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January 14, 2014 8:37 am

‘War’ column misapplied history to make false point

Written by Don Amend

It’s always interesting when people use events from history to make a point about something happening today.

That’s because, while useful lessons can be taken from history, the events of the past usually aren’t analogous to today’s events. In a very real sense, yesterday happened in a different world from today, and the further back in time you go the more different that world becomes.

New information, altered perceptions, changing circumstances and evolving institutions all play a part in creating those new worlds. Comparing events of the past with events of the present without taking those changes into account can, therefore, lead to distorted conclusions.

An example lies in a guest column we published last week comparing the events of an infamous event in Wyoming history, the Johnson County War, with the Wyoming Legislature’s actions regarding Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill. In doing so, the writer places Superintendent Hill and her supporters in the role of the “good guys,” making “bad guys” out of the Republican leaders of the Legislature.

But if you look at the two stories, that comparison doesn’t stand up very well.

It’s not possible to write a history of the 1892 events in this space, of course, but a brief summary is necessary. In the 1890s, disputes over grazing land and water, aggravated by poor range conditions, tended to pit small ranchers against large ranchers.

The little guys blamed the big guys for trying to force them out of business, often by violent methods. In return, the big ranchers accused the small ranchers of augmenting their herds by rustling. There was no doubt some truth to both positions.

In 1892, the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association gathered an “army” made up of a number of men from Texas along with several citizens of Wyoming. They rode into Johnson County intent on capturing men suspected of rustling and shooting or hanging them.

They surrounded a cabin on a ranch near present-day Kaycee and killed two men before heading north toward Buffalo. On the way, they were intercepted and surrounded by a large sheriff’s posse. Eventually, the invaders were able to contact the governor, who persuaded President Benjamin Harrison to send the cavalry to their rescue. The invaders were arrested and taken to Cheyenne. In the end, nobody was charged with any crimes.

Last week’s guest column equated the invaders with the legislative leaders who are investigating Superintendent Hill, and picturing Hill and her supporters as heroically defending her against powerful interests. Those characterizations, however, are in no way similar what happened in Johnson County in 1892.

Most of the Johnson County invaders were hired guns from Texas. A few important Wyoming men, including men employed by the stockgrowers as range detectives and one state legislator, the group could claim no legal status. It was a lynch mob that represented only own private interests bent on carrying out vigilante justice. The group was, in effect, an outlaw gang with no legal standing whatever.

By contrast, today’s Legislature is created by the Wyoming Constitution. The members have been legally elected by popular vote to legislate on behalf of the electorate, and the courts have ruled that funding equitable education is one of their primary duties.

By extension, they have a duty to make sure the money is spent effectively and appropriately. Comparing a Legislature created by the Constitution and elected by popular vote to a lynch mob organized to carry out vigilante justice has no basis in reality whatsoever.

Superintendent Hill is also an elected official, elected by the state’s voters to supervise the State Department of Education. Unlike the small ranchers of 1892, though, she is not an entity independent of the group that is investigating her. Rather, she and the Legislature are different arms of the state government.

She is not free to do anything she wants to do with her department, because the Constitution of Wyoming gives the task of defining the duties of her office to the Legislature. She is bound to abide by laws passed by the Legislature in performing her duties, as well as to spend money as directed by law, not as she pleases.

The question, then, is whether the superintendent has followed the laws concerning her duties, and therein lies the major difference between the Johnson County invaders and the legislative leadership.

In 1892, the invaders openly planned to eliminate anyone they suspected of rustling, simply hanging or shooting them without trial, totally outside the law. The Legislature, by contrast, is acting within its constitutional powers by conducting an extensive investigation, and will act in accordance with the state’s Constitution when its investigation is finished. It will take action when that investigation is completed.

In short, equating this dispute between two government entities, the Department of Education and the Legislature, with the warring factions of Johnson County War misrepresents history, and in doing so it degrades the efforts of the state to improve the education we are delivering to our children, which is, after all, what both parties to the dispute are trying to do.

The focus of the debate, then, should be on what is actually happening in our classrooms today. Creating imaginary heroes based on misapplied lessons from the past that have nothing whatever to do with education distracts from that debate.

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