The prairie is conquered now. It has been tamed by Irish, English, Scotch and Welsh farmers; burghers from the little towns along the Rhine; by Bavarians and Swiss from the high Alps; by Poles, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and many others who had the vision to come into this new country of the Platte.
The law of the frontier is quite gone. In its place repose the tomes of codes and statute books, setting forth the behavior of man toward his fellow men. Also passed from the picture is the Pawnee Indian who fought on the side of the white settlers against the other braves. In his place is a face in a mural, the name of a public park, memories of a story heard once, long ago, from the lips of an old, old man.
"History is ... the teacher of the future," said Cicero. For this reason we keep the records, collect the archives, cherish the tales of an age long past. In the cultural pattern that emerges out of Columbus today, a strong, new, twentieth-century faith begins to appear. It is the faith of relatedness --- neighbor to neighbor, voter to statesman, public to press. This is modern America. This is the whole humming network of communal life, the interwoven, interdependent structure that has made our country great.
At the very cross-roads of the nation, in the real heart of the United States, the people of Platte County and Columbus look forward to the future even as they pause to revere the past.
Politics, that nebulous and ancient practice which has been described by one modern as the "science of who gets what, where, when and why," always has been one of the prime interests of the citizens of the Platte Valley. Briefly, the political picture in and around Columbus may be viewed from three different levels -- the national, regional and the purely local. All of these have occupied the energies and shaped the attitudes of Platte County residents and each large and small political issue has found its reaction in the community.
For example, the famous panic of 1857, which was felt by many industrial workers and businessmen, forced those who had come to the frontier to speculate on land, to retrench and remain on the land. Thus did speculation, which followed the era of "Wild Cat money," turn into colonization; what had been a gamble involuntarily became, for many, a lifelong occupation and struggle. With such a background as this, it is not remarkable that Platte County has a high degree of political participation, marked by individual and group interest.
Nationally, the most important political developments affecting residents of this area were: (1) the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and the controversy over whether slavery was to be permitted in the new territory; (2) the Homestead Act of 1862 which opened the way for active settlement of the West; (3) the railroad legislation which saw intense development along the route of the first transcontinental railway; and (4) the agrarian movement as sponsored by William Jennings Bryan which oriented the farmer to accept collective action and thus created an agricultural bloc in the nation's legislative halls.
In 1820, the Missouri Compromise Bill had been passed to exclude slavery from the territory of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30', or the southern boundary of Missouri. The Compromise brought to an end the first series of crises in sectional relationships that ultimately led to the Civil War. Newly opened territories had always provided such ideological battle grounds because slave-holders wanted slavery and northern opponents of the feudal system fought to have it prohibited.
Thirty-four years after the Compromise and the subsequent balance created in the nation's political arena, Stephen A. Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. This measure caused a sensation in the country by its virtual repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Its key clause was the one that "left the inhabitants thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way."
The political effect of this measure, introduced in 1854, was to practically destroy the Whigs who had included abolishionists as well as extreme advocates of states' rights among their ranks. The Northern group, after leaving the Whig Party, drifted into the Abolishionist, the Free-Soil and the Know-Nothing Party. The latter was the outgrowth of an intense nationalistic movement sweeping the country as a result of the high rate of immigration which brought thousands of foreigners to America. Its peculiar name was derived from the fact that it operated for a time in secret under such names as the Order of United Americans and the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Any attempt on the part of veteran political leaders to get information about the move was met by the statement to the effect that the members "knew nothing."
It is notable that the large population of German and Scandinavian emigrants in the newly opened Nebraska territory made it politically unwise for conventional politicians to back the know-nothing group with its chauvinistic demands for a twenty-five year residence qualification for citizenship. Radical anti-slavery leaders in the Platte Valley country, however, affiliated with the Free
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Soil Party which grew up in the late 1840's, finally merging with the Republican Party a few years later. It was not until 1856 (the year that Columbus was founded) that the Republicans grew to national stature as the coalition of many split and diffused forces. In that year, the Republican Party first competed for the presidency, and it was in 1860 that they nominated and elected one of the greatest presidents America has ever known, Abraham Lincoln. However, Platte County has remained predominantly Democratic in local politics through the years.
The territory under dispute in those years included a large area which was first referred to in the House of Representatives in 1852 as the "Territory of Platte." This covered most of the present area of Nebraska and the committee on territories ultimately sent a bill to the House referring to the organization of the "Territory of Nebraska." This was passed on February 10, 1853.
