One of the most brilliant political orators of the second half of the 19th century, John James Ingalls was born in Middletown, Massachusetts, December 29, 1833. Foreshadowing his later reputation as a wit, his college graduation thesis, titled “Mummy Life,” was a satire of college life. After graduating from Williams College in 1855, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1857. Moving to Kansas Territory, Ingalls settled in Atchison in 1860. He joined the anti-slavery forces and worked to make Kansas a free state. He was a member of the Wyandotte constitutional convention in 1859 and is reputed to have coined the state motto, Ad Astra per Aspera. In 1860 he was secretary of the territorial council; when Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861, he became secretary of the first state Senate, in 1862. The next year he was elected state Senator from Atchison county. In that year, and again in 1864, he was nominated for lieutenant-governor on the anti-Lane ticket. During the Civil War he served as judge advocate in the Kansas militia. As an editor of the Atchison newspaper, Freedom’s Champion, for three years, he won a national reputation for a series of magazine articles. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1873, Ingalls served for 18 years. He supported labor and agriculture against monopolies.
As a Senator he distinguished himself as an orator. House Speaker Thomas B. Reed, even before learning Ingalls’s name, said, “Any man who can state a proposition as that Senator does is a great man.” As a parliamentarian he was unsurpassed. Senator Isham G. Harris, a Democrat from Tennessee, said: “Mr. Ingalls will go down upon the records as the greatest presiding officer in the history of the senate.” His speeches made him famous. He was the master of sarcasm and satire, as well as of eulogistic oratory. During his three terms in the senate his greatest efforts were in the advocacy of the constitutional rights of the freedom of the South and the rights of the veterans of the Civil war. He was defeated by the Populists for Senator in 1891. Ingalls said many times that he valued a seat in the Senate above any other honor in the gift of the American people. As an author Ingalls won his reputation first by a number of articles appearing in the old Kansas Magazine, among which were “Cat-Fish Aristocracy” and “In Praise of Bluegrass.” After his retirement he devoted himself chiefly to his law practice and to literary work. His poem titled “Opportunity” (reprinted below) was once regarded as one of the finest in the English language. On August 16, 1900 Ingalls died in East Las Vegas, NM; in 1905, a statue of him was installed in Statuary Hall at Washington with fitting ceremonies, being the first statue to be contributed by Kansas, although Ingalls during his lifetime had urged the state to place one of John Brown in this hall. His address “In Praise of Bluegrass,” published in Kansas Magazine in 1872, contains a passage frequently quoted by nature writers. The speech was written before Kentucky bluegrass was in Kansas. The “bluegrass” to which he refers is the bluestems of the tallgrass prairie.
Headlined “Blades of Grass: On Ecopoetry and an Unnnatural World,” poet Cecily Parks offered this perspective in introducing newly published volumes of ecopoetry:
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,” wrote Walt Whitman, observing that grass blades were star-like not only in their twinkling but also in their longevity. They assured him of something close to immortality. He praised “the good green grass, that delicate miracle the ever-recurring grass.” For the poet who wrote of multitudes, grass was an irresistible emblem.
In the 19th century, Whitman was not alone in extolling the virtues of grass. In his 1872 speech “In Praise of Bluegrass,” Kansas Senator John James Ingalls wrote,
Grass is the forgiveness of nature–her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with rust of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lands, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal.
Ingalls shared Whitman’s faith in the everlastingness of grass and used it to serve a rhetoric of American democracy and exceptionalism in the wake of the Civil War. Both men believed in the strength of the American natural world as evidenced by the vitality of its grass. The vitality of the grass, in turn, guaranteed the vitality of the American experience as it was unfolding.
Without further ado, Senator John James Ingalls on “In Praise of Bluegrass.”
In Praise of Bluegrass
By John James Ingalls (1833-1900)
Attracted by the bland softness of an afternoon in my primeval winter in Kansas, I rode southward through the dense forest that then covered the bluffs of the North Fork of Wildcat. The ground was sodden with the ooze of melting snow. The dripping trees were as motionless as granite. The last year’s leaves, tenacious lingerers, loath to leave the scene of their brief bravery, adhered to the gray boughs like fragile bronze. There were no visible indications of life, but the broad, wintry landscape was flooded with that indescribable splendor that never was on sea or shore–a purple and silken softness, that half veiled, half disclosed the alien horizon, the vast curves of the remote river, the transient architecture of the clouds, and filled the responsive soul with a vague tumult of emotions, pensive and pathetic, in which regret and hope contended for the mastery. The dead and silent globe, with all its hidden kingdoms, seemed swimming like a bubble, suspended in an ethereal solution of amethyst and silver, compounded of the exhaling whiteness of the snow, the descending glory of the sky. A tropical atmosphere brooded upon an arctic scene, creating the strange spectacle of summer in winter, June in January, peculiar to Kansas, which unseen cannot be imagined, but once seen can never be forgotten. A sudden descent into the sheltered valley revealed an unexpected crescent of dazzling verdure, glittering like a meadow in early spring, unreal as an incantation, surprising as the sea to the soldiers of Xenophon as they stood upon the shore and shouted “Thalatta!” It was Blue Grass, unknown in Eden, the final triumph of nature, reserved to compensate her favorite offspring in the new Paradise of Kansas for the loss of the old upon the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Next in importance to the divine profusion of water, light and air, those three great physical facts which render existence possible, may be reckoned the universal beneficence of grass. Exaggerated by tropical heats and vapors to the gigantic can congested with its saccharine secretion, or dwarfed by polar rigors to the fibrous hair of northern solitudes, embracing between these extremes the maize with its resolute pennons, the rice plant of southern swamps, the wheat, rye, barley, oats, and other cereals, no less than the humbler verdure of hill-side, pasture, and prairie in the temperate zone, grass is the most widely distributed of all vegetable beings, and is at once the type of our life and the emblem of our mortality. Lying in the sunshine among the buttercups and dandelions of May, scarcely higher in intelligence than the minute tenants of that mimic wilderness, our earliest recollections are of grass; and when the fitful fever is ended, and the foolish wrangle of the market and forum is closed, grass heals over the scar which our descent into the bosom of the earth has made, and the carpet of the infant becomes the blanket of the dead.
