KANSAS COLLECTION BOOKS
American Thumbprints by Kate Stephens


AMERICAN THUMB-PRINTS
by
KATE STEPHENS


PURITANS OF THE WEST


Let nouther lufe of friend nor feir of fais,
mufe zow to mank zour Message, or hald bak
Ane iot of zour Commission, ony wayis
Call ay quhite, quhite, an blak, that quhilk is blak

First he descendit bot of linage small.
As comonly God usis for to call,
The sempill sort his summoundis til expres.

                                     JOHN DAVIDSON

If it be heroism that we require, what was Troy town to this?

                                      ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON



OF local phases of the American spirit, none has incited more discussion than that developed in Kansas. The notion that the citizens of the State are somewhat phrenetic in experimental meliorism; that they more than others fall into abnormal sympathies and are led by aberrations of the crowd--intoxications the mind receives in a congregation of men pitched to an emotional key--this notion long ago startled peoples more phlegmatic and less prone to social vagaries.

Closer consideration shows the Kansas populace distinctly simple in mental habit and independent in judgment. Yet their old-time grangerism and Greenbackism, and their still later Prohibitionism, Populism, and stay law have caused that part of the world not so inclined to rainbow-chasing to ask who they as a people really are, and what psychopathy they suffer--to assert that they are dull, unthinking, or, at best, doctrinaire.

This judgment antedates our day, as we said. It was even so far back as in the time of Abraham Lincoln, when Kansas was not near the force, nor the promise of the force, it has since become. And it was in that earlier and poorer age of our country when folks queried a man's suitability and preparedness for the senatorial office. Then when Senatorship fell to General James Lane, and some one questioned the Free-State fighter's fitness for his duties, President Lincoln is said to have hit off the new Senator and the new State with "good enough for Kansas!" and a shrug of his bony shoulders. Derogatory catchwords have had a knack at persisting since men first tried to get the upper hand of one another by ridicule, and the terse unsympathy and curl of the lip of Lincoln's sayings have kept their use to our day.

One outsider, in explaining any new vagary of the Kansans, suggests, with sophomore ease, "The foreign element." Another tells you, convicting himself of his own charge, "It is ignorance away out there in the back woods." "Bad laws," another conclusively sets down. Opposed to all these surmises and guesses are the facts that in number and efficiency of schools Kansas ranks beyond many States, and that in illiteracy the commonwealth in the last census showed a percentage of 2.9--a figure below certain older States, say Massachusetts, with an illiterate percentage of 5.9, or New York, with 5.5. As to its early laws, they were framed in good measure by men and women[13-1]* of New England blood--of that blood although their forebears may have pushed westward from the thin soil of New England three generations before the present Kansans were born. Again its citizens, except an inconsiderable and ineffective minority, are Americans in blood and tradition.

It is in truth in the fact last named, in the American birth of the people who gave, and still give, the State its fundamental key, that we are to find the causes of Kansas neologism and desire for experiment in every line that promises human betterment. It is a case of spiritual heir-at-law--the persistence of what the great ecclesiastical reactionist of our day has anathematized as "the American Spirit." For each new ism the Kansans have pursued has been but another form and working in the popular brain of the amicus humani generis of the eighteenth-century Revolutionists, or, as the people of their time and since have put it, "liberty, equality, fraternity."

Kansas was settled by Americans, American men and American women possessed by the one dominating idea of holding its territory and its wealth to themselves and their opinions. They went in first in the fifties with bayonets packed in Bible boxes. All along railways running towards their destination they had boarded trains with the future grasped close in hand, and sometimes they were singing Whittier's lines:

"We go to rear a wall of men
On Freedom's southern line,
And plant beside the cotton-tree
The rugged Northern pine!

"Upbearing, like the Ark of old,
The Bible in our van,
We go to test the truth of God
Against the fraud of man."

In exalted mood they had chanted this hymn as their trains pulled into stations farther on in their journey, and the lengthening of the day told them they were daily westering with the sun. They had carried it in their hearts with Puritan aggressiveness, with Anglo-Saxon tenacity and sincerity, as their steamers paddled up the muddy current of the Missouri and their canvas-covered wagons creaked and rumbled over the sod, concealing then its motherhood of mighty crops of corn and wheat, upon which they were to build their home. They were enthusiasts even on a road beset with hostiles of the slave State to the east. Their enthusiasm worked out in two general lines, one the self-interest of building themselves a home--towns, schools, churches,--the other the idealism of the anti-slavery faith. They were founding a State which was within a few years to afford to northern forces in the struggle centering about slavery the highest percentage of soldiers of any commonwealth; and their spirit forecast the sequent fact that troops from the midst of their self-immolation would also record the highest percentage of deaths.

They came from many quarters to that territorial settlement of theirs, but the radical, recalcitrant stock which had nested in and peopled the northeastern coast of our country was in the notable majorities from Western States--from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa; and from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania also. Some came, indeed, who could trace no descent from Puritan or Quaker or Huguenot forebear. But there was still the potent heirship of spirit.

