The story properly begins in an Emporia downtown street on a Saturday afternoon, August 13,1896.
Kansas was sweltering through a prolonged drought, the thermometer registered 107 degrees, and the sidewalk was crowded with farmers, as always in country towns on Saturday afternoons, wearing patched trousers or overalls. One man stood out from the crowd. Pale, moon-faced, twenty-eightyear-old Will A. White, whose gait, according to his own later account, had the waddle of obesity (“I probably looked like a large white egg”), was clad in his “best bib and tucker”—a linen suit, a gaudy necktie cascading down his shirt from a high starched collar- for he was soon to board a train for Estes Park, Colorado, where he would join vacationing Sallie White. Together they would pridefully read the galley proofs of his first book of prose, a collection of short stories entitled The Real Issue .
The mere sight of this excessively well-fed, overdressed young man was certain to provoke mirthful wrath or wrathful mirth among impoverished farmers—and Kansas farmers were very poor that season after many years of profound agricultural depression. Their recognition of the young man as brash “Silly Willy” who, in the fourteen months since his arrival in Emporia to take over the Gazette , had made himself the town’s chief spokesman for standpat Republican conservatism—this recognition came near being an incitement to violence upon his person.
Most of those upon the street that day were heavily and, they felt, unfairly in debt, and had been converted by their sufferings to a fervent Populism. They supported “Sockless Jerry” Simpson, “Mary Yellen” Lease, and other Kansas agitators against entrenched plutocracy. They took their political stand upon a People’s party platform calling for free and unlimited coinage of silver in the ratio to gold of sixteen to one, for a federal commodity loan system, for rigorous enforcement of the antitrust law, for a graduated income tax, for postal savings banks, for an eight-hour day in industry, and for public ownership of all railroads, telegraph, and telephones. Some of them had marched recently down this very street carrying a banner: “Abolish Interest and You Will Abolish Poverty.”
Literally speaking, White himself was a member of the debtor class. He had plunked down $3,000 to buy his paper, and all of it was borrowed. But it was emphatically not with the debtor class that he identified himself. No one was more convinced than he that the possession of wealth was a sign and reward of natural virtue. He was the hardest of hard-money men.
Just two weeks before in an editorial headed “Patriotism or Anarchy?” he had identified Republicanism with patriotism, Populism with anarchy; proclaimed that “paternalism” has no proper place in government; and approved the American system as a “free for all, and in the end the keenest, most frugal, and most industrious win.” Just two days earlier he had editorialized: “The Republican party stands for independent manhood. It says to the weak man: ‘Be strong or go under.’ It says to the strong: ‘Only be fair and keep within the law.’ It says to the poor: ‘There is no way on earth to get rich except by frugality, good management, and industry.’ The Republican party, speaking for old-fashioned, sturdy Americanism, says to the man who asks that the state shall step in and relieve him of his burden: ‘You had an equal opportunity with your fellows. … If you are behind and the other man is ahead, the thing for you to do is to catch up.’ ”