As he reflected upon the brevity of human life, grass has been the favorite symbol of the moralist, the chosen theme of the philosopher. “All flesh is grass,” said the prophet; “My days are as the grass,” sighed the troubled patriarch; and the pensive Nebuchadnezzar, in his penitential mood, exceeded even these, and, as the sacred historian informs us, did eat grass like an ox.
Grass is the forgiveness of nature–her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. Beleaguered by the sullen hosts of winter, it withdraws into the impregnable fortress of its subterranean vitality, and emerges upon
the first solicitation of spring. Sown by the winds, by wandering birds, propagated by the subtle horticulture of the elements which are its ministers and servants, it softens the rude outline of the world. Its tenacious fibres hold the earth in its place, and prevent its soluble components from washing into the wasting sea. It invades the solitude of deserts, climbs the inaccessible slopes and forbidding pinnacles of mountains, modifies climates, and determines the history, character, and
destiny of nations. Unobtrusive and patient, it has immortal vigor and aggression. Banished from the thoroughfare and the field, it bides its time to return, and when vigilance is relaxed, or the dynasty has perished, it silently resumes the throne from which it has been expelled, but which it never abdicates. It bears no blazonry or bloom to charm the senses with fragrance or splendor, but its homely hue is more enchanting than the lily or the rose. It yields no fruit in earth or air, and yet should its harvest fail for a single year, famine would depopulate the world.
One grass differs from another grass in glory. One is vulgar and another patrician. There are grades in its vegetable nobility. Some varieties are useful. Some are beautiful. Others combine utility and ornament. The sour, reedy herbage of swamps is baseborn. Timothy is a valuable servant. Redtop and clover are a degree higher in the social scale. But the king of them all, with genuine blood royal, is Blue Grass. Why it is called blue, save that it is most vividly and intensely green, is inexplicable, but had its unknown priest baptized it with all the hues of the prism, he would not have changed its hereditary title to imperial superiority over all its humbler kin.
Taine, in his incomparable History of English Literature, has well said that the body of man in every country is deeply rooted in the soil of nature. He might properly have declared that men were wholly rooted in the soil, and that the character of nations, like that of forests, tubers, and grains, is entirely determined by the climate and soil in which they germinate. Dogmas grow like potatoes. Creeds and carrots, catechisms and cabbages, tenets and turnips, religions and rutabagas, governments and grasses, all depend upon the dew point and the thermal range. Give the philosopher a handful of soil, the mean annual temperature and rainfall, and his analysis would enable him to predict with absolute certainty the characteristics of the nation.
Calvinism transplanted to the plains of the Ganges would perish of inanition. Webster is as much an indigenous product of New England as its granite and its pines. Napoleon was possible only in France; Cromwell in England; Christ, and the splendid invention of immortality, alone in Palestine. Moral causes and qualities exert influences far beyond their nativity, and ideas are transplanted and exported to meet the temporary requirements of the tastes or necessities of man; as we see exotic palms in the conservatories of Chatsworth, russet apples at Surinam, and oranges in Atchison. But there is no growth: nothing but change of location. The phenomena of politics exhibit the operations of the same law….
The direct agency upon which all these conditions depend, and through which these forces operate, is food. Temperature, humidity, soil, sunlight, electricity, vital force, express themselves primarily in vegetable existence that furnishes the basis of that animal life which yields sustenance to the human race. What a man, a community, a nation can do, think, suffer, imagine or achieve depends upon what it eats.
The primary form of food is grass. Grass feeds the ox: the ox nourishes man: man dies and goes to grass again; and so the tide of life, with everlasting repetition, in continuous circles, moves endlessly on and upward, and in more senses than one, all flesh is grass. But all flesh is not bluegrass. If it were, the devil’s occupation would be gone.
Source: Grass–The Yearbook of Agriculture 1948. U. S. Government Printing Press. Washington 1948. Pdf available online at grassbydesign.com.
by John James Ingalls
Master of human destinies am I.
Fame, love, and fortune on my footsteps wait,
Cities and fields I walk; I penetrate
Deserts and seas remote, and, passing by
Hovel, and mart, and palace, soon or late
I knock unbidden once at every gate!
If sleeping, wake–if feasting, rise before
I turn away. It is the hour of fate,
And they who follow me reach every state
Mortals desire, and conquer every foe
Save death; but those who doubt or hesitate,
Condemned to failure, penury and woe,
Seek me in vain and uselessly implore–
I answer not, and I return no more.
‘Opportunity,’ read by Michael Robinson