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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 450

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This is the grave of Mary Lease.

Born in 1850 in Ridgway, Pennsylvania, in 1870 she moved to Kansas to teach school to the Osage, part of the broader missionary movement to educate Native Americans in white ways. Three years later, she married a pharmacist named Charles Lease. They had four children and at least from what I can tell, he seemed supportive of her remarkable political activities, though they later divorced. They moved to Denison, Texas, where she studied the law, a pretty rare thing in the 1880s. She was admitted to the bar in 1885. They then moved to Wichita. Lease became heavily involved in politics. This was at the same time that the Populist movement was beginning with the Agricultural Wheel and the Farmers’ Alliances and other grassroots movement as rural people tried to figure out how to battle the industrial capitalism they felt was destroying their livelihoods and independence, especially the railroads. Lease jumped into those fights.

By 1888, Lease was working for the Union Labor Party, which was Henry George’s organization, and was also promoting black suffrage, though she would later turn on that with a vengeance. Her big issue was articulating what so many Americans felt–that the free labor ideology that so dominated 19th century northern intellectual beliefs about America had been betrayed by corporations. The dream of the independent farmer or craftsman or tradesman existing as an independent white person in a capitalist economy that shared the wealth relatively equally among the deserving was blown up in the face of monopoly and massive income inequality. Like many commenters, she believed whites had been turned into “wage slaves.” This sort of language infuriated the aging abolitionists who largely had turned into lackeys for monopoly capitalism and who said there was no comparison between the contracts white workers signed on their own volition and slavery. That’s true but also was an apology for how the rich treated the struggling white majority in the Gilded Age. Lease was not quite a socialist, but she certainly believed that “the divine right of capital” was going to go the way of the divine right of kings, i.e., toward extinction.

Lease could use very harsh language such as: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master.” Now, what Lease is most famous for today is saying that farmers needed to “raise less corn and more hell.” She did not say that. It was made up by a reporter. But Lease liked it because it sounded like something she would say and something she wanted to say so she never corrected the record publicly. As the Populists took off in the early 1890s, Lease became of their most important speakers. She was extremely popular with the farmers, being a charismatic speaker who articulated their anger. The media, largely controlled by the forces of capitalism, despised her and wrote many articles about her hysteria and her dangerous and irresponsible language. One newspaper wrote said Lease was “a miserable character of womanhood and hideously ugly of features and foul of tongue.” Another described her as “the petti-coated smut-mill. Her venomous tongue is the only thing marketable about the old harpy, and we suppose she is justified in selling it where it commends the highest price.” She welcomed their hatred. Like too many Populists, she embraced the anti-Semitism of the time, calling Grover Cleveland, “the agent for Jewish bankers and British gold.” Cleveland was in fact an agent for grotesque forms of capitalism, but far too often critics of capitalism connect that with anti-Semitism.

However, Lease soon broke with the Populists. She had a terrible relationship with Kansas’ Populist governor Lorenzo Lewelling. She claimed it was because she wanted the Populists to promote both temperance and women’s suffrage, issues she cared very deeply about, but there wasn’t always support for those positions among the farmers’ base. She also opposed those who wanted the Populists to merge with the Democratic Party. Some of was political and some of it was that her brother was killed at Fredericksburg and her father in Andersonville and she genuinely hated the Democratic Party, blaming it for their deaths. By 1894, she was done with them.

Lease kept writing and speaking, but she moved toward an open embrace of white supremacy in some of the most racist tracts in American history, such as 1895’s The Problem of Civilization Solved, which was a statement of the superiority of the white race, with the problem being all the non-white people. Thus, she became a eugenicist and supporter of imperialism. In this book, she claimed that whites should be above manual labor and it was the duty of black and Asian people to labor for whites. She stated it was time for whites to realize their “destiny to become the guardian of the inferior races” as “the Caucasian had arisen to the moral and intellectual supremacy of the world.” It goes from there. Not good.

In 1902, Lease divorced her husband and moved east, where her children lived. She was a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt and noted, as many historians have as well, how many of the reforms the Progressives pushed were in the early Farmers Alliance platform. But she seems to have largely faded from view in the late decades of her life. She died in 1933.

Mary Lease is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other Populists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Leonidas Polk is in Raleigh, North Carolina and James Weaver is in Des Moines, Iowa. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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