Populism Thrives in Kansas

The Wonderful Wizzard of Oz

In 1964, Henry Littlefield wrote an article in American Quarterly titled, "The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism." The theory is controversial, but gained traction with some literary critics.

Populism in Kansas

The late 1880s to the early 1890s saw particularly bad conditions for farmers. Those who stayed asked the state government for assistance. Growing out of the South and Midwest was the Farmers Alliance movement. The group promoted higher prices for produce and felt that the government’s responsibility was to represent farmers rather than big business. Out of this dissension came the People’s Party, a reform movement with roots across the country but particularly strong in Kansas.

These “Populists” supported making currency more readily available, creating a sliding income tax, more government control over railroads, telegraphs, and telephones, preventing foreign land ownership, and fixing the election system. In general, they wanted to give more control to common people.

Populism and railroads have historically been depicted as mortal enemies, nowhere more pronounced than in Kansas during the 1890's. Proponents of populism wrote newspaper articles and toured the country delivering lectures on the reform movement. They distributed books, pamphlets, and broadsides which included essays on party platforms, treatises on financial reform, campaign brochures, notices of lectures, songs of protest, and banners to promote the party agenda.

Mary Elizabeth Lease

Mary Lease was a leader of the People's Party. She had a powerful and charismatic voice: "Raise less corn and more hell"

Women and Populism

Mary Elizabeth Lease and Annie Diggs, both of Kansas, were popular advocates of the growing Populist movement. Though the two women disagreed on certain principles, they each helped elect Populist candidates. Lease believed in racial and gender equality and claimed,

“Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.” (Kansas Historical Society)

Diggs wrote for Populist newspapers and “became convinced that the reforms which we sought were after all economical rather than moral questions” (Kansas Historical Society).

With the help of Mary Lease and Annie Diggs, Populist candidates in the South and Midwest won elections in 1890. In Kansas, 92 Populists were voted into office, giving them control of the house. Two years later more candidates from the People’s Party were elected.

Kansas' Populist Governor, John W. Leedy<br />
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Kansas' Populist Governor, John W. Leedy

Populism changes the Government

Populist candidates started taking office. William Peffer of Topeka was the first Populist to serve as U.S. senator. Peffer served one term and had been involved with the national organization of the People’s Party. John W. Leedy, a former Kansas state senator, was later elected as the first Populist governor in 1897.

In 1892 both the Republican and Populist parties claimed victory in the Kansas House elections. By the time the legislative session began in January, a number of contests were still being disputed. The conflict reached a crisis when the Populists locked themselves in the House Hall. The Republicans used a sledgehammer to break down the doors to the hall. In response, the governor requested support from the state militia. After a three-day standoff, Governor Lewelling negotiated an agreement with the Republican speaker of the house, which amounted to a Populist surrender. The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the Republicans.

Kansas Historical Society. “Populism.” Kansapedia. Accessed May 8, 2019. https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/populism/15160.
Kansas at the Turn of the Century
Populism Thrives in Kansas