History and Opinion
By Phil Roberts
Wyoming's First Public Schools: Early Emphasis on Education in the Equality State
By Phil Roberts
Wyoming Democrats in recent years often belittle the value of embracing the state's symbols, ceding them to the GOP who redefine their meanings without contradiction. It is an odd development given that Democrats were responsible for nearly all of the state's symbols. A Democrat introduced the women suffrage bill into the territorial legislature, culminating in Wyoming becoming the first government to give women equal political rights. The first women elected governor of any state, Nellie Tayloe Ross, was a Wyoming Democrat. Even the "bucking horse" symbol that universally identifies Wyoming on its license plate as well as the recently released state quarter, was commissioned by a Democrat, Secretary of State Lester Hunt. Add to that list the first organization in America to provide health care to its members (the frontier--era Fetterman Hospital Association) and the fact that Wyoming was one of the most ethnically diverse territories in America in the 19th century and it is clear that Democrats can embrace nearly all of what Wyomingites cherish in their past.
Treagle Train riders, mid-1960s
Prominent political figures were frequently guests on the "Treagle train," an excursion from Cheyenne to a UW football game in Laramie, sponsored annually by the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle newspapers. Shown here in this photograph from the middle 1960s are (left to right): Cliff Hansen, William Henry Harrison, Teno Roncalio, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., and Milward Simpson. Roosevelt, the eldest son of FDR, had served as undersecretary of commerce in the Kennedy administration and, in the Lyndon Johnson administration, as head of the Equal Opportunity Commission.
February 27, 2011
Text of Prepared Remarks for Nellie Tayloe Ross Dinner, Wyoming State Democratic Party, Cheyenne
(Following is the prepared speech by Phil Roberts for the Ross dinner.It is not the text of what he said. At the last minute, he decided to speakextemporaneously in the interest of conserving time and addressing other issuesraised earlier in the day by central committee discussions).
Thank you for inviting me to address this group on this very important occasion at a time of crossroads in our country and our state. Make no mistake. Whether freedom-loving people are in Libya, in Cairo, in Madison--or in Wyoming, we live in perilous times. Powerful forces, varying in their extremism more by degrees than by kind, seek to impose their own alien superstitions--their own attitudes of self-interest, greed and hatred on all of the rest of us. Just as it has been through the ages, it has fallen on all of us to see that these shadowy purveyors of hate and division are vanquished from the field by exposing them for the ignorant, greedy, reactionary, destructive people they are and the shadowy corporate interests that hide behind many of them.
I salute the Democratic legislators now serving here in what has to go down in history as one of the strangest sessions in the state's history. Strange--because extremists have used the session, from the opening days, to drop in profoundly un-American, unconstitutional, divisive and time-wasting bills--and even stranger because some of those acts are making it into law!
Our Democratic legislators have waged a hard uphill fight by facing down those crazy ideas, hatched in right-wing think-tanks far away from Wyoming. In fact, by and large, our Democratic legislatorsare a model for how to defeat extremism even when Democratic numbers are small. This tiny Democratic minority marshaled support from the more discerning and independent of those from the other party by applying common sense, our state's rich heritage and, indeed, even shame in order to try to defang the most awful parts of the out-of-state extremists' agenda.
But, my friends, this battle against out-of-state extremists isn't unique now and here. It hasn't been the first time in our state's history that we've had to stand up to protect our Wyoming people and our Wyoming way from such sinister forces. As one very wise historian has observed, "History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes." I've refined that to our Wyoming natural environment by saying that "history doesn't repeat itself, but it echoes--it reflects." Those echoes/reflections can be from the darkness of the past as well as from the light of more progressive times.
I'm here tonight to talk about some of those times--points in history where our party, often small in number, have been forced torise to the occasion to bring back sanity--bring back the Wyoming way, bring back principle to our common discourse and soundness to ourpublic policy. It never has been easy.
Take 1920, for instance. Nationally, the Democratic Party under an ailing President Wilson allowed itself to be consumed by racist elements from the South and anti-immigrant, anti-workingman hatred from the industrial North.In Wyoming, rather than to resist the darker impulses perpetrated by enemies of freedom in both national parties, the WyomingDemocratic Party meekly, timidly backed away from the principles we as a party should have been standing for. For instance, the partyrepeated Republican extremist assertions that communism pervaded the labor movement, our party acquiesced with prohibitionist zealots who insistedthat welet themimpose theirsocial mores on all of society and our party largely knuckled under when political opportunists demanded that wehad to use government forcetostamp out alldissent. Extremists exerted strong pressures on the more progressive of the Republicans, too,who also caved to their extremist wing. In the resulting hysteria of what was the campaign of 1920, "me-too ism" by Democrats, opportunistic screaming by some Republicans and most politicians caving in to the more extremist elements in America resulted in a Democratic party collapse. The party in Wyomingfell to ONE MEMBER in the State House of Representatives and a handful of hold-over Democrats in the upper house. Thurman Arnold from Laramie with a message of progressivism and Democratic principle was able to overcome the tide; many of his fellow Democrats and Progressives could not. And against such odds, thedie was cast for what happened in the next few years.
