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Legislative War

There never was a time after the slavery question was settled, when the crusading spirit was so violent and pronounced. For example, it was then that Frank Doster, one time chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, made his now famous statement; “The rights of the user are paramount to the rights of the owner.”” The Populist leaders in those days were busy seeking the emancipation of the farmers from the “vested interests.” One of Jerry Simpson’s remarks was: “You may have beaten the Santa Fe Railroad. Now it is for you to take charge of the state government.”

It was a tense moment when Lewelling was inaugurated governor on January 9, 1893. At a mass meeting of the Populists the night of the inauguration, a resolve was adopted reading: “We are here by the voice of the people and we will diperse only at the point of the bayonet.” The newly elected legislature consisted of 65 Republicans, 58 Populists and 2 Democrats. The Senate organized in an orderly manner. But there was a fight in the Hosue. The Populists accused the Republicans, who had a majority, of having obtained 18 seats by fraud. Both parties organized in the House. The Republicans elected George L. Douglas speaker and the Populists elected J.M. Dunsmore speaker. Both Douglas and Dunsmore occupied the same desk, slept on the same floor under the same blanket, each with a gavel in his hand.

On the third day, Lewelling recognized the Dunsmore House as the legal body. On the fourth day the Senate took the same action, the Republican senators protesting.

On January 17, Governor Lewelling, a member of the Populist Party, sent his message to the Senate, where it was read, and to the Dunsmore House, which ordered it printed.

The arrest of L.C. Gunn by a sergeant-at-arms of the Douglas House, on charge of failing to obey a mandate of that body, brought an issue before the Supreme Court. Mr. Gunn asked to be discharged on the ground that the Douglas House was not the lawful and constitutional House of Representatives and had no authority to order his arrest.

On February 14, 1893, an attempt was made by two deputy sergeant-at-arms of the Douglas House to arrest Ben C. Rich, chief clerk of the Dunsmore House. After a sharp scuffle, he was rescued by his friends. Lewelling directed the Adjutant General to call out a company of militia if necessary. On the night of February 14, the officers of the Dunsmore House Barricaded the doors of the House. On the morning of February 15, the members of the Douglas House, headed by their Speaker, appeared, thrust aside the outer guards, smashed in the doors with a sledgehammer, and entered and took possession. The Populists fled to a basement room where they used improvised benches.

Court martial of Colonel James White Frierson Hughes in the south corridor of the basement at the statehouse in Topeka, Kansas.

Court martial of Colonel James White Frierson Hughes in the south corridor of the basement at the statehouse in Topeka, Kansas.

Governor Lewelling called out several companies of state militia with guns brought out of the state arsenal.Colonel J.W.F. Hughes was placed in command. The Governor issued to Hughes two orders; one directing him to remove from the House all Republicans not recognized by the Populist Speaker, J.F. Dunsmore; and the other directing him to clear the corridors of all persons except troops, to station a small detachment in the east and west wings of the Capitol, and then proceed with the remainder of his forces (some less than 500 men) to Representative Hall and to eject those persons named in the first order.

Colonel Hughes own words of the story from there on, taken from the printed and bound Sixteenth Biennial Report of the Adjutant General of Kansas, follows: “I took both orders, read them several times, and saw in a moment that he wanted me to prostitute the Guard to accomplish his ignoble purposes. Not having time to consult with friends or advise with them, I folded the orders, put them in my pocket and buttoned my overcoat over the same, and started out of the room, when Governor Lewelling called me back and wanted to know, ‘Why do you not obey my orders instantly?’ My answer was, ‘Governor, the order is illegal.’ He turned pale, trembled, and asked me to follow him into the executive office. I did so, and there surrounded in his private office, I again told him I could not obey his illegal order; that there were three coordinate branches of government, each a sovereignty in itself; that the legislature was supreme in the state, had impeached judges and removed governors, and that he had no right or authority under the laws to question or dictate who should be members of the legislature; that the President of the United States dare not attempt to say who were members of the Congress, neither would he for one moment foolishly conceive the idea of invading the house of Congress with an armed force. The Governor and his three legal advisers were simply dumbfounded and speechless. He told me to report back to the adjutant general’s office and wait until he called for me. He sent for me, and for a second time I returned to his office, but had no conversation with Governor Lewelling. I left the Governor’s office, crowded as it was with those of his sympathizers who recognized no law, and late in the afternoon of February 15, 1893, the Governor sent for me and wanted to know if I still refused to obey his legal order. He said: ‘If not, what compromise have you to make?’ I suggested to him that we assemble the Guard; for him to make a speech and state his views, and that I would do likewise, to see who would follow him and who would follow me. He said that would be satisfactory, arrangements to be made in the adjutant general’s office, and he retired to his own rooms.

