Jump to Navigation

Was Governor John A. Martin a Prohibitionist?

by James C. Malin

November 1931 (Vol. 1, No. 1), pages 63 to 73
Transcribed by Lynn H. Nelson; HTML editing by Tod Roberts
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

THE adoption of the policy of prohibition of the liquor traffic by constitutional amendment in 1880 brought little but embarrassment to many Kansas politicians. When it became clear that popular sentiment supported strongly the new departure, those who wished political preferment at the hands of the voters found that they must conform, outwardly at least, on this highly explosive matter.

John A. Martin, editor of the Atchison Champion since 1858, was opposed to prohibition and spoke out vigorously during the campaigns for adoption of the prohibition amendment and for the enactment of the enforcement legislation. He had been deprived of the nomination for governor in 1878 by a peculiar combination of circumstances not associated with the liquor question. At that time temperance, as distinguished from prohibition, was an important factor in politics and Martin gave it his full endorsement. During the next four years the radical position on the liquor question developed within the St. John wing of the Republican party and dominated party councils. During the same period the Democratic party offered itself as the champion of the liquor interests as well as of the "practical" temperance people. The defeat of Governor St. John in 1882 by an antiprohibition Democrat, George W. Glick, meant the downfall of the radical faction in the Republican party, although it did not mean the overthrow of prohibition. A Republican legislature was chosen which refused to resubmit the prohibition amendment. But Martin had one political ambition -- to become governor of Kansas. Politically speaking, it was his turn in 1884, except that he was not understood to have followed the trend of opinion in the state on the subject of liquor. Could he be nominated, and if nominated, could he be elected as an antiprohibitionist? An ambitious, practical politician could have adjusted himself easily to the necessities of the situation, but could a man of John A. Martin's convictions? Shortly before the meeting of the nominating conventions, however, he indorsed prohibition. Was his change sincere, and if so, what caused him to reverse his position? Was it a shift for the sake of political expediency dictated by a long-standing personal ambi-



tion which could not be gratified otherwise under the changed conditions? The liquor faction chose to accept the second view, and likewise many of the radical prohibitionists believed him insincere. The latter prepared to join the Prohibition party if Martin was nominated by the Republicans.

The selection of Martin to lead the Republican party in 1884 placed upon him the responsibility of rehabilitating a demoralized party and reconciling factional conflicts which had developed as a result of the attempt of the radical St. John prohibitionists to dominate the party. The line of argument used during the campaign of 1884 to explain his position on the prohibitory amendment, and to reconcile differences among Republicans who were at odds on the question, emphasized the practical considerations involved and appealed to reason. The single aim of Republicans should be to insure a Republican victory, and with this as the goal of the campaign he argued that the amendment had been adopted by a majority of the voters, and that it had been upheld by the court as legal in all its aspects, therefore it was the duty of all good citizens to conform to the expressed will of the majority. So far as his personal position was concerned it is best expressed in his speech at Washington, Kansas, October 24, 1884:

"I want to be fairly, explicitly understood. If I am elected governor, when in the presence of Almighty God and the sovereign people of Kansas, I raise my hand to take the oath of office, I shall not do so with falsehood on my lips and perjury in my heart. I will not equivocate. I will do my duty, under the constitution and laws I have sworn to see faithfully executed. I make no apology to any person under the shining stars for holding this faith . . . . Alike as a citizen and as a public officer I shall at all times maintain and uphold these ideas of private and public duty, because the whole fabric of our American system of government rests upon them." [1]

AS governor his first message to the state legislature January 13, 1885, restated his position invoking the authority of the expressed will of the people and asked for legislation to provide certain adjustments in detail of the enforcement law to make it less obnoxious and, as he hoped, more effective. Even at this time the general public was not wholly convinced of his sincerity on the liquor question, although there were few who doubted his personal integrity. Ex-Governor Charles Robinson, a vehement opponent of prohibition, a man who had spent most of his life in Kansas politics and who passed


judgment on public men in the light of that experience, wrote to Martin cynically on January 15:

"Today's mail brings your inaugural & message, both of which I have read with deep interest & gratification. The recommendations are excellent & your navigation of the fluids is worthy of a Columbus. You have dodged both Scylla and Charybdis with consummate skill & I shall now watch the nautical maneuvers of the legislature with brother Anthony as pilot with great interest." [2]

The opponents of prohibition found little comfort, however, in the action taken by the governor and the legislature during this session. The public was not fully informed regarding the background of prohibition legislation enacted but Martin explained it privately to a correspondent.