In the following legislature, extremists successfully pressed for a state law making consumption of alcohol a felony. (Sale was already banned by anill-advised constitutional change).The extremists in the majority Republican partypassed laws empowering, for the first time, a statewide police force with thesingular task of seeing that the entire population adopt THEIR views of what constituted proper social behavior.Of course, much of this was done by a majority that had been influenced and controlled by out-of-state demagogues who had ridden roughshod over the Wyoming way-- of individual choice in a person's private life. A few had been duped; many others went along with their extremist out-of-state handlers.
At the same time, out-of-state big business tycoons and corporate shills decried labor unions as bastions of communism--as places where un-American principles were being practiced. After all, what is more un-American than working as a community to benefit everyone within it? What is more un-American than seeing that hard work is fairly compensated? What is more un-American than balancing the interests of those providing the capital with those putting in the labor? And not a few Wyomingites were temporarily taken in by the heated rhetoric--the angry lies drawn from feveredimaginations rivaling that of today's Glen Beck.
As the decade wore on, most Wyomingites recognized how they'd been fooled. The Democratic Party, albeitnot entirely cleansed of all of its own extremist elements, returned to take up the fight for working people. The Partyalso stood up for individual freedom and political equality. The Klan gainedfew adherents in the state. Radicals and extremists of similar stripes fared little better. And Wyomingites would not be fooled again into allowing state power to impose someone else's antiquated--twisted--standards of what those out-of-stateextremists thought all Wyomingites ought to do.
But the fight in the 1920s wasn't just about Prohibition and using state resources to send law enforcement against every drinker in the state. Even more fundamentally, the biggest challenges in Wyoming's historyhave beeneconomic.
There were many early in the 20th century who said that while government could interfere in our private lives with respect to social issues, it had no place in interfering with the economy. Government regulation was evil; everyone knew that if left to its own devices, bigbusiness regulates itself.Out-of-state owners of Wyoming resources smiled, cashed checks,economized bydriving down wages by setting various groups against each other. (Many of these out-of-state corporations, of course, owned huge tracts of land given to them in earlier days by the federal government, they took huge subsidies to build tracks across the state, they dug new coal mines without concern for environmental consequences, drilled for oil practically for free on public lands).
Banks popped up throughout the state--thinly capitalized, virtually unregulated. Some preyed off depositors and borrowers while others blithely held the notion fed to them by big business that the market would protect them from any evil--except for one evil, of course. Regulation by government. That was the one evil every voter had to guard against. Regulation, they said, would kill the market; run out-of-state speculators out; no longer allow scamers to sell stock to the foolish; empower workers to question why profits alwaystrumped wages.
Drought struck the agricultural areas of Wyoming and. after three or four successive years without crops, many of the so-called dry-land farmers simply went broke. In most Wyoming small towns and cities, those unregulated banks holding those uninsured deposits of thousands of customers found themselves overextended. In their exuberance to practice unfettered capitalism, the bankersfound themselves with mountains of non-performing loans and thousands of parched acres gained back in foreclosures. Bad loans made it impossible to meet depositors' demands and, in one year, runs on banks led to collapse of 25 institutions in one year--six on one day. Many, so insistent that government had to keep hands off, now wondered, Where was government now when WE need it?Wasn't it government that was supposed to have been guarding against our own greed in issuing loans blindly to all comers? Anddepositors started asking, where was government when it was supposed to bewatching after our savings and guaranteeing us from loss when those banks collapsed that we had so trusted before?And many others wondered whowas there to take care of those who, through no fault of their own, ended up plagued by drought and grasshoppers, poor crop prices and creditors? And the creditors, many of them small businessmen, asked why they had to bear the burden of others' greed and mistakes without the government lending them a hand?
Nationally, RepublicanPresident Hoover remained ever mindful that the "real problem with the economy" wasn't greed, speculation, unemployment, hardship--the real problems weregovernment deficits, high taxes on rich corporations who couldn't hire workers due to such burdensand too much government influence that sapped vigor from the national economy. But even to Hoover, deficit reduction didn't look like it was working. He implemented a meek effort to prime the economic pump.He set up theReconstruction Finance Corporation. Through it,the federal governmentpumped millions intofailing big banks, brokerage houses and big business. Hoover admonished all of them to use the federal money wisely, to hire employees and get America working again. Those who didn't spend the federal funds on themselves sat and waited for someone else to take the first step. Unemployment grew; layoffs increased in number; the cries of the disaffected grew in intensity while the bankers retreated in comfort to their Florida hide-aways or summer retreats in the Rockies.
