Vol. IV, No. 1, Summer 1990


A Jeffersonian Distillation

The Environment of Politics

by Robert Edwards



Congressman Dewey Short, who had given a speech in the Mansfield, Missouri city park, was visiting and drinking with friends. The hour grew late, and Short was invited to stay in town for the night with his friend, banker G. C. "Pete" Freeman.

Early the next morning, Pete went to wake Dewey, but the congressman was already dressed and ready to go, or so the story goes.

Both later claimed they wanted Short to get an early start because they didn't want anyone in town to see him leaving the Freeman residence. It would hurt both their reputations. Short was a Republican and Freeman a Democrat. Politics has interparty protocols which must be observed, as Short and Freeman knew, especially at election time (meaning, often, primary election time).

The tale, as related by Pete's son, newspaperman Dale Freeman, spread around Mansfield and Wright County in the late 1930s, thanks mainly to Short and Freeman who liked to tell it, no doubt with many embellishments along the way.

The Short-Freeman story illustrates some thing outsiders may not understand about politics in the Ozarks and about the political enviroment in which Ozarkers live. Bob Flanders' Center for Ozarks Studies at SMSU, believes that partisan politics is and has long been the cause of serious divisions in the population; but the divisions are primarily political and not personal, or worse, ideological. Flanders says, "The only serious disagreement among Ozarkers over political ideas from Andrew Jackson to Franklin Roosevelt was at the Battle of Wilson's Creek. ' Dewey Short and Pete Freeman might disagree about the personnel of elective office--matters of party politics--but they would not much disagree about government itself. They were, doubtless both suspicious of it. "All kin under the skin" as Dale Freeman puts it.

Protocols exist within parties too (greater differences may reside within parties than between them). Reportedly it took several years for former U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor of Sarcoxie to forgive an upstart John Ashcroft who decided at the last minute to run against Taylor in the 1972 GOP primary for Congress. Taylor was supposed to be the heir apparent to retiring Rep. Durward "Doc" Hall. Ashcroft gradually became more politically skilled, made peace with Taylor and eventually was elected attorney general and governor.

Those who settled early in southwest Missouri were a stubborn, independent, self-sufficient lot, who came seeking elbow room, grazing land, wood, and water. The attitude they brought with them was live and let live and don't, By God!, tell us what to do. Naturally, that bent infused the politics of the region and remains strong influence even today, regardless of party The counties of the Southeast Missouri Ozark have always been predominantly Democratic while the counties of the southwest Missouri Ozarks have been Republican since after the Civil War. Both, however, have a common leaning toward Iocalism, independence, smallness, antagonism to public spending, and active suspicion of all governments, especially those of state and nation.

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"Individualism, often pugnacious, cantankerous individualism, has always been an Ozarks trait," says Flanders, who traces the ideological lineage to the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. "Jefferson called for a republic of independent yeomen living rural lives in honesty and decency, doing their patriotic duty to be vigilant against tyranny--tyrants without, or tyrants within. That government governs best which governs least. In practice, the Jeffersonian philosophy became transformed into the culture of the State of Missouri."

Wrote historian Paul Nagel (Missouri, A History, Norton, 1976), "A world of small farms and modest businesses" took hold in the state from the 1820s to the 1840s. Nagel said to me in an interview, "It was [a Jeffersonian] distillation right there in the middle of the country." Ozarkers are descended from that tradition, although they embraced its more negative aspects, especially a distrust of all things big--big government, big business, big cities, big money, big ambition.

Republicans gained ascendancy in certain counties of southwest Missouri for reasons associated with the Civil War and its aftermath. My thinking on this subject is confirmed by conversations with attorney and historian Bob Wiley of Galena, Missouri, biographer of Dewey Short. Reasons seem to include:

--Atrocities committed by marauding guerrillas, whether pro-slavery or anti-slavery, during the war. Continued depredations after the war by some of the same bands, now outlaws, prompted residents to turn against the Democratic power structure in favor of Republicans who called for more law enforcement and an end to violence and lawlessness.
--A post-war oath of loyalty to the Union, by which public officials, professionals, and even ministers were required to renounce the Confederacy. Many refused to take the oath, and the voter rolls were correspondingly thinned. Elmo Ingenthron, in The Land of Taney, wrote that many Taney County Democrats would not sign the oath, and so could not vote in 1866. The majority Democrats suddenly became a minority. The Republican candidate was elected state senator with 101 votes; the Democrat candidate received only eight votes!
--Western migration resumed after the Civil War, and many newcomers to southwest Missouri came from northern states. Those settlers often brought pro-Union, Lincoln Republican sentiments with them.