"Concerning the prohibition law of 1885, to which you refer, every section of it was drawn up, and the law was presented to the Legislature, by the officers and Executive Committee of the State Temperance Union, the recognized organization of the prohibitionists of the State. If it has any faults, neither the Legislature nor the Governor is responsible for them. The Legislature has never hesitated a moment in passing all laws regarded by the prohibitionists themselves as essential to the enforcement of the prohibitive amendment." [3]

He pointed out in this letter, as he often did in writing on the subject, that prohibition was not in danger in Kansas from its enemies, only from its fanatical friends. The philosophy of moderation on which he based his own course is epitomized in another letter:

"Marlborough said that it was patience that conquered everything. He is a very stupid man who, when everything is drifting in the direction of his own ideas, turns the current by his own intemperate zeal." [4]

At the end of this article four letters are printed. These have been selected from Martin's confidential letterbooks because they seem to answer as fully as seems possible the question which is put by the title of this paper. In the light of the evidence the reader may frame his answer to his own satisfaction. The first of these letters was written to Sol Miller and was occasioned by two editorials which appeared in Miller's weekly newspaper, The Kansas Chief for November 19 and December 3, 1885. Under the title of "Done Monkeying" Miller declared that he intended to remain


straight Republican henceforth regardless of candidates except in cases where a candidate was notoriously dishonest. He analyzed the last three campaigns and concluded that the Democratic party was not sincere, not even in prohibition. Whenever prohibition itself was an issue he would vote against it, but where candidates were to be voted on he would vote Republican. If Kansas was to have prohibition, however, he preferred to have it "under Republican rule," rather than to use it to break up the Republican party. After awaiting reactions to the first editorial he wrote the second "The Returns All In" in which he renewed his pledge.

"We are honestly opposed to political prohibition, and were willing to go half way to meet members of any other party in united opposition to it. But we were not willing to go all the way over. This was the only thing that would satisfy the Democratic party."

While Martin was influenced by several factors in the situation the general argument which pervaded the letter to Miller might be stated as the necessity for eliminating the evil influence of liquor from politics. More particularly this argument centered around two points. First, he had come to the conclusion that the basic aim of the liquor interests was complete freedom from regulation, and that they would join any faction or party which held out a hope of bringing about a relaxation of control. As soon as this was realized they would desert freely their allies and join any other party who would assist in carrying a step further the removal of liquor restrictions. This process would stop only when they had gained their goal. Martin came to see clearly that it was not prohibition that liquor was fighting, it was regulation of any kind. When the issue was stated thus, his course became clear. Second, the liquor interests were using the prohibition question to break the ranks of the Republican party. To the full-fledged Republican of Martin's type such an act was little less serious than disloyalty to the nation.

The second of the letters in the series was written for the purpose of setting forth the political situation in the state with relation to the prohibition issue. His conclusion emphasized the contention that the liquor interests were definitely allied with the Democratic party, that they were in the minority, and that therefore the Republican party had nothing to gain by a backward step on the prohibition question.

The third letter was written to Judge David Martin of Atchison, November 10, 1886. By this time Governor Martin had dropped


all arguments in justification of prohibition. He was now speaking with all the ardor of a confirmed prohibitionist in expressing the one ambition for his term of office -- the real enforcement of prohibition. The purpose of the letter was to secure the assistance of the judge in framing the proposed "metropolitan police law" which would enable the governor to enforce fully the liquor laws in cities of the first and second classes, when the local authorities did not perform their duties. The bill of Senator R. N. Allen, of Chanute, was the foundation of the proposed system, and Judge Martin formulated such changes as he considered necessary to make it effective. These changes were incorporated into the bill which was introduced by Allen January 12, 1887. It had a stormy legislative history but finally a substitute was accepted and signed' by Governor Martin March 1, to become effective the following day.