In Wyoming, Republican state officials through a similar impulse to fight economic collapse, cut government spending on all programs (except for the huge subsidies handed out to build water projects that, if they were ever built stood to benefit onlythe few land promoters), reduced taxes on big businesses like the Union Pacific Railroad, and sat back budget-balancing while cities, counties and local charities tried to take care of the needy, the indigent and the hungry.The city of Laramie, flat broke, tried to pay the few remaining city workers--six cops, a sanitation worker and acoupleof men in the streets department--with scrip. Local businesses, strapped for cash with their backs against the wall from wholesalers demanding payment, wouldn't honor these future promises to pay, guaranteed only by the full faith and credit of a nearly bankrupted city.
As though it was government and not greed and exuberant over-indulgence that had caused the crash, Republicans sat back, patiently for their cure-all--the business cycle-- to eventually turn things around. When federal government help was infrequently offered in the form of the post office wanting to build new buildings and seeking to hire local unemployed workers to do it. one Wyoming town flatly turned down the offer. As historian T. A. Larson put it, "the money went to help the unemployed in other states" and Wyoming workers suffered through the arrogance of Republicans who could afford to keep food on their own table and their own bills paid while they waited for the business cycle to do its magic for those not so fortunate.
And we all know the story from there--about how it fell to the Democratic Party, to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Democrats in Wyoming to bring order to the chaos and collapse of what was the Great Depression. Fortunately for America, Democrats came forward with some answers as to how government ought to have worked--oughtto have been there to curb the greed and excess, stand up for thefarmer, the worker, the middle-class sliding rapidlyinto oblivion.
The New Deal, demonized by today's extremists as socialistic and anti-American, cameforward and saved American capitalism. The New Deal put Wyomingites back to work, constructed hundreds of buildings--many still in use today--and implemented unemployment insurance programs through which those who were currently employed could get by if the time came when their jobs disappeared. It was hard for some Wyomingites to admit that we had needs in this state that could no longer be met either through the private sector or through local and state government. As part of this federal union, Wyoming Democrats wisely asked for our share of federal government help, in the names of those who otherwise would have starved in silence or be driven to radicalism by desperation.
The New Deal created Social Security so that the elderly might survive and with some dignity. Many of them had worked their entire lives only to suffer poverty when the last ounce of work had been extracted from their tired bodies and their life-savings sapped by bank failures. The New Deal empowered workers by passing laws recognizing that labor organizing benefited not only workers but the employers for whom they gave their all in skills and sweat--and the greater society.
And, meanwhile in Wyoming, from the 133 unfettered, unregulated, uninsured banks operating in 1920, just 34 were left solvent in 1931. Nearly 100 banks had gone down, leaving their employees jobless, their depositors broke and their directors with thousands of acres of unproductive foreclosed farms, Their borrowers were forced to give up dreams of the rural life promised by the Jeffersonian ideal of every American owning land and a small farm. For those fortunate enough to make it through the hard times, the New Deal brought electricity to the ranches and small towns. By 1950, 95 percent of Wyoming farmers and ranchers were connected to power lines, up from barely a quarter that number a generation earlier.
FDIC--the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation--came from the New Deal. It didn't insure every deposit--it never had the money to do it. But, government regulation squeezed out dodgy operators, schemers, plungers and self-serving thieves. New laws required disclosure, reserves of capital and protected the depositors while restoring faith in those banks who would be responsible to their customers.
And, politically, the response in Wyoming to the New Deal programs giving Wyomingites new economic opportunities was to elect Democrats to the Wyoming legislature. By 1934, majorities in both Houses were Democrats; party candidates won all five statewide offices; and two Democrats represented our state in the three-person delegation in the U. S. Capitol.
It is important at this point to remind ourselves and fellow Wyomingites that when crisis times had come and Franklin Roosevelt's programs were instituted to help all of us, Wyoming Democrats and, indeed, most Wyoming people didn't decry federal government interference. Just as it isn't the Wyoming way to arrogantly try to impose one's own social views on everyone, it is not the Wyoming way to watch our fellow citizens suffer when through collective action of government something can be done. The Wyoming way is proud--we don't like to accept handouts. But, also, we don't want to see the defenseless humiliated, destroyed, driven from the state due to conditions they have no control over. We value hard work, but we also recognize that, when the chips are down, we can't expect soulless, out-of-state corporations to value it as we do.
Sometimes, it takes us--US in the form of our government--to take the initiative so that all of us canbenefit from the work and talents of our own people. As I stated earlier, our state's infrastructure was built by it, but so was our literature, our art, our tourist industry, indeed even our symbols came from government working in Wyoming. (After all, it was during the depths of the Great Depression thatNew Deal Democrat Lester Hunt put the bucking horse and rider on the state's auto license plate).
