curry1

JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS. William Allen White, the noted editorialist of Emporia, once named our shared home country America’s tenth muse—the muse of prophecy. If Kansas is muse, surely one of her prophets was Sockless Jerry Simpson, the marshal of Medicine Lodge who was elected to Congress on the People’s Party ticket in 1890.

Sockless Jerry won his sobriquet in classic fashion—by mocking a buffoonish member of the coifed and cosseted Republican establishment, one Colonel James R. Hallowell. Simpson pulled off a clean political rope-a-dope by mercilessly hounding “Prince Hal” for his fine clothes and silk stockings until Hallowell finally wrinkled his nose and said silk was preferable to dirty men who wore no socks at all. Thus, a legend was born.

The Topeka Capital Journal played right along describing the race as pitting sober, assured adulthood against a child given to throwing fits: “The opposing candidates are opposites in every way. Colonel Hallowell is a brilliant, experienced and competent man who would add strength to the Kansas delegation; Jerry Simpson is an ignorant, inexperienced lunkhead … who would disgrace the state in congress; scarcely able to read and write, unacquainted with public affairs, without experience as a legislator, raw, boorish, [and] fanatical with the fanaticism of sheer ignorance.”

Fanatical or not, Sockless Jerry really was a man of the people. Dirt-man and long-time third (or fourth) party activist, the sockless one stood poised to strike a blow for home and hearth and against the monied interests. Simpson also shared the gallows humor of a people who—by virtue of scratching a living from the earth—understood the principles of scarcity and solidarity.

During one debate, upon hearing that Prince Hal was a man experienced with laws, Simpson reached for a statute book and, pointing to a law imposing a tax upon dogs, said something to the effect that if Hal’s laws tax bitches, they ought to also tax sons of bitches, for the People’s Party “believes in equal and exact justice to all!” It brought the house down.

While the record does not bear out the establishment’s characterization of the People’s Party as spoiled and ignorant children, the real difference highlighted was one of class. Prince Hal and his ilk believed rule was their birthright, and urged the masses to leave it to the eastern educated, the monied, the old families, and the bankers to address complex issues such as monetary policy.

In contrast, Sockless Jerry pronounced on the floor of Congress: “I feel about bankers as I do about certain insects, not to be mentioned in society, which in our worst Kansas hotels come forth from secret places to murder sleep. I have considered these insects, Mr. Speaker. They are, I doubt not from the expression of their countenances, and speaking from bug standpoints, reputable, kindly, honest, keeping every engagement. I can believe them to be good fathers, good husbands, good sons. It is not these insects as mere insects I condemn. It’s the business they are in.”

Thus spoke the Prophet of Medicine Lodge to his time and to ours, for the issues and players are the same now as then. Bankers and profiteers and freeloaders and sturdy beggars and political graftsmen of all sorts, with alphabet soup pedigrees billowing out after their names like exhaust, have pillaged and plundered their way through our national trust—that trust of capital reserve in human character, topsoil, small towns, natural resources, family farms, sound money, freedom from foreign entanglement, and liberty, the greatest trust of all. They have salted the earth and plowed it under while flashing a razzle-dazzle smile and an advertisement for the latest spectacle—tune in at 9/8 central!

David Brooks, a latter-day Prince Hal, huffs silken glue on behalf of the egg-head set who disdain American Idol in favor of Public Television. Angered by some in Congress who failed to rally to the Bush/Obama economic rescue packages (I’ve lost track of which iteration we are currently on) Brooks suggested that those in opposition were “nihilists” who only “listened to the loudest and angriest voices in their Party.”

Instead, Brooks has pled for the reassertion of an adult elite; the firm hand of authority and legitimacy; the sort “wielded … by rich men in private clubs.” Brooks envisions a future of stability premised not on constitutional legitimacy or even democratic legitimacy, but on the “wisdom and public spiritedness of those in charge.”

Do these men in charge produce anything of real, tangible value? Hardly. They are just in the know. Colonel Nelson, Kansas City man and founder of the Kansas City Star, used to rail against the unproductive East: “New York is running the big gambling house and show house for the country. It doesn’t produce anything. It doesn’t take any more interest in where the money comes from than a gambler cares where you get the money you put into his game.”

Tinseled with this au courant legitimacy, Brooks, Giethner, Bernake, Paulson and the rest of the central managers and their vassals obviously now intend to keep people in line and dutifully turned away—to disallow discussion of the obvious and keep the bubbles intact as long as possible, pushing the ultimate consequences of a massive burst off on our children or our children’s children. Not at all disreputable, from a roach’s standpoint.

The tinseled class is soft, stupid, and not worthy of rule. Special pleading all around! Everyone gets a bailout, from Scooter Libby to AIG. Nothing is more fatal to the necessary kind of guns-n-guts legitimacy that solidifies an established order as the refusal of the captain to go down with his ship. This double-cross is a kind of specialized breach of the social contract—you were supposed to die, but you didn’t—further enabling and galvanizing the middle, under, and grievance classes as we emerge from our twinkie stupor and begin to wonder who turned off the cream filling spigot.

So we are as much or more to blame. In exchange for paltry comforts and sweet lies we have willingly submitted to many masters—the tax master, the loan officer, and the payroll clerk; the town inspector, the county inspector, the state inspector, the code enforcer and the permit doler; the dog catcher, the license examiner, and even the busy-body do-gooder from the heart and lung association who snubs out our cigarettes with one hand while paying her registered lobbyist with the other. There are the ad men and experts of all colors and stripes telling us what to buy, what to eat, what to read, and what to believe; there are the snooty professors and the imported school superintendents; the shipping barons, the oil barons, the corn barons, the food scientists, the Wal-Mart feeding trough, and the health care gods. And once consent to these masters is given, opting out is rarely easy (or legal).

