John Altgeld ■ Susan B. Anthony ■ William J. Bryan ■ Andrew Carnegie ■ Grover Cleveland
Eugene V. Debs ■ Mark Hanna ■ William R. Hearst ■ Mary Lease ■ William McKinley
J. P. Morgan ■ John M. Palmer ■ Joseph Pulitzer ■ Elizabeth Cady Stanton ■ Henry Teller
Benjamin Tillman ■ Booker T. Washington ■ Tom Watson ■ William Allen White
Mary Elizabeth Lease (1850-1933) was born Mary Clyens in western Pennsylvania, the daughter of Irish parents who emigrated from County Monaghan during the Famine. Her father and older brother died as Union soldiers in the Civil War. Though many Irish-Americans were Democrats, Mary Lease's lifelong hatred of that party stemmed largely from her father's death at the notorious Andersonville Prison. Because of the war, she later noted, she grew up poor.
In 1870 Mary, a Catholic, left her widowed mother and moved to Kansas to teach at a mission school. She soon married a local druggist, Charles Lease, and for two years the Leases enjoyed middle-class prosperity. Then, suddenly, Charles lost everything in the financial panic of 1873. The couple started over in Texas, where they lost two children in infancy. Four others survived—Charles, Louisa, Grace, and Ben Hur, the last named for the Christian hero of Lew Wallace's popular novel.
Mary Lease became active in a series of public causes in the 1880s: first prohibition, through the WCTU; then woman suffrage. When she and her husband moved to Wichita, Kansas, she identified herself with the Irish-American community there, joining the labor movement and then the Farmers' Alliance and Populist Party.
During the 1890 Kansas campaign, in which Populists swept into state power, she became a nationally famous stump speaker. Between 1890 and 1896 she toured all over the country and became one of the decade's most prominent women. She was bitterly assailed in the Republican and Democratic press, accused of being a "virago" and "petticoated smut-mill." Some opponents changed her middle name from Elizabeth to Ellen, so they could call her "Yellin' Mary Ellen." Many people thought that women's place was in the home, not on the political stage, and Lease was a favorite target. She is undoubtedly one of the 'harpies' mentioned by William Allen White in his 1896 editorial, "What's the Matter with Kansas?"
Lease is widely quoted as having told the farmers of Kansas--and, by implication, Populists generally--to "raise less corn and more hell." but the phrase was actually coined by Ralph Beaumont, a fellow labor lecturer. Lease later observed that she let the comment stand, when it was attributed to her, because she thought it was 'a right good piece of advice.'
Lease was a bitter opponent of Populist "fusion" with Democrats. She spent much of the 1890s fighting fusion arrangements in Kansas. At the 1896 Populist convention she and other anti-fusionists, like Tom Watson and Ignatius Donnelly, Minnesota editor of The Representative, lost, and the party nominated William Jennings Bryan. Lease reluctantly went out on the stump for Bryan, to her later regret. She spent much of the campaign in Minnesota, through Donnelly's arrangements. In a dramatic speech at Cooper Union in New York, Lease declared her support for socialism. Though endorsing Bryan, she also gave interviews in which she argued that the Democrats' Chicago platform was only a cosmetic fix for the nation's ills.
Soon after 1896, Lease divorced her husband and moved to New York City with her four children. She worked as a lawyer and lecturer for many years. When Eugene Debs ran for president in 1908, Lease spoke on his behalf; by 1912 she became an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and supported his bid to recapture the presidency, under the banner of the "Bull Moose" Progressive Party. Before she died, Lease witnessed the passage of many of her cherished goals: prohibition, woman suffrage, and several planks of the long-defunct Populist platform--including direct election of Senators and more federal regulation of corporations and railroads. These reforms had been picked up by the Progressive, Republican, and Democratic leaders, but Lease counted them as part of the Populist legacy.
Mrs. Lease was educated a Catholic, but thought herself out of that communion, and is now not over-weighted with reverence for the clergy of any sect. She not infrequently rouses their ire by her stinging taunts as to their divergence from the path marked out by their professed Master, whose first concern was for the poor and needy....
In the campaign of 1890 she made speeches so full of fiery eloquence, of righteous wrath, and fierce denunciation of the oppressors, that she became the delight of the people of the new party and the detestation of the followers of the old. Seldom, if ever, was a woman so vilified and so misrepresented by malignant newspaper attacks. A woman of other quality would have sunk under the avalanche. She was quite competent to cope with all that was visited upon her. Indeed, the abuse did her much service. The people but loved her the more for the enemies she made....
