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William E. Borah's Years in Kansas in the 1880s

by Waldo W. Braden

November 1947 (Vol. 14 No. 4), pages 36 to 367.
Transcribed by lhn;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

THREE states have a claim on William E. Borah, the famous Idaho statesman; for he spent his boyhood in Wayne county, Illinois; he received his law education in Kansas; and he built his legal career in Idaho. He was born in 1865, completed country school and one year at Southern Illinois Academy at Enfield before he moved to Kansas. Partly because of a disagreement concerning his future, he was not permitted to return a second year to the Enfield academy. In spite of his father's disapproval, young Borah insisted that he wanted to pursue a legal career. He had nurtured this aspiration from the time he had heard his father discuss cases with the village lawyers. Eagerly he had watched the local court in session. [1] He had seized every opportunity to get public speaking experience. But lack of financial assistance threatened his ambition. His future brightened in the early 1880's when his sister, the wife of A. M. Lasley, a practicing attorney, invited him to make his home with them at Lyons. Although his legal education was not assured, at least here was a way to work toward his objective. The little frontier town of Lyons offered many advantages. In 1883 a newly organized library society after several entertainments raised funds and accumulated, by gift and purchase, a small circulating library which included books on scientific subjects, religion, biography and poetry; collections of essays, fiction, and subscriptions to at least three magazines: Century, Atlantic Monthly, and Graphic. [2] One can imagine that the book-hungry, aspiring young lawyer soon found his way to the little library. The management of the local opera house brought many entertainments to Lyons, which must have appealed to a young man who had earlier consid ered joining a traveling Shakespearean troupe [3] Borah affiliated with the "Young People's Band" of the Presbyterian church. On three different occasions he gave speeches on the programs of this group. When the band gave a public entertainment to raise funds,


[William E. Borah]


Borah, who later served with distinction as a United States senator from Idaho, made his home with the A. N. Lasleys while in Lyons in the 1880's. Mrs. Lasley was Borah's sister. Frank Lasley was later a Chicago attorney and was killed in a car wreck several years ago. This potograph was made in Lyons in 1885 and bore the stamp, "Shauafelt & Norrick, West Side Square, Lyons." It and the pictures appearing on the following page were lent for copying by another sister of Borah, Mrs. Mattie B. Rinard.

[portrait of Mr. and Mrs. William Borah]

Shortly after their marriage in 1895. Mrs. Borah was
the former Mamie McConnell of Boise, Idaho.


"W. E. Borah" gave the "opening address." [4] On the other two occasions, probably monthly meetings, the programs included "oration -W. E. Borah." [5]

During his first few months in Kansas he attended the Lyons public school where he enrolled in Latin, constitution (government), and grammar. [6] The school records of Lyons were long ago destroyed and the local paper gives little concerning the school activities. However, the aspiring young lawyer probably participated in the literary exercises on Friday afternoons.

The following fall he decided to teach a country school. In preparation he attended the Rice County Normal Institute held in Lyons for a few days during the Summer of 1884. The main stress of the meetings was placed on teaching methods. [7] During the session the Rice County Teachers' Association presented a public program for the institute which included an "oration" by William Borah. [8]

In order to get his teaching certificate he took examinations in some, if not all, of the following: Bookkeeping, constitution, physiology, history, geography, grammar, natural philosophy, orthography, and arithmetic. [9] During the four-month term, 1884-1885, he taught the Wabash, one-room country school, earning thirty-five dollars a month or a total of one hundred forty dollars. [10] Little is known about the activities of Wabash school or of the teacher during that year; no school notes appear in the Lyons paper. However, years later Borah confessed that he was "so engrossed in reading history and law" that he might not have given as much time to his teaching as he should have. Much to his dissatisfaction he did attend "protracted meetings" at the nearby Prosper church. [11] Twice during the term he appeared on the monthly programs of the Rice County Teachers' Association, delivering each time what was advertised as an "oration." [12] This year of teaching was undoubtedly important in his development for it gave him additional leisure time to pursue his reading of law and history, and further opportunities to practice public speaking. One


can imagine that the pupils of Wabash school served many times as would-be audiences for premature orations. Since the community life probably centered around the little school, the teacher had to use his initiative and to assume the responsibilities of leadership.

