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I was a revolutionary, p.13

I Was a Revolutionary, page 13


I Was a Revolutionary

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  The Assistant feels a slight preference for the yellow highlighter over the green. He studies a Xerox he’s made of the Omaha Platform, the Populists’ first unified statement of their policies and beliefs. Wealth belongs to him who creates it, he highlights. The interests of rural and civic labor are the same; their enemies identical. Their platform called for government control of transportation and communication: The time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads. They also demanded the direct election of senators, an eight-hour workday, a progressive income tax, and the free coinage of silver to create a more flexible currency that would protect farmers from inflation and debt. The land, including all natural sources of wealth, is the heritage of the people and should not be monopolized.

  Just then the Assistant realizes the Historian is looking over his shoulder. “The Omaha Platform,” she says. “My God, isn’t it beautiful?” The Assistant opens his mouth and the Historian raises a hand to stop him. He wants to ask what exactly it is he’s supposed to be looking for. “Just going to pee,” she whispers, walking away from his table. “Carry on.”

  The new movement proposes to take care of the men and women of this country and not the corporations. This movement is a protest against corporate aggression.


  I have no qualms of conscience about commanding the corporations of the country to obey the law, they are the creatures of the law; all that they have the law gives to them; and the people of this country, especially the farmers and the workmen, have been trampled upon by these railway corporations until they are crying out in despair almost.


  A movement against unchecked corporate power in the 1890s? Fittingly, the Assistant ponders that as he waits in line for another coffee at Starbucks. As a twenty-seven-year-old man in 2010, he sometimes feels like they, corporations, are some modern phenomenon unique to his personal life chronology, like MTV or the Internet.

  While the Populists lost the national election of 1892, they did garner eight percent of the national vote and won four states outright, the Assistant learns, making their showing kinda phenomenal considering the party was less than a year old. And here in the Kansas state elections the Populists made even bigger gains, electing their entire state ticket.

  It is the mission of Kansas to protect and advance the moral and material interests of all its citizens. . . . The grandeur of civilization shall be emphasized by the dawn of a new era, in which the people shall reign; and, if found necessary, they will “expand the powers of government to solve the enigma of the times.”


  We have come today to remove the seat of government of Kansas from the Santa Fe [Railroad] offices, back to the Statehouse where it belongs.


  Late in the afternoon, the Assistant comes across the story of an incident he’d never heard of before called “The Legislative War,” one so unbelievable he literally writes WTF? in the margins of the book where he found it. According to this account, it was perhaps the only attempt ever made in this country at “social revolution in the classic sense: violent seizure of the apparatus of government accompanied by class warfare in the streets.” The conflict was between the Republicans and Populists over contested election returns that would decide the balance of power in the Kansas statehouse in 1893. Neither side gave ground, and for more than a month the legislature was a divided body, with Republicans using the chamber in the morning and the Populists in the afternoon. Little was accomplished and frustration grew as threats issued from both sides, until finally the schism led to armed conflict. The Populists locked the Republicans out, and the Republican speaker of the House used a sledgehammer to break down the doors and gain entrance to the chamber. Fistfights broke out on the House floor, while outside members of both parties armed themselves. Populist governor Lorenzo Lewelling sent in the militia to restore order, declaring: “We are here by the will of the people and will disperse only at the point of the bayonet.” The hostilities went on for days.

  What is an almost-revolution like? the Assistant wonders now, looking away from the machine where he examines old newspapers on microfiche. A fleeting vision: he is marching with the disquieted masses, storming the capital in expropriated SWAT gear. There is urgency and anger. Fists are raised. A grappling hook might be involved.




  “Is the Kansas Trouble the Incipiency

  of a National Anarchist Uprising?”

  —February headlines from The Kansas City Mail,

  The Wichita Daily Eagle, The Marion Times,

  and The Kansas City Gazette, 1893

  It appears to be the determination of the opposing factions in the Kansas House to superadd to the stupidity of a senseless deadlock the crime of an open revolution.


  When things calmed down, however, the upstart Populists were blamed for the affair. This was the beginning of the end for the party, the Assistant learns. Though they would win state elections in Kansas in 1896, it was the national election of that same year that would prove fatal.

  While the party’s numbers had increased sharply in a few short years, Populist strength was largely concentrated in regional pockets of the South, Midwest, and West. Without additional support, which meant merging with one of the major parties, it would be impossible for them to have a chance of winning a national election. And so it was that the issue of silver, a minor plank of the Omaha Platform, became the central issue in the debate over fusion. The People’s Party advocated bimetallism, the use of gold and silver as currency, to increase the money supply and alleviate the debt farmers and the poor had taken on throughout a decade of economic depression. The pro-gold financial elite in the Northeast, who were also the creditors for most of the country’s debt and benefited from staying on the gold standard, supported the Republicans. The Democrats, backed by silver mine owners in the western states, decided to make the free coinage of silver a central issue in the presidential election in an effort to win Populist support. Their young charismatic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, electrified many with his fiery rhetoric.

  Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.


  Is the Populist party ready to be dumped into the lap of [the Democrats]? Are the men who have been fighting the battle of humanity in this country for twenty years willing to acknowledge all they wanted was a change in basic money? Are we ready to sacrifice all the demands of the Omaha Platform on the cross of silver?


  If Populism means nothing more than free coinage of silver, there is no excuse for the existence of such a party.


  The party that was going to pay off all the debts of the people by legislation, that was going to even up the inequalities of life that come from inequalities of the brain, the party that was going to stop the smart man from getting the best of the stupid chump, the party that was going to do what God himself couldn’t do—make men equal. . . . And all that is left of this great nightmare is a roomful of sad visages, seedy citizens and a terrible past.


  After Bryan lost to William McKinley in 1896, the People’s Party ceased to be relevant at the national level. The Kansas Populists were voted out of office in 1898, and by 1900 most had either given up on politics or become Socialists. In the ensuing decade much of the Populist platform was either enacted or on the way, championed by the very Republicans, rebranding themselves as Progressives, who’d opposed them initially.

  We caught the Populists in swimming and stole all their clothing except the frayed underdrawers of free silver.


  I met some of my old Republican opponents today and they said to me: “Oh, Jerry, you ought to be in Kansas now. Kansas is all Populist now.” Yes, I said to them, you are the conservative businessmen of the state, and doubtless all wisdom is lodged with you, but you are just learning now what the farmers of the state knew fourteen years ago.


  The Assistant keeps at it all afternoon and into the evening, occasionally catching sight of the Historian walking somewhere with extreme purpose or scribbling furiously on a legal pad. He’s been so wrapped up that he’s forgotten to eat lunch, and with the dinner hours nearing he’s tired and ravenous. When a voice comes over the PA to tell them the library will be closing in fifteen minutes, the Historian appears.

  “What the hell kind of university library closes at six?” she says. “In my day they were open all night—you could bunk up with a transient if you wished.”

  “Sounds great.”

  “It was! I got so much work done.”

  He follows her to the conference room down the hall where she packs up her absurd luggage, and they walk toward the elevator. On the ride down, his stomach makes increasingly loud thundery sounds, which both agree tacitly not to acknowledge.

  “How did it go today?” she says as they exit the library.

  “Good, I guess, but I don’t really know what I’m looking for.”

  “You’re doing the right thing. I just want a lot of source material to consider once I figure out my argument. It’s bound to click soon. Usually it comes out of nowhere. Who knows, maybe it’ll hit me on the walk home.”

  She turns to leave, saying she’ll see him tomorrow. She lives close to campus, the Assistant thinks as the Historian and her bag roll away. He wonders what her house is like and for a brief moment considers following her before deciding that’s an absolutely terrible idea. He returns to his apartment to supper on Hot Pockets and Sunny D, the dinner of folks everywhere who don’t even compete in the race, but it’s been a long day and, well, so what if he likes his Hot Pockets. He plops onto his futon, which is employed permanently in its couch function because it’s broken, and turns on the TV, which gets a single, fuzzy channel. Through the garish swirl of bad reception he can just make out a detective show of some sort, which he watches semi-awake, followed by another detective show of some sort—a spin-off of the first perhaps—before the late local news comes on. During his time in graduate school he’s become a lazy citizen, neglectful of affairs local and otherwise. He has a general sense of things, overhearing bits of conversation at school, ignorantly uh-huhing as one of his parents references some incident or other. But mostly, as they say, he’s fallen out of the loop. Sometimes on the phone his mother will ask, “Do you live in a cave or something?” and he’ll look around his three-hundred-square-foot apartment at the stacks of books and mounds of dirty clothes and consider answering in the affirmative.

  Tonight there’s a story about a massive Tea Party rally in Washington against the expansion of health care. He actually has heard about this, thanks to good ole Dad’s middle-age flirtation with libertarianism, his father’s love-hate relationship with the Republican mainstream. Sitting on the coffee table next to a half-empty Sunny D is the legal pad he took notes on today. He picks it up and begins to doodle absentmindedly as he listens to the TV. It’s strange when the newscaster uses the term populist movement in reference to the Tea Party, these people whose rage seems both real and subsidized by billionaires. They are the complete opposite of the Populist Movement the Assistant has spent the day researching that wanted to use government to help the rural and urban working poor at the expense of the rich and corporations. These small-p populists seem to want to destroy government to protect Big Business at their own expense. Oh, and personal freedom, that’s a big deal for them. From their cold dead hands or something. No, that’s guns, which is also apparently about personal freedom, so maybe it is the same thing. He’s heard all the Tea Party talking points from his dad, and the Assistant listens quietly, not bothering to voice suspicion of his freedom to be uninsured, that opportunity to accrue massive and insurmountable poverty-trapping debt in future visits to the ER if he so chooses—second only perhaps to the poor’s sacred freedom to starve.

