I truly wonder.

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