VI. The Kansas Centennial: An Intellectual Journey
For more than a century St. Benedict's College in Atchison, Kansas, has been a distinguished center of learning. The writer was invited to present one in a series of evening lectures that had been arranged for the winter of 1960-1961. The particular date fell almost precisely upon the centennial of the admission of Kansas as a state, January 28, 1861. The occasion was a delightful one, partly because of the willingness of a good many students to challenge and to discuss some of the generalizations in the lecture. The concluding paragraphs taken from other essays have been omitted.
A virulent epidemic, widespread in its incidence, seems to be gathering momentum in this country. For want of a more descriptive term it may be called Centennialitis. Like the Hessian fly, the corn-borer, and the Dutch elm disease this affliction was formerly confined to the eastern sections of the country. But with the passage of time even the newer parts of the nation have succumbed to the urge to celebrate some event or series of events that occurred within their boundaries. Some states, Minnesota and Oregon for example, have spent several millions of dollars in recognizing the centennial of their admission to the union. Even the state of Kansas has committed itself to the expenditure of a large sum to finance its centennial observances. It is obvious that the celebration of statehood centennials has become a big-business enterprise. But it is the Civil War that threatens to engulf the entire centennial business and to spawn a whole generation of centennial observances. Long before the one-hundredth birthday of the firing of the first shot has dawned, a veritable flood of published material has descended upon the body politic. It would appear that no skirmish was too trivial, no moment too transient, no participant too insignificant, no place too remote, to provide fuel for someone's literary fire. Of centennial celebrations and publications there will be no end within the forseeable future.
And the variety of centennial observances and productions is just as confusing. Everything from beard-growing to the production of Hollywood type pageants
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seems to be the order of the day. Out of the welter of publications and observances several paths to the past have appeared. Some are romantic and dramatic; some trivial; some functional; some sentimental; and fortunately for the historical profession, some are authentic and intellectual. Whatever the type, all of them raise in one form or another the problem of the nature of history. With centennial observances, as with historical study in general, the principal problem is an intellectual one, that of knowing enough about the past to describe it accurately. Ideally, a centennial observance should portray what the people of one hundred years ago considered to be important. It is their era that should be the focus of interest, not ours of today. A segment of the past, whether a battle, a book, the birth of a person or of a movement should not be wrenched out of its historical context and be made to speak to some present problem or to serve some present cause. To do so is to do violence to the historical record. The over-emphasis on John Brown is a case in point. On several occasions during the past few months dramatic productions based on his career have been presented on the stage and on television. Leaving to one side the historical accuracy of the productions, the question still remains as to why so much attention is being focused on John Brown. Was he really that important? And why refer to him as John Brown of Kansas when he actually spent only brief periods of time in the territory that was to become the state of Kansas? And after all, was he not dead and in his grave and all but forgotten when Kansas became a state?
The objective of the historian, as it should be of those concerned with centennial observances, should be to know enough to present the past as a whole, even though he understands very well that he can never know the whole of the past. The process which the historian must use is to make an intellectual journey back into the past so that he can look at the past through the eyes of the people of the past. George F. Kennan apparently learned this lesson the hard way. In a sensitive article entitled "The Experience of Writing History" Kennan remarks that one of the first things to dismay him was "the hopeless openendedness of the subject of history Ä its multi-dimensional quality; its lack of tidy beginnings and History as knowledge of the past
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endings; its stubborn refusal to be packaged in any neat and satisfying manner." After describing other difficulties in writing history, Kennan states that he discovered that it was possible to enhance one's capacity for visualizing history by means of the very effort of studying it. He continues, The more you steeped yourself in the environment of your subject....the more your imagination could rise to the task. But this meant that if you really wanted to get near your subject, it was yourself you had to change.... To understand a past episode, you had to make yourself a citizen of the epoch in question. You had to make its spirit, its outlook, its discipline of thought, a part of your own nature.1
This same thought was expressed more succinctly by Professor Frank H. Hodder, a distinguished member of the faculty of the University of Kansas for forty years, when he told us that we had to equip our minds with the "mental furniture" of the age that we were studying. There are those who will object that looking at the past through the eyes of the past, or put another way, studying history for history's sake out of sheer, unadulterated, intellectual curiosity is not only sterile and unrewarding, but downright silly and a waste of time. Those who believe this should remember that the writer, or producer, or speaker who picks what he wants out of the past and remakes it in the image of the present, actually destroys the past. The nihilism which results from converting the past into an ever-changing present is reminiscent of the lines in a poem by Archibald MacLeish,
There in the sudden blackness, the pall
There is nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all.