Her chiefest distinguishing gift is her powerful voice; deep and resonant, its effect is startling and controlling. Her speeches are philippics. She hurls sentences as Jove hurled thunderbolts. —Annie L. Diggs, "The Women in the Alliance Movement," Arena, July 1892
Mrs. Lease's Appointments.
... The persons named as correspondents are expected to see to it, that a hall is secured and the meeting thoroughly advertised.
- June 1, Preston [Minnesota]; correspondent, Thomas J. Meighen
- June 2, Austin; TJM
- June 3, Dodge Center; Hon. J. I. Verilya
- June 5, St. Charles; Charles Blair
- June 6, Chatfield; Timothy Halloran
- June 9, Madison Lake; William M. Smith
- June 10, New Ulm; William F. Runck
- June 12, Mapleton, W. G. Daly
- June 16, Fairmont, Hon. T. S. Fisk
- June 18, Pipestone; F. M. Payne
- June 19, Marshall; Spurgeon O'Dell
- June 20, Mineota; C. M. Gislason
- June 22, Tracy; O. F. Norwood
- June 23, Lake Crystal; H. Humphrey
- June 25, Adrian; J. T. McKnight
- June 26, Luverne.
- June 29, Slayton; Peter Peterson.
- The Representative, 3 June
Mrs. Lease, on June 3, made a grand speech of two and a half hours, before an immense crowd at Dodge Center. The next night she addressed an extemproized meeting at Kasson.... Steps should be taken to keep her in [Minnesota] until election day, if it is possible.
She makes hundreds of votes wherever she speaks. The only danger is of break-down. She is over-zealous and forgets herself in her earnestness. Our friends must not let her work herself to death. See that she is well entertained and has plenty of rest between speeches. Ignatius Donnelly, The Representative, 10 June
One need talk with Mrs. Lease only ten minutes to observe certain things: She is self-confident, and also thoroughly impressed with herself. She enjoys the fire of hot opposition. She "poses" even in private conversation.... Mrs. Lease is earnest, absolutely fearless, but uppermost in all her thoughts and deeds seems to be Mrs. Lease, and after that her cause....
When she makes a statement that needs backing she can give, off-hand, the section, clause, paragraph, and line of the Constitution; she can quote by the paragraph from this or that Supreme Court decision; she can repeat what this or that man said in the United States Senate thirty, forty, fifty years ago.... If you have only a few fundamental and even correct notions about the gold side of this money queson--all that is necessary for any ordinary and intelligent man to have--you had better keep away from Mrs. Lease, for she will throw you by a simple twist of her thumb--or perhaps I had better say twist of her tongue. —Franklin Matthews, Leslie's Weekly, 10 September
It does not necessarily follow because Mrs. Lease somewhat unsexed herself by her indulgence in turbulent and inflammatory discourse at Cooper Union that all women are unfitted by Nature to participate in the excitement of political contests or to have a voice in the calm and deliberate discussions which ought always to attend upon the settlement of grave and serious governmental problems. We might as well say that the similarly wild and reckless outgivings of the Tillmans and Altgelds demonstrated the unfitness of the sterner sex for self-government. But there is this to be said, of which there can be no denial, that Mrs. Lease upon the political platform or stump, uttering invectives more than masculine, and appealing to the brutal passions of the mob rather than to the calm sense of reasoning men and women, must be treated the same as any other mob leader, male or female. She cannot shelter herself behind her sex while appealing to bloodthirsty passions and inciting lawless riot.
Mrs. Lease is representative of the party--we will not call it Democratic--which presents Mr. Bryan as a candidate.... In the principles she avows, and the policies she advocates, in the coarse vigor of her speech and the startling aggressiveness of her manner, she is in the highest degree the best and truest exponent of the Bryan platform and party. In the extravagance of her language, the wantonness and recklessness with which she appealed to class hatred, pointing out by name as the proper objects of popular vengeance good and honorable citizens whose only offence is the possession of property accumulated honestly under the laws, she may have seemed to be in advance of her party. But only a step; just enough to bring out with clearness and distinctness the real spirit and purpose of the revolutionists and Anarchists who are bent on the destruction of public credit and the overthrow of social order. A step behind this raging virago, foaming with fury and blazing with wrath, is the wild mob of levellers eager for the general distribution of spoils; behind them the Terror, with its bloody bacchanals and merciless savagery. —New York Tribune, August 13, 1896
New York World, 11 August 1896
CHEERED MARY E. LEASE.
The Crowd Liked Her Dununciation of Cleveland and Whitney
SOCIALISM RAMPANT AND NOISY.