Like the bucking horse and rider that is emblematic of the Wyoming way, we Democrats often act like that mythic rider--that silent cowboy on a horse. The cowboy of the open range took the measure of every person, not by race or religion, but by how well he could rope and ride. But that cowboy also wouldn't brag about what he had done. It isn't the Wyoming way to brag about one's good deeds, about how we helped friends in times of distress or perfect strangers who often are still surprised by our spontaneous generosity.
But there are times when bragging OUGHT to done and that, my friends, is what we as Democrats ought to be doing. DEMOCRATS brought us Social Security. DEMOCRATS brought us collective bargaining for working people to help balance the money powers of out-of-state soulless corporations. DEMOCRATS gave us dignity in work through programs rebuilding our infrastructure. DEMOCRATS made the middle-class through programs like the GI Bill and greater access for all to higher education.
Indeed, in Wyoming, DEMOCRATS brought us the severance taxes through which millions of people throughout America pay a few mils on each power bill in order that we're able to educate our children, build our highways and provide for the health and safety of our own citizens without burdening the few with huge tax bills. (Gov. Hathaway, a Republican, often gets the credit for the severance tax, but it was decades in the making. The husband of the woman pictured behind me--William Ross--tried for the tax in 1924; Ernest Wilkerson attempted it again, in 1966. Without their efforts, it might never have come about. And it took Democrats, working with enlightened Republicans, to create ways to protect our natural environment while, at the same time, gaining the benefits from what lies under our soil).
In conclusion, I haven't the time to relate other instances when we, as a party, have stood against extremism. In the 1950s extremists in Wyoming tried to convince us that our fellow citizens of African American descent didn't need equal rights. With moderates in the other party, we passed the state Civil Rights Act, knowing the extremists had been lying. In the early 1960s, extremists brought into Wyoming the alien so-called "right-to-work" law. We fought it and lost. Despite the impediments the law laid down, the Wyoming way--organizing as a community, indeed, union organizing--managed to continue, but not without suffering serious damage. And we fought against extremists who thought minimum wage laws interfered with good relations between workers and soulless corporations. I remember years ago when I was in school in Cody, our Senator Gale McGee faced off with Birch Society extremists at a public meeting where the extremists up there were accusing the President, the Congress and the Supreme Court of being communists and only the Birchers, with their agenda of hate and intolerance, represented true America. McGee won reelection; the Civil Rights bill passed; LBJ's medicare program came into existence; environmental laws passed; and the Birchers faded away, their out-of-state, big corporate sponsors angry that their means had been challenged and their ends exposed to the public view.
So as we leave this room tonight, we shouldn't leave dejected and downhearted, feeling sorry for the current state of our party. We've had these fights with extremists before--against even greater odds. We've shown before that by adhering to our core principles of standing for economic opportunity, fighting for social justice, demanding political equality and protecting individual freedoms, we help build a better state for everyone.
Indeed, we invented the "Wyoming way"--and WE are the culture of this state. Make no mistake. The extremists won't relent with their shadowy financed attacks on Wyomingites. They will attack us as outsiders. (I'm waiting for someone to point out that the only newspaper announcement of my birth in Lusk, Wyoming, is a newspaper item in the Lusk Herald. Of course, it must have been planted by a conspiracy involving J. B. Griffith--at the time, Herald publisher and Republican state chairman. Surely, Roberts can't be from HERE!). They'll attack us as not being part of the "Wyoming culture." But, hey, it was a Democrat who created the bucking horse and, I dare say, lots of the dispossessed, itinerant, disadvantaged, low-wage workers called open range cowboys in the 19th century who are part of the symbol almost certainly would be Democrats today. But taking back our symbols is the topic for another talk.
We leave here, buoyed by ourproud legacy of always standing for working people and the middle class. Deservedly, we can take some pride in it. But, but as my late grandmother always said, "Every tub sits on its own bottom." It is up to us to continue that legacy, continue that fight against extremism, continue creating a better state, and all the while doing it the Wyoming way by fighting for individual liberty, economic opportunity, political equality and social justice. And throughout, we can be happy in our laborsto point out to everyone we are "proud Wyoming Democrats."
Thank you and safe travels home or as an old friend in Azerbaijan always said in parting, "Good roads!"
State Flower: Indian Paintbrush (Castillija linariaefolia), 1917
State Bird: Meadowlark (American icteroid), 1927
State Tree: Cottonwood (Populus Sargentii), 1947
State Stone: Jade, 1967
State Mammal: Bison, 1985
State Fossil: Fossilized fish Knightia, 1987
State Fish: Cutthroat Trout (Salmo clarki), 1987
State Reptile: Horned toad , 1993
State Dinosaur: Triceratops, 1994. Wyoming was the first state to designate a "state dinosaur."