The fourth of the letters was written in answer to an appeal for assistance in the prohibition campaign then in progress in Texas. It is similar in many respects to letters written to leaders in other states where prohibition was a pending issue. In a sense it completes the cycle in Governor Martin's expressions on the subject. When Kansas was voting on prohibition in 1880 he was writing in the interest of the opposition. In 1887 he was defending prohibition in Kansas and throwing his influence into the balance in support of it in several other states.


Personal. DECEMBER 4, 1885.

MY DEAR MILLER -- I have read your article of two weeks ago, and that published in the Chief this week, with very great pleasure. I have never doubted, however, that sooner or later you would reach the conclusions you now have. I never doubted because I knew that, like myself, you were a Republican born and bred, and could not possibly become a Democrat.

I got my fill of the antiprohibition-Democrat business in the spring of 1883. You probably remember that the Republicans carried Atchison in the spring of 1881, electing Sam King as mayor, and a Republican council. The previous administration had been extravagant and reckless, and went out of office leaving a floating debt of $16,000, and nothing to show for the large expenditures made. King was an antiprohibition Republican. He took charge of the city government just before the prohibition law went into effect. For two


years he protected the saloon keepers; had ordinances passed favoring them; and used all of the power of the city government to prevent prosecutions against them. He, however, demanded of them two things: First, that they should close these places on Sunday; and second, that they should not sell liquor to habitual drunkards or minors. And these rules he enforced.

From a business point of view, he made an unusually good mayor. He had, before the end of six months, paid off the floating debt; he made many improvements; and at the close of his term he went out leaving $40,000 in the treasury. The Republicans renominated him, by acclamation, and nearly every business man in the city supported him.

The previous fall Mayor King and hundreds of other Republicans in Atchison supported Glick. In the spring of 1883, when the Republicans nominated King, a confessed good officer, an antiprohibitionist who had protected the saloons for nearly two years, the Democrats put a candidate in the field against him, and every saloon keeper in the city, with possibly three exceptions, voted for and bitterly opposed King. Why? Simply because he had insisted that they should close on Sunday, and should not sell to minors and habitual drunkards.

his election satisfied me concerning three things: First, that the saloon keepers as a rule, were a lot of shameless ingrates, who were not only opposed to prohibition but to any and all restraints on their dirty business; second, that they were wedded to the Democratic party; and third, that the Democratic party was, in the prohibition business as in everything else, selfish and insincere.

I served notice on the saloons, immediately after that election, that I was against them from that time on. I made up my mind, then, that they were, no matter what we might say or do, against the Republican party, and that Republicans whether they wished to or not would be compelled to fight them. Everything I have seen since that time has only confirmed and strengthened my convictions.

I am against the saloons, first, because they are naturally and inevitably against the Republican party; and second, because no decent man can afford to defend or endorse the saloon business. In Kansas we have got to down the saloons, or they will down the Republican party. A saloon keeper with his white apron on behind his bar is a powerful political factor; when he is sent to jail for thirty days for selling whisky, he has no more political influence than a horse thief.


I am not, I think you know, a "crank" on any subject. Certainly I am not on prohibition. But I am, as you are, a born Republican, and I am against everything that assails the Republican party whether it be the prohibition "cranks" of the St. John variety at one extreme of the line, or the whisky "cranks" at the other extreme.

I didn't mean, when I started, to write so long a letter. I only wanted to express my gratification that you have written the articles you have, and to congratulate you on the position you have taken.

Yours very truly,


Hon. Sol Miller, Troy, Kan.


Personal. AUGUST 14, 1885.
J. B. Lawrence, Esq.:

MY DEAR SIR -- I write to express my sincere appreciation of the kindly and generous articles published in the Journal, concerning my official action and utterances I I only hope that I may, in all that I do, deserve the good words you have said concerning me.

