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Joseph Little Bristow

U.S. Senator who introduced the resolution that led to the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, providing for direct election of Senators

Joseph Bristow

Joseph Little Bristow was born near Hazel Green, Kentucky, on July 22, 1861, the son of William (an abolitionist) and Savanah (Little) Bristow. After his mother died in 1868, he went to live with his paternal grandparents, and, in 1873, moved to Fredonia, Kansas, to be with his father, who had remarried in 1871.

In 1875, Bristow returned to Kentucky. On November 11, 1879, he married Margaret Hester Hendrix of Flemingsburg, Kentucky. The newlyweds first settled on a farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas, about 10 miles from Howard City, and then in Baldwin, Kansas. Two children were born within the couple's first two years of marriage, but both died in infancy; three sons were subsequently born, all of whom lived into adulthood.

In 1886, Bristow graduated from Baker University (in Baldwin), earning an AB degree with honors; he received an MA from Baker in 1889. His public career began at Baker, where he was involved in college politics and public speaking activities. He also began his newspaper career there, as the owner and editor if two weekly papers, the Visitor and the Criterion, which he subsequently combined into the Baldwin Ledger.

Bristow's political career began in 1886, when he was elected Clerk of the District Court of Douglas County; he was re-elected in 1888, and ultimately served until 1890. During his tenure in that office, the Bristow family lived in Lawrence, and he often took advantage of the short distance from Lawrence to Topeka to become well acquainted with Republican Party leaders in the capital.

In the fall of 1890, Bristow purchased the Salina Daily Republican, which he combined with the Salina Journal in 1893. In 1894 he started the Irrigation Farmer in response to economic conditions. In 1895 he also purchased the Ottawa Herald in partnership with Henry J. Allen, keeping his financial interest in it for the following decade.

Bristow became a member of the Republican League when it was organized in 1892. His anti-Populist editorials and support of Republican party activities led to his being named secretary for the Republican State Central Committee. He met William McKinley in October of 1894 when he came to Kansas to campaign for the Republicans, and this meeting was the basis for McKinley’s appointment of Bristow as Fourth Assistant Postmaster General in 1896. For the two-year period prior to that, Bristow served as Kansas Governor Edmund N. Morrill’s private secretary. During this tenure as Fourth Assistant Postmaster General, Bristow successfully carried out two major investigations into postal fraud, first in Cuba and then in the United States. Feeling he no longer had the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, he resigned his position in 1905 and was subsequently appointed special commissioner of the investigation of the Panama Railroad Company.

Bristow made an unsuccessful bid for election to the United States Senate in 1906, but in 1908 he was elected Senator as a Progressive. He lost his bid for renomination to Charles Curtis in 1914, and ultimately served from March 4, 1909 to March 3, 1915. During his tenure in the Senate, he served as chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the Post Office Department and as a member of the Committee on Cuban Relations. His most memorable action in that body was to introduce the resolution that ultimately led to passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, providing for direct election of U.S. Senators.

In 1915, Governor Arthur Capper appointed Bristow Chairman of the Kansas Public Utilities Commission, and he served in that capacity until 1918. During this period the Commission attempted to make a scientific evaluation of all public utilities for tax purposes. The consolidation of telephone companies also took up a large part of the commission's time. Bristow was the author of the "Third Biennial Report" of the Kansas Public Utilities Commission, but he resigned before the fourth report was completed to make a second unsuccessful bid for re-election to the United States Senate.

In 1922, Bristow moved to "Ossian Hall," an estate near Fairfax, Virginia, which he had purchased while in the Senate. His wife died on April 23, 1932, and his youngest son died on March 30, 1935, leaving Bristow to help rear seven orphaned grandchildren. He died July 14, 1944, having suffered a fall in the street a month earlier, and was buried in Gypsum Hill Cemetery, Salina, Kansas.

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
Kansas Historical Society

William McKinley
President Theodore Roosevelt
Charles Curtis
Arthur Capper

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This page was last updated on July 14, 2018.