What’s the Matter with Kansas?

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What’s the Matter with Kansas?

August 1896

By William Allen White

Today the Kansas Department of Agriculture sent out a statement which indicates that Kansas has gained less than two thousand people in the past year. There are about two hundred and twenty-five thousand families in this state, and there were ten thousand babies born in Kansas, and yet so many people have left the state that the natural increase is cut down to less that two thousand net.

This has been going on for eight years.

If there had been a high brick wall around the state eight years ago, and not a soul had been admitted or permitted to leave, Kansas would be a half million souls better off than she is today. And yet the nation has increased in population. In five years ten million people have been added to the national population, yet instead of gaining a share of this—say, half a million—Kansas has apparently been a plague spot and, in the very garden of the world, has lost population by ten thousands every year.

Not only has she lost population, but she has lost money. Every moneyed man in the state who could get out without loss has gone. Every month in every community sees someone who has a little money pack up and leave the state. This has been going on for eight years. Money has been drained out all the time. In towns where ten years ago there were three or four or half a dozen money-lending concerns, there is now none, or one or two that are looking after the interests and principal already outstanding.

No one brings any money into Kansas any more. What community knows over one or two men who have moved on with more than $5,000 in the past three years? And what community cannot count half a score of men in that time who have left, taking all the money they could scrape together?

Yet the nation has grown rich; other states have increased in population and wealth—other neighboring states. Missouri has gained over two million, while Kansas has been losing half a million. Nebraska has gained in wealth and population while Kansas has gone downhill. Colorado has gained every way, while Kansas has lost every way since 1888.

What’s the matter with Kansas?

There is no substantial city in the state. Every big town save one has lost in population. Yet Kansas City, Omaha, Lincoln, St. Louis, Denver, Colorado Springs, Sedalia, the cities of the Dakotas, St. Paul, and Minneapolis and Des Moines—all cities and towns in the West—have steadily grown.

Take up the government blue book and you will see that Kansas is virtually off the map. Two or three little scrubby consular places in yellow-fever-stricken communities that do not aggregate ten thousand dollars a year is all the recognition that Kansas has. Nebraska draws about one hundred thousand dollars; little old North Dakota draws about fifty thousand dollars; Oklahoma doubles Kansas; Missouri leaves her a thousand miles behind; Colorado is almost seven times greater than Kansas—the whole west is ahead of Kansas.

Take it by any standard you please, Kansas is not in it.

Go east and you hear them laugh at Kansas; go west and they sneer at her; go south and they “cuss” her; go north and they have forgotten her. Go into any crowd of intelligent people gathered anywhere on the globe, and you will find the Kansas man on the defensive. The newspaper columns and magazines once devoted to praise of her, to boastful facts and startling figures concerning her resources, are now filled with cartoons, jibes and Pefferian speeches. Kansas just naturally isn’t in it. She has traded places with Arkansas and Timbuctoo.

What’s the matter with Kansas?

We all know; yet here we are at it again. We have an old mossback Jacksonian who snorts and howls because there is a bathtub in the State House; we are running that old jay for Governor. We have another shabby, wild-eyed, rattlebrained fanatic who has said openly in a dozen speeches that “the rights of the user are paramount to the rights of the owner”: we are running him for Chief Justice, so that capital will come tumbling over itself to get into the state. We have raked the old ash heap of failure in the state and found an old human hoop skirt who has failed as a businessman, who has failed as an editor, who has failed as a preacher, and we are going to run him for Congressman-at-Large. He will help the looks of the Kansas delegation at Washington. Then we have discovered a kid without a law practice and have decided to run him for Attorney General. Then, for fear some hint that the state had become respectable might percolate through the civilized portions of the nation, we have decided to send three or four harpies out lecturing, telling the people that Kansas is raising hell and letting corn go to weed.

