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Legislative War

Populist members of the Kansas LegislatureThe election of 1892 brought Populist Lorenzo D. Lewelling into the governorship. The People's Party (Populists) had gained control of the state senate two years earlier and believed it had won the House of Representatives in 1892. However, Republicans claimed 64 seats in the lower chamber.

When the legislature convened in Topeka on January 10, 1893, both parties claimed a majority. The parties elected their own officers and for the next month conducted separate sessions in the same hall. Although each party made attempts to unseat the other, they proved fruitless.

Tension mounted in mid-February 1893, and Populists took sole possession of Representative Hall locking themselves in and Republicans out. The breaking point came in mid-February with the arrest of Ben Rich, clerk of the Populist House, with the charge of disturbing the peace of the legislature. After his "rescue," both sides began to muster their forces. The next morning, February 15, 1893, Republican Speaker of the House George L. Douglas led members and employees of the Republican House who gathered at the Copeland Hotel on Kansas Avenue and marched to the Statehouse. A few guards tried to stop them but were easily swept aside. They gained entry to the Hall by applying a sledge hammer to door of the House of Representatives. Tension in the state capital was high and a fighting war appeared imminent. In order to restore order and provide protection for his fellow Populists, Governor Lewelling called up several militia companies. Late on February 15 the governor sent for Battery "A" of Wichita and instructed the men to bring their Gatling gun. The militia arrived but, since it was composed almost entirely of Republicans, most of the units refused to obey the governor.

During the three-day crisis, the Republican house enlisted the support of several hundred Topekans to protect their newly won position in the statehouse. R. B. Welsh, former Shawnee County attorney, was appointed chief of these sergeants-at-arms.  Governor Lewelling negotiated with Republican Speaker of the House George Douglas and they reached an agreement on February 17, which amounted to a Populist surrender.

In 48 hours the "war" was over. The Republican House stayed in the hall, proceedings against the clerk were dropped. People's party representatives agreed to conduct their business in a separate statehouse room.

The final decision was left to the Supreme Court. On Saturday, February 25, by a partisan vote of 2 to 1, the court found in favor of the Republicans. On Monday,the Populists went to Representative Hall to assume their position as minority party in the Douglas house. By this time only a few days remained in the session. Although little constructive work was accomplished, the Republican majority did accept Populist legislation providing for a secret ballot and revisions in the state's mortgage laws. They would not, however, embrace Populist proposals for railroad regulation. Populists left without a fight and no blood was shed.

Entry: Legislative War

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 2003

Date Modified: February 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.