Under the provisions of the historic Kansas-Nebraska Bill, the first officers appointed in the territory by President Franklin Pierce were: Francis Burt, of South Carolina, governor; Thomas B. Cumming, of Iowa, secretary; Fenner Ferguson, of Michigan, chief justice; James Bradley, of Indiana, and Edward R. Hardin, of Georgia, associate justices; Mark W. Izard, of Arkansas, marshal; and Experience Estabrook, of Wisconsin, attorney.
The outcome of the slavery issue on the local scene was determined in 1861, when a bill prohibiting the institution was passed by the Nebraska territorial legislature.
It was in the early stages of this welter of political upset and harsh opposition in the year of 1856 that the town of Columbus was conceived. Thus it comes as no surprise that the entire area gained a precocious knowledge of organizational activity and the pressure of mass groups in a democratic society. Although there was no radio or telegraph and the mail came only irregularly to the frontier, the early settlers realized keenly the significance of their colonization and this gave them a sense of value which stimulated their efforts and inspired them to ever greater and more ambitious undertakings.
In August, 1859, Abraham Lincoln, who was being talked of as a presidential possibility, came to Council Bluffs, Iowa, on personal business. He had been the object of much publicity through his participation in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, and his interest in this part of the country was received in some quarters as an indication that the Pacific railroad might later be located in this region. However, the future president was zealous in his separation of personal considerations from decisions made in the interests of public welfare. His meeting with General G. M. Dodge, one of the engineers who surveyed the proposed route of the Union Pacific, was the source of certain technical information; but Mr. Lincoln's only political move of the entire trip was a speech he had been requested to make in Council Bluffs' Pacific House before a nonpartisan audience.
Meanwhile, thousands of newly arrived emigrants from other lands were awaiting the extinguishment of the Indian title to the lands and clamoring for the right to locate west of the Missouri. Hadley D. Johnson of Council Bluffs had unofficially represented the territory's interests in Washington, but it was not until 1862* when the Homestead Act was passed that the legal right to settle on the land passed into the hands of those who were willing to develop it.
After the Civil War had ended, and the fear of a general Indian war subsided, and Nebraska had been connected by rail with the East and South, the full effect of the free homestead law was felt. As one early settler wrote, "thenceforth free homesteads, preemptions and even railroad lands at five dollars an acre were as the hot cakes of the griddle on a winter morning."
Land patents, claim "jumping," and preemptions (or the settling upon public land with the right of purchase before others), soon involved Platte County in the inevitable legal activity which attracted to Columbus many of the finest legal minds in the country. In this way jurisprudence and statesmanship found its logical outgrowth in the thriving pioneer communities of the newly created territory.
On April 19, 1864, the enabling act was approved by the President of the United States and became a law. This measure permitted the people of Nebraska to form a state constitution and government. It was not until the return of peace following the Civil War, and the suppression of border outlawry that the settlers in and around Platte County realized the value of statehood and belatedly took advantage of the act.
* This law came into effect January 1, 1863.
The History of Platte County Nebraska
A constitution was framed early in 1866 and a bill admitting Nebraska as a state was passed by Congress on July 28, 1866. This measure was pocketed, due to the fact that the legislative session was almost at an end and the bill was passed (over President Andrew Johnson's veto) the following February, in 1867.
The act was not to take effect, "except upon the fundamental condition that within the state of Nebraska there shall be no denial of the elective franchise, or any other right, to any person by reason of race or color, except Indians not taxed; and upon the further fundamental condition that the Legislature of said state, by a solemn public act, shall declare the assent of said state, to the said fundamental condition."
Although the structure of law and order was slowly taking place, there remained portions of the territory in which the law of the frontier nineteenth century man's jungle -- prevailed. The reports were frequent of encounters between the white men and redskins in which the clash of progress was dramatized in an almost epic manner.
There were not many political issues in Platte County in the 1860's which did not concern the all-important transcontinental railroad, its rights, route or relation to the homesteaders who would depend on it for almost every need. It was the time of "railroad fever" when farms were mortgaged and counties and cities subscribed to stock. Eastern capitalists were pouring money into the venture and speculation was rampant. The interest rate soared with every rumor that new territory was being developed. Even the price of cattle and hogs varied with each political breath that the nation drew.
