Lease, Mary Elizabeth (1853–1933)
Lease, Mary Elizabeth (1853–1933)
American Populist orator and politician whose fiery appeals for Kansas farmers to protest their economic condition made her a national figure during the early 1890s. Name variations: Mary Ellen Lease. Born Mary Elizabeth Clyens on September 11, 1853, in Ridgeway, Elk County, Pennsylvania; died in Callicoon, New York, on October 29, 1933; daughter of Joseph P. Clyens (a farmer of Irish descent) and Mary Elizabeth Murray Clyens; attended local schools in New York State and graduated from St. Elizabeth's Academy in Allegany, New York; married Charles L. Lease (a pharmacist), in January 1873 (divorced 1902); children: four.
Moved to Kansas to teach school at an Indian mission (1870); lived in Texas for a decade after marriage; admitted to the bar in Kansas (1885); became a candidate for local offices for the Union Labor Party (1888); identified with the People's Party (1890); campaigned for the Populist presidential ticket (1892); appointed to Kansas State Board of Charities (1893) but was removed from office the same year; moved to the East by 1896 and campaigned for William Jennings Bryan, the presidential candidate of the Democrats and the Populists; supported William McKinley and the Republicans (1900); pursued career as a lecturer; endorsed Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party (1912); spent the last years of her life in obscurity.
The Problem of Civilization Solved (1895).
Mary Elizabeth Lease is famous in American history for a single sentence. During the 1890 election in Kansas, Lease reportedly told an audience of farmers that they should "raise less corn and wheat, and more hell." The phrase, quickly shortened to "less corn and more hell," came to symbolize the passion of the farm discontent that swept across the Great Plains and the South of the United States during the first half of the 1890s. Whether or not Lease actually made the celebrated statement is in dispute. This question represents one of the many ironies that surrounded her life.
She was born in Pennsylvania on September 11, 1853, to Roman Catholic parents of Irish background. Later in life, she would allow reporters to believe that she had been born in Ireland and had there acquired her devotion to Irish freedom from British rule. Her family moved to a farm in Allegany County, New York, where she went to nearby schools before graduating from St. Elizabeth's Academy in Allegany. Her father served in the Union army during the Civil War and reportedly died in a Confederate prison camp. She traveled to Kansas in 1870 to teach in the parochial school on the Osage Mission, located in the southeastern part of the state. There, in January 1873, she married a pharmacist named Charles L. Lease; the marriage took her outside the church of her youth. Annie LePorte Diggs , another prominent woman in the Populist movement, said later that Mary Lease was "not over-weighted with reverence for the clergy of any sect."
During the next decade, the Lease family spent most of their time in Texas. Mary Elizabeth gave birth to four children, and studied law, despite the demanding rigors of rural life. According to Gene Clanton, she pinned sheets of notes above her wash tub to study while she scrubbed the laundry that she took in for half a dollar a day. When the Leases returned to Kansas in the mid-1890s, she was admitted to the Kansas bar, a notable achievement at a time when the state had few women attorneys.
Soon, she stepped into the world of politics. In a lecture on "Ireland and the Irishmen," Lease spoke out for the cause of the Irish people and their desire to be free of British dominance. She also gave speeches about woman suffrage and the temperance crusade against alcohol and saloons. Until this time, she had identified with the Republican Party because of its record in the Civil War; by 1888, however, she had joined the Union Labor Party, a small and struggling third party in Kansas. She addressed the state convention of the Union Laborites in Wichita in 1888, and sought to win election to county offices as one of the party's candidates that year and again in 1889.
In 1890, hard times, low crop prices for Kansas farmers, and growing unhappiness with the performance of the Republicans and the Democrats led many farmers to embrace the new People's Party in the state. Mary Elizabeth Lease became one of the most popular campaign speakers for the new organization. She plunged into a summer and fall of stump speaking that involved thousands of angry voters in a turbulent process that shook the Kansas political establishment.
All observers agreed that Lease was a compelling orator, whatever their opinion about her political views. Unfortunately, few of her speeches in 1890 were printed in Kansas newspapers. What remains are the assessments of her style by those who heard her speak. Republican editor William Allen White of Emporia recalled her speaking manner in his autobiography: She had "a golden voice—deep, rich contralto, a singing voice that had hypnotic qualities." In 1891, a reporter for the Kansas City Star captured a few of her words: "The great and common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is master," she said. "The West and South are prostrate before the manufacturing East."
In 1890, she reportedly uttered her famous phrase about corn and hell. In later life, she denied having made the remark, and charged that critics in the press had created it to embarrass her. Even so, she did not dispute the comment at the time because, she decided, "it was a right good bit of advice." Clanton uncovered references to the remark in Kansas newspapers in 1891, but whether it originated with her or with her Republican enemies may never be known. Her opponents also claimed that her real name was "Mary Ellen Lease" so that they could transform her into "Mary Yellin' Lease."
And now I say to you as my final admonition, not knowing that I shall meet you again, raise less corn and wheat, and more hell.
—Attributed to Mary Elizabeth Lease
Populist success in the 1890 Kansas elections added to the fame that Lease had acquired. She became identified with ending the long political career of three-term Republican senator John James Ingalls, whom she had criticized for his record during the Civil War. She alleged, according to Clanton, that Ingalls "never smelled gunpowder in all his cowardly life. His war record is confined to court marshaling a chicken thief." During 1891, she toured the South as one of a number of Kansas Populists who sought to build support for their third party in Dixie.
