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
Reprinted courtesy the Kansas State Historical Society Website
William Allen White was the young and little-known editor of an undistinguished small-town newspaper, The Emporia Gazette of Kansas, when his editorial "What's the Matter with Kansas?" catapulted him into national prominence. The year was 1896, and a presidential election between the Republican candidate, William McKinley, and the Democratic choice, William Jennings Bryan, was underway. The Republicans were determined to replace Grover Cleveland, the Democratic incumbent, with a representative of their own party and so restore the monopoly of the presidency they had enjoyed since the beginning of the Civil War.
William Allen White, late in his life, with his wife Sallie. Photograph courtesy the Lyon County Historical Society and Museum
The differences between the two parties were great, and were centered largely upon monetary policy. The Federal government had issued a large quantity of paper money, greenbacks, to finance the war, and these had been steadily retired as the government attempted to return the nation to a solid currency of gold and silver. Republican administrations had followed the policy of retiring the notes as quickly as possible, more quickly than the nation could acquired additional gold to replace them. Although the national currency was bi-metallic, the Republicans limited the coinage of silver to such a degree that the amount of currency in circulation actually decreased even while the population of the country grew and its economy expanded. The result was that the value of money increased as the supply of it diminished. A farmer or small businessman having to borrow money found that he was charged interest and also forced to pay back money more valuable than that which he had originally borrowed.
This situation suited the banking interests of Wall Street and Lombard Street in San Francisco, as well as the great railway companies, meat packers, and other enterprises that worked in cooperation with the great banks. Control of the nation's money flowed into the robber barons of the East and West coasts, and the farmers and small businessmen of the Middle West were impoverished. By 1896, feelings ran high, and were inflamed by the superb rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan, a native of Nebraska. In Kansas, already badly off due to the grasshopper infestation of 1888, price-fixing by the railways serving the state, the financial panic of 1893, and an increasing difficulty in borrowing money for planting and ordering new inventories, popular frustration took the form of the Populist Revolt, in which the mass of the populations challenged the economic and political leadership of the state. With the cry of Raise Hell, not corn, the Populists embarked upon a bitter and vociferous campaign against the establishment.
The more well-to-do viewed this movement, which they saw a being much like the violent European Anarchists, with horror and revulsion. It seemed clear that the Populists would gain control of Kansas and perhaps elsewhere, deliver their votes to Bryan, and place new and dangerous men in the United States Senate and the House of Representations. The presidential campaign also saw a massive campaign of invective mounted against the Populists in general and the state of Kansas in particular. It was against this background that White wrote the editorial that was, in its way, a response to a question that many were asking in the rest of the country: What's the matter with Kansas?
The story goes that White, a short and portly man who considered himself something of a fashion plate, was walking to the offices of The Emporia Gazette when he encountered two loungers who had absorbed enough Populist resentment of the upper classes that they could not resist directing some insulting remarks toward White, and even poked a stick at him. Deeply angered, White hurried to his editorial offices, wrote his editorial column, and dispatched it to the printer in the heat of the moment. Although he soon recovered himself and regretted the violence of his attack, the paper was already out and could not be recalled. White and the Gazette quickly gained national notice as papers across the country reprinted this sweeping denunciation of Kansas Populism from the pen of a Kansan. Although the Populists won the statewide elections, Kansas electoral votes went to McKinley, and William Allen White became a favorite of Republican leaders. He remained a national figure for the rest of his life and is remembered in the William Allen White School of Journalism of the University of Kansas. It is ironic that the fame of an eminent Kansan should rest upon his scathing denunciation of the state and of a good share of its inhabitants.
As for the Populists, they died out as a political movement. The Klondike gold rush soon began to expand the nation s supply of hard currency, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act broke up the combines and cartels that had milked the Mid-Westerners for so long, and Theodore Roosevelt, himself a Westerner in his heart, introduced more moderate and popular policies for the Republican party to espouse. Some would say, however, that Populism as an attitude never died out in Kansas and has been reflected in a general dislike of outsiders, governments, and large corporations, as well as in an adventurous (and sometimes even eccentric) spirit of individual worth and moral initiative.
From an August 15, 1896, editorial by William Allen White in the Emporia Gazette in which he took Kansas leaders to task for letting Kansas slip into economic stagnation and not keeping up economically with neighboring states because of liberal Populism policies chasing away economic capital from the state.
Reprinted courtesy the Kansas State Historical Society.
Today the Kansas Department of Agriculture sent out a statement which indicates that Kansas has gained less than two thousand people in the past year. There are about two hundred and twenty-five thousand families in his state, and there were ten thousand babies born in Kansas, and yet so many people have left the state that the natural increase is cut down to less than two thousand net.
This has been going on for eight years.
If there had been a high brick wall around the state eight years ago, and not a soul had been admitted or permitted to leave, Kansas would be a half million souls better off than she is today. and yet the nation has increased in population. In five years ten million people have been added to the national population, yet instead of gaining a share of this say, half a million -- Kansas has apparently been a plague spot, and, in the very garden of the world, has lost population by ten thousands every year.
Not only has she lost population, but she has lost money Every moneyed man in the state who could get out without loss has gone. Every month in every community sees someone who has a little money pack up and leave the state. This has been going on for eight years. Money has been drained out all the time. In towns where ten years ago there were three or four or half dozen money-lending concerns, stimulating industry by furnishing capital, there is now none, or one or two that are looking after the interests and principal already outstanding.
