Such words reflected young White’s upbringing in the 1870’s in the frontier village of El Dorado, sixty miles west of Emporia, where, as he once wrote, “beyond the school house, and up to its very door, stretched westward to the Rockies the illimitable prairie.” In that place and time it may really have been true that the best man (the bravest, toughest, most intelligently industrious) usually won out in what was generally a free and fair economic competition. The editorialist’s words faithfully reflected, too, the economic theory taught during his student days at Kansas University.
But these same words were like salt upon open wounds for men whose frugality, backbreaking industry, and (often enough) native intelligence exceeded by far those of the banker who extracted from them, in interest on money they had been forced to borrow, all or more than they could possibly make in a year when wheat sold at forty cents, corn at sixteen, steers three, hogs two and a half. To these men it was clear that White was either ignorant of economic realities or a hired propagandist for the “interests.” If the former, education should be forced upon him; if the latter, he should be chastised.
And so, on his way back from the post office to the Gazette with a bundle of mail under his arm, Will White found himself surrounded by a hooting, jeering crowd of older men—the youngest in his forties—who proceeded to lecture him on his editorial iniquities, ridicule his incredible naivete, and puncture his overblown assertions with sharp knives of factual argument. He tried to answer, realized he was making a fool of himself, and was reduced at last to helpless spluttering. According to his own later account, his plump face had become as red as a spanked baby’s bottom by the time he managed to break through the cordon and “stalk, as well as a fat man who toddles can stalk, down the street to the office.”
There he poured the wrath of his hurt pride into an editorial for Monday’s Gazette , a distillation of vitriol flung in the faces of the men who had taunted him. Entitling it “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” he spewed it out in the little time remaining before he boarded his westwarding train—and it became in cold type an outrageously funny and effective diatribe against Populism, certain leading Kansas Populists, and the Democratic candidate for President that year, William Jennings Bryan, nominated in a national convention dominated by Populists. The editorial was also viciously unfair, factually inaccurate, crassly assertive of the rich man’s divine right to rule America, and a malicious libel upon the state of Kansas, as White himself would later admit. It was destined to do untold harm to Kansas’ national image in the decades ahead. For “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”—initially printed in a paper with barely a circulation of five hundred—was within a few weeks known to almost every literate person in the land. It fitted perfectly the propaganda needs of the William McKinley presidential campaign, managed by Mark Hanna with unprecedentedly huge amounts of money; Hanna saw to it that reprints were broadcast by the hundred thousand across the land; and William Allen White became, abruptly, nationally famous.