Biography of Joseph Little Bristow, Hon.

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No Kansan in recent years has rendered such distinguished public service to the nation at large as former Senator Bristow, now chairman of the State Public Utilities Commission. Mr. Bristow had been a resident of Kansas since he was twelve years old. From his father, who was a Methodist minister of the old type, he inherited a courage of eonvictions, a determined animosity to all public and private dishonesty, and his own life on the Kansas prairies had developed in him a zeal for popular rights and liberties and a fearless statesmanship equally removed from radicalism and reaction.

For six years he worked unceasingly in the United States Senate as a champion of progressive doctrines, some of which were typically Kansan in flavor and spirit, but all marked by a steadfast devotion to the national weal. Few men have done more to eradicate systematic graft from public service. He can be described as a progressive republican, but extreme partisanship is not a part of his character. In the Senate he showed himself a reasonable and reasoning advocate of protection. It can be said that he had favored or opposed no measure which he himself did not thoroughly understand. Hence he committed himself to deflnite propositions and specific measures, rather than a general policy. This perhaps explains the fact that he opposed the Payne-Aldrich tariff act of the republican administration, and also opposed the more recent tariff program of the democratic majority. While he approached and considered public economic questions from the standpoint of a Kansan, he always justified his support of opposition by something more than provincial and local arguments. Senator Bristow possessed that rare combination of great earnestness, ability and energy in pursuing a course toward a definite aim, together with an open-minded candor in considering all phases of a problem and in harmonizing his individual convictions with the best good of the greatest number.

In considering his biography, it is important to know that he is a Kentuckian by birth, and that he is directly descended in the seventh generation from John Bristow, who came to this country from Bristol, England, which city was formerly called Bristow, about 1680 and settled in Virginia on the Rappahannock River where the Village of Urbana now stands. During all the subsequent generations the property acquired by John Bristow had been in possession of members of the family, and still remains so at this time. Joseph Little Bristow was born near Hazelgreen, Wolfe County, Kentucky, July 22, 1861, and is a son of William and Savanah (Little) Bristow, and a grandson of Joseph H. and Ann (Smithers) Bristow.

There should be a paragraph for his honored father, not only because that father was a pioneer in the moral and religious development of early Kansas, but also because his influence and example were such potent factors in developing the charscter of Senator Bristow. William Bristow was a Methodist minister and for more than three years fought on the Union side of the Civil war in the Twenty-fourth Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers. In 1871 he became one of the pioneer methodist preachers of Kansas, being first stationed at Fredonia. Two years later the family joined him in this state. At that time Kansas was all one conference and his assignment was practically the entire state. He worked untiringly and unceasingly for the building of churches and the extension of religious influences over this state. In character he was frank, out-spoken, intolerant of wrong doing, incorruptible, pursued his course in spite of antagonism or indifference, and was of that old time type of minister so well exemplified by Peter Cartwright, Parson Brownlow and others. He was unselfish, self-sacrificing, and altogether a splendid representative of that class of early day ministers that had now disappeared but left an ineradicable impress for good.

Educated partly in the public schools of Kentucky and partly in Kansas, Joseph L. Bristow graduated from Baker University at Baldwin, Kansas, in 1886, and in 1891 his alme mater gave him the degree M. A., and in 1909 honored its distinguished alumnus with the further degree of LL. D.

Mr. Bristow grew up on a farm, and had some experience of farming in Elk County before entering college. Immediately after his graduation he was elected clerk of the District Court of Douglas County, an office he filled four years. In 1890 he bought the Daily Republican of Salina, Kansas, and continued to edit its columns five years. In 1895 he sold the Daily Republican and bought the Ottawa Herald, which he owned for more than ten years.

In the meantime people had come to look upon this Kansas editor as a new type of political leader. In 1894 he was elected secretary of the Republican State Committee, and in the following year appointed private secretary to Governor E. N. Morrill. He was again olected secretary of the state committee in 1896.

His first great opportunity for national service came in March, 1897, when President McKinley appointed him an assistant postmaster general. It was in that office that he distinguished himself as a relentless investigator of official dishonesty. In 1900 while the Americans were in charge of the provisional government of Cuba, those intrusted with the administration of the department of posts in Cuba embezzled a large part of the postal receipts. The shortage was diseovered by an army officer, Colonel Burton, who began an investigation under the direction of Gen. Leonard Wood. General Wood wired the President in regard to the embezzlement and the President directed Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith to send Mr. Bristow to investigate thoroughly conditions on the island and make whatever reorganization of the postal service necessary. Fortunately absolute authority was given to Mr. Bristow, and as a result of his investigations the director of posts and several very high officials were sent to prison. Mr. Bristow then established a postal system on the island which remains practically intact to this time.

But those who kept themselves well informed as to public affairs ten or fifteen years ago know Mr. Bristow best as head of the general investigation of the postoffice department under Postmaster General Payne. It was in 1903 that President Roosevelt designated him for this responsibility. Since then investigations have followed in somewhat rapid succession in the various departments of the Federal Government. However, none had attraeted so much attention and probably none brought about such drastic reforms as that conducted by Joseph L. Bristow. He was at the work nearly a year, and in that time he brought about the exposure of a well organized system of graft in the postoffice department, as a result of which twenty-nine indietments were drawn by the grand jury, there were thirteen dismissals and over half a dozen prominent convictions in the Criminal Court. It was shown, as a result of the investigation, that certain subordinate officials in the postoffice department had incomes ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 a year derived from commissions they received from contracts that had been let under their supervision. At the same time it was shown that the Government was being mulcted out of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in useless expenditure and in the purchasing of supplies that were not needed. Mr. Bristow’s elaborate report, submitted in October, 1903, was declared by President Roosevelt to be one of the most thorough and complete ever received in the history of the Government. This report tells a remarkable story, and probably was more widely commented upon by the public press than any official document issued in recent years.

