Tall Grass

Patrick Deneen’s excellent post this morning on populism, directly invoking Kansas, gives me the occassion to repost a short essay I wrote last year for my on again off again (more off than on lately) column in the wonderful Kansas independent publication Kansas Liberty.  I referenced it in the comments to Patrick’s essay, but figured it was worth putting up in full for a brief historical review of what was actually happening in Kansas at the dawn of the 19th Century populist revolt in middle america.

Patrick writes: “let’s hope that some cagey political leaders understand that the way to harness this populist anger is not by purging its Left or Right elements, but understanding its consistency – the anger toward private and public concentrations of power, the elimination of a dignified role for the citizen, the infantilization of the American freeman, and the looting of the Republic by power elites of all stripe, is cause for righteous and fervent anger. Inchoate and ill-directed, the Glenn Beck, ‘tea-party’ movement reveals a justified anger toward both K Street and Wall Street. What good sense and manly indignation have put together, let no political maneuvering put asunder. It is high time for ‘a true and defensible populism.'”

In my view, this is the most important paragraph that has appeared on the Porch in a while.  This is the nut that has to be cracked, and there is much work—historical work, legal work, and political work—to be done, and talk is cheap.  We need leadership, organization, funding, and we need candidates.  Local elections matter, as does the formation of a “people’s elite” with the ability to amass and wield power, i.e., with sufficient weight to throw around influence and resources.


In 1890 a small western Kansas town sponsored a public debate on the statement: “Opportunities have never been better in Kansas.”

Taking the affirmative was a lawyer recently immigrated from the east. By all reported accounts, he acquitted himself well, giving a fine and persuasive speech.

When the lawyer finished, a local farmer, seizing the opportunity to take the negative, got up and proceeded to shovel a load of freshly harvested corn into the wood stove. He sat down without saying a word.

As the local press reported it, those in attendance unanimously agreed that the farmer had won the debate. In 1890 corn was worth more as fuel than as food, and that simple fact trumped every theoretical or flowery argument the eastern establishment could make.

Following the Civil War, Kansas became the new Promised Land for many Americans anxious for a fresh start. Kansas boosters (many of them Yankee, industrial, and urban business interests of the eastern seaboard newly freed from the war) promoted Kansas as a land of golden opportunity. The Party of Lincoln, the reconstituted Whigs, has always been the party of success and boom, the party of industry and development, the party of money and opportunity.

Following “bleeding Kansas” the GOP was full of optimism and preached a gospel of Progress projecting a bright and glorious Future. Kansas became the shining emblem of this vision, the new “land flowing with milk and honey” as many put it in the 1860s and 70s.[1]

Andrew Carnegie famously put a name to this ideology and called it the “Gospel of Wealth.” The prevailing attitude of the westward expansion was: freedom had been won, the Union preserved, and now it was time to get rich. Enterprising farmers were accompanied on the westward trek by a bevy of money lenders, industrializers, railroaders, and Republican politicians.

From 1870 to 1890 Kansas was the fastest growing state in the Union according to all leading indicators, from population to industry to agriculture to, ominously, runaway government spending and exploding private and public debt. Government, and the Republican Party specifically, was seen as a benevolent partner in boom. Government subsidized the corporate, banking, and railway interests to an astonishing degree, primarily through bond financing and government backed low or no interest loans to business interests. Public assistance reached its zenith during the railway boom when public money went to the railroads at a rate of $10,000 per mile of track. By 1890, fully one-fifth of KS acreage was owned by the railroads.[2]

Another engine of the Kansas boom was both public and private debt. By 1880, Kansas had obligated itself on so many development bonds and other financing measures that it had the largest per capita public debt of any state. By 1890, 60% of the privately held land was mortgaged making Kansas the most privately indebted state as well.[3]

Kansans in the Gilded Age had placed their trust in men and a party who had rejected classic laissez faire policies in favor of viewing government as an active instrument for material progress and economic expansion and development.

Due to a number of factors, however, including crushing debt, skyrocketing taxes, industrialized agricultural practices, and centralized control of land and capital by eastern interests, the boom turned to bust as the bottom fell out of the grain markets. At the end of the 1880s many a farmer was reciting the mantra “In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted,” and by 1890, when it became clear who was getting rich and who was getting screwed, revolt and revolution was in the air.

1890 marks the beginning of the era of the prairie populists in American politics. Though the movement was later overrun by new progressives and socialists culminating in the New Deal orthodoxy that still dominates our political conversation today—strengthening the role of the federal government and forever ending the founding vision of a confederacy of independent and free states—at its birth, the movement of prairie populists wanted something very different.

In 1886, a hardware store owner (and future populist Congressman) in Clay Center named William Vincent gave a speech at the Clay Center Debate Club and declared the foundational populist principle that “every man has a right to the product of his own labor.”

