On Kansas Day the Motto Resonates

In 1861 John James Ingalls gave the gift of a motto to the brand-new state of Kansas. Ad Astra Per Aspera. To the stars through hardship.

The first part, “To the Stars,” indicated the impossible, for at the time nobody dreamed that humanity would ever travel to outer space. Ingalls merely wanted Kansans to aim high and achieve their wildly improbable dreams.

This is the part of the motto we love to repeat. “Ad Astra,” we tell Kansas school children. “You can do anything you put your mind to.” What’s the old cliche? “Shoot for the moon, for if you miss at least you will land among the stars.” Ad Astra is good t-shirt material.

“To the Stars” fits in well with other state mottos. “Ever Upward!” shouts New York. “I have found it!” cries California, while Wisconsin bellows, “Forward!”

Baby states are dramatic and prone to optimism, so the second half of the Kansas motto seems out of place. “To the stars,” John James Ingalls said, “through hardship.”

Hardship? Buddy, Kansas Day is a birthday party. Don’t bring down the mood with talk of hardship!

In 1861, Ingalls couldn’t give Kansas a bright future without acknowledging its present troubles. For seven years the abolitionist Jayhawkers and pro-slavery Bushwhackers had been locked in bloody combat for control of Kansas Territory. Admission to the Union as a free state only poured fuel on the fire as civil war swept the nation. Peace would not come to bleeding Kansas for four more years.

War was not the only hardship visited upon Kansans through the years. Homesteaders faced drought, tornadoes, and hordes of insects. The western half of the state was dust bowl territory during the 1930’s.

No matter what they went through, Kansans never stopped aiming for the stars. Clyde Cessna taught himself to build airplanes. Amelia Earhart learned to fly them. John Steuart Curry painted landscapes and Gordon Parks photographed people. Dwight D. Eisenhower led the US military through World War II, then led our nation as president. Each of these people suffered hardships, yet each in their own way reached the stars.

In this present time of Covid and crazy weather, hardship is the word on everybody’s tongue. Our days are full of depressing news reports and personal worries. Political divisions are nearly as sharp as they were during the 1850’s border wars. As the troubles pile up, they block our view of the stars. In the resulting darkness it’s easy to believe the hard times are here to stay.

That’s not what John James Ingalls believed. He believed we must all go through hardship, not stay there. And on the other side we could expect to touch the stars. His hope and his grit are our inheritance.

Ad Astra, my Kansas friends, per aspera.

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