“I immediately assembled the organizations in the basement, it now being dark, and found that the Governor had played me false, as before I had the Guard assembled word came to me that he was up in Representative Hall speaking to the Republican members, and told them he had called out the Guard, and gave them a few moments to vacate or else they would be put out at the point of a bayonet. I made no statement to the assembled Guard, but gave them some minor orders, and knowing of his treachery and breaking faith as he did, I immediately proceeded to the House of Representatives, where I proceeded to the Speaker’s stand and gave them a short address, telling them the situation, what troops the Governor had ordered out, and repeated my conversation with the Governor as to the sovereignty of the legislative branch of the House, and told them as long as I had command they would not be interfered with in their legal deliberations. I was taken from the hall on the shoulders of some of the members and cheered to the echo for my loyalty to my oath.

“Early the next morning the Governor heard of my speech and relieved me of command for insubordination, being succeeded by Lieut. Col. George H. Barker, Third Regiment. Colonel Barker remained in command only until afternoon, when the Governor made I.H. Hettinger, a druggist of Wichita, brigadier general.

“Previous to calling out the Guard, the Governor had called on Sheriff John M. Wilkerson, who told him as sheriff he had no jurisdiction over the legislature, and having been thus frustrated by Sheriff Wilkerson and the undersigned, he finally came to his senses and realized that he was up against it hard. The town thronged with citizens, who came from all parts of the state, heavily armed with all sorts of guns and weapons, and as he looked out of his window, he realized that he had made a fatal mistake and must recede from his position to force the Republican members of the legislature out at point of bayonet. I am frank to confess that if one shot had been fired in this unfortunate and disreputable attempt of Lewelling’s thousands of lives would have been placed in jeopardy and many would surely have been lost, and a civil war would have ensued, and the State of Kansas, would have been minus its chief executive as well as its three able legal lights. It was a close call for Kansas, but fortunately better judgement prevailed, and the Governor sent for George R. Peck, attorney for the Santa Fe Railroad, and stated his position. Mr. Peak advised him it was illegal and unconstitutional and that the only way was to do as suggested by the undersigned—submit the question to the Supreme Court of the state. Reluctantly the Governor yielded, dismissed all the Guard on February 17, and thus we escaped a scene of turbulence and bloodshed, the end of which no man could tell, as politics, next to religion, works a man up to the highest pitch of antagonism and hatred. The decision of the highest judicial authority of the state, the Supreme Court, decided the Lewelling was wrong and that George L. Douglas was speaker, and for the remaining days all that was done by the Legislature of 1893 was to pass and pay bills of Lewelling’s famous ‘rump house.’ And again peace reigned throughout the state.”

The date of the decision of the Kansas Supreme Court was February 25, 1893. It affirmed the constitutionality of the Douglas House. On February 28, 1893, the members of the Dunsmore House marched in carrying the American Flag. The two House then became the one House. This session has been called the stormiest legislative session in the history of Kansas.

For refusing to obey the orders of the Governor, Colonel Hughes was court-martialed. His trial lasted 24 days. The verdict was guilty. He was stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged.

That this “Legislative War” ended without bloodshed and the loss of life was due to the intelligence, far-sightedness, vision and great courage of Colonel Hughes. Incidentally, he had issued no ammunition to his troops. Some of the legislators were armed.

The next Governor after Lewelling called Hughes back to the National Guard with the rank of Brigadier General, and from 1905 to 1909 he was Adjutant General of Kansas.