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Lorenzo D. Lewelling

Lorenzo LewellingPolitician, governor. Populist. Born: December 21, 1846, Salem, Iowa.  Died: September 3, 1900, Arkansas City, Kansas. Served as 12th Governor of Kansas: January 9, 1893, to January 14, 1895.

Lorenzo D. Lewelling was born on December 21, 1846, at Salem, Iowa, to William Henderson and Beth Lewelling. He was the youngest of four children. His father was a Baptist minister and antislavery advocate. His uncle Henderson Lewelling, a member of the Society of Friends, was a highly skilled nurseryman who provided southeastern Iowa with fruit trees and vines. So popular was the Lewelling nursery enterprise that people would travel more than 50 miles to procure some of this fine harvest. 

One morning in Indiana 1848 William Henderson Lewelling was doing his missionary work preaching on the issue of slavery and its contentious roots. After some severe exhaustion he became severely ill and was forced to lie bedridden for many days. Soon he again took to the lecture circuit with even greater passion and again fell ill, but this time he did not recover and ultimately died from complications of pneumonia. He left a family of four children who were reared by his surviving widow along with a few close relatives. In 1855 Beth Lewelling was tragically burned to death in a house fire. Lorenzo was then forced to take refuge with his older sister, where he remained until the start of the Civil War.

The young Lewelling struggled to obtain an education in his impoverished environment. He was educated at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and the Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York. During his education he held many jobs..He was a jack of many trades: a newspaper publisher, a carpenter, a teacher of English and math in an African American school, a railroad bridge builder, and a towpath worker on the Erie Canal. He was a veracious reader in depth on many diverse subjects. He possessed the skill of superb elocution and impersonation ability and thus was in great demand for literary entertainment venues. His closest friends had urged him to embark upon the stage; but a stage career was really unthinkable due to his rearing in the Society of Friends.

During the Civil War Lewelling enlisted in the Union Army, falsifying his age to be a field drummer boy in an unknown Iowa regiment. He was also assigned to the Quartermaster Corps, and he was later employed with a government bridge building corps around Chattanooga, Tennessee. He also drove cattle to quartermaster depots around the Southeast. Service in the military was contrary to the Society of Friends doctrine, and therefore, the family was able, and determined, to secure Lorenzo’s release from army service; the fact that he was under age certainly helped the discharge process move along speedily.

In 1865 soon after the war Lewelling taught at an African American school under the tutelage of the Freedman’s Aid Society in Mexico, Missouri; he was also under close militia guard for reasons unknown. From there he returned to Salem and entered Whittier College and graduated in 1868 with a certificate in education; he became a teacher in the Iowa state reform school system. He eventually became a teacher at Whittier College. 

In 1870 he met and married Angeline Cook, a teacher at the girls’ correctional school in Red Oak; they had three daughters. In 1872 he was promoted to school superintendent, and Angeline was appointed the institution’s matron. After 14 years of teaching and superintending the girls correctional division Lewelling decided to embark on a two year sabbatical. While away he founded and edited the Des Moines Capital, a staunchly “anti-ring” Republican newspaper. After his return to superintending the reform school a year later, Angelina suddenly died of natural causes leaving behind their three young daughters.

In 1887 Lewelling met and married Ida Bishop, and they moved to Wichita, Kansas. In Wichita he engaged in numerous business opportunities, mostly in the banking loan and commission sector, including testing the waters of local politics. Unsatisfied with the political climate; the people’s woes; and some rather dim, nonsensical proposals, it wasn’t long before he broke with the Republican Party to become member of the Populist movement. His first real encounter with politics was as chairman of the Sedgwick County People’s Party, which had serious contempt for integrating with the Democratic Party. He was a frequent delegate to the National Congress of Charities, and became one of the directors of the Kansas State Normal School, the present Emporia State University, as well as its board president. He was also a newspaperman who was deeply submerged in the questions at hand of political and economic uncertainty.