Or perhaps a century old poetic expression is even more expressive.
It is nothing, and nothing, and nothing
That I either think or see
The phantoms of dead illusions
Tonight, are haunting me.
Or perhaps some will remember the pathetic plight of the history-less people in George Orwell's 1984.
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It may be that the widespread acceptance of the idea of "the lonely crowd," the general currency of such labels as "the age of alienation" and "the age of ambiguity" which have been pinned on our era, and the almost hysterical search for the national purpose all stem from the recognition of our emptiness and the realization that large segments of our people have fallen victim of "the provincialism of the present." In commenting on the alienation theme a president of one of our fine liberal arts colleges has put it this way, "There are no dearly bought, long-range aims, no great men summoned from the past as models. The password of the lonely crowd is `now' and its very heaven is to be accepted. This is its god, its goal, its benzedrine."2 If this analysis is a correct one the element or factor that has been sacrificed, in the frenetic effort to discard the past or to remake it in the likeness of the present, is the element of continuity Ä a sense of belonging, a feeling of kinship with the generations that have walked before us. In our historical thinking, as in other areas of life, we have fallen victim of a kind of existentialism which puts the emphasis on the here and now. Just as the feeling of alienation has one source in the void that is left when the past is discarded or converted into the present so a sense of continuity must root in knowing the past, knowing the people of the past, knowing of their efforts to know more about their world, and knowing about their achievements, as well as their failures. More than a century ago a book reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly struck this same note, albeit with a discernible degree of patriotic fervor and functional purpose, when he wrote,
For ourselves, we believe that the best security against despair for our country is a knowledge of its history. We are glad to be assured that our historians do not intend to allow the republic to decay before they have written out in full the tale of its life.... A real knowledge of our own institutions and a reasonable confidence in their permanence are to be found only in an intelligent and very intimate acquaintance with their growth and development.3
The logical application to centennial observances of the twin principles of looking at the past through the eyes of the
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past and of acquiring a sense of continuity through the process of knowing the past is that they, the centennial observances, should reflect what the people of a century ago considered to be important and should recreate as faithfully as is possible Ä not the esoteric, not the occasional, not the dramatic, not the peripheral, but recreate as faithfully as is possible the principal, the primary, indeed, the ordinary and the usual.
With these suggestions in mind let us turn back the pages of history to Kansas Territory, vintage January, 1861. The newspapers have been giving a great deal of attention to the activities of the southern states after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. Each successive step, secession, pressure upon federal military posts, and seizure of some of them has added to the feeling of foreboding. The troubles in southeastern Kansas have received a good deal of attention. But it is the drouth of 1860 and its aftermath which occupied the center of the stage. No rain and no snow for over a year in parts of the territory. No crops. No supplies on hand. In mid-December, 1860, the editor of the Lawrence Republican had told the people of Lawrence that supplies of food and clothing were not adequate and then he said,
Men who have young stock, several horses, and hogs, even though destitute of provisions should not be helped. Single, able-bodied men should not be helped. They must leave the territory for some place where they can get work. It will be next to impossible, with all the help that we can get, to keep those who cannot get away from starving to death before food can be raised in Kansas. The truth is that we are in the midst of an absolute famine which must last, at the very lowest calculation, for six months to come. There is, therefore, nothing to be wasted upon those who can in any way possible sustain themselves, or who can possibly get out of the Territory.4
And here in Atchison was located the central headquarters of the Territorial Relief Committee. Samuel C. Pomeroy, the man in charge, was later to become one of the first senators from Kansas. But in that somber and fateful month of January, 1861, if the word Kansas was on the lips or in the ears of the people in the states to the eastward it was usually in connection with appeals for supplies of food