Although railroads in the East and in England had been built to connect places of habitation with one another, the lines that branched out toward the Pacific ran through country that was still wild and, for the most part, uninhabited. Congress agreed to give the Union Pacific Railroad Company twenty square miles of land for every mile of track it would lay, and other railroads were also given vast domains from the public lands. To convert such holdings into cash and to develop the transportation business, railroads employed expert promoters to induce farmers to tame and cultivate the wild lands.
The effect of this was shown in Platte County when the land in the interior was taken over for farming. Most of the early settlers who came West prior to the advent of the railroad had settled along the rivers and streams. Now the farm and city, raw materials and markets, were brought together. The Columbia Encyclopedia has this to say of the era:
"As engineering enterprises, American railroads have been eminently satisfactory. The history of their financial management, on the contrary, is made up largely of intricate details."
Certainly it is true that the undisputed rights and unrestricted use of public resources for the accumulation of private fortunes has not been equaled in the history of the country. However, little emphasis was placed upon ingratiating the citizenry, with the result that railroad "barons" such as Jay Gould could and did openly threaten the very existence of whole communities. It was not for two or three decades that legislation favoring the limiting of their powers began to work its way out of the caucuses of disgruntled taxpayers into the legislative halls of state and federal governments.
Granger laws were enacted in some parts of the middle west, setting maximum rates for railroads and establishing state railroad commissions. When the railroads challenged the constitutionality of these laws, the so-called Granger Cases resulted. The United States Supreme Court, in 1876, established the constitutionality of the principle of government regulation of public utilities.
This litigation received its name because of the sponsorship of the Granger movement, an organization which made itself felt throughout Platte County, the middle west and the rest of the country, including even New England. Taking its name from the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, this agrarian movement was founded in 1867 by Oliver H. Kelley and his associates, and reached its peak in the years following the Panic of 1873. Originally established for social and educational purposes, the local granges came to be powerful political bodies, affording the farmer his first organized channel of protest against the economic abuses of the day. In Platte County cooperative stores, elevators and mills were established; some granges even attempted the organization of a factory for the manufacture of farm equipment and machinery.
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The Grange later tended to merge with the Greenback Party, a group organized in 1875 to work for the redemption of Civil War greenbacks in specie. The West and South, suffering under the credit contractions of the 1873 panic, particularly needed this increase in currency. Both farmers and labor organizations, smarting under the labor strife of 1877, cooperated in this political attempt to better their position.
The demand for inflation or "cheap money" gained added impetus in the Loup and Platte Valleys and the other agricultural districts with the free silver campaign which dominated much of the political activity of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Passage of the Bland-Allison Act of 1877 provided for a definitely limited coinage and drew sharp sectional lines with the agricultural West and South lining up against the industrial East. By 1890, the political strength of the new territory to the West was so great that the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was passed to replace the Bland-Allison Act and make certain the circulation of silver.
Advocates of Populism, however, were not content with a compromise such as the Sherman measure. They were further embittered by the nomination of Cleveland and the unsympathetic attitude of the Secretary of the Treasury. When the panic of 1893 brought repeal of the Sherman Act, the western and southern opponents of President Cleveland captured the Democratic Party and made free silver the major political issue of the 1896 political campaign.
The Populists, formed in 1891, were made up mostly of delegates from farm and labor organizations who believed that the bankers were hoarding gold in order to benefit from the resultant burden placed upon the debtor class. Along with the free coinage of silver, the Populist Party advocated government ownership of railroads, a graduated income tax and non-ownership of land by foreigners.
A ratio of sixteen parts of silver to one part of gold was advocated but although the Democratic leader from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, brought rare eloquence to his campaigns of 1896 and 1900, he was defeated by the very thing he opposed --- the gold behind his opponents in the Republican Party.
Bryan had come to Nebraska as a young man and knew the country intimately. During the height of his popularity, Columbus' noted editor and statesman, Edgar Howard, served as his private secretary, and the Bryan followers throughout Nebraska constituted an active political force for many years. Originally a lawyer, Mr. Bryan abandoned the bar when he was elected to Congress in 1890.
For some years, William Jennings Bryan edited the Omaha World-Herald. He later became a regular Chautauqua speaker, spending one season of every year on the road appealing for the reforms and causes he espoused. In addition to free silver, the Honorable William Jennings Bryan worked for popular election of senators, woman suffrage and prohibition, and was well known for his pacifist views.
