Lewelling was born in Salem, Iowa, on December 21, 1846, to a Quaker family. Orphaned early in his life, he was raised by an older sister. Despite his Quaker upbringing, Lewelling enlisted in an Iowa regiment when the Civil War broke out; his family, however, was able to obtain his discharge because he was not yet of legal age. After the war, he attended Whittier College in Salem and graduated in 1868, after which he taught and served as a school superintendent at the Iowa State Reform School. In 1887, he and his family moved to Wichita, Kansas, where he worked as a produce dealer and merchant.
Although he had been a Republican in Iowa, he did not work for that party in Kansas. Instead, he was named chairman of the People's Party of Sedgwick County. In that capacity and because he was one of the founding members of the Farmers’ Alliance in the Wichita area, Lewelling was invited to welcome delegates to the 1892 Populist State Convention, which was held in that city. His passionate speech exhorting the party to “go forth to victory” excited and impressed the delegates so strongly that they nominated him for governor. With Democratic support, especially from Lewelling's home city of Wichita, the Populist ticket won with a margin of less than 5,000 votes out of 320,000. Once elected, Lewelling arranged patronage positions for his Democratic supporters, an action that would lead to a loss of support among Populists in 1894.
In response to the rapidly disintegrating economic conditions of the Panic of 1893, Lewelling issued an executive proclamation in December of that year. Known as The Tramp Circular, the proclamation asserted that the growing unemployment in Kansas and the nation was, in part, a result of industrialization and the development of machines that did the work that used to be done by people. These now “superfluous” people, only guilty of being poor and unemployed, were regularly harassed by police and arrested for being idle. Lewelling declared that “simple poverty” should “cease to be a crime.”
Despite his clear support in “The Tramp Circular” for the working classes who were deeply affected by the Panic of 1893, Lewelling did not enjoy the level of support in the 1894 election that he had enjoyed in 1892. Populists had been disappointed by his performance during the Legislative War, and they were upset by the political patronage he had dispensed after his election. Further, his administration opposed woman suffrage and prohibition, both issues that were held dear by many Populists. As a fusionist, Lewelling generally supported the effort to simplify the party's platform down into the lowest common denominator—in this case, financial reform in the demand for free silver.
In an attempt to regain Populist support, Lewelling appointed Mary Elizabeth Lease to the Board of Charities. In particular, he had hoped that this appointment would quell her very vocal attacks against him. Instead, Lease ramped up her rhetoric; in response, he attempted to fire her. Lease filed suit against him, arguing that he was not firing her because of her job performance but because of her political opposition to fusion. The state Supreme Court ruled in Lease's favor in February 1894, thus supporting and reinforcing Populist discontent with the governor.
Lewelling lost reelection in 1894 in a surge of GOP support. The loss for Kansas Populists in that election and for national Populists in 1896 should not be attributed solely to his failure of leadership. However, his failure in leadership contributed to middle-of-the-road Populist dissatisfaction with fusion. In 1896, he was elected to the state Senate and served there until his death in Arkansas City, Kansas, from heart disease on September 3, 1900.
Kirstin L. Lawson
See also: Kansas, Populism in ; Kellie, Luna (1857–1940) ; Lease, Mary (1850–1933) ; People's Party ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the
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Goldberg, Michael Lewis. An Army of Women: Gender and Politics in Gilded Age Kansas. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.