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and clothing. A century ago relief for the people of Kansas must have been as familiar a phrase in Illinois, in Ohio, and in New York, as relief for the victims of war and cruel oppression who are in the displaced persons camps of Europe and Asia is today. And relief supplies did flow in from the eastern states, some in cash contributions, but most of it in sacks of flour, corn meal, and potatoes. The shipments came over the old Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad to Atchison's upstream rival and then over the little railroad to a point on the east bank of the Missouri River just opposite this city. Ferry boats during seasons of open water and sleds across the ice during the days of sub-zero weather brought the goods to the warehouses in Atchison. A correspondent of the Chicago Tribune commented on the patience and dignity amounting almost to heroism with which the mass bear their accumulated sufferings. "I have known this people for four years, have felt with them, and seen the spirit of self-sacrifice which animates all.... Boots and shoes are very much wanted. Could friends see men driving teams over the snow covered frozen prairies a distance of one hundred miles and over, as I have, with nothing but rags tied around their feet, they would supply the deficiency. One-third of the teamsters who come to Atchison have only rags or moccasins for feet covering."5
And John A. Martin, editor of Freedom's Champion, asserted that the streets of Atchison were thronged daily with teams from all parts of Kansas, urged continued generosity by the people of the east, and concluded his plea by saying,
We speak earnestly on the subject, for we feel deeply. We see so many evidences of the totally destitute condition of our people every day that we shudder to think what horrors, what sufferings, and what terrible tragedies Kansas will be the theater of, if the humane feelings of the people of the states who have been blessed with plenty do not prompt them to give liberally for the relief of our wants.6
While Samuel Pomeroy, Thaddeus Hyatt, and John A. Martin gave some of their time and energy to the Kansas relief problem, other residents of Atchison were carrying on their special activities. Thanks to the dedicated zeal of Prior Augustine Wirth and his colleagues this institution of learning
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was in operation. Mrs. Lizzie R. Abbott advertised her educational institute for young ladies, promising to give "particular attention" to cultivating the manners and exercising the mental powers "of those young women committed to her care," Ä all of this for a fee of $10 to $20 for a session of five months. The local congregations of several religious denominations were holding their services with reasonable regularity. The German Turners Association sponsored a masquerade ball to which the residents of the community were invited. In the downtown business district firms such as the A. S. Parker & Co.'s General Store, and J. E. Wagner's Hardware Company advertised their wares and pointed out that they stood ready to assist those who were planning to go to the gold fields in the spring. And to facilitate the transmission of the gold, and the transaction of other financial business, there was the Exchange Bank of C. M. Seley, L. A. Alderson, and William Hetherington. My reading of the newspapers of Atchison has led me to the conclusion that the people of January and February, 1861, were engrossed in pretty much the same activities as the inhabitants of today: living and dying, buying and selling, worshipping and working, reading and politicking, fighting and loving; and viewing the unknown future with alarm.
A part of that unknown future revolved about the question of whether or not Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a state. While that question was being settled in Washington, what was to be the last session of the territorial legislature was meeting in Lawrence. Among the men from Atchison and vicinity who were in attendance was John J. Ingails. In addition to his official position this ambitious young man served as a legislative correspondent for Freedom's Champion. In one of his earlier letters, which as it happens, was published here in Atchison exactly one hundred years ago today, Ingalls characterized the territorial legislature of 1861 in the following language,
There is a very marked difference in the appearance of society between this and the last session. The tone is rather subdued and depressed; there are fewer good clothes, and less general hilarity. Pipes are smoked more than cigars, and
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champagne has been replaced by lager beer. The drought and famine, panic, secession, and Civil War have had their effect upon the habits and feelings of the people.7
Later on Ingalls was to label the 1861 legislature a "do-nothing" legislature because there was nothing to do. "Everyone," he said, "had been incorporated and divorced. Every river had its chartered bridge, every creek its ferry, and every town its college or university." Judging from references to the divorce question, Territorial Kansas was the Reno of its day and many persons came from distant places to obtain divorces which were granted by the legislature.8 However that may be, the territorial legislature went through the motions of meeting and conducting business in a kind of state of suspended animation, awaiting the day that "K.T.," Kansas Territory, would be dead because Kansas had been admitted into the Union as the 34th state. When the last session of the last territorial legislature had adjourned John A. Martin greeted its demise with poorly-concealed pleasure.