The last national political convention in which Bryan was a power was that of 1912 when, because Eastern money interests supported Champ Clark, he threw his influence to Woodrow Wilson, thereby securing his nomination. After Woodrow Wilson was elected, he made the Nebraskan Secretary of State. In this office, William Jennings Bryan negotiated arbitration treaties with thirty nations and would have applied the same negotiating technique to the American dispute with Germany over the Lusitania incident, but Wilson and the cabinet overruled it as too slow in action.
In June, 1915, rather than sign the second Lusitania note, with which he disagreed, Bryan resigned, but his influence in carrying through the reform measures of the first eighteen months of the Wilson administration must not be overlooked. The former Lincoln, Nebraska, lawyer died in 1925, five days after his internationally famous controversy with the brilliant attorney, Clarence Darrow, over prosecution of a Tennessee teacher for having instructed his class in the theory of evolution. For all his political progressiveness and deviation from the accepted norms of his age, Bryan remained a fundamentalist in religion. This duality was typified by his life span which neatly straddled two widely divergent centuries, and by the old-fashioned grandiloquent pleas which he made for measures which history has proved were in advance of the progress of his contemporaries.
A strong factor in shaping the political opinions of Columbus and Platte County settlers in those hotly contested struggles of early years was the press. Foreign language papers were partic-
The History of Platte County Nebraska
ularly influential, for the anti-emigrant policy of "Know-Nothing" Party advocates and other nationalists only served to knit these foreign groups more tightly together and prevent them from assimilating into the overall life of the community and the country.
The early papers, lacking modern wire services and on-the-spot pictorial coverage, were more like magazines than newspapers. They remained semi-literary in scope but editors of that age were noted for their strong opinions which they did not hesitate to state. In one sense, it was the golden age of journalism, for private individuals, with little capital, could compete against the vested interests and assert their political individuality in a manner that is not financially practical nor possible today.
Outspoken sometimes to the point of insult, many publishers were more concerned with economic or political problems than the esthetic poesy of earlier years. This was the period of personal journalism, of editorial grudges and fights. Papers sprang up under the sponsorship of organizations and pressure groups. There was one for soldiers of the Union Army, one for members of all labor unions in Omaha, and even one agitating for the removal of the nation's capital to Kearney, Nebraska. This was an era of ill-disguised mass emotions. And in 1882 one Nebraska paper was hanged in effigy as a protest against its editorial support of a certain issue.
The Nebraska poet, Walt Mason, and the internationally known Nebraska novelist, Willa Cather, both contributed to newspapers in the state and William Jennings Bryan, in 1901, started his own political and religious weekly publication, the Commoner, which he continued to publish for twenty years:
The prohibition issue, one of the most persistent of the entire era, was the raison d'etre of numerous smaller publications. One published by E. A. Gerrard in Monroe, called the Looking Glass, gained recognition as the official organ of the Prohibition Party of the state. Named after Looking Glass Creek, which flows near the town of Monroe, it led the attack upon saloons as a demoralizing social influence of the community.
The state government of Nebraska shows the effect of an alert and politically forceful population. Modern legislation and legislative techniques, a functional constitution, and a breakdown of official duties which provides the maximum in streamlined administration of the state are a few of the facets of Nebraska's governmental structure.
In addition, a constitutional amendment adopted in 1934*, providing for a one-house or unicameral legislature, made Nebraska a center of interest for political scientists throughout America. The first state, in more than a century of political history, to break with custom and establish a new type of law-making body, Nebraska accepted the innovation largely on the recommendation of Senator George W. Norris.
The one-house system was first suggested in a report written by Secretary Addison E. Sheldon in 1914. The forty-eight page recommendation was adopted by a joint committee of Senate and House in that year and became the basis of a discussion which lasted for more than two decades.
It was Senator Norris who drew up a tentative plan for the proposed amendment and worked with a Senate committee to get the measure brought to a popular vote in 1934. Not less than thirty nor more than fifty members may serve in the legislature concurrently, and election is handled by districts on a non-partisan ballot. The unicameral body meets bi-annually for regular sessions and holds special sessions whenever a majority of the legislators considers them necessary.
Although it is admittedly still experimental, the one-house legislature can count the following advantages as described by its advocates: more swift and efficient operation without the delays which occur in the procedure of a two-house body; greater prestige attached to membership in the house as a result of increased salaries and the smaller number of representatives, which insures a higher type of citizen; shifting responsibility from one house to the other is eliminated; the nonpartisan ballot reduces much of the waste and patronage attached to political domination; and greater economy in the operation of the legislature.
* Started in operation in 1937.
© 2005 for the NEGenWeb Project by Ted & Carole Miller