The following year Borah enrolled in the University of Kansas at Lawrence. The university offered him many advantages which he had not had in the small rural towns of Fairfield and Enfield, Ill., or Lyons. The school, with its faculty of 24, had five departments: Science, literature and arts; law; elementary instruction; music; and pharmacy. The physical plant consisted of three buildings. The enrollment was 419, 143 of whom were enrolled as "subFreshmen," similar to Borah. One of the most attractive features to Borah was the university library, which contained 7,100 volumes "besides a large number of unbound pamphlets." [13] Here Borah spent much of his time [14] and according to his own testimony he was "more of a reader than a student, sacrificing his class work for general reading. . . ." [15]

When he entered the university in 1885 he enrolled as a subFreshman because he had not completed his secondary education. He must have written and passed a "creditable examination (at least 70 per cent.) " in arithmetic, algebra, history of United States, descriptive and physical geography, English grammar and composition, and constitution of the United States. [16] During that year, according to the records in the office of the registrar, he enrolled in English, natural philosophy, Cicero, and Vergil [not completed]. [17] For some unknown reason Borah terminated his first year on completion of the first half of the spring semester. [18]

Returning to Lawrence the following fall he enrolled as a freshman in the Latin Scientific course. However, he did not follow the prescribed course for freshmen who intended to complete a bache-


lor's degree, [19] but he chose those subjects in which he was most interested. He enrolled in English, history, elocution, history of English language (sophomore course), and American literature (junior course). In all of his courses, in spite of his confession concerning his outside reading, he received grades of "I," the highest possible grades. [20]

A review of the subjects which Borah studied reveals his interest in composition, literature, and history. An essay on Cicero, "The Roman Mugwump," which appears under the initials of "W. E. B." in one of the school publications, [21] may have been written by Borah. The essay or eulogy praising the oratory-and statecraft of the Great Roman, shows thoughtful study and careful composition. If this piece is by Borah, it demonstrates that he was developing a style superior to that of many of his fellow students.

Borah may have received some classroom instruction in public speaking which probably commenced during his sub-Freshman year. The catalogue states: Theoretical and practical Elocution is in charge of an instructor, who gives his time largely to that work. The Junior and Senior preparatory classes [sub-Freshmenl receive instruction in Reading and in the Elements of Elocution. More advanced elocutionary work is given to the Freshman and Sophomore classes. [22] The freshmen were required at least twice a year to give declamations "in the Hall." These affairs, according to the complaints of the school papers, were not always well attended by students or faculty. [23] Nevertheless, for the interested student they provided opportunities to speak and to observe. At best this instruction was meager, for the instructor had too many duties. [24]

The catalogue of 1887 indicates this deficiency in its description of the course: "Required of all students. 2d term. Once a fortnight, in the afternoon." [25] The principal student-speaking activities were carried on as extracurricular affairs through the two



literary societies: the Oread and the Orophilian. On Friday afternoons each met to hear programs consisting of music, declamations, essays, orations, and debates. [26] They sometimes held joint meetings. [27] Two or three times a year they engaged in inter-society contests which consisted on some occasions of only one activity, on others of many events. [28] The principal event of the year included competition for orators, essayists, declaimers, and debaters. [29] Upon entering the university Borah affiliated with the Orophilian society. Soon on one of the weekly programs he gave an "oration." A month later he participated in a debate. [30] The school paper makes only these two references to Borah's participation; undoubtedly he engaged in other activities of the society. The essay mentioned earlier may have been first presented on one of these programs. Furthermore, listening to these programs and assisting in the selection of the Orophilian representatives for the inter-society events probably sharpened the future Idaho senator's critical appreciation of good speaking and of good literary style.

The extracurricular activity of the university which attracted the greatest attention and which aroused the most enthusiasm on the campus was the annual oratorical contest. Although Borah did not participate, nor to the writer's knowledge did he write an oration for one of these affairs, certainly he must have caught the local enthusiasm. He probably heard at least the local contests and observed what was considered superior and poor speaking, comparing his judgment as to the winners with the decisions of the judges. Perhaps as a result of these experiences he may have been inspired to evaluate his own speaking more critically and to perfect his own technique.

Although he was not the typical "Joe College" of his day, he did find time for some activities besides his reading. While he was at the university he pledged Beta Theta Pi. [31] However, William Allen White, one of his classmates, points out that Borah did not let the social life interfere with his studies. [32] The school paper, on the other hand, does record the following: "W. E. Borah has at


last succumbed to the inevitable. A pair of bright eyes was the cause." [33] This "pair of bright eyes" must not have had any lasting effect on the future orator, for it is not mentioned again.

Threatened with tuberculosis, [34] Borah failed to complete his freshman year, leaving in March, 1887. [35] With three years of secondary education and less than one year of college the future senator concluded his formal education. What he acquired afterwards was solely on his own initiative.

