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“If A Diogenes Prefers Poverty”: Lewelling Defends the Rights of the Unemployed

The word “tramp” came into common usage in the 1870s as a disparaging description of homeless men thrown out of work by the economic depression and forced to take to the road in search of a job or food. Many Americans viewed tramps with a combination of fear and disgust. Fears of the “tramp menace” that had been so strong in the seventies were revived during the even more devastating depression that began in 1893. Most government officials and business leaders reacted with horror at the prospect of jobless men wandering the roads. A notable exception was the Populist governor of Kansas, Lorenzo Dow Lewelling. His executive proclamation of December 4, 1893, defended the rights of the homeless against arbitrary arrest by local police. His proclamation, published in the Topeka Daily Capital on December 5, 1893, became known as the “Tramp Circular.” Lewelling’s sympathy for the tramping unemployed may have come, in part, from personal experience; he himself had wandered the roads in search of work in the 1870s depression.

In the reign of Elizabeth, the highways were filled with the throngs of the unemployed poor, who were made to “move on,” and were sometimes brutally whipped, sometimes summarily hanged, as “sturdy vagrants” or “incorrigible vagabonds.” In France, just previous to the revolution, the punishment of being poor and out of work was, for the first offense, a term of years in the galleys, for the second offense, the galleys for life. In this country, the monopoly of labor saving machinery and its devotion to selfish instead of social use, have rendered more and more human beings superfluous, until we have a standing army of the unemployed numbering even in the most prosperous times not less than one million able bodied men; yet, until recently it was the prevailing notion, as it is yet the notion of all but the work-people themselves and those of other classes given to thinking, and whosoever, being able bodied and willing to work can always find work to do, and section 571 of the general statutes of 1889 is a disgraceful reminder how savage even in Kansas has been our treatment of the most unhappy of our human brothers.

The man out of work and penniless is, by this legislation, classed with “confidence men.” Under this statute and city ordinances of similar import, thousands of men, guilty of no crime but poverty, intent upon no crime but that of seeking employment, have languished in the city prisons of Kansas or performed unrequited toil on “rock piles” as municipal slaves, because ignorance of economic conditions had made us cruel. The victims have been the poor and humble for whom police courts are courts of last resort—they can not give bond and appeal. They have been unheeded and uncared for by the busy world which wastes no time visiting prisoners in jail. They have been too poor to litigate with their oppressors, and thus no voice from this underworld of human woe has ever reached the ear of the appellate court, because it was nobody’s business to be his brother’s keeper.

But those who sit in the seats of power are bound by the highest obligation to especially regard the cause of the oppressed and helpless poor. The first duty of the government is to the weak Power becomes fiendish if it be not the protector and sure reliance of the friendless, to whose complaints all other ears are dull. It is my duty “to see that the laws are faith-fully executed,” and among those laws is the constitutional provision that no instrumentality of the state “shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” And who needs to be told that equal protection of the laws does not prevail where this inhuman vagrancy law is enforced? It separates men into two distinct classes, differentiated as those who are penniless and those who are not, and declare the former criminals. Only the latter are entitled to the liberty guaranteed by the constitution. To be found in a city “without some visible means of support or some legitimate business,” is the involuntary condition of some millions at this moment, and we proceed to punish them for being victims of conditions which we, as a people, have forced upon them.

I have noticed in police court reports that “sleeping in a box car” is among the varieties of this heinous crime of being poor. Some police judges have usurped a sovereign power not permitted the highest functionaries of the states or of the nation, and victims of the industrial conditions have been peremptorily “ordered to leave town.”

The right to go freely from place to place in search of employment, or even in obedience of a mere whim, is part of that personal liberty guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States to every human being on American soil. If voluntary idleness is not forbidden; if a Diogenes prefer poverty; if a Columbus choose hunger and the discovery of a new race, rather than seek personal comfort by engaging in “some legitimate business,” I am aware of no power in the legislature or in city councils to deny; him the right to seek happiness in his own way, so long as he harms no other, rich or poor; but let simple poverty cease to be a crime.

In some cities it is provided by ordinance that if police court fines are not paid or secured the culprit shall be compelled to work out the amount as a municipal slave; and “rock piles” and “bull pens” are provided for the enforcement of these ordinances. And so it appears that this slavery is not imposed as a punishment, but solely as a means of collecting a debt.

Such city ordinances are in flagrant violation of constitutional prohibition. The “rock-pile” and the “bull pen” have only been used in degrading the friendless and poor, and are relics of the departed auction-block era cease to disgrace the cities of Kansas.

And let the dawn of Christmas day find the “rock-pile,” the “bull-pen” and the crime of being homeless and poor, obsolete in all the cities of Kansas governed by the metropolitan police act.

It is confidentially expected that their own regard for constitutional liberty and their human impulses will induce police commissioners to carry out the spirit as well as the letter of the foregoing suggestions.

L. D. Lewelling


Source: Topeka Daily Capital, 5 December 1893, Kansas State Historical Society. Reprinted in George Brown Tindall, ed., A Populist Reader: Selections from the Works of American Populist Leaders (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 166–68.

See Also:On the Road Again: Pinkerton on the Tramp
The Cook and the Governor: Seeing Eye-to-Eye on Unemployment