In 1892 the Populist Party, an organization of the Farmer’s Alliance, nominated him for governor of the State of Kansas. Lewelling appeared as a private citizen at the Populist State convention held at Wichita that year. He enthusiastically welcomed the delegates to the city and presented a remarkable speech on the Populist movement. W. J. Costigan, a close friend of Lewelling, said after the convention: “Up to that hour scarcely a delegate in that convention had ever heard of him. His address stirred the convention to its inmost fiber, and within the next twenty-four hours, he was its candidate for governor. The Democrats, so swept away with his enthusiastic muse of political enlightenment, endorsed his candidacy for governor.”

Lewelling was elected, barely, with only 162,507 votes to Republican contender A. W. Smith’s 158,075 votes and sworn in as governor on January 9, 1893. Governor Lewelling believed that his administration was the first “People’s Party government on earth,” and he practiced the party line right down to residing at the Dutton Hotel for its one-dollar a day rates rather then staying at the pricey Copeland Residence used by his predecessors. His most significant accomplishments in his first, and only, term as governor, was the sanctioning of the Australian ballot, the secret ballot process originating in Australia around 1854; an 18 month compensation allowance on mortgages; successfully negotiating a major coal strike debacle; and the much challenged appointment of Mary Elizabeth Lease as superintendent of the State Board of Charities.

The Populist governor’s sympathy for jobless men wandering the streets in the 1890s gave rise to vagabond respect. Lewelling defended the rights of the unemployed. The governor’s executive proclamation of December 4, 1893, defends the rights of the unemployed and hungry and further prohibits against arbitrary arrest by local militia. The proclamation, published in the Topeka Daily Capital became known as the “Tramp Circular.” After all, Lorenzo was once himself wandering the streets of Salem in search of employment during the 1870s depression. He said during a trumpeted speech that “thousands of men, guilty of no crime but that of seeking employment, have languished in the city prisons of Kansas, have performed unrequited toil in ‘rock-piles’ as municipal slaves, because ignorance of economic conditions has made us cruel.”

Governor Lewelling became chief of state during an unorthodox circumstance in early 1893. The Populist Party was predominantly in control of the State of Kansas, but the House of Representatives was claimed by both the Populists and the Republicans. Lewelling of course only recognized the Populist faction, and that flamed an already contentious situation that became known as the “Legislative war.”

On February 16, 1893, the governor issued Executive Order No. 3 to Colonel A. Hughes, the Topeka militia commander. He ordered him to clear the statehouse of all Republican legislators and to forcibly remove anyone who did not comply. The legislative war of 1893 pitted the Republican (Douglass) House against the Populist (Dunsmore) House and both claimed to be the legally elected House of Representatives for the State of Kansas. On the morning of February 13 the Populist Party barricaded themselves in Representative Hall preventing the Republican legislators from coming into the chamber. The angered Republicans then beat down the doors with sledgehammers and took possession of the House and posted guards outside the door. But Colonel Hughes was a Republican, and refused to obey the governor’s order; he was relieved of his command and replaced with a nonpartisan militia commander but was not reordered to clear the building. On February 25 the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the Republican House was in fact the legal representative body for the State of Kansas. Virtually no legislation passed that election year. In the end, it was Lewelling’s misfortune to comply with his pacifist Quaker upbringing, and he vacillated on the issue of asserting force upon the legislature.

A Topeka newspaper wrote on August 5, 1893: “Lewelling, King of Kansas; virtually dictator, by the grace of the people. The State rapidly passing under Populist rule; even the schools invaded and teachers dismissed for opposing the dominant party; military companies disbanded to make room for Populist recruits; control of the courts expected soon.”

At the end of his term in 1894, the Populist platform was heavily supportive of women’s suffrage legislation that alienated Democratic support, and because of that, together with the stormy opening days of Lewelling’s administration, he was defeated by Edmund N. Morrill, a Republican. Lewelling, with his wife, returned to Wichita and operated a dairy farm and creamery business; afterward he became a land company manager and a traveling lecturer for an insurance group. He was also elected on a fusion Populist - Democratic ticket to the State Senate in 1896. In Lewelling’s final years he was a member of the State Railway Commission, and he worked as a land agent for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway until his death in 1900.

He died of cardiac arrest in Arkansas City, Kansas, at the age of 53 on September 3, 1900, and was buried in Maple Grove Cemetery on the outskirts of Wichita.

Entry: Lewelling, Lorenzo D.

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

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