During the Progressive Era around the turn of the last century, the big issues facing the USA were much the same as those facing us today—corporate monopoly, the attack on organized labor, political corruption, the tariff and free trade, and military intervention and imperialism.
Americans in that era—at least in the North—regarded Abraham Lincoln as our national ideal. Lincoln was born into a poor family and, without money or much formal education, because a successful lawyer, striving politician and eventually President of the United States, the highest office in the land. But he never forgot or disavowed his origins He always identified himself with the experience and the interests of the common people, never with the elite.
Within a couple of generations after Lincoln’s death, the USA had become something he would not have recognized. Lincoln came of age in a nation dominated, at least in the North, by independent farmers, craftsmen and merchants, and by employers who knew all their employees by name.
The USA at the turn of the 20th century was dominated by large corporations and political machines in which the individual had little place. For many, all that remained of the Lincoln ideal was the belief that someone of humble origins could rise to great wealth.
John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois from 1893 to 1897, came as close to embodying the Lincoln ideal as anyone of that era could.
Ginger used his career as a thread to tie together the whole story of reform in Chicago in that era, involving, among others, the lawyer Clarence Darrow, the radical labor leader Eugene V. Debs, the social worker Jane Addams, the social critic Thorstein Veblen, the educator and philosopher John Dewey, the novelist Theodore Dreiser and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright—all of them free individuals who sought the public good in an age of large corporations organized for private profit.
All I had known about Altgeld prior to reading this book, aside from a poem by Vachel Lindsay, was that he opposed the use of federal troops to break the Pullman strike in Chicago, and that he sacrificed his political career to pardon the innocent but hated Haymarket anarchists, convicted of the killing of a policeman based on no evidence except their anarchist beliefs.
Actually, those two facts tell what’s essential to know—that Altgeld, like Lincoln, may have been ambitious, but he put justice ahead of ambition.