Those Persistent Prairie Populists

Nestled between the Wichita Public Library and the Century II concert hall in downtown Wichita, Kansas, just a few blocks west of the small park where the “Occupy Wichita” bunch have been hilariously holding forth, you’ll find a statue of Mary Elizabeth Lease, the firebrand activist still famous in these parts for advising the Kansas farmer to “Raise less corn and more hell.”

Lovingly rendered in bronze, with Lease looking lovelier than in any known photograph, the statue reflects the lingering affection Kansas’ beleaguered liberals feel for the days of the “prairie populists.” The movement caused quite a ruckus throughout the plains states during the late 19th Century, even scoring a few electoral victories in the prairie populist hotbed of Kansas, and that brief era of relevance still inspires hope in the region’s more radical lefties.

Thomas Frank’s stupid-but-best-selling “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” oozed with nostalgia for those glorious days. Some of the plains’ self-styled progressives name their internet sites for the “Prairie Populists.” The press applies the same sobriquet to almost any Democrat who manages to get elected in the big red splotch in the middle of the country, presumably as a compliment. Every bleeding heart in the state of Kansas still beats a bit faster at the mention of Lease, “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, Annie Diggs, William Alfred Pfeffer, or any of the Sunflower State’s other prominent leaders of the movement.

One wonders, though, while gazing upon the bronze likeness of Lease in her long skirt and upright collar, what she and her compatriots would make of their worshipful descendents.

They would likely be flattered, if slightly frustrated, that their agenda has been so little changed over the past twelve decades. The prairie populists stood for The Common Man, ever ready to do battle against the big financial interests, railroads, Sears Roebuck & Co., and the moneyed elite in general, and wanted to nationalize many industries and regulate the rest into submission. Change “The Common Man” to “The 99 percent,” substitute Big Oil or some other corporate villain du jour for the railroads, replace Sears with Wal-Mart, and it’s basically the same thing you’ll hear today at an “Occupy” encampment, Democratic convention, or any other gathering of radical leftists. Lease’s most famous oration, a little ditty from 1890 titled “Wall Street Owns the Country,” apparently requires no changes whatsoever, as it is presently being widely circulated through the internet by a large number of admirers.

Though the song has remained the same, the singers somehow strike us as different.

The original prairie populists were an undeniably colorful, endearingly eccentric, and indisputably proletarian lot. “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, an erstwhile steamship captain and failed farmer who represented Kansas for three controversial terms in the House of Representatives, earned his nickname after ridiculing the silk socks of his Republican opponent, a railroad attorney with the suitably aristocratic name of Col. J.R. Hallowell. Annie Diggs, secondly only to Lease as Kansas’ most prominent distaff populist, and who was said to have disliked Lease intensely, helped organize the Kansas Women’s Free Silver League. William Alfred Pfeffer, who represented Kansas for one term in the United States Senate, was famed for his beard, an epic collection of whiskers the likes of which had not been seen since Old Testament days. After the disputed election of 1893, a slate of Populist candidates decided they had won a majority in the state’s House of Representatives and simply took up residence there, then armed themselves against the angry Republicans and Shawnee County Sheriff’s deputies who tried to evict them.

Lease, also known in the Kansas press as Mary Ellen Lease, for reasons we cannot ascertain, or Mary “Yellin’” Lease, for reasons we can readily imagine, was similarly picaresque. Although she spent her early years in upstate New York, and was genteel enough to have been a founding member of the Hypatia Club, Wichita’s oldest and most exceedingly respectable women’s organization, Lease had worked the Kansas soil as a farm wife and was sufficiently earthy in her language to rile up the crowds of disgruntled sodbusters who filled auditoriums across the region to hear her speak. The “raise less corn and more hell” quote is by most accounts apocryphal, but it suited her well.