But, Republican or Democrat, the Jeffersonian cast to the political mindset remained. "Government is power," said Sen. Emory Melton, a Republican state senator from Cassville, Missouri. "People here want a conservative application of the powers of government. If there's some way to accomplish something without government, that's the way they want to do it."

True to his own Ozarks-grown philosophy and that of the constituents in his eight-county district of southwest Missouri, Melton is a lawmaker who believes it is a good session of the General Assembly when few bills are passed.

Sometimes more activist politicians are elected in southwest Missouri, and recently several of them, Democrats, have been sent to the Missouri House from Springfield. Still, an arms-length, love-hate relationship with government remains strong in the region's political environment.

The Ozarks brand of conservatism has often been transmitted through those Missouri Ozarkers elected to the U.S. House of Representarives--men who consistently fought higher taxes and increasing government bureaucracy. They knew how to play to that "dammgummint" sentiment in the colorful stump speeches they made at the fairs, watermelon feeds and harvest-time festivals. Dewey Short, for instance, was a vocal opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal measures. In Dewey Short, Orator of the Ozarks, Bob Wiley wrote that Short "felt very deeply and strongly that he was witnessing an irreversible trend toward socialistic government which would slowly poison the freedom and independence of the American people. While many people today would hold that Short's alarm was unduly exaggerated, an equal number would argue that he was truly prophetic and that his greatest fears have been realized, culminating in the burgeon-lng bureaucracy of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

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Even Republican Rep. Gene Taylor was able to persuade Missouri Seventh District voters to keep him in office for 16 years before retiring in 1988--in part by railing against the evils of big government as run by the free-spending Democrats. All the while, however, he was working behind the scenes in Washington--dealing with the dreaded Democrats at times--to win federal funding of projects for his home district.

Democrats in the Seventh District try to persuade voters that a conservative Democrat could be even more effective than Taylor in the Democrat-controlled Congress. One Democrat candidate, Springfield attorney David Geisler, capitalizing on an economic downturn in 1982, ran an aggressive campaign and nearly upset Taylor. But the majority seemed to like Taylor's campaign words as well as his deeds as a congressman, divergent as they might have been. Taylor was returned for three more terms.

Mel Hancock stepped into the congressional picture in 1988, succeeding the retiring Taylor. Hancock, a Stone County native, gained statewide attention by leading a successful drive to convince voters to add a spending limitation amendment to the Missouri Constitution in 1980.

Hancock is fond of saying that he made his living in the security alarm business because of government's failure to protect its citizens-which he believes should be its number-one priority. His voting record is a throwback to the 1961-72 days of Rep. Dr. Durward Hall, who was labeled "Dr. No" for his many votes against spending programs. His critics are quick to point out that Hancock even voted against federal earthquake relief for San Francisco in 1989.

While Hancock's opponents call him extreme and wonder how effective he is as a congressman who doesn't play the compromise game in Washington, the fact remains that in 1988 he defeated what those critics would call mainline conservative candidates. In the primary, he beat a long-time Taylor aide from Joplin, Gary Nodler, and a business-oriented state senator from Springfield, Dennis Smith. In the general election, he beat a former circuit judge from Springfield, Max Bacon, a conservative, gospel-singing Democrat with family roots in southwest Missouri as deep as Hancock's.

No matter what happens to Hancock in 1990 or in subsequent elections, Hancock's 1988 win-and the opposition he bested-shows quite emphatically that traditional political attitudes of southwest Missouri remain strong.

Ozarkers may like getting their Social Security and Veterans benefits and money for highway and airport improvements, but they still want to believe that less government is better and freedom from being told what to do is paramount. By God!

Robert Edwards is a writer for the Springfield News-Leader who specializes in political news.

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