My term of office has, thus far, had crowded into it an unusual number of difficult and delicate questions. The legislature had hardly adjourned before the Missouri Pacific "strike" occurred, and this was followed by the pleuropneumonia trouble, the Texas cattle difficulty, the Indian scare, and a dozen or more serious local complications, all presenting phases of danger or annoyance. So I have kept unusually busy and it is a source of gratification to be assured that I have made few mistakes.

The position of the governor, in this state, is now one of extreme delicacy and difficulty. There is danger, in the prohibition question, on every side, as I suppose you know: First, prohibition is the constitutional and statute law of the state. Whether right or not, an executive officer must recognize the law. Second, more than one-half of the Republican voters of the state are advocates of, and firm believers in prohibition, and any backward step, by the party organization, on this question, would alienate their sympathy and support. Probably one-fourth of the Republican voters care little whether prohibition is or is not enforced, while the remaining one-fourth is opposed to prohibition. Third, the fanatical prohibitionists -- the St. John faction, who want a third party organization, and who are not Republicans -- are actively working to alienate more Republicans


who believe in prohibition from their allegiance to their party; while the fanatical antiprohibitionists are, on the other hand, as actively at work endeavoring to alienate those Republicans who do not believe in prohibition. Fourth, the Republican party of Kansas, has lost, permanently, the support of the liquor interests. These interests are identified with the Democratic party, and cannot be brought back.

I believe this is a fair statement of the situation in Kansas, and you will easily understand how difficult it. is, with all these conflicting ideas and sentiments, to preserve harmony in the party ranks, and keep the organization united. To. take any backward step would alienate the support of fully one-half of the Republican voters, and it would not bring back those who, on account of prohibition, have already left the party.

On the other hand, it is equally important to avoid radical or extreme measures, which might eliminate those Republicans who are indifferent on the question of prohibition.

The "cranks" at each extreme of the line are equally annoying and unreasonable. The prohibition "crank" is always insisting that something unusual and absurd shall be done, while the antiprohibitionist "crank" is always demanding that the party shall do something which would be equally unwise and unpolitic.

It may fairly be said that the "fool friends" of prohibition are its most dangerous enemies, while the "fool enemies" of prohibition are its most efficient helpers. The "fool friends" of the cause nominated St. John for a third term and adopted a platform which alienated the support of the moderate people, thus incurring a Democratic victory; the "fool enemies" of prohibition whip ministers, deny the rights of free speech, interrupt the orderly proceedings of public meetings, and insist that the saloon business is as honorable and reputable as any other business, thus intensifying and promoting the public sentiment against the liquor traffic.

Pardon this long letter. But I want to give the Journal my impression of the condition of affairs in this state, so that you may understand the situation. Of course, this letter is not for publication. It is personal and private.

Please accept for yourself and your associates on the Journal my grateful thanks for the constant kindness you have shown me.

Yours truly, JNO. A. MARTIN. [6]




MY DEAR JUDGE -- Among the many letters of congratulations I have received since the election, none were more highly esteemed and more gratifying to me than was yours. Public office is attended with many embarrassments and annoyances, but it has its compensations, and not the least among these are assurances of confidence and regard expressed by citizens of such high character. and great judgment as yourself.

The late canvass was a very arduous and embarrassing one. All the forces of the opposition were massed against me and in every section of the state there was a definite understanding that every one was to be traded off for votes for Moonlight. Under such circumstances, the majority I received was in the highest degree satisfactory.

I have one ambition which I wish to realize during my term of office, and that is that on the expiration I may be able to surrender the office to my successor, and say to him that there is not an open saloon within the limits of the state of Kansas. You probably fully understand, however, that while the constitution of the state says that the governor shall see that the laws are faithfully executed, the laws at present upon the statute book really confer upon him very little authority to enforce its directions. More than ten years ago Governor Osborne called the attention of the legislature to the embarrassing fact, in a special message, but nothing was done at that time to correct this defect, nor has anything been done since. Under our laws, their enforcement largely rests with the local officers of the several counties and cities, and, although the constitution distinctly imposes upon the governor the duty of seeing that the laws are enforced, our lawmakers have failed to provide the machinery by which this duty may be discharged.