Such hard-luck biographies and unabashed bumpkin-ness gave the original prairie populists’ skin-the-rich rhetoric an authentic angriness that the leaders of today’s Democratic party cannot match. Try to imagine the multi-millionairess Nancy Pelosi flying in on her private jet, racking up a big government-paid bar tab and some guaranteed loans for her brother-in-law along the way, then firing up the farmers in some dusty western Kansas fairground. Or the well-married John Kerry, last seen parking his yacht in Rhode Island to avoid the taxes of his native Massachusetts. Or prep-schooled Barack Obama, whose only experience of hard country living is Martha’s Vineyard. The closest thing to a “Sockless” Jerry Simpson that the Democrats have today is “Pantsless” Bill Clinton, who did pass through a hardscrabble Arkansas boyhood on his way to Georgetown, Oxford, and million-dollar speaking fees.

The various left-wing protesters that have lately popped up around the country are apparently intended to provide some of the old authenticity, but they strike us as miscast for the role. The original prairie populists were glaringly rural, for one thing, and we expect that if any “occupiers” were to try their hands at milking a cow or other acts of agriculture it would provide the nearby country folk with the heartiest laugh they’ve had since the hippie commune days. Unjust as it may seem, a tattooed “studies” major whining about his student loan debt will never elicit the same public sympathy as weather-beaten son-of-the-soil testifying with a Gary Cooper twang about the banker who took his daddy’s farm.

One might venture a hope, then, that today’s prairie populists will be no more successful than their forebears. Thomas Franks’ “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” pretended that populist radicalism was Kansas’ natural inclination, suppressed in recent years by a nefarious Republican plot to prey on the state’s gauche religiosity, and his revisionist history is widely accepted among the local liberals, but in fact the populist heyday was merely a brief and largely inconsequential interregnum in the Republicans’ more or less continuous domination of the state.

The populists never won even 40 percent in a statewide election without joining forces with the Democrats, who were still reviled by the populists and most non-populist Kansans as a party of slavery and rebellion. They never did nationalize the railroads, whose omnipotent power waned with interstate highways and over-night air delivery, or restrain Sears, which we understand is still in business, or win the free coinage of silver, which was one of the dumbest ideas ever proposed. The prairie populists’ efforts to take down the barons of Wall Street are still ongoing after 120 years, and 99 percent of the country is still the common man. The most significant policy they were able to impose on the country was Prohibition, one of the movement’s several religion-tainted causes that today’s liberals prefer to overlook.

Prairie populism started to fade away just as it hit its peak in the 1890s, largely as a result of rising commodity prices and a commensurate decline in rural outrage. Its departure was hastened by William Allen White, the revered editor of The Emporia Gazette, and his famed editorial “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” a title later appropriated by the aforementioned Franks. A masterpiece of vituperative Kansas journalism which propelled White from small town anonymity to national prominence, the essay ridiculed the populists’ resumes of failure and their defiantly low-class ways with language that still aptly describes the remnants of the movement: “Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can’t pays 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.” Even more convincingly, White catalogued the immense the economic damage the prairie populists had inflicted on Kansas with their relentless rhetorical and legislative attacks on capital and business.

As the prairie populist movement faded away in the early 20th century, so did its headline-grabbing leaders. “Sockless” Jerry Simpson was eventually ejected from Congress by the voters and wound up in the real estate business. Annie Diggs moved to Europe, where her all of radical positions save Prohibition found a more sympathetic audience, before ending her days in Detroit. William Alfred Pfeffer lost his Senate seat to another populist, ran a failed campaign for governor, and spent his last days as a little-known writer in Grenola. The populist slate of legislators who fought the “Legislative War of 1893” wound up ceding their control of the House chamber to the Republicans after a Supreme Court ruling, and have largely been absent from the capitol ever since.

Lease gradually became disillusioned with the prairie populists, and when trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt won the presidency she declared victory and returned to her original affiliation with the Republicans. After a divorce in 1902 she moved back east to live with her daughters, and history tells us little of what she did with her time from then until her death in 1933. We like to think she devoted most of her considerable energy to the sorts of blessedly apolitical good works done by the Hypatia Club, which erected the aforementioned statue of her as thanks for the long, cold carriage ride she endured to found the organization. The Hypatia Club doesn’t raise much hell, but its good works endure.

–Bud Norman


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