Oh, this is a state to be proud of! We are a people who can hold up our heads! What we need is not more money, but less capital, fewer white shirts and brains, fewer men with business judgment, and more of those fellows who boast that they are “just ordinary clodhoppers, but they know more in a minute about finance than John Sherman”; we need more men who are “posted,” who can bellow about the crime of ’73, who hate prosperity, and who think, because a man believes in national honor, he is a tool of Wall Street. We have had a few of them—some hundred fifty thousand—but we need more.

We need several thousand gibbering idiots to scream about the “Great Red Dragon” of Lombard Street. We don’t need population, we don’t need wealth, we don’t need well-dressed men on the streets, we don’t need cities on the fertile prairies; you bet we don’t! What we are after is the money power. Because we have become poorer and ornerier and meaner than a spavined, distempered mule, we , the people of Kansas, propose to kick; we don’t care to build up, we wish to tear down.

There are two ideas of government,” said our noble Bryan at Chicago. “There are those who believe that if you legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, this prosperity will leak through on to those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class and rest upon them.”

That’s the stuff! Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffing out of the creditors and tell the debtors who borrowed the money five years ago when money “per capita” was greater than it is now, that the contraction of currency gives him a right to repudiate.

Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can’t pay his debts, on the altar, and bow down and worship him. Let the state ideal be high. What we need is not the respect of our fellow man, but he chance to get something for nothing.

Oh, yes, Kansas is a great state. Here are people fleeing from it by the score every day, capital going out of the state by the hundreds of dollars; and every industry but farming paralyzed, and that crippled, because its products have to go across the oceans before they can find a laboring man at work who can afford to buy them. Let’s don’t stop this year. Let’s drive all the decent, self-respecting men out of the state. Let’s keep the old clodhoppers who know it all. Let’s encourage the man who is posted.” He can talk, and what we need is not mill hands to eat our meat, nor factory hands to eat our wheat, nor cities to oppress the farmer by consuming his butter and eggs and chickens and produce. What Kansas needs is men who can talk, who have large leisure to argue the currency question while their wives wait at home for that nickel’s worth of bluing.

What’s the matter with Kansas?

Nothing under the shining sun. She is losing her wealth, population and standing. She has got her statesmen, and the money power is afraid of her. Kansas is all right. She has started in to raise hell, as Mr. Lease advised, and she seems to have an overproduction. But that doesn’t matter. Kansas never did believe in diversified crops. Kansas is all right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Kansas. “Every prospect pleases and only man is vile.”

Source:_William_Allen_White,_The_Autobiography_of_William_Allen_White'>Source: William Allen White, The Autobiography of William Allen White (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1946), pp. 278-83.

(Editor's note: William Allen White wrote the following apology
for "What's the Matter with Kansas" in 1906)

Another Bottle Sold

The dear old medicine vender used to liven up his crowd by calling out when anyone in the crowd bought his wares. “Another gentleman takes a bottle.” Which is recalled by the fact that our old friend Andrew Carnegie—the our being used in the broad Emporia sense, as Mr. Carnegie has given a library to us—our old friend Andrew Carnegie has declared in favor of the partnership of society. In another page of today’s Gazette Mr. Carnegie is quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the people are partners in every great fortune and that there is no private ownership of anything. He says in effect that the rights of the users are paramount to the rights of the owners.

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 owner.” Those were Paleozoic times; how far the world has moved since then. If Andrew Carnegie in the campaign of 1896 had said what he is quoted as saying today, he would have precipitated a panic or a riot, or both. And if the Gazette had not guyed the Populist candidate for chief justice for telling the truth, the Gazette would have been printed in a little 20 x 60 office on Sixth avenue, about two jumps ahead of the sheriff. The Gazette and Andrew were wrong in those days and Judge Doster was right. But he was out too early in the season and his views got frost bitten.

This is a funny world. About all we can do is to move with it, and grow with it. Those who do not move are dead in the shell. But it is interesting to know how universal is the movement forward toward the social partnership. Andrew Carnegie, Roosevelt and Judge Doster all are crowded in the same car—going up!

Source: Emporia Gazette, December 14, 1906.

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