Anticipating objection Vincent cast himself and his fellow “radicals” as inheritors of the sturdy Jeffersonian principles of America’s founding and cast the government and business interests as the real socialists: “It is not asked that there shall be a division of property. … Communism in any form is bad, but that particular form which takes from the few and gives to all is certainly no worse than that which takes from the many and gives to the few.”[4] Or, as the great national populist leader William Jennings Bryan would put it a decade later: “The great masses of our people are interested, not in getting their hands into other people’s pockets, but in keeping the hands of other people out of their pockets.” The issue, so far as Vincent was concerned, was plutocracy versus a democratic republic.

The Republican establishment was quick to respond to this political heresy with epithets of “communists,” “bomb-throwers,” and “anarchists.” Republican Governor John Martin referred in 1886 to “those noisy, turbulent, and vicious demagogues and loafers who muster under the flag of the anarchist and communist.”[5]

But ordinary Kansans understood their political vision as refined in the shared difficulties of agrarian struggle, frontier challenges, and self-sufficiency in the midst of scarcity.

This vision was articulated clearly by a letter published in the March 1887 issue of the Kansas Farmer:

Seventy years ago each community contained the nucleus of an independent empire; there was the hatter, the tailor, and more independent than any sort, the farmer, who raised his own food and manufactured most of his own clothing. There was no barrier to free exchange, for producer and consumer lived in the same community. To-day, nearly all of the above mentioned trades are concentrated in a few great factories, employing thousands of men and representing millions of capital. And between the producer and consumer is the railway, upon which both are equally dependent. … This vast accumulation of wealth and irresponsible power over the commerce of the country has produced evils which are destroying republican equality and personal independence of character.[6]

Unfortunately, this political vision of republican equality and personal independence of character did not survive the great political transformation that occurred in this country in the half-century following the populist revolt.

It has, however, been carried on quietly in backwards places by sturdy men and women of republican character and virtue. And there are signs that we may finally be ready for a resurgence of this vision nationally.

It’s 2008 and once again, corn is worth more as fuel than as food. The global food and energy crisis spawned by declining oil supplies, the emergence of a global consumer class, and of irresponsible bipartisan policies of benevolent government in the form of agricultural and especially ethanol subsidies has once again created a teetering economy defined by big gambles on a future of alleged limitless growth supported by a progressive ideology which is more rickety now than at any time since 1890.

Both sides of our unified class of political and economic elites are to blame. National and state “conservatives” continue to spend at obscene levels and trumpet government as a benevolent partner in “growth” with disastrous subsidy policies while entitlement boosters and environmentalists of the left continue to seek solutions in the most aggressive government interference imaginable. Advocating turning Kansas into a vast wind factory, a high ranking official of the supposedly “conservationist” Sierra Club has notoriously said that “there is no place in Kansas worth preserving.”

It is time to be clear: our political elites have made Kansas and Kansans the enemy. Growth predicated on flawed economic policies, a dependence on government, and a servility to “progressive” political ambitions are a direct attack on the integrity and character of our homes and hearths.

It is time for a resurgence of the politics of republican equality and personal independence of character. Kansas led this fight once and can again.


[1] See e.g., O. Gene Clanton, Kansas Populism: Ideas and Men (1969) at 25.

[2] Id. at 28.

[3] Id.

[4] W.D. Vincent, Government Loans to the People, People’s Party Pamphlets (Kansas State Historical Society).

[5] Topeka Daily Capital, September 16, 1886.

[6] Kansas Farmer, March 1887, as quoted in Clanton at 37.

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  1. Also, where did that wonderful painting of what appears to be the Flint Hills come from? Is it the one from the state house in Topeka?

  2. An academic’s lament:

    The semsester’s entering its critical period, papers rolling in for grades, work piling up, but hot tasty music (i.e., must-read posts) is heard wafting in from the direction of the Front Porch.

    That is a great Deneen passage.

    And, possibly a Porcher PAC! As William Jennings Bryan once said, “I’ll take a PAC against both their houses over a pox on both their houses any day.” Well, okay…those might not have been his exact words…

    Keep it up y’all. I may be one of your pricklier friendly critics, but know I’m cheering for you.

  3. Kansas is not the only enemy in this dungeon of benign neglect, every State is. This morning, listening to debate about the possible Afghan troop deployments, someone who advocates against widening war promoted the alternative of working with the Taliban to, among other things, modernize their marble quarries. This is the reality of those who tell us we cannot be “isolationists” . Instead of investing in the abandoned limestone quarries of the Flint Hills, we must buy off an enemy and assist them to develop their resource and build their market within the global marketplace. Global Democracy and the American Empire Project is concerned about one thing and one thing only: Everyplace but here. They are the new isolationists. The States are the new “foreign entanglements.”

    That is a spectacular image Caleb, send it along to those folks in their fancy suite of offices in San Francisco and remind them that a sea of grass beneath magnificent clouds can be just as moving as Half Dome. Even more so when you are standing there, bathing in the smell of grass under the vast weight of a blue sky.

