For a long time after statehood, Kansas climbed upward, a state and its citizenry moving ahead. Following the Civil War, new inventions had lightened labor and broadened horizons.
The material outlook was extended as clothes, food and shelter became an ordinary social inheritance for most citizens.
Newspapers, magazines and the printed book became more easily available, improving literacy and preserving humanity’s knowledge for all. Advances in science and medicine meant that the diseases coming out of grinding and filthy poverty began to disappear. New machines and gadgets were massproduced, making life easier; and as more people began to read with stimulated minds and a healthful outlook, their lives became more interesting, their communities more pleasant.
People began to see life more clearly during those decades, and they developed a sense of mercy, incubating a natural aspiration for justice. Deep down, the struggle for liberty widened, an intelligent expectation with certain, definite purpose. As the people ‒ the middle class ‒ began to exercise functions in government, government changed. For Kansas, both the event and purpose of statehood seemed preordained; men had realized they could use government as an agency of human welfare and although it was a bloody birth, statehood for Kansas was founded on a moral principle, that slavery was wrong.
As the wheels of invention multiplied and turned more rapidly, as education spread and literacy became common, men realized that government could be used to establish justice, secure the ballot box, and move the conscience of the world.
By the end of the 19th century the American frontier had been settled, the industrial age had matured, the “progressive” movement was joined, and Kansas went to work.
Reform was in the air in the early 1900s. People fashioned new weapons for democracy, including the secret ballot; the direct election of U.S. Senators; a commission form of government for cities and counties; President Theodore Roosevelt, calling his economic reforms a “square deal,” advocated an income tax, postal savings banks, parcel post, regulation of the railroads, busting the trusts that controlled railroads and the oil industry; pure food and drug laws and legislation for public health and hygiene; shortening the 60-hour work week; workers compensation laws; state and national extension of the civil service; the movement for good roads and highways; regulation and control of insurance companies, banks and savings institutions.
These were among changes brewing on a national front, and Kansas was at the core of many.
OVER THE five decades leading to the next millennium, legislators and governors helped this state and the nation to enact historic reforms. A young congressman, Frank Carlson, of Concordia, was an architect in the late 1930s of legislation to build federal reservoirs for flood control and recreation;Carlson in the early 1940s worked with Beardsley Ruml, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, to create federal payroll tax deductions, called the “pay as you go” plan for income taxes.
By the early 1950s, Carlson, by then governor, worked with Karl Menninger to enact sweeping reforms in the care and treatment for the mentally ill; in 1954, the 234-mile Kansas
Turnpike was among the nation’s first four-lane “superhighways” two years before President Eisenhower announced his plan for a federal interstate highway system. And in 1957
Kansas became the first state to self-immunize against polio (infantile paralysis), a disease that had killed or crippled millions of American children.
That’s a sampling of the vision that once moved Kansas to a remarkable station on the American scene in the post-war years. After Roosevelt’s New Deal there was Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society; We helped to incubate an era of state-federal cooperation in education, housing and urban renewal, consumer protection and social welfare, much of this enlisting the advancements of agriculture. Kansas also would enact national models for school finance in 1973 and 1992.
There was more, including new Kansas plans for higher education funding, an overhaul of the state courts, reworking election laws, campaign finance and lobbyist disclosure statutes, public health and social welfare reforms, a plan for city-county revenue sharing, and two multi-year highway construction and repair programs (1987 and 1995) totaling more than $26 billion, among many others.
Government had moved ahead with its primary mission to improve the lives of Kansans, to strengthen communities in hopes of building a stronger state. Then, as the millennium turned, it all began to go wrong. Terribly wrong.
(Next: What happened?)