No one brings any money into Kansas any more. What community knows over one or two men who have moved in with more than $5,000 in the past three years? And what community cannot count half a score of men in that time who have left, taking all the money they could scrape together?
Yet the nation has grown rich; other states have increased in population and wealth -- other neighboring states. Missouri has gained over two million, while Kansas has been losing half a million. Nebraska has gained in wealth and population while Kansas has gone downhill. Colorado has gained every way, while Kansas has lost every way since 1888.
What's the matter with Kansas?
There is no substantial city in the state. Every big town save one has lost in population. Yet Kansas City, Omaha, Lincoln, St. Louis, Denver, Colorado Springs, Sedalia, the cities of the Dakotas, St. Paul and Minneapolis and Des Moines all cities and towns in the West -- have steadily grown.
Take up the government blue book and you will see that Kansas is virtually off the map. Two or three little scrubby consular places in yellow-fever-stricken communities that do not aggregate ten thousand dollars a year is all the recognition that Kansas has. Nebraska draws about one hundred thousand dollars; little old North Dakota draws about fifty thousand dollars; Oklahoma doubles Kansas; Missouri leaves her a thousand miles behind; Colorado is almost seven times greater than Kansas -- the whole west is ahead of Kansas.
Take it by any standard you please, Kansas is not in it.
Go east and you hear them laugh at Kansas; go west and they sneer at her; go south and they cuss" her; go north and they have forgotten her. Go into any crowd of intelligent people gathered anywhere on the globe, and you will find the Kansas man on the defensive. The newspaper columns and magazines once devoted to praise of her, to boastful facts and startling figures concerning her resources, are now filled with cartoons, jibes and Pefferian speeches. Kansas just naturally isn't in it. She has traded places with Arkansas and Timbuctoo.
What's the matter with Kansas?
We all know; yet here we are at it again. We have an old mossback Jacksonian who snorts and howls because there is a bathtub in the State House; we are running that old jay for governor. We have another shabby, wild-eyed, rattle-brained fanatic who has said openly in a dozen speeches that "the rights of the user are paramount to the rights of the owner"; we are running him for Chief Justice, so that capital will come tumbling over itself to get into the state. We have raked the old ash heap of failure in the state and found an old human hoop skirt who has failed as a businessman, who has failed as an editor, who has failed as a preacher, and we are going to run him for Congressman-at-Large. He will help the looks of the Kansas delegation at Washington. Then we have discovered a kid without a law practice and have decided to run him for Attorney General. Then, for fear some hint that the state had become respectable might percolate through the civilized portions of the nation, we have decided to send three or four harpies out lecturing, telling the people that Kansas is raising hell and letting the corn go to weed.
Oh this IS a state to be proud of! We are a people who can hold up our heads! What we need is not more money, but less capital, fewer white shirts and brains, fewer men with business judgment, and more of those fellows who boast that they are "just ordinary clodhoppers, but they know more in a minute about finance than John Sherman; we need more men who are posted," who can bellow about the crime of '73, who hate prosperity, and who think, because a man believes in national honor, he is a tool of Wall Street. We have had a few of them some hundred fifty thousand -- but we need more.
We need several thousand gibbering idiots to scream about the "Great Red Dragon" of Lombard Street. We don't need population, we don't need wealth, we don't need well-dressed men on the streets, we don't need cities on the fertile prairies; you bet we don't! What we are after is the money power. Because we have become poorer and ornerier and meaner than a spavined, distempered mule, we, the people of Kansas, propose to kick; we don't care to build up, we wish to tear down. "There are two ideas of government," said our noble Bryan at Chicago. "There are those who believe that if you legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, this prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up and through every class and rest upon them."
That's the stuff! Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffing out of the creditors and tell the debtors who borrowed the money five years go when money "per capita" was greater than it is now, that the contraction of currency gives him a right to repudiate.
Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can't pay his debts, on the altar, and bow down and worship him. Let the state ideal be high. What we need is not the respect of our fellow men but the chance to get something for nothing.
Oh, yes, Kansas is a great state. Here are people fleeing from it by the score every day, capital going out of the state by the hundreds of dollars; and every industry but farming paralyzed, and that crippled, because its products have to go across the ocean before they can find a laboring man at work; who can afford to buy them. Let's don't stop this year. Let's drive all the decent self- respecting men out of the state. Let's keep the old clodhoppers who know it all. Let's encourage the man who is "posted." He can talk, and what we need is not mill hands to eat our meat, nor factory hands to eat our wheat, nor cities to oppress the farmer by consuming his butter and eggs and chickens and produce. What Kansas needs is men who can talk, who have large leisure to argue the currency question while their wives wait at home for that nickel's worth of bluing.
What's the matter with Kansas?
Nothing under the shining sun. She is losing her wealth, population and standing. She has got her statesmen, and the money power is afraid of her. Kansas is all right. She has started in to raise hell, as Mrs. Lease advised, and she seems to have an over-production. But that doesn't matter. Kansas never did believe in diversified crops. Kansas is all right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Kansas. "Every prospect pleases and only man is vile."
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press
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