..we rejoice [he wrote] that the last of these territorial nuisances has adjourned and K.T. will be known no more forever. Without any constitutional restrictions to guard their actions and feeling always that what they did was ephemeral, these territorial bodies have always rushed into the most absurd and preposterous legislation or the most palpable and infamous swindles.... So the Territorial legislature got to be regarded by the people as a territorial bore and its annual meeting as an annual nuisance or swindle, and there are few who will not rejoice at the act which deprived it of further power to do mischief or work corruption.9
Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning, January 29, 1861, Martin received a telegram from A. C. Wilder of Leavenworth, announcing the good news Ä old "K.T." was dead and Kansas was a state. The news spread quickly throughout Atchison. Apparently everyone was happy. One exuberant boy wanted to borrow ten dollars so he could go on a big drunk to celebrate the occasion, but the editor declined, alleging that he had not seen that much money since the big drouth had begun. Another youth described as "gentle but somewhat impetuous" wanted to cut a hole in
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the ice on the Missouri River and duck a Missourian; and a third wanted the editor to tell him whether Kansas could not whip Russia plus two or three second rate powers thrown in for good measure.10 While old Kickapoo boomed in Leavenworth, and old Sacramento roared in Lawrence, the people of Atchison were seized with a bad attack of shaking hands while congratulating each other that they were at long last, citizens of a state in the Union.
On another page of the Champion there appeared an announcement in the form of a death notice.
Died of Chronic Worthlessness. ..at his father's house in Washington, the child K.T. aged six years. His father was the notorious Squatter Sovereignty and his Mother the infamous slavery extension. The child has been an orphan for some time past, his father having been killed in the election of 1857. and his mother murdered in November last by the people headed by A. Lincoln.11
The somewhat grisly death notice is followed by a long and curious allegory full of historical allusions and partisan thrusts. After reading it no one could escape the conclusion that John A. Martin was opposed to everything and everyone associated with slavery, secession, the South and the Democratic party of his day and a firm and articulate supporter of the Union, Abraham Lincoln, and the Republican party.
Other editors did not inflict such long discourses upon their readers. Some merely noted the granting of statehood in passing while others ignored it almost entirely. One reason for this was a big snowstorm which delayed the transmission of the news to some of the outlying parts of the territory. One of the best editorial comments on statehood appeared in the Leavenworth Times. In measured sentences and dignified language the editor wrote,
The long agony is over. The dream of years is realized. Justice tardy, but ever certain, has been meted out to this people, and this soil which they have chosen as their heritage is embraced within the charmed circle of a State Sovereignty, distinct and yet reciprocal. The field of blue upon our national flag is to be embellished with another star, the luster of whose orb, we
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predict, will vie with the fairest of the Constellation. The last act of the drama which opened in blood and was continued in violence, has been enacted, and the curtain has fallen upon a happy consummation, long-desired and long-postponed.
We trust our history as a State may be as brilliant as the struggle and trials of our territorial condition have been severe and aggravated. If such shall be the case, Kansas will stand in the records of the future without a peer.12
This brief survey of the reception of statehood should not be closed without noting that a Missouri newspaper printed a brief notice and a message of congratulations, albeit against the somber background of secession. The editor wrote, "Thus while one member of the family dies, or runs away, another is born. We congratulate our neighboring State, extend her the hand of friendship, and trust that she and Missouri may always remain neighbors and friends under a common flag and under a common Constitution."
In taking this brief visit back to the Kansas of one hundred years ago, and in letting some of the people who were alive in 1861 speak for themselves, I have purposefully tried to broaden the stage upon which centennial observances should be presented. It is not enough that people of the present should know about the Browns, the Quantrills, the Jennisons, the Montgomerys and other practitioners of violence and lawlessness. It is not even enough that we should know something about the Robinsons, the Lanes, the Pomeroys, the Rosses, the Thachers, the Ingalls, and the other strongly partisan men of a century ago. The people whom we really need to know better are the Holidays, the Russells, the Hetheringtons and the Clarks; the Wirths, and Wolfs; the Earharts and Stones; the Bodwells and Cordleys. And we need to know more about the women Ä the Lovejoys, the Barclays, the Abbotts Ä and the other unsung teachers of their day.
