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  • “My dear Judge”Owen Wister’s Virginian, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Natural Law Conservatism
  • Stephen J. Mexal (bio)

The Johnson County War

In the late afternoon of April 5, 1892, a party of over fifty men boarded a private train in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Many were wealthy ranchers who had just come from a meeting of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association. They had arranged for a special six-car train to transport them and their supplies in an all-night trip to Casper.

The purpose of the excursion was to defend the economic interests of the ranchers. The best way to do this, everyone agreed, was to round up and execute seventy alleged cattle rustlers (Smith 194).

The trip, which saw the execution of only two alleged rustlers before the ranchers were trapped and subsequently forced to surrender, was supposed to be the deciding battle in the ongoing conflict that would come to be known as the Johnson County War. The fight had its roots in a simple labor disagreement. In the 1870s wealthy Wyoming ranchers confederated to consolidate their power and landholdings, forming the Laramie County Stock Association in 1873, which became the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association in 1879. By the early 1880s the ranchers had begun drawing ever starker lines between employers and employees. In 1883 Thomas Sturgis, secretary of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association, proposed and passed a resolution making it impossible for any member of the association to employ a cowboy who owned his own cattle (Smith 26–27). He thought cowboys could not have enough money to purchase their own cattle—they certainly were not being paid very much—and concluded that any cowboy who owned a cow must have stolen it. Any potential business threat, in other words, [End Page 279] was cast as a criminal threat. This lent a legal asymmetry to an already-existing class asymmetry. Stockmen who owned cattle were businessmen; cowboys who owned cattle were thieves. There was a pleasing circularity to this logic that sustained the interests of the powerful. In essence, the law was whatever the stockgrowers said it was. An individual who did not accept his subordinate position in the social order—who aspired to, say, buy cattle or start a ranch of his own—was deemed a rustler. Those rustlers were in turn marked for extrajudicial execution. By the late 1880s local newspapers had started using the phrase “reign of terror” to refer to the actions of the ranchers (Smith 180).

The Johnson County War was a conflict in which rich businessmen sought to consolidate their power by spurning civil procedure in favor of a “lynch law” that would let them maintain, through fear and intimidation, a ready supply of obedient employees drawn from a perpetual laboring class. It embodied the sharpest, most retrograde sort of conservative politics: a self-appointed aristocracy that held itself and its economic interests above the democratic body politic and civil law.

This dynamic meant that when Owen Wister wanted to transform the real-life reign of terror into the central conflict of his 1902 novel The Virginian—and make his hero one of the vigilantes lynching in the name of corporate interests—he had his work cut out for him.

By the time he began working on The Virginian, Wister already had developed a conservative view of the American West. In an 1895 essay he had suggested that the modern cowboy was not particularly modern at all, and instead represented the reemergence of the aristocrat. In the “flannel-shirted democracy” of the West, he wrote, you will hear “only good concerning this aristocrat born and bred.” The cowboy “cuts the way for the common law and self-government, and new creeds, polities and nations arise in his wake” (“Evolution” 604). To this way of thinking, America’s democratic traditions were really transplanted aristocratic traditions, rebaptized in the icy streams of the mountain West. This is something of a radical conservatism, in that it did not conserve old ways so much as it instituted new ways that merely pretended to be old. Wister’s story of the West was one in which the “aristocrat” creates “new [End Page 280] creeds, polities...


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pp. 279-311
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