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William Allen White And The Populist Movement Of Kansas

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William Allen White and the Farmer's Populist Movement

During the late 19th century in Kansas there was a movement among the general population called the Farmer's Populist Movement. Today, Kansas is still by far a Republican state, but during this time the Populist Party engaged the Republican stronghold in a battle to win over the state, however, in the end the Republicans pulled through. William Allen White, at this time, had become a well known man in the journalism world and his political allegiance did not go unnoticed among either those within the political arena or those observing. William Allen White, aside from his personal political leanings towards the Republican side, was against the Populist movement that was stretching across Kansas and his forum for informing the community on why the Populist movement was wrong for Kansans became the Emporia Gazette. Through his editorials and interactions with political leaders of both the Populist and Republican Parties one can see that William Allen White hoped to persuade Kansans not to be won over by the Populist movement. Before someone can dive into William Allen White and what he did during the 1890's, an understanding of the Farmer's Populist Movement and the incumbent Republican Party of Kansas is essential.

Populism took hold amongst farm communities that had been shut out from the indirect benefits of railway construction. It took hold amongst less wealthy, unfenced farming townships in the early stages of economic development. And perhaps most importantly, it took hold amongst farm families that were experiencing a migration-induced devaluation of their human capital. Populism is interpreted as a movement rooted in the frustrating regional adjustments faced by individual farm families, rather than as simply a democratic, collective movement in American politics. Kansas Populism was prompted in 1890 because many native-born farmers found, when confronted by a years of infestation of agricultural pests and severe drought, that they lacked the skills necessary for profitable utilization of the sub-humid agricultural lands. And that is why farmers grew a more risky mix of corn and wheat on the eve of the Populist revolt; they had a fear of income losses from yield-reducing insect infestations. The suggested pest-management technique was to eliminate either wheat or corn altogether for several years. In 1889 corn reached historically low prices; and in 1890, Kansas was hit with drought and hot winds that lowered corn output significantly.

Populism explains the rise of Populism in 1890 across Kansas as a response to the frustrations of adapting crop selections and pest management routines to the sub-humid environment. Farmers raised hell in the fall of 1890, in part, because they had not yet formed the farm management skills that could have prevented such a collapse of operating income. If Populist voters were choked by monopoly power, the party should have done significantly worse in those townships served by several competing railroad lines; but if Populist voters were motivated by a dispirited hunt for capital gains on land through nearness to railway improvements, Populist candidates should have prospered as they moved farthest away from a rail station. Therefore, if Populist voters were motivated simply by bitterness over the fact that their township did not have a rail station then Populist candidates should have done better in a township with no railway station at all. What was most important was 1) whether a township had a railroad station and 2) how far the average farmer had to travel to reach a railhead.

The farmer's response to crop failures, insect damage, and the realization that a township might never get a railway station varied. Populism has become a movement precisely because of how the farm families of the central West adapted to the sub-humid agricultural conditions in hand with how a band of colorful political entrepreneurs achieved short-term success in the marketing of a new political product.

The ideals of Populism campaigned for reform in three major areas: land, transportation, and money. Populists took the stance that land should be set aside for settlers and not be held on speculative grounds. The believed that transportation and communication means for the people were "natural monopolies"1, Populists demanded that they be owned by the government and operated with the interests of the people in mind. Finally, when it came to finance, Populists insisted that the existing banking system be replaced by a system directly responsible to elected officials, since it was currently under the control of individual with primarily financial interests based back on the East coast. Aside from all of this, the platform held an appearance of opinions sympathetic to industry and in favor of a tax system based on a graduated field by income.

Republicans in Kansas, much like today still, were pro-big business and decreasing the influence of government in people's everyday lives. This is where the issue of railroads steps in, railroads was often pictured as big business, establishment, Republican, and conservative. There was also harmony between the Republican controlled state government and the railroads. In Kansas around 1890, cooperation and mutual support prevailed between state officials and rail executives. The state may have regulated the railroads, but powerful railroad influence in Topeka insured that the legislators maintained moderation in imposing any major new controls on rail


company activities. But the railroad commissioners did give some hint of future problems as they recognized the farmers' battle against drought and poor crop yields. This, in turn, was beginning to affect railroad business adversely, particularly in the western portion of the state.

Railroad men reserved their loudest criticism for the Farmers Alliance and the People's party. Railroaders voiced disgust when the alliance in Kansas began to store farm products hoping for better market prices. This was nothing more than the farmers forming grain pools. Since people must eat, the rail leaders felt these grain pools were of great concern not only to the railroads but to the general public as well. Railroaders also rebuked the Farmers Alliance for crying financial ruin and promoting railroad deduction when crop yields were plentiful. However, it is interesting to note that there are some definitive similarities at the core of both the Republican and Populist parties, William Peffer a leader among the Populist Party, had this to say about the similarities and differences between the two, "The Republican party believes that national



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