In 1903 Mr. Bristow again bought the Salina Daily Republican, and edited that paper under the name of the Journal as well as the Salina Semi-Weekly Journal. In 1905 he retired from the postoffiee department, President Roosevelt having appointed him special commissioner of the Panama Railroad, and he filed two elaborate reports on the affairs of the road, one in August, 1905, and the other in January, 1908.

In 1908 he was nominated at the republican primary for United States Senator to succeed the Hon. Chester I. Long, and was elected by the State Legislature in January, 1909. During the next six years, until his retirement from the Senate in March, 1915, he was first and foremost among men prominent in national life in shaping legislation and formulating definite economic and political principles. In fact, a detailed review of his senatorial career would constitute almost a history of national policies and legislation during that period.

He took his seat in the Sixty-first Congress and during the first session he introdueed an amendment to the constitution providing for the direct election of senators. Three years later he had the satisfaction of carrying that fight to a snccessful conclusion, and the seventeenth amendment to the United States Constitution, providing for election of United States senators by a direct vote of the people, is exactly as he wrote it. He introduced the amendment in the present form April 6, 1912, and it was finally adopted without changing a word. It will go down in history as the “Bristow Amendment.” Although often defeated, he never gave up the fight for this important election reform, and it was largely through his championship that a movement which had been a subject of agitation in Congress and in the country at large for more than three-quarters of a century came to a successful issue. During the last stages of the fight Senator Bristow wrote an article on the direct election of senators which was published by the Saturday Evening Post, and this article was afterwards made a public document on the motion of Senator Borah of Idaho, and is now known as Senate Document No. 666, published in 1912.

He might have been content to rest on the laurels of this one achievement, but that was only a part of his useful and conspicuous work in Congress. He was chairman of the Senate Committee on Expenditures in the post office department, and a member of the committee on claims, interoceanic canals, the Philippines, postoffices and post roads, military affairs and banking and currency. It was due to Senator Bristow’s efforts that the “Dutch Standard Joker” was eliminated from the sugar tariff schedule. Herein was illustrated one of the characteristies of Senator Bristow already alluded to. Few members of Congress understood what the “Dutch Standard” was, and consequently it passed generally unnoticed in making up the tariff schedule on this particular item. But Senator Bristow went to the bottom of the matter and discovered that the measure was really an instrument which compelled all imported sugars to go through the hands of the refiners and gave them a monopoly of the American market. By the time Senator Bristow had finished his arguments and explanations there was hardly a member of Congress in either house who dared openly advocate the Dutch Standard.

Perhaps as important as any other measure which he advocated, especially so far as the interests of Kansas people were concerned, was his success in securing the adoption of “the long and ahort haul clause” in the Railroad Bill. This prohibits the charging of a higher rate for a short haul than is charged for a longer haul when the short haul is a part of the route of the longer haul. This was a matter of vital interest to Kansas and whereas before a railroad might charge a higher rate for carrying goods a hundred miles or so along its line than if the goods were shipped a thousand miles, such practice is now forbidden except by express permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission. In the interest of Kansas farmers Senator Bristow was a vigorous opponent of the Canadian Beciprocity Bill. He was also a persistent advocate of the fight in Congress to allow vessels engaged in the American coasting trade to pass free of toll through the Panama Canal.

Senator Bristow should also be given credit for securing the adoption of the zone parcel post bill. When parcel post question was considered in Congress it was proposed that the Government should transport parcels at a flat rate, just as was done in first class mail. Thus the Government would take a parcel from New York to San Francisco at the same rate as it would carry it a hundred miles. Senator Bristow showed that this would chiefly benefit the large mail-order houses, while the rate would be prohibitive for short distances and would leave the monopoly of such transportation in the hands of the express companies, while the local merchant in many communities would be practically at the mercy of mail-order concerns at a distance.

Senator Bristow proposed the woman’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution which is still pending in the United States Senate. He was one of the seven “insurgent” republicans who refused to vote for the Aldrich-Payne Tariff Bill, and he took a prominent part in the tariff discussion, giving special attention to the lead and sugar schedules. He assisted in drafting the present banking and curreney law, but because of his bitter opposition to some of the provisions incorporated in it, he finally voted against the bill. In 1914 he was chairman of the joint committee to investigate the general parcel post. He voted against the seating of William Lorimer and Senator Isaac Stephenson in the United States Senate.

About the time his term in the Senate came to a close, Senator Bristow was appointed in 1913 a member of the Public Utilities Commission in Kansas and is now chairman of that body. Senator Bristow is still a comparatively young man. Perhaps he is now at the height of his usefulness as a public leader. Certainly he is one of the strongest influences in Kansas public life and will undoubtedly remain so for many years. Aside from his political activities he is interested chiefly in journaliam and farming, and he still had a paper at his home town, Salina. He is a member of the Columbia Country Club of Washington, the Salina Country Club of Salina, and the Shawnee Golf Club of Topeka.

In Fleming County, Kentucky, November 12, 1879, Mr. Bristow married Margaret Hendrix, daughter of John Hendrix. He had three sons, Joseph Quayle, Frank Baker and Edwin McKinley.



MLA Source Citation:

Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 21 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/kansas/biography-of-joseph-little-bristow-hon.htm - Last updated on Nov 12th, 2012

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