Every Reference to Wealth and Its Owners Received with Wild Delight.
ATTACKED THE ENTIRE SOCIAL SYSTEM.
Likened John Sherman to a Footpad and Evoked the Most Enthusiastic Applause.
Charmed by the seductive oratory of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Lease, the free silver mass-meeting at Cooper Union last night nursed itself into all the semblance of a Socialistic gathering. From the beginning to the end, from the first sentence of introduction until the Kansas woman had concluded in a sonorous period, Socialism predominated. Every mention of gold or wealth was greeted with shouts and jeers, and the names of Whitney and Cleveland, of Vanderbilt and Rothschild were hailed with hisses and cat-calls.
... As advertised, the meeting was under the guidance of the Social Reform Club, an organization that has the worthy object of bettering the fortunes of the worker. As advertised, the meeting was in the cause of free silver. But the predominance of the Socialists more than once overcame this, and the currency question was forgotten while the orators spoke at length upon Socialistic beliefs.
... It was very warm in the hall, and Mrs. Lease felt it. She was dressed in a light, lace-trimmed waist and black satin skirt, and her hair was neatly coiled. A winning smile was upon her face, and again and again she bowed to the plaudits of the crowd.
"I accept this splendid greeting from this splendid audience," she began, and the crowd howled appreciation of the compliment, "in evidence that there is no Mason and Dixon's line between the East and the West. I accept it as an evidence of the fact that the people of the East and West are battling for a common cause against a common foe. Not since the bleeding years of the war have party lines been so nearly obliterated, and the obedience to party leaders so refused as at the present time. The heart of the nation is aroused, and Principle and not Pelf is the watchword. The great heart of the nation beats response to patriotism, and the nation is safe."
At this point Mrs. Lease took the opportunity offered by the cheering to wipe a fugitive drop from her ear. Moistening her lips, she broadened out her confident smile and went on.
"We stand to-day at the beginning of one of those revolutionary periods that mark an advance of the race. We stand at a period that marks a reformation.
"All history is illustrated by the fact that new liberties cannot exist with old tyrannies. New ideals ever seek new manifestations. The ideals of Christ could not live under the tyrannies of the Roman government. The ideals of the founders of this Government could not exist under the tyrannies of royal rule."
Striding to the edge of the platform, Mrs. Lease stretched out her hand, clenched the fingers and then roared with masculine energy:
"The grand principles of Socialism and the brotherhood of man cannot live under old forms of tyranny--neither under the forms of Old-World tyranny nor of British gold."
The demonstration that followed this announcement was remarkable. Two thousand throats sent up a shout that showed the sentiment of the meeting, and it was at least two minutes before absolute quiet prevailed. When Mrs. Lease proceeded she spoke of the great prosperity this country had seen.
"Yet to-day," she cried, "our splendid theory of government is confronted by a great peril. We have become blind to evils that menace us. We are confronted with glutted markets and idle labor. It is a condition that makes it possible for a few men to become landlords of a proud city like this while God's poor are packed in the slums."
"Hooray!" yelled a man far back in the hall, "Hooray--ki---yi!"
The crowd took up the cry, and back and forth the cheers and yells and cat-calls rattled.
"Such a condition is not only a menace to Republican institutions, but a travesty upon the gospel of Jesus Christ..."
"Horray, horray!" yelled the man in the crowd again, and once more the hall resounded with the expression of the audience's temper.
"It makes it possible, too, " cried Mrs. Lease, shaking her shoulders fiercely, "for an American to pay $10,000,000 for the cast-off, disreputable rags of old world royalty, for the scion of a house that boasts the blood of a Jeffreys and a Marlborough. It is a disgrace to our nation.
"A condition by which the wealth accumulated by the common people is poured into lard tubs and oil wells, to enable Mr. Rockefeller to found a college and Mr. Whitney to buy a diamond tiara for his daughter is a disgrace to the country.
"Once we made it our boast that this nation was not founded upon any class distinction. But now we are not only buying diamonds for their wives and daughters and selling our children to titled debauchees, but we are setting aside our Constitution and establishing a gold standard to help the fortunes of our hereditary foe.
"To-day, a determined and systematic effort is being made by our financiers to perpetuate a gold standard. Every influence that moulds public opinion has been bought up, and the great dailies in the employ of the gold syndicate have fallen into line. The whole power of the government administration is being used to deceive the people. We hear sound money and honest dollar applied to the most dishonest money that ever cursed a nation or enslaved a people. What right has McKinley or Whitney to delegate our constitutional right to coin money to England or any other nation?"