To these men nature gave the gift of seeing their side of the then universal question. She added a living sympathy with workers, and an acute sense of the poverty and oppression which humanity at large is always suffering from those who take because they have power. A free discussion of slavery and their opposition to slave-holding had put this deep down in their hearts.

Each man of them--and each woman also--was in fixed principle and earnestness a pioneer, in pursuit of and dwelling in a world not yet before the eyes of flesh but sun-radiant to the eyes of the spirit--the ideal the pioneer must ever see and holding the present and actual as but a mote in the beam from that central light.

From a more humorous point of view, each man was clearly a Knight of La Mancha stripped of the medieval and Spanish trapping of his prototype. His Dulcinea--an unexampled combination of idealism and practicality--his much enduring wife, upon whose frame and anxious-eyed face were stamped a yearning for the graces of life. Her fervor, with true woman strength, was ever persistent. "I always compose my poems best," said one of the haler of these dames whose verses piped from a corner of the University town's morning journal, "on wash-day and over the tub."

These were the conditions of those men and women of the fifties and early sixties to less lifted, more fleshly souls. The old enthusiasm that lighted our race in 1620 and many sequent years in Massachusetts Bay, and the old devotion that led the Huguenots and other oppressed peoples to our Southern coasts and on "over the mountains," were kindled afresh. And the old exaltation of the descendants of these many peoples--the uplifting that made way for and supported the act of the Fourth of July in 1776--rose anew. The flame of an idea was in the air heating and refining the grossest spirits--and the subtle forces of the Kansans, vanguard were far from the grossest.

Once in their new home these men and women lived under circumstances a people has almost never thriven under--circumstances which would prey upon every fibre of calmness, repose, and sober-mindedness, and possibly in the end deprive their folk of consideration for the past and its judgments. "Govern the Kansas of 1855 and '56!" exclaimed governor Shannon years after that time. "You might as well have attempted to govern the devil in hell." "Shall the Sabbath never immigrate," cried a Massachusetts woman in 1855 in a letter to friends at home, "and the commandments too?"

Among this people was little presence of what men had wrought. As in the early settlements of our Atlantic seaboard, all was to be made, everything to be done, even to the hewing of logs for houses and digging of wells for water; and in Kansas pressure for energy and time was vastly increased over those earlier years by the seaboard. The draughting of laws for controlling a mixed population, with elements in it confessedly there for turbulence and bloodshed, was for a time secondary to shingle-making.

Such primitive efforts were more than a generation ago--in fact, fifty years. But the spirit with which those early comers inaugurated and carried on their settlement did not perish when the daily need of its support had passed away. It still abode as a descent of spirit, meaning an inheritance of spirit, a contagion of spirit, and to its characteristic features we can to-day as easily point--to its human sympathies and willingness for experiment--as to the persistence of a physical mark--the Bourbon nose in royal portraits, say, or the "Austrian lips" of the Hapsburg mouth. Its evidences are all about you when you are within the confines of the present-day Kansans, and you are reminded of the Puritanism which still subordinates to itself much that is alien in Massachusetts; or you think of the sturdy practicality of the early Dutch which still modifies New York; or you may go farther afield and recall the most persistent spirit of the gauls of Caesar, novis plerumque rebus student, which to our time has been the spirit of the gauls of the Empire and of President Loubet.

The Kansan has still his human-heartedness and his willingness to experiment for better things. Exploded hypotheses in manufacture, farming, and other interests scattered in startling frequency over the vast acreage of his State, testify to these traits.

He has to this day kept his receptivity of mind. Even now he scorns a consideration for fine distinctions. He still loves a buoyant optimism. And for all these reasons he often and readily grants faith to the fellow who amuses him, who can talk loud and fast, who promises much, and who gets the most notices in his local dailies. He is like the author of Don Juan, inasmuch as he "wants a hero," and at times he is willing to put up with as grievous a one as was foisted upon the poet. In the end, however, he has native bed-rock sense, and as his politics in their finality show, he commonly measures rascals aright. But in his active pursuit and process of finding them out he has offered himself a spectacle to less simple-minded, more sophisticated men.

Some years ago, in a grove of primeval oaks, elms, and black-walnuts neighboring the yellow Kaw and their University town, those settlers of early days held an old-time barbecue. The meeting fell in the gold and translucence of the September that glorifies that land. Great crowds of men and women came by rail and by wagon, and walking about in the shade, or in the purple clouds that rose from the trampings of many feet and stood gleaming in the sunshine, they were stretching hands to one another and crying each to some new-discovered, old acquaintance, "Is this you?" "How long is it now?" "Thirty-five years?" "You've prospered?" and such words as old soldiers would use having fought a great fight together--not for pelf or loot but for moral outcome--and had then lost one another for many a year.

Moving among them you would readily see signs of that "possession of the god" the Greeks meant when they said enthusiasmos. Characteristic marks of it were at every turn. There was the mobile body--nervous, angular, expressive--and a skin of fine grain. There was the longish hair, matted, if very fine, in broad locks; if coarse, standing about the head in electric stiffness and confusion--the hair shown in the print of John Brown, in fact. There were eyes often saddened by the sleeplessness of the idealist--eyes with an uneasy glitter and a vision directed far away, as if not noting life, nor death, nor daily things near by, but fixed rather upon some startling shape on the horizon.

