Mary Lease

Mary Lease

Mary Clyens, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was born in 1850. Both her father and older brother joined the Union Army during the American Civil War. Her brother was killed and her father died in Andersonville Prison.

In 1870 she moved to Kansas to teach at a Catholic mission school. Soon afterwards she married Charles Lease, a local shop owner. His business was destroyed in the financial crisis of 1873 and the couple moved to Texas.

Mary Lease became involved in politics and was an active supporter of prohibition and women's suffrage. She joined the Women's Temperance Union, the Farmers' Alliance and the Populist Party. She obtained a national reputation as an outstanding orator and between 1890 and 1896 she toured the country making speeches.

In the 1896 presidential election the leaders of the Populist Party entered into talks with William J. Bryan, the proposed Democratic Party candidate. They thought they had an agreement that Watson would become Bryan's running mate. After giving their support to Bryan he announced that Arthur Sewall, a conservative politician with a record of hostility towards trade unions, would be his vice presidential choice.

This created a split in the Populist Party, some refused to support Bryan whereas Lease reluctantly campaigned for him. However, in her campaign speeches she declared her support for socialism and rejected many of of Bryan's policies.

The defeat of William J. Bryan severely damaged the Populist Party. While Populists continued to hold power in a few Western states, the party ceased to be a factor in national politics.

Lease divorced her husband and moved to New York City. She joined the Socialist Party and campaigned for Eugene V. Debs when he ran for president in 1908. Mary Lease died in 1933.

Primary Sources

(1) Ignatius Donnelly, The Representative (10th June, 1896)

Mrs. Lease, on June 3, made a grand speech of two and a half hours, before an immense crowd at Dodge Center. The next night she addressed an extemproized meeting at Kasson. Steps should be taken to keep her in Minnesota until election day, if it is possible. She makes hundreds of votes wherever she speaks. The only danger is of break-down. She is over-zealous and forgets herself in her earnestness. Our friends must not let her work herself to death. See that she is well entertained and has plenty of rest between speeches.

(2) Annie Diggs, Arena Magazine (July, 1892)

Mrs. Lease was educated a Catholic, but thought herself out of that communion, and is now not over-weighted with reverence for the clergy of any sect. She not infrequently rouses their ire by her stinging taunts as to their divergence from the path marked out by their professed Master, whose first concern was for the poor and needy.

In the campaign of 1890 she made speeches so full of fiery eloquence, of righteous wrath, and fierce denunciation of the oppressors, that she became the delight of the people of the new party and the detestation of the followers of the old. Seldom, if ever, was a woman so vilified and so misrepresented by malignant newspaper attacks. A woman of other quality would have sunk under the avalanche. She was quite competent to cope with all that was visited upon her. Indeed, the abuse did her much service. The people but loved her the more for the enemies she made.

Her chiefest distinguishing gift is her powerful voice; deep and resonant, its effect is startling and controlling. Her speeches are philippics. She hurls sentences as Jove hurled thunderbolts.

(3) Mary Lease, speech at Cooper Union Hall (12th August, 1896)

I accept this splendid greeting from this splendid audience in evidence that there is no Mason and Dixon's line between the East and the West. I accept it as an evidence of the fact that the people of the East and West are battling for a common cause against a common foe. Not since the bleeding years of the war have party lines been so nearly obliterated, and the obedience to party leaders so refused as at the present time. The heart of the nation is aroused, and Principle and not Self is the watchword. The great heart of the nation beats response to patriotism, and the nation is safe.

We stand today at the beginning of one of those revolutionary periods that mark an advance of the race. We stand at a period that marks a reformation. All history is illustrated by the fact that new liberties cannot exist with old tyrannies. New ideals ever seek new manifestations. The ideals of Christ could not live under the tyrannies of the Roman government. The ideals of the founders of this Government could not exist under the tyrannies of royal rule.

The grand principles of Socialism and the brotherhood of man cannot live under old forms of tyranny - neither under the forms of Old-World tyranny nor of British gold.

Yet today our splendid theory of government is confronted by a great peril. We have become blind to evils that menace us. We are confronted with glutted markets and idle labor. It is a condition that makes it possible for a few men to become landlords of a proud city like this while God's poor are packed in the slums. Such a condition is not only a menace to Republican institutions, but a travesty upon the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It makes it possible, too, for an American to pay $10,000,000 for the cast-off, disreputable rags of old world royalty, for the scion of a house that boasts the blood of a Jeffreys and a Marlborough. It is a disgrace to our nation.

A condition by which the wealth accumulated by the common people is poured into lard tubs and oil wells, to enable Mr. Rockefeller to found a college and Mr. Whitney to buy a diamond tiara for his daughter is a disgrace to the country.