Cooper Union Hall, New York City
"Hooray, hooray!" yelled the voice again. "Whitney's no Democrat!"
"Ha, hah! Ki-yi!" shrieked the crowd, with shouts of derisive laughter. Smiling in acknowledgement Mrs. Lease tried to attract the attention of a lemonade man. But the man passed onward with his bucket and she gulped in disappointment. In a swift aside she made known her need and an officious person in the front row hustled after the vendor. Then another officious one, all smiles and importance, handed up the drink, and all the meeting paused while Mrs. Lease moistened her throat.
"An organized effort is making to deceive the people. There are two great enemies of thought and progress, the aristocracy of royalty and the aristocracy of gold. Long ago, the aristocracy of royalty came to a common plane with the common people by the discovery of gunpowder, and the two met on a common field. Where is the respect of old for royalty? Even the English speak of their sovereign, Queen Victoria as being made not of common clay, but of common mud. The aristocracy of royalty is dying out.
"But here in this country we find in place of an aristocracy of royalty an aristocracy of wealth. Far more dangerous to the race is it than the aristocracy of royalty. It is the aristocracy of gold that disintegrates society, destroys individuals and has ruined the proudest nations. It has called Rothschild's agent here to make the platform of the Republican party."
Here Mrs. Lease got down to train robbers and road agents, bandits, pirates, highwaymen and other non-political persons. When she was through with her James boys and Daltons she said that advancing civilization made the need of more civilized methods of robbery. Then as a gentle climax she called John Sherman a robber and likened all gold men to footpads.
"We have advanced scientifically, ethically and otherwise," she said, "but in finance we have followed the barbaric methods of our ancestors and the teachings of college-bred idiots who tell us that gold is the only desirable coin."
This bon mot was delivered fiercely, and was as fiercely applauded. "College-bred idiots" hit the crowd.
"By this" cried Mrs. Lease "we have arrived at a point when there is not enough money to carry on the business of the country. Go back with me a few years. When the war broke out the Government was compelled to beg for men and money. You responded nobly to that cry, but the men who had been crying 'on to Richmond!' refused to answer. They locked up their gold or sent it to Europe. They held their gold more sacred than your lives, your liberty, your wives and children, while the Government was compelled to mortgage itself to get that sneaking, cowardly yellow metal. And if war was to break out again to-morrow gold would disappear as suddenly again."
Mrs. Lease then took a shy at the "crime of '73." She told how the Government had made contracts on a bimetallic basis and then had changed it to a single standard. Lincoln, she declared, had called such acts as that a crime against posterity. Mentioning the bonded debt, Mrs. Lease called upon the reporters to hear her. During all the evening she made various flings at the press, but most of her speech was specially directed at the press seats. When she got down to the bonded debt she had the figures at her fingers' ends. When she rolled them off with the unction of a child who has mastered its a, b, cs, a man shouted:
"Make 'em take it down! Make 'em take it down!" He meant the reporters.
"Yes, yes," roared the crowd, "make 'em take it down!"
Mrs. Lease smiled happily and brushed away the perspiration ... and then she went at it again with the admonition that she might talk all night. Several persons arose hurriedly at this and went out, and an enthusiast on the platform said: "All right, go ahead."
Mrs. Lease was beginning on the debt again, when a woman in the third row cried out, "Let's wipe out the bonded debt." Just as appropriately she might have called: "Cut it bias," or "will it wash?" Mrs. Lease smiled a sickly smile at this evidence of womanly wisdom, and she was about to go on when the woman cried again: "Yes that's right. Wipe it off the slate."
"That's the sentiment," yelled a voice, and the crowd laughed.
"They say this question is so deep," said Mrs. Lease, when the woman had subsided, "that the common people are not fit to decide it. They say 'leave it to the financiers.' We have left it to them too long, and while we have been sinking into bankruptcy our financiers have been growing millionaires."
After a few other remarks about gold and Great Britain and robbery Mrs. Lease made a ball of her handkerchief, dabbed her face once or twice and sat down. Great applause followed.
During the meeting resolutions were read by Secretary Barr. The resolutions applauded the work of the Democratic and Populistic conventions.... They denounced also the application of the epithet 'anarchist' to them by the capitalists and agents of capital. The sudden affection for the laborer evinced by certain newspapers was also condemned as suspicious. Government ownership of telegraph and railroad lines was also advocated.
When the resolutions were read and put to vote many cried "No! no!" to them. At this a man in the back of the hall demanded a rising vote and almost precipitated a fight. He was subdued, however and the resolutions were declared adopted.
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press
Major events of the campaign,
in cartoon and story. (Click date)