The teeth were inclined to wedge-shape and set far apart. There was a firmly shut and finely curved mouth. "We make our own mouths," says Dr. Holmes. About this people was smouldering fire which might leap into flame at any gust of mischance or oppression.

This describes the appearance in later decades of the corporate man of the fifties and early sixties--

      "to whom was given
So much of earth, so much of heaven,
And such impetuous blood."

A sky whose mystery and melancholy, whose solitary calm and elemental rage stimulate and depress even his penned and grazing cattle, has spread over him for more than a generation. With his intensity and his predisposition to a new contrat social he and his descendants have been subjected to Kansas heat, which at times marks more than one hundred in the shade, and to a frost that leaves the check of the thermometer far below zero. He and his children, cultivators of their rich soil, have been subject to off-years in wheat and corn. They have endured a period of agricultural depression prolonged because world-wide. They have been subject, too, to the manipulation of boomers.

Most lymphatic men--any Boeotian, in fact, but it is long before his fat bottom lands will make a Boeotian out of a Kansan--most lymphatic men ploughing, planting, and simply and honestly living would be affected to discontent by the thunder of booms and their kaleidoscopic deceit. Clever and sometimes unprincipled promoters representing more clever and unprincipled bond-sellers in Eastern counting-houses sought to incite speculation and lead the natural idealist by the glamour of town-building, and county-forming booms, railway and irrigation booms, and countless other projects.

They played with his virtuous foibles and fired his imagination. He gave himself, his time, his men, his horses, his implements for construction; his lands for right of way. He hewed his black walnuts and elms into sleepers, and sawed his bulky oaks for bridges. He called special elections and voted aid in bonds. He gave perpetual exemption from taxes. Rugged enthusiast that he was he gave whatever he had to give,--but first he gave faith and altruistic looking-out for the interests of the other man. Great popular works still abiding--cathedrals in Europe are perhaps the most noted--were put up by like kindling of the human spirit.

His road was made ready for sleepers, and funds for purchasing iron he formally handed the promoters,--since which day purslane and smartweed and golden sunflowers have cloaked the serpentine grades which his own hands had advanced at the rate of more than a mile between each dawn and sunset.

One direct relation and force of these inflated plans to the Kansan have been that they often swerved and controlled the values of his land, and the prices of those commodities from which a soil-worker supports a family hungry, growing, and in need of his commonwealth's great schools. And the man himself, poor futurist and striver after the idea, with a soul soaring heavenward and hands stained and torn with weed-pulling and corn-husking!--his ready faith, his tendency to seek a hero, his brushing aside of conservative intuition, his meliorism, his optimism, his receptivity to ideas, his dear humanness--in other words, his charm, his grace, his individuality, his Americanism--wrought him harm.

Our corporate man, loving, aspiring, working, waiting, started out with a nervous excitability already given. He was a man with a bee in his bonnet. He was seeking ideal conditions. Originally he was a reactionist against feudal bondage, the old bondage of human to human and of human to land. Later his soul took fire at the new bondage of human to wage and job. He would have every man and woman about him as free in person as he was in idea.

What wonder then that he or his descendent spirit in the midst of agricultural distress enacted a mortgage equity or stay law, and determined that that law should apply to mortgages in existence at the passage of the act! He it is of the all-embracing Populism, the out-reaching Prohibitionism, the husbandman--defensive Grangerism. Shall we not humanly expect him, and those suffering the contagion of his noble singleness, to clutch at plans for a social millennium? "Heaven is as easily reached from Kansas," wrote an immigrant of 1855, "as from any other point."

He values openly what the world in its heart knows is best, and like all idealists foreruns his time. The legend is always about him of how the men and women of the early fifties hitched their wagon to a star--and the stars in his infinity above are divinely luminous and clear. His meliorism--which would lead his fellows and then the whole world aright--is nothing if not magnificent.

But although he grubs up the wild rose and morning-glory, ploughing his mellow soil deep for settings of peach and grape, and supplants the beauty of the purple iris and prairie verbena with the practicalities of corn and wheat, he has yet to learn the moral effect of time and aggregation--that a moon's cycle is not a millennium, a June wind fragrant with the honey of his white clover not all of his fair climate, and that a political colossus cannot stand when it has no more substantial feet than the yellow clay which washes and swirls in the river that waters his great State. In reality his excess of faith hinders the way to conditions his idealism has ever been seeking.

The Kansan is, after all, but a phase--a magnificent present-day example and striving--of the mighty democratic spirit which has been groping forward through centuries towards its ideal, the human race's ideal of ideals. In his setting forth of the genius of his people for democracy and the tendency of his blood for experiment and reform--according to that advice to the Thessalonians of an avaunt courier of democracy, to prove all things and hold fast to that which is good--he is led at times upon miry, quaggy places and by the very largeness of his sympathies enticed upon quicksands which the social plummet of our day has not yet sounded.



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