Young Borah was still determined to study law. During his year of teaching, according to his own confession, he neglected his work to read law and history. Much of his vacations was probably spent in the Lasley office. Following his sub-freshman year the school paper reports, "W. E. Borah is in his brother[ -in-law]'s of fice at Lyons, Kansas." [36] After he left school in 1887 he resumed his study of law, making a special study of evidence. [37] He soon gained a sufficient background to meet the easy Kansas requirements and on September 16, 1887, he was admitted to the Kansas bar "as a full fledged lawyer to practice in the District courts of the state." [38] Shortly thereafter, in the local paper, appeared the professional notice of Lasley and Borah, "Attorneys-at-Law." [39] Many colonial lawyers had far more legal training than Borah. Thanks to the lax requirements of frontier Kansas, he gained the right to practice, a privilege which signified neither a profound knowledge of the law nor an adequate understanding of court procedure. Much of his legal education was to be procured in the future in the hard school of experience.

The local pranksters had great fun in teasing the newest member of the Rice county bar. On one occasion they placed the following "local" in the Lyons paper:

WANTED-A young man out of employment, desires a rich widow, with weak lungs and a bad cough, to take him to raise, object, not matrimony, but grub. Apply at office of Lasley and Borah, to W. E. Borah. [40]


During these months the young lawyer did not waste his time; he continued to read law, history, government, and literature, including some works in Latin. At least on one occasion and probably on others, he composed an oration for which he had no audience. [41] During these early years he procured the appointment of city attorney, a position in which he served from April 18 [42] until May 28, 1888, [43] and from April 15, 1889, until September 15, 1890. [44] The Lyons editor, Clark Conkling, was one of the first to comment on his promise as a lawyer. In a brief item concerning one of Borah's first cases, he said, "W. E. Borah, one of the youngest attorneys at the Rice county bar, made a strong, logical, speech before the jury Saturday in the case of the State vs. Weston. His speech gave great promise of a brilliant future." [45]

As city attorney the young lawyer advised the councilmen on legal matters, checked previous actions of the councils in the minutes, drafted ordinances, filed suits for and answered those against the town and. on one occasion made a trip to Colorado on city business. These early years, under the tutorship of his brother-inlaw, gave Borah the experience and the confidence which enabled him to continue on his own in Idaho.

Because of the dearth of information, the influence of A. M. Lasley on the future senator is difficult to determine. Lasley, one of the leading attorneys of Lyons, was a prominent Republican. His political activities seem to indicate that he was considered a good speaker. [46] H. G. Doddridge, who started practicing in Lyons about the same time his friend Borah did, recalls that Mr. Lasley was a great conversationalist who loved to argue constitutional questions. Judge Doddridge recalls that Lasley in 1892 became a strong supporter of the Populist party. [47] Although he makes no mention of it, Borah probably carried on many discussions with his brotherin-law on constitutional and political questions. In 1890 William E. Borah decided to relocate in the Far West. In the several years that he spent in Kansas, he had completed the formal part of his law education. An attempt to untangle completely the sources of his opinions and attitudes would be difficult,


but certainly it is evident that these early years were important in the development of the Idaho senator, who later won for himself the reputation of being one of the most successful debaters and orators of the senate. Certainly these years of reading law, literature, history and government did play a significant part in shaping his political philosophy, which later he defended so vigorously.


DR. WALDO W. BRADEN is associate professor of speech at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.