  Actually, once he didn’t listen quietly. Once this summer, in fact, when his mother had just come home from the hospital and his father was ranting at clips of the president on TV, the Assistant said, “What about Mom? What if she didn’t have insurance? What if you all had to take on the debt of her surgeries and treatment and medication?”

  “You leave Mom out of this,” his father had said. “Don’t you dare make this personal.” And then Dad went ahead and made it very personal: “Say we actually had national health care. Do you know what would have happened if Mom didn’t have surgery right away? If she had to wait weeks or months in line behind others?”

  They’d caught the disease early, but it was an aggressive form, and his dad had taken her to Kansas City immediately, to the best treatment center in the region. While his father did not analogize the situation to those new barroom jukeboxes he’d seen in some of the bars near campus whereby one can pay more money to cut to the front of the song queue, the Assistant’s mind went there immediately. No, there was no mention of line-cutting, let alone the fifty million people not even allowed to wait in line at present, and yet the terrible thought of Mom languishing there as the disease consumed her insides did penetrate the Assistant like a lance through the chest. Mom. The Assistant sets the legal pad aside and thinks of calling home, but the clock on top of the TV that he’s never properly reset after last month’s power outage says it’s 3:17 p.m., which means it’s 10:32 p.m., much too late to phone.

  The next morning the Assistant makes his way back to the library. Still half-asleep, he notices clusters of purple-and-white-clad students staggering around campus. One young man is literally army-crawling across the quad in purple overalls. What is going on? There’s something of a zombie apocalypse about the scene. Maybe this is a dream. But then it hits him: home football game! The Assistant has never been up early enough on a Saturday to actually witness this, but here he is in the midst of ritual. In Manhattan, Kansas, two things are sacrosanct: football and farming.

  The library has just opened and the Assistant figures the Historian might already be in the war room, but when he arrives at the fifth-floor conference room he finds someone else there: a young female student sitting at the head of the table before her laptop, wearing headphones and giggling. She has on pink sweatpants tucked into furry winter boots as well as a men’s undershirt, as if the bottom half of her were prepared for winter while the top was still summering. Oh hell no, he thinks. He stands in the doorway until she looks up from the computer screen to take notice of him. He switches his messenger bag from one shoulder to the other, meaning: Do you know who the fuck I am? She goes back to watching her dumb show or dumb movie or whatever the hell it is she’s watching, but the Assistant just stands there glowering until finally, vanquished, she rises, unplugs her power cable from the wall and brushes past him, refusing to close the laptop, which she bumbles awkwardly as she relocates to a common area down the hall. The girl is rail thin, but the seat of her sweatpants says Juicy in cursive, which is strange, but also better than having Fat Ass written
across your butt, whatever its actual size, he concedes.

  When the Historian arrives, the Assistant wants to tell her how he defended her honor, or protected their turf, or drew a line in the sand, but can’t find the right bromide and lets it go. They’ve got work to do anyway. She’s dropped the sexy-fierce pantsuit of yesterday in favor of snug blue jeans and a well-worn Liz Phair concert tee from the early nineties, which is sexy in its own way. Sexy-casual. He wants to ask how her walk home was yesterday evening, whether the idea came to her, but he can see she’s agitated and there’s little time to waste with pleasantries.

  “You’re on secondary sources today,” she says.


  “You can start here.” She motions toward The Bag, which somehow seems to have put on a few lbs. since yesterday.


  “But you might also run a search, check the databases, and see if anything interesting turns up.”


  Her directives still sound a little like “Go walk around for several hours and write down everything you see,” but he’ll do his best. The Historian unloads books from The Bag and pushes the stack across the table slowly toward him. The books at the top skirt the edge, about to fall, but stop, leaning precariously, as if held there by some unseen wad of chewing gum. A biblio-Pisa. He decides he’ll work in a carrel near the computers and takes the books low into his arms and clamps his chin on the top to steady them for the hazardous walk down the hall. “We’ll meet up later and see where we stand,” the Historian calls after him, a command the Assistant can acknowledge only with the slightest turn of his head.

  Kansas was probably the most radical state in the Union in the 1890s, and leftwing efforts continued there for decades.

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