William Allen White

Reprinted courtesy the
Kansas State Historical Society Website

William Allen White was the young and little-known editor of an undistinguished small-town newspaper, The Emporia Gazette of Kansas, when his editorial "What's the Matter with Kansas?" catapulted him into national prominence. The year was 1896, and a presidential election between the Republican candidate, William McKinley, and the Democratic choice, William Jennings Bryan, was underway. The Republicans were determined to replace Grover Cleveland, the Democratic incumbent, with a representative of their own party and so restore the monopoly of the presidency they had enjoyed since the beginning of the Civil War.

The differences between the two parties were great, and were centered largely upon monetary policy. The Federal government had issued a large quantity of paper money, greenbacks, to finance the war, and these had been steadily retired as the government attempted to return the nation to a solid currency of gold and silver. Republican administrations had followed the policy of retiring the notes as quickly as possible, more quickly than the nation could acquired additional gold to replace them. Although the national currency was bi-metallic, the Republicans limited the coinage of silver to such a degree that the amount of currency in circulation actually decreased even while the population of the country grew and its economy expanded. The result was that the value of money increased as the supply of it diminished. A farmer or small businessman having to borrow money found that he was charged interest and also forced to pay back money more valuable than that which he had originally borrowed.

This situation suited the banking interests of Wall Street and Lombard Street in San Francisco, as well as the great railway companies, meat packers, and other enterprises that worked in cooperation with the great banks. Control of the nation's money flowed into the robber barons of the East and West coasts, and the farmers and small businessmen of the Middle West were impoverished. By 1896, feelings ran high, and were inflamed by the superb rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan, a native of Nebraska. In Kansas, already badly off due to the grasshopper infestation of 1888, price-fixing by the railways serving the state, the financial panic of 1893, and an increasing difficulty in borrowing money for planting and ordering new inventories, popular frustration took the form of the Populist Revolt, in which the mass of the populations challenged the economic and political leadership of the state. With the cry of Raise Hell, not corn, the Populists embarked upon a bitter and vociferous campaign against the establishment.

[William Allen White]

William Allen White, late in his life,
with his wife Sallie
Photograph courtesy the
Lyon County Historical Society and Museum

The more well-to-do viewed this movement, which they saw a being much like the violent European Anarchists, with horror and revulsion. It seemed clear that the Populists would gain control of Kansas and perhaps elsewhere, deliver their votes to Bryan, and place new and dangerous men in the United States Senate and the House of Representations. The presidential campaign also saw a massive campaign of invective mounted against the Populists in general and the state of Kansas in particular. It was against this background that White wrote the editorial that was, in its way, a response to a question that many were asking in the rest of the country: What's the matter with Kansas?

The story goes that White, a short and portly man who considered himself something of a fashion plate, was walking to the offices of The Emporia Gazette when he encountered two loungers who had absorbed enough Populist resentment of the upper classes that they could not resist directing some insulting remarks toward White, and even poked a stick at him. Deeply angered, White hurried to his editorial offices, wrote his editorial column, and dispatched it to the printer in the heat of the moment. Although he soon recovered himself and regretted the violence of his attack, the paper was already out and could not be recalled. White and the Gazette quickly gained national notice as papers across the country reprinted this sweeping denunciation of Kansas Populism from the pen of a Kansan. Although the Populists won the statewide elections, Kansas electoral votes went to McKinley, and William Allen White became a favorite of Republican leaders. He remained a national figure for the rest of his life and is remembered in the William Allen White School of Journalism of the University of Kansas. It is ironic that the fame of an eminent Kansan should rest upon his scathing denunciation of the state and of a good share of its inhabitants.

As for the Populists, they died out as a political movement. The Klondike gold rush soon began to expand the nation s supply of hard currency, the Sherman Anti- Trust Act broke up the combines and cartels that had milked the Mid-Westerners for so long, and Theodore Roosevelt, himself a Westerner in his heart, introduced more moderate and popular policies for the Republican party to espouse. Some would say, however, that Populism as an attitude never died out in Kansas and has been reflected in a general dislike of outsiders, governments, and large corporations, as well as in an adventurous (and sometimes even eccentric) spirit of individual worth and moral initiative.


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College