I have not intended to merge the past into the present to suggest a similarity of problems or an identity of purpose, but rather to indicate the complexities of our history concerning which we know so little. Fortunately Father Peter Beckman's history of St. Benedict's Abbey is in print and
History as knowledge of the past 107
those who wish may know that the history of Kansas is something more than a tale of violent warfare and rapacious politics- If during the past five years I could have matched Father Peter's industry and dedication there would be available today a book-length history of another Atchison institution that is older than the state Ä the Exchange Bank. But these are only beginnings. Many historically minded pilgrims must make the long journey into the past before the history of a community or a state can be told. More knowledge must be brought to the historical storehouse. This must be done before the student of history can discharge his basic responsibility Ä that of reconciling as accurately as is humanly possible the remembered series of events with the actual series of events. History is, as was said earlier, simply a matter of knowing, of knowing enough to understand; of knowing enough to present a meaningful record; of knowing enough to be honest and accurate. The learning of history is thus conceived to be an intellectual enterprise of the highest order. Knowledge of the record of what has happened is the simple and all sufficient justification for the study of history. No fancy terminology or unintelligible jargon; no complicated verbiage; no clarion call to assume the role of the promoter or put on the robes of the prophet; no conceptual soapbox for the advocate, but just a simple statement that history as we deal with it from day to day is the record of what has happened, and that the study of history is part of a never ending process of learning.
In defining the nature of history I have deliberately placed emphasis upon the problem of knowing. The inescapable result of such an emphasis is that the learner in the field of history must develop a profound respect for knowledge. The immensity and variety of historical materials warrant this conclusion. The subject matter of history is as broad and rich as life itself, and it is as deep as the span of human existence. It is as varied and as complex as the subject matter of any field of study, because in a sense it includes every field of study. Rightly understood and rightly pursued the study of history is far more complex than many fields of study that are ordinarily thought to be the most intricate. This is true partly because every historical event or series of
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events in which human affairs were involved is unique in an absolute sense.
The uniqueness of each historical event does not mean that the past is pure chaos; that events happening in time are like grains of sand shifting in the desert without sense or purpose. Nor does the principle of uniqueness call for some extrinsic formulation that will seem to give meaning to history for a day, and then be obliterated by the next wave of mood or whim. It simply means that the historian cannot discern finally and certainly the pattern of historical events. It means too that, in the tradition of the humanities the role of history is to add its bit of knowledge, incomplete though it may be, to the intellectual storehouse. Knowledge of expressions of thoughts in literature; of formulations of values in philosophy and religion, of creative achievements in all of the arts; of the deeds of engineers and scientists, of politicians, and statesmen; knowledge of all of this and much more needs to be passed on from generation to generation, so what has been, becomes a part of what is and what is to be, simply because people know that it happened. This is responsibility enough for any discipline.
Fortunately, there is another and a simpler way of exploring the relationship of historical knowledge to Centennial observance. We can ask ourselves what kind of a Centennial celebration we want a hundred years from now and what we would like the people of 2061 to recall about the Kansas of the 1950s and l960s as they prepare for the bicentennial of statehood. Would we want them to remember only the bitter political controversies? The Clutter case? A tragic traffic accident? A sordid example of juvenile delinquency? A community controversy over the integration of a swimming pool or a sit-in demonstration? Would we want the people of 2061 to present the garb and jargon of the beatnik as typical of an entire generation of young people and the ducktail haircut as the finest expression of the tonsorial art of 1961?
Or would we like the people of 2061 to view their past and our present as a whole and recall the achievements of creative artists, scientists, religious leaders, writers, educators,
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professional men and women and the leaders in our business world and would we like them to remember our halls of learning, this college for example, our institution for the care and treatment of the handicapped, our churches, our medical centers and hospitals, our plane factories, oil wells, and fruitful fields? And wouldn't we like the people of 2061 to remember individual Kansans Ä those who remained in the state to make their contributions as well as those who left it to win acclaim in the service of the nation? If these are some of the things we want remembered, should we not extend the same consideration to those who lived a hundred years ago?
1.The Virginia Quarterly Review, 36 (Spring, 1960), 205-214.
2.Howard Lowry, president of the College of Wooster, "The Cost of Freedom: An Academic View," Bulletin of the American Association of Colleges, 43 (March), 1957), 7-13.
3.Atlantic Monthly, 3 (April, 1859), 441 ff.
4.Ibid., December 13, 1860.
5.Ibid., January 3, 1861. The letter is dated Atchison, K.T., December 31, 1860.
6.Ibid., January 5, 1861.
7.Ibid., January 26, 1861.
8.Lawrence Republican, January 24, 1861.
9.Atchison Freedom's Champion. February 7, 1861.
10.Ibid., February 2, 1861.
12.January 30, 1861.
13.Kansas City (Missouri) Journal of Commerce, January 30, 1861.
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