I fully realize that it is dangerous to confer upon any executive officer arbitrary powers which might, if in the hands of a tyrannical or bad man, be abused. But surely some provision should be made by law for giving the governor power to see that the local officers are not the tools and creatures of unlawful combinations, or are not the willing abettors of lawbreakers. It has been suggested that in our cities a metropolitan police should be established. There are some objections to any system of this character. It is, however,

NOVEMBER 10, 1886.


notorious that the city governments, in many of the cities of the first and second classes, are in entire sympathy with the liquor interests, and really encourage and assist them in avoiding the penalties of the law. This is true, also, of some of the county officers of several of the counties of the state. Now can you suggest a remedy for this, or could you find time to draw up a law that would confer upon the governor sufficient authority to carry out what the constitution enjoins upon him, avoiding, at the same time, the conferring of extraordinary or arbitrary powers? I am sure you will realize how difficult and embarrassing the situation is, especially to the incumbent of this office. I am anxious to perform the duties which the constitution imposes upon me, and yet I lack all the essential power to see that the laws are faithfully executed. Surely something ought to be done by the lawmakers to supply this defect in our laws. But I am not lawyer enough to suggest the proper remedy. If you can do so, I will be under many obligations, and I feel confident that your experience and knowledge of the laws, and of their existing defects, may enable you to suggest the proper remedies.

Accept my sincere thanks for your kind congratulations and the assurance that I cordially appreciate your good wishes.

Very sincerely yours, JNO. A. MARTIN. [7]

To Judge David Martin, Atchison, Kansas.


JUNE 15. 1887.

Judge J. Mellhany, Baird, Texas.

MY DEAR SIR -- I acknowledge the receipt of your letter of June 13th. If the opponents of temperance reform in Texas deny the authenticity of a printed message to the legislature, it seems to me that it would be useless to endeavor to convince them of the authenticity of a written letter. I gave, in my last message to the legislature of Kansas, my candid and honest opinions concerning the results of the prohibition law in this state. I was not, originally, in favor of the prohibition amendment. In fact, I voted against it when it was submitted to the people for approval or rejection. But a personal and official observation of the effects of prohibition, during the past six years, has thoroughly convinced me that, in so far


as Kansas is concerned, our prohibition law has abolished fully nine-tenths of all the drinking and drunkenness in the state; has added very largely to the general prosperity and happiness of the people; has abolished the always pernicious influence of the saloon in politics; and has made the people of Kansas the soberest people in this country.

I do not claim, and never have claimed, that our prohibition laws have entirely abolished drinking and drunkenness. To expect that a vice, existing for centuries under the protection of the law, can be wholly abolished in a few brief years, would be absurd. But we have wholly obliterated the saloon in Kansas, and with it have abolished unnumbered evils that are inseparable from the saloon. The open doors of the saloon no longer tempt the youth of our state to dissipation, and to the forming, through social influences, of habits which, in the end, make drunkards of them. We have steadily and thoroughly reduced, almost to a minimum, the evils of the drinking habit. And I feel confident that the next generation in Kansas, if the present laws are sustained and enforced, will be a soberer and purer generation than the present.

If this expression of my views will be of any interest and service to the cause of temperance in Texas, you are at liberty to use it as you please.

Yours very respectfully,



1. "The Republican Party," John A. Martin Address. Collected by D. w. Wilder. (Topeka, privately printed, 1888), pp. 60-63, at 60, 61.
2. Correspondence of Kansas Governors, Martin (personal). Hereafter cited as C. K. G., Martin (personal).
3. Martin to Judge James A. Ray, Manhattan, Kansas, July 13, 1886. C. K. G., Martin, (Letterpress books, personal), vol. VII, p. 294.
4. Martin to J: R. Detwiler, Erie, Kansas, December 4, 1885, ibid., vol. V, pp. 51-55, at 58.
5. Ibid., vol. V, pp. 61-67.
6. Ibid., vol III, pp. 46-47.
7. Ibid., vol. VIII, pp. 388-390.
8. Ibid., vol. X, pp. 154-155.