Lease, Mary Elizabeth, in Nebraska

The work of Mary Elizabeth Lease (1850-1933) for the Populist cause in the 1890s brought her national attention. A gifted orator, she worked in 1891 and 1892 with the Farmers’ Alliance and other groups to form the Populist Party. Lease seconded the nomination of James B. Weaver for president at the party’s nominating convention in 1892 and spoke on his behalf at a Nebraska rally for Weaver on November 2, 1892, in Lincoln.

The Nebraska State Journal on November 3, 1892, included a summary of her remarks at the rally, noting especially her “deep bass voice” and “her rich store of invective.”

“When [Lincoln] Mayor Weir introduced Mrs. Mary Lease, he said if her name wasn’t Patrick Henry it ought to be. . . . Reciting a portion of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ she . . . said we had come to a crisis in national life more alarming, more fraught with danger, than that which caused that ride, and it was the duty of every citizen now to send out the ‘cry of defiance, not of fear.’ She continued: ‘It was the farmers who drove back the British. It was the farmers who thirty years ago when the judges and lawyers and statesmen refused to interpret the constitution, in their blue blouse coats at Gettysburg and Shiloh interpreted it themselves and saved the nation. Now again we are face to face with a crisis in which the liberties of the nation are at stake. The old parties say “Those old hayseeds can’t do anything; we must have lawyers, and capitalists and bankers.” Again shall it be that the bronzed hands of the farmers shall bring deliverance.’

“Maybe the farmers didn’t cheer at this bit of taffy.

“Then the speaker went on, her voice and manner gaining momentum all the time until one could scarcely believe a woman was speaking, . . . [S]he jumped all over the party papers and Associated press and accused them of deliberately distorting the truth and misrepresenting the size of their meetings to keep the people in ignorance of the strength of the [Populist] party.” Lease “as a finale . . . declared the old parties to be ‘engaging in the contortions of the death struggle of a great monster,’ and with a parting injunction to ‘vote as you rally,’ she ceased to fill the hall with her voice.”

Lease’s platform performance in Lincoln on November 2 followed a two-hour speech at the Auburn opera house the day before in which, according to the Journal, she “told campaign stories and kept her audience in a roar of laughter equal to any stump speaker of the day.”

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