  4. It would be great if a populist uprising brought us to the place you describe. I hope I can be forgiven for noting though that incohate populism can take us to some very disturbing places too.

    Here in my state we just expressed populist rage with rising taxes by kicking the incumbent out and bringing the Republican candidate in. Now I was a bit suspicious of the Republican candidate as he went around promising to lower my taxes as he never once explained exactly how he was going to do that.

    Well, this week he explained. He is going to make the permit process for real estate developers easier.

    The permit process he referred to is what protects the pitiful amount of farmnd we have left, it is what protects the pitiful left overs of what were once magnificent coastal areas, the permits protect the character of the few rural places we have left. The permit processwhich people in this state fought for, is what stands between us and the determination of the real estate developers to get rich by turning our once largely agricultural state intoa giant strip mall and one extended , never ending suburb.

    So this is an example of how a populist rage can be expressed in ways which actually become more destructive of what we value.

    I’d suggest we must be cautious – a conservative quality.

    An uneducated populace – a people who are so complacent they do not bother to understand the issues we face – can make things much worse. As I wrote on another blog, keep in mind that the French Revolution began as a populist uprising which resulted in a naked woman stadning on the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral being worshipped as the “Goddess of reason”.

  5. It seems to me that prairie populism and “Romanist distributism” have a great deal in common, especially the bedrock notion that “every man has a right to the product of his own labor. Chesterton and your man from Clay Center strike me as saying the same thing–the same truth. And this truth bears repeating everywhere that concentrated wealth and power press down upon the brow of labor a crown of thorns, or words to that effect.

  6. Richard, yes, that is a painting of the beloved country, though not the one in the capital rotunda.

    Amy, I don’t disagree per se. See my last comment under Peters’ Krusty post for a brief explanation.

  7. Well, I’m glad I didn’t renew my first year membership in the Sierra Club, and that cheap back-pack they gave me the first time wasn’t good for much either. I love tall grass prairie. Either integrate windmills into the landscape, like the Dutch did with their old-timey models, or put them in the desert or on rocky ridge-tops, but don’t Californicate Kansas.

    For the rest of it, the People’s Party was a lot more than that, and the main thing it was accused of was not communism. In the west union veteran populists were tagged as “ultra-secession Democrats,” while in the south confederate veteran populists were tagged as betraying “the white man’s party.” The reason the populists insisted on forming a national third party is they wanted the federal government to reorganize the treasury so as to provide these hard-working farmers a low-interest source of credit, freeing them up from Wall Street plutocrats and local loan sharks called “the furnishing man.” It was not exactly a “localist” platform.

    William Jennings Bryan may have had a golden tongue, but he betrayed the populists. He picked a Wall Street banker as his running mate. In some states, where populists had a majority of voters behind them, established Democratic election boards simply cast all Negro votes for their own candidate, then boasted that “white supremacy has been saved by Negro votes.” That had something to do with why white redneck populists decided all Negroes should be disenfranchised — but the local aristocracies went ahead and disenfranchised as many of the small farmer “white” voters as they could in the process. It was nasty, all around.

    So, its always dangerous to rewrite history in light of whatever issue you want to push today, BUT, I fully agree that using food for fuel makes no sense at all, and massive government subsidy of “economic development” in general just made a few insiders rich and left the rest of us footing the bill. I would kind of like to see government fund R&D of new medicines, then license production to private companies, with taxpayers getting our money back, rather than have pharma companies rationalize price gouging by saying “we have to get our R&D money back.” (Don’t we all believe they charge about three times what the R&D actually cost them?) The problem is to pick exactly what government belongs in and what it doesn’t. Generally, leave the small stuff alone, give a hand to things that would improve life for all once they are up and running, but can’t break into the market in the first place, like electric cars, and anything that gets so big we all have to have it (like telephones, or the railroads for farmers in Kansas), tie it up tight so it becomes our servant and not our master.

  8. Dutch windmills were substantially less ugly than these modern monstrosities with their blinking red lights. And why must wind power be used to further or at least salvage centralization? Our big “wind farm” in my part of Indiana is owned by British Petroleum. Something fishy on the sandy prairie of Benton County.

  9. Good point Amy. There should be technically feasible windmills which will be much more decentralized, and less intrusive for neighbors. Perhaps even a barrel shaped one with internal fan blades that could sit relatively quietly on an individual’s roof. When large companies “go green,” it is a double-edged sword. Perhaps it is “the free market” coming around to a better way of doing things, better for the rest of us that is, but, it also means “we’re going to do this our way, in a centralized industrialized manner that we can make gobs of money from, rather than cultivating the sort of technology where you could do it all yourself, and get off the grid. I do wonder whether at the time they were introduced, Dutch farmers may also have found their windmills on ugly intrusion — maybe they are only picturesque many centuries later.

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