When the Populists nominated James B. Weaver to run for president in 1892, he campaigned in the South with Lease at his side, calling her "Our Queen Mary." Her reception in the South, however, was anything but friendly. "The sight of a woman traveling around the country making political speeches," said one Democratic editor, was "simply disgusting." Another commentator focused on her looks. "She's got a face that's harder and sharper than a butcher's cleaver. I could take her by the heels and split an inch board with it. She's got a nose like an anteater, a voice like a cat fight, and a face that is rank poison to the naked eye." Annie Diggs observed correctly: "Seldom, if ever, was a woman so vilified and so misrepresented by malignant newspaper attacks." Diggs described her colleague's appearance as "tall and stately in bearing" with "black hair, fair complexion, and blue eyes—and blue eyes that seem to feel the weight and woe of all the world."
Weaver did not win the White House in 1892, but the Populist Party did gain the governorship in Kansas for its state candidate, Lorenzo D. Lewelling. When he took office, Lewelling recognized what Mary Lease had done for the party and appointed her to chair the state's board of charities. The new governor expected his appointee to name people that he favored to the various patronage positions under her control. Since the People's Party was now cooperating with the Democrats against the Republicans, Lewelling's policy meant that Lease would see some Democrats placed in these patronage positions.
But for Lease, favors to Democrats involved bitter personal feelings. In addition to her father's death in a Confederate prison, two brothers had died while they served in the Union army during the Civil War. Like many in the North, she believed that the Democratic Party had prolonged the war because of its opposition to vigorous prosecution of the conflict and its sympathy for the Southern cause. Thus, she blamed the Democrats for the deaths of her male relatives and the poverty that her family confronted because of these losses. She opposed Lewelling on the issue of Democratic appointments, and political tension between them grew. Finally, in late December 1893, the governor removed her from the state board of charities.
A public controversy ensued. Populists charged that Lease was working with the Republican Party against her former allies. Lease replied that the governor and his associates were trying to kill her politically. The governor's attempt to remove her failed when the state's Supreme Court decided that she had not been given adequate reasons and fair notice. The furor contributed to the defeat that the Kansas Populists experienced in the 1894 state elections.
During the mid-1890s, Lease left Kansas for New York. There, she published her only book, The Problem of Civilization Solved (1895), in which she advocated colonization of the tropics as a cure for the ills of civilization. The book did not attract a large audience. By this time, Lease had also renounced her earlier endorsements of prohibition and woman suffrage.
Despite her problems with Kansas Populism, she was active on behalf of the national party during the presidential election of 1896. Lease was a very visible presence at the Populist national convention at St. Louis in July, and she made one of the seconding speeches for the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan. During the fall campaign, she spoke publicly for Bryan, the nominee of the Democrats and the Populists, in her characteristically controversial style. In one address in New York, reported in The New York Times of September 5, 1896, she said of Queen Victoria of England that she was "no longer regarded as made of common clay, but of common mud."
After 1896, however, Lease's allegiance to Populism ended, and she announced, "I am a full-fledged Socialist." But by the time William Jennings Bryan was preparing to run against the reelection of Republican president William McKinley in 1900, she had become "an advocate of Expansion and the progressive policy of Republicanism," by which she presumably meant that empire which the United States had acquired as a result of the war with Spain in 1898. She offered her speaking services to Joseph L. Bristow of the Post Office Department in a letter of June 9, 1900. She called herself someone who could conduct "active political work for the success of Republicanism and the downfall of Democracy." She guaranteed "that the dissatisfied with whom I may have an opportunity to labor will not vote for Bryan." The Republicans put her to work, and she campaigned for the Republican ticket in Nebraska and Kansas. "As the daughter of an old Union soldier," she said, "I feel that my place is with the Republican Party."
During the early 20th century, Lease continued to make a living as a touring lecturer for various causes. She filed for divorce from her husband in 1901, and the decree was granted in 1902, on the grounds of non-support. In 1908, she became a lecturer with the New York Board of Education. She supported Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in 1912. Once again, she returned to the role of third-party critic of the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats, she said in New York City, were "a stench in the nostrils of heaven" while the Republicans were "the slave of the money power."
Her services to the Roosevelt campaign were apparently offered on a paying basis, since she was complaining to the Progressive Party headquarters in May 1913 that she had not received her money. She reminded the Progressive leadership in a letter to F.H. Hotchkiss of May 12, 1913, that she "performed faithfully, capably and efficiently at a cost of tremendous physical and mental effort as the meetings were held in the open and necessitated great expenditure of strength in order to reach the throng." When the party protested that she had "donated" her services, she threatened to file a lawsuit in a follow-up letter of May 23, 1913. Both letters are now included in the papers of Theodore Roosevelt at the Library of Congress. The financial plight of the Progressive organization in 1913 makes it unlikely that she ever received any payment for what she did in 1912. Lease spent the last years of her life in seclusion. She gave occasional interviews up to 1918 and then dropped out of sight until her death.
Clanton, Gene. "Intolerant Populist: The Disaffection of Mary Elizabeth Lease," in Kansas Historical Quarterly. Vol. 34, 1968, pp. 189–200.
——. Kansas Populism: Ideas and Men. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1968.
——. Populism: The Humane Preference in America. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1991.
Diggs, Annie L. "The Women in the Alliance Movement," in The Arena. Vol. 6. July 1892, pp. 161–179.
"Mary Lease Dead; Long Dry Agitator," in The New York Times. October 30, 1933.
Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.
Joseph Little Bristow Papers, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka.
Mary E. Lease, Manuscript Biography, probably written by her, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka.
Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Lewis L. Gould , Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor in American History, University of Texas at Austin