Once we made it our boast that this nation was not founded upon any class distinction. But now we are not only buying diamonds for their wives and daughters and selling our children to titled debauchees, but we are setting aside our Constitution and establishing a gold standard to help the fortunes of our hereditary foe.

Today, a determined and systematic effort is being made by our financiers to perpetuate a gold standard. Every influence that moulds public opinion has been bought up, and the great dailies in the employ of the gold syndicate have fallen into line. The whole power of the government administration is being used to deceive the people. We hear sound money and honest dollar applied to the most dishonest money that ever cursed a nation or enslaved a people. What right has McKinley or Whitney to delegate our constitutional right to coin money to England or any other nation?"

An organized effort is making to deceive the people. There are two great enemies of thought and progress, the aristocracy of royalty and the aristocracy of gold. Long ago, the aristocracy of royalty came to a common plane with the common people by the discovery of gunpowder, and the two met on a common field. Where is the respect of old for royalty? Even the English speak of their sovereign, Queen Victoria as being made not of common clay, but of common mud. The aristocracy of royalty is dying out.

But here in this country we find in place of an aristocracy of royalty an aristocracy of wealth. Far more dangerous to the race is it than the aristocracy of royalty. It is the aristocracy of gold that disintegrates society, destroys individuals and has ruined the proudest nations. It has called Rothschild's agent here to make the platform of the Republican party.

(4) New York Herald Tribune (13th August, 1896)

Charmed by the seductive oratory of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Lease, the free silver mass-meeting at Cooper Union last night nursed itself into all the semblance of a Socialistic gathering. From the beginning to the end, from the first sentence of introduction until the Kansas woman had concluded in a sonorous period, Socialism predominated. Every mention of gold or wealth was greeted with shouts and jeers, and the names of Whitney and Cleveland, of Vanderbilt and Rothschild were hailed with hisses and cat-calls.

As advertised, the meeting was under the guidance of the Social Reform Club, an organization that has the worthy object of bettering the fortunes of the worker. As advertised, the meeting was in the cause of free silver. But the predominance of the Socialists more than once overcame this, and the currency question was forgotten while the orators spoke at length upon Socialistic beliefs.

It does not necessarily follow because Mrs. Lease somewhat unsexed herself by her indulgence in turbulent and inflammatory discourse at Cooper Union that all women are unfitted by Nature to participate in the excitement of political contests or to have a voice in the calm and deliberate discussions which ought always to attend upon the settlement of grave and serious governmental problems. We might as well say that the similarly wild and reckless outgivings of the Tillmans and Altgelds demonstrated the unfitness of the sterner sex for self-government. But there is this to be said, of which there can be no denial, that Mrs. Lease upon the political platform or stump, uttering invectives more than masculine, and appealing to the brutal passions of the mob rather than to the calm sense of reasoning men and women, must be treated the same as any other mob leader, male or female. She cannot shelter herself behind her sex while appealing to bloodthirsty passions and inciting lawless riot.

Mrs. Lease is representative of the party - we will not call it Democratic - which presents Mr. Bryan as a candidate. In the principles she avows, and the policies she advocates, in the coarse vigor of her speech and the startling aggressiveness of her manner, she is in the highest degree the best and truest exponent of the Bryan platform and party. In the extravagance of her language, the wantonness and recklessness with which she appealed to class hatred, pointing out by name as the proper objects of popular vengeance good and honorable citizens whose only offence is the possession of property accumulated honestly under the laws, she may have seemed to be in advance of her party. But only a step; just enough to bring out with clearness and distinctness the real spirit and purpose of the revolutionists and Anarchists who are bent on the destruction of public credit and the overthrow of social order. A step behind this raging virago, foaming with fury and blazing with wrath, is the wild mob of levellers eager for the general distribution of spoils; behind them the Terror, with its bloody bacchanals and merciless savagery.

(5) Franklin Matthews, Leslie's Weekly (10th September, 1896)

One need talk with Mrs. Lease only ten minutes to observe certain things: She is self-confident, and also thoroughly impressed with herself. She enjoys the fire of hot opposition. She "poses" even in private conversation. Mrs. Lease is earnest, absolutely fearless, but uppermost in all her thoughts and deeds seems to be Mrs. Lease, and after that her cause. When she makes a statement that needs backing she can give, off-hand, the section, clause, paragraph, and line of the Constitution; she can quote by the paragraph from this or that Supreme Court decision; she can repeat what this or that man said in the United States Senate thirty, forty, fifty years ago. If you have only a few fundamental and even correct notions about the gold side of this money question - all that is necessary for any ordinary and intelligent man to have - you had better keep away from Mrs. Lease, for she will throw you by a simple twist of her thumb - or perhaps I had better say twist of her tongue.

Last updated: 6th September, 2002