Sockless Jerry would have none of it, and neither shall we. American democracy has always been leavened by the Jeffersonian spirit of the small-hold freeman, the yeoman farmer, the independent small merchant and crafstman, the frontiersman, the prairie populists, the lover of liberty who—with his sturdy virtues born of necessity and struggle and scarcity—became self-sufficient, caring and doing for himself, his family, and his community. As proto front porcher John Ruskin put it, “there is no wealth but life.”

It is a difficult thing to recover these sturdy virtues—virtues of thrift, being rooted in one’s place, hard work, pride of ownership, the orderly use of time, fierce independence of spirit, self-sufficiency, charity towards one’s neighbor, a refusal to bend the knee to any master, membership in a communal identity, and a return to family economies that place a strong incentive on having children—but it is necessary if the front porch republic is to have a future.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Caleb-I trust the citizens of Kansas will become acquainted with your bare ankles over the coming years. William Allen White said that Sockless Jerry introduced him to Thackeray: the Sunflower State sure produces some learned populists. John Steuart Curry, Gordon Parks, Bill James, Clyde Tombaugh, Dennis Hopper, Caleb Stegall, William Inge, Mary Ellen Lease, Louise Brooks–hell, even the William Allen White of “A Certain Rich Man”–I do love Kansas.

  2. What a great article. Can I say again how wonderful “Front Porch Republic” is? One great article after another. I have been searching for ages for a place with such a voice and have finally found it.

  3. I hadn’t thought of Bill James as a populist, Bill, since the public image of him is as a geeky stathead because of whom we all now have to learn what “OPS” is and why it matters. But now that you mention it, his work has led to an incursion of regular guys, non-jocks, into the administration of pretty much every professional sport. Revenge of the Nerds, indeed. Plus, I think James majored in literature, he’s remained a loyal Royals fan all his life, and he’s a helluva writer.

  4. The idea that home grown wisdom is superior to knowledge gained in school was certainly not new at the time, and is still in use.

    Nixon criticized intellectuals with great effect, even though he was one. Bush campaigned against anyone smart in the news media by depicting them as a bunch of overly-critical America-haters, even though the media bent over backwards to adore Bush and criticize Gore.

    McCain carried it a step further, and actively campaigned against anyone smart enough to understand the problem. Palin looks to carry the war to the next level, and simply makes fun of anyone too smart to be manipulated by sarcastic bumper stickers.

    I would like to think this will end somewhere.

    At some point, I would like to have politicians who are well-spoken and thoughtful. At some point, I would like to think that our elected officials have principles and ideas.

    If public debate in the next ten years is going to be shaped by fake populists like Santelli and Limbaugh, then America will be the worse for it.

    When you choose a doctor, it should not matter if he wears a silk suit and eats caviar. It should only matter if he understands medicine. When you choose a Congressman, it does not matter if he drinks latte, it only matters if he understands science, economics, and the law.

    If your congressman is a beer-guzzling, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, football-playing, man-of-the-people; then you aren’t being served well by your own intellect.

  5. Compelling history… but… you lost me at your implicit elevation of Bobby Jindal and Know-Nothings, whose self-aggrandizing assertion of underregulated capitalism as a system of government rather than as one of many tools in the promotion of the democratic social contract has landed us in our current predicament.

  6. Alas, my list of eminent Kansans is dominated by expatriates. I am reminded of a line from Thomas Fox Averill’s fine essay “Kansas Literature” (Kansas History/Summer 2002) that stuck with me: “the abandonment of farming, at least by the best and brightest of Kansans, is the subtext of almost every novel of pioneering I’ve read.”

  7. Isn’t William Allen White’s famous 1896 editorial “What’s the Matter with Kansas” that catapulted Emporia’s son to national prominance a polemic against the Sockless’ Peoples Party?

    Dispite any personal affection that white might have had for Jerry Simpson, it seems odd to suggest that he would have in any wat been a supporter of populism. He was a blue blood republican (from way back before republicans were red), and is still remembered as such in Emporia.

  8. Try the People’s Party Platform of 1892 for another dose

    The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires………

  9. Sigh. I did not say that William Allen White was a populist. I said that 1) Sockless Jerry, a learned Populist, introduced White to Thackeray; and 2) White’s “A Certain Rich Man” is a wonderful Kansas novel.

  10. As wunna them ejjikated eleet perfesors of littercher I must point out that the Twinkie image is perfect. CS, move one rocking chair closer to me on the porch and share my bourbon–if BK has left you any.

  11. Peters, cheers!

    Ben, W.A. White would later write:

    “Ten years ago this great organ of reform wrote a piece entitled ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’ In it great sport was made of a perfectly honest gentleman of unusual legal ability who happened to be running for chief justice of the Supreme Court of this state, because he said in effect that ‘the rights of the user are paramount to the rights of the owner.’ Those were paleozoic times; how far the world has moved since then. This paper was wrong in those days and Judge Doster was right; but he was too early in the season and his views got frost bitten.”

    Doster was a brilliant legal scholar who developed theories of private property very much in line with Weaver and Shiffman.

  12. This is one of the best articles I’ve EVER read.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I’ve been trying to make some of these points in my
    blog, but you’ve put them more effectively and concisely
    in one article than I could manage in 4 years of blogging.

  13. Thank you Mr. Stegall,

    Though I come from Emporia stock, and spent days of my childhood in Peter Pan Park under the shadow of the White Memorial where the eulogy of Mary White, permanently fixed in bronze empresses her tragic story permanently in the minds of young Emporians, I know little of the broad scope of White’s editorial career.

    I know only what made him famous, and reacted without thinking from the small sample I knew of his work.

    As a son of Emporia, I should have known better.

Comments are closed.