1. Beverly Smith, "The Lone Rider From Idaho," The American Magazine, Springfield, Ohio, v. 113, March, 1932, p. 40; Claudius O. Johnson, Borah of Idaho (Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1936), pp. 1-22.
2. The Lyons Republican, December 13, 1883, p. 5.
3. Ibid., February 28, p. 5, March 20, p. 5, August 28, 1884, p. 5, June 4, 1885, p. 5.
4. Ibid., March 13, 1884, p 5.
5. Ibid., April 2, p. 5, September 3, 1885, p. 5.
6. University of Kansas, "Register," 1885, p. 216.
7. Lyons Republican, July 17, p. 5, July 24, 1884, p. 5, "Normal Notes."
8. The program included the following: Music, prayer, reading minutes, music, oration, recitation, essay, German solo, discussion, music, essay, recitation, and miscellaneous business. -Ibid., July 17, 1884, p. 5.
9. The questions for the above subjects are given in ibid., August 7, 1884, p. 1.
10. Annual report of District No. 22 for the year ending July 31, 1885. Filed by E. L. Phoebus, clerk of District 22, August 25, 1885. This record is deposited in the office of the county superintendent, Rice county, Lyons.
11. Johnson, op. cit., p. 16.
12. Lyons Republican, October 9, 1884, p, 5, January 8, 1885, p. 4.
13. Twentieth Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Kansas 1885-6 (Topeka, Kansas Publishing House, 1886), pp. 6, 7, 9, 26, 30, 81-83, 86.
14. Interview of Olin Templin, fraternity brother and classmate of Borah, published in the Lyons Daily News, January 20, 1940, p. 2.
15. Johnson, op. cit., p. 17.>
16. The catalogue explains: "A course of sub-Freshman studies is therefore presented for the accommodation of those who cannot find at home the full preparation necessary to fit them for admission to the collegiate classes. This course is arranged in such manner as to omit, so far as possible, those studies which may generally be found in the better Grammar and High Schools of the State, while classes are retained in the University for beginners in Latin, Greek, German, and French. Classes will also be continued in Natural Philosophy, Drawing, English Composition, Algebra, and Geometry. Candidates for admission to the subFreshman class will receive credit, either upon examination or by certificate, for so much of this work as they shall have completed in other schools."-Twentieth Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Kansas . . . 1885-6, p. 63.
17. University of Kansas, "Register," p. 216.
18. The Weekly University Courier, Lawrence, April 9, 1886, p. 1.
19. Twenty-First Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Kansas . . . 1886-7 (Topeka, Kansas Publishing House, 1887), pp. 15, 47.
20. University of Kansas, "Register," p. 216.
21. The University Review, Lawrence, v. 8 (January, 1887), pp. 105-107. The previous year Borah had taken a course in Cicero; and the magazine in which the essay appears frequently published student compositions.
22. Nineteenth Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Kansas 1884-5, p. 62.
23. The Weekly University Courier, October 9, 1885, p. 2; The University Review, v. 7 (November, 1885), p. 76.
24. The student paper comments: "Prof. Brownell is worked right to death, and yet they are not satisfied to let him teach elocution alone! He must also assist in the English department."-The Weekly University Courier, September 11, 1885, p. 2.
25. Twenty-First Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Kansas . . . 1886-7, p. 64.
26. The University Review, v. 7 (September, 1885), p. 24; The Weekly University Courier, October 16, 1885, p. 1.
27. On one of these occasions they debated the proposition: "Resolved, That as wealth Increases, the Morals of the People are Diminished."-Ibid., November 6, 1885, p. 3.
28. Ibid., December 4, p. 2, December 18, 1885, p. 1, and January 21, 1887, p. 2. The University Review, v. 7 (October, 1885), p. 47.
29. The Weekly University Courier, January 22, p. 2, February 5, 1886, p. 1.
30. Ibid., October 16, p. 1, November 13, 1885, p. 1.
31. The University Review, v. 7 (December, 1885), p. 102.
32. Quoted in Johnson, op. cit., pp. 18, 19.
33. The Weekly University Courier, December 4, 1885, p. 1.
34. Johnson, op. cit., p. 18.
35. The Weekly University Courier, March 11, 1887, p. 1.
36. Ibid., April 16, 1886, p. 1.
37. Johnson, op. cit., p, 20.
38. The Lyons Daily Republican, September 22, 1887, p. 3. In passing the bar he had to meet the following requirements: 'Any person [being a] citizen of the United States, who has read law for two years, the last of which must be in the office of a regularly practicing attorney, who shall certify that the said applicant is a person of good moral character, and well qualified to practice law, who is actually an inhabitant of this state, and who satisfies any district court of this state that he possesses the requisite learning, and that he is of good moral character, may, by such court, be permitted to practice in all district and inferior courts of this state, upon taking the oath . . . prescribed."-C. F. W. Dassler, Compiled Laws of Kansas, 1885 (Topeka, Goo. W. Crane & Co., 1885), p. 112.
39. Lyons Republican, September 29, 1887, p. 1.
40. Ibid., August 9, 1888, p. 5.
41. Johnson, op. cit., pp. 21, 22.
42. City of Lyons, "Minutes of the Council," 1888, pp. 34-36.
43. Lyons Republican, May 31, 1888, p. 5.
44. City of Lyons, "Minutes of the Council," 1589, pp, 136, 185, 240; Lyons Republican, April 18, 1889, p. 4, October 9, 1890, p. 5.
45. Ibid., May 10, 1888, p. 5.
46. Ibid., August 14, 1884, p. 4, July 9, 1885, p. 5, April 12, p. 1, April 26, 1888, p. 8.
47. Interview of H. G. Doddridge, Lyons, August 13, 1941.