John W. Leedy
Politician, governor. Populist. Born: March 8, 1849, Richland County, Ohio. Died: March 24, 1935, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Served as 14th Governor of Kansas: January 11, 1897, to January 9, 1899.
John Whitnah Leedy was born on a farm near Bellville, Ohio, on March 4, 1849, to Samuel Keith and Margaret Whitnah Leedy. He received a modest education at common schools until the early death of his father required that he work on a farm and part time at a general store to help support the family. In early 1864 and at age 14, he tried to enlist in the Union Army but was rejected due to his age. He then joined a Civil War troop and served until the end of the war; his mother protested vehemently; her disdain for wartime military service at such a young age was really too much to bear. After the war Leedy moved from Ohio to Pierceville, Indiana, where he was employed as a clerk. In 1868, he worked as a hired hand and a farmer near Carlinville, Illinois, where he became a proficient farmer and skilled horseman.
He married Sarah J. Boyd on November 4, 1875; they raised two daughters and one son. John’s religious preference was the Church of the Brethren but was not a member of a church. In 1880 they moved to Coffey County, Kansas, near the village of LeRoy where he built a successful, profitable purebred horse breeding farm. He lost it, however, during the depression of the 1890s.
Leedy embraced Republican values until 1872 when he decided to become a Democrat, and he changed again in 1890 when he joined the new People’s (Populist) Party. He became a supporter of Populist reforms for the state of Kansas because he believed the Republican Party had swayed too far right. He felt Republicans failed to recognize the “people’s” turmoil in not having the prosperous opportunities they had just a few years earlier. Leedy was elected to the state senate in 1892 based on his Populist reform ideology.
In 1896 the Democratic Party merged with the Populist Party thinking that a combined party would have a better chance of winning the gubernatorial bid in 1896. The two best suited state candidates for possible nomination for governor at the time were Senator John Leedy and Congressman William Harris, a native of Virginia. The delegates chose Leedy over Harris, probably because of Harris’s support for seceeding from the Union and his ties to the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Leedy ultimately won the election with 167,041 votes to incumbent Governor E. N. Morrill’s 160,531 votes. Leedy’s gubernatorial victory also coincided with a Populist majority in both houses of the Kansas Legislature. For the first time in Kansas state history, the Kansas Supreme Court had a Populist majority membership. And the Populists, and Democrats, secured the Kansas electoral vote for Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan as president. Leedy was an intelligent politician and knew what political buttons to push to get a majority platform on virtually any Populist issue. But he lacked the reforming zest of former Populist Governor Lorenzo Lewelling needed for catapulting the Populist Party long enough to sustain its liberal platform for the 20th century.
Leedy, gregarious by nature, was a people’s governor and he greeted visitors as they came and left the governor’s suite. In an effort to change business as usual in Kansas, the Leedy administration dealt vigorously with bank laws to accommodate small banks to fairly deal with rural issues as land foreclosures and personal bankruptcy that plagued the entire state. The new state agencies established under Leedy’s watch were the School Textbook Commission, a State printing plant, and a State grain commission. A major topic of contention under his leadership was the firing of some faculty at the State agricultural college, now Kansas State University, in Manhattan. That stirred Republican anger at what was perceived as mere Populist grandstanding. Leedy was also criticized for the continued enforcement of Prohibition and the metropolitan police law that majorities saw as outdated, redundant and incapable of enforcement.
Governor Leedy did however have a shining moment and was praised highly from the Republican press for his supporting action at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. He ordered the recruitment of four regiments, and the first enlisted regiment was the 20th Kansas Infantry. The commanding officer, appointed by Leedy, was Frederick Funston, the son of the popular Republican congressman E. H. Funston. Leedy was renominated for governor in 1898 but lost to Republican William Eugene Stanley by about 15,000 votes. He left office on January 9, 1899, retiring briefly from politics. But before doing he called a special session of the outgoing legislature on December 21, 1889, to enact new laws to better regulate railroads. He called for a “Court of Visitation” that would replace the railroad commission entirely; the issue at hand was to incorporate fair and maximum shipping freight charges within the rail system of Kansas.
While governor, Leedy resided in Lawrence and commuted every morning by train to Topeka; he also maintained a room at the Dutton Hotel. The hotel was frequented by Populist members because of its inexpensive rates. Upon retiring, Leedy continued the practice of law in both Lawrence and Joplin, Missouri. He also had ambition for mining work in Galena, Kansas, and established and directed the Leedy Mining Company at Leavenworth, Kansas.
In 1900 Leedy traveled to Seattle, Washington, to organize a fraternal group called the Ancient Order of Pyramids. In 1901 he moved to Valdez, Alaska, where he practiced Canadian law and served there as city attorney; he also became its mayor for two years. In 1904 to 1908 he was the city’s bankruptcy advocate for the Third Judicial District in territorial Alaska. Around 1908 he moved again to White Court, Alberta, Canada, and purchased a ranching community where he settled and accepted Canadian citizenship, making him the only former Kansas governor to seek legal residence in Canada.
Leedy gained enough political resonance to be on a ticket to represent the Liberals, or United Farmers of Alberta, in the provincial parliament, but he never won election to the seat. He died penniless of natural causes at Edmonton, Alberta, at the age of 86 on March 24, 1935. A year after his death the Kansas Legislature voted to appropriate $1,000 to pay his funeral expenses and mark the grave site with a bronze plaque on a granite shaft.
Entry: Leedy, John W.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: June 2011
Date Modified: February 2017
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