Altgeld’s America and the America of today

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.

altgeldsamerica11009944I recently finished reading a book about that era—Altgeld’s America, 1892-1905: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities by Ray Ginger—in hope that it would give me a new perspective.

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

John Peter Altgeld

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.

Altgeld was brought to the USA as a small boy by German immigrant parents, who wanted him to stay on the family farm in Ohio and work.  He enlisted in the Union army in the Civil War at age 16, and, as a result of a fever he caught during the war, suffered illnesses all his life, including a disability called motor ataxia that affected his ability to walk.   The strength of his will offset the weakness of his body.

Altgeld monument in Chicago

Altgeld statue in Lincoln Park

He wandered through the Midwest, mostly on foot, managing to get a few years of schooling and work as a laborer, school teacher, lawyer and county prosecutor.  He then sought his fortune in Chicago, where he became a successful real estate developer and entered politics.

The odds against him were great, as they were against any reformer.  Chicago was dominated by a powerful Democratic machine which endures to this day.  The Illinois state government and the federal government were under the influence of corporate lobbyists.

Judges were biased, and issued decisions and injunctions based on personal whim.  Newspapers were against any challenge to the status quo that went beyond advocating for simple honesty, which, admittedly, was not to be taken for granted.

Altgeld was undiscouraged.  Like Lincoln, he never let his many setbacks stop him.  Like Lincoln, he was careful never to get more than one step ahead of public opinion and, like Lincoln, made ad hoc political alliances according to the requirements of the situation.

He wrote a popular book on prison reform, ran for Congress and was defeated, was elected a Cook County judge and resigned and was elected governor in 1892.

During his administration, Illinois enacted the nation’s most progressive child labor and occupational safety laws, built up the state university system and reformed the administration of state prisons.  He appointed women to high office, in an era when they did not have the right to vote.

Even so, he fell short of what he hoped to do.  He did not change the balance of power between big business and the courts on the one hand, and labor unions and reformers on the other.  But he did enough to be denounced in the press and pulpits as a dangerous Communist and anarchist.

He influenced the national Democratic Party to adopt a progressive platform and nominate William Jennings Byran in 1896, repudiating the incumbent anti-labor Democrat Grover Cleveland.

Ginger thought Altgeld could have been nominated himself if he had not been foreign-born, and that he would have been a stronger candidate and better President than Byran.

But it was not to be.  Altgeld was defeated for re-election in the Republican sweep of 1896, in which William McKinley defeated Byran, although he ran 10,000 votes ahead of the national ticket.  He failed in a campaign for mayor of Chicago and died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54.

His greatest hoped-for reform was municipal ownership of street cars in Chicago—important, because the corrupt awarding of franchises for street cars and other public services provided the revenue that financed the Democratic machine.

This campaign failed during the period covered by the book, although reformers did achieve competitive bidding and other controls on municipal contracts.

Altgeld’s America gives the whole panorama of life and politics in Chicago and tells the story of many colorful secondary figures associated with reform.  The most impressive of these is Jane Addams, a volunteer social worker who lived and worked among the poor immigrants in the city.

Jane Addams

Jane Addams

She was much more than a genteel educated lady, giving charity and advice to the poor.  She and the other women volunteers at Hull House, their settlement house, organized early childhood education (kindergarten), child care (a day nursery), an employment bureau, classes in practical and cultural subjects and even an orchestra.

They provided meeting places for women’s trade unions, and for high-level lectures by speakers of the caliber of her friend, John Dewey.  Aside from Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, Jane Addams is the only notable person I ever knew about who led intellectual discussions of poverty and social problems with poor people taking part.

Once she and another volunteer were called to a tenement to help a young woman in childbirth.  Her neighbors didn’t want to help because she was unmarried, and didn’t want to call a doctor because a fear they would have to pay the bill.  Addams and her friend learned midwifery on the job!

Addams and the other women of Hull House pressed for reforms year in and year out, issuing reports showing the abuse of juvenile offenders by the penal system and carrying on pilot projects to show their reforms could work.  They prevailed, sometimes, through sheer persistence and command of facts.

Looking at the United States of today, I am struck by how much it resembles Atlgeld’s America, either because things have come full circle or because they never changed.

The Democratic political machine remains in control of Chicago.  Large corporations and banks dominate state and national politics.  Labor unions had their day in the sun, but that sun is setting.  Public services are being privatized and, if things keep on as they are, we’ll be back to the corrupt franchise system that Altgeld fought.

Politicians and corporate leaders are not as openly corrupt or as contemptuous of the public interest as they were then, but in some ways, the current situation is worse.

Philip Armour, Marshall Field and George Pullman were ruthless, unscrupulous and indifferent to the welfare of working people, but they were builders, not simply people who milked the system.

Armour brought meat to the diets of the masses, Field built department stores and Pullman invented a new kind of railroad car.  They made their fortunes by creating value, not just by milking the system.

Altgeld's tombstone

Altgeld’s tombstone

The Democratic machine politicians were corrupt, but they also were job creators.  The bosses gave more practical help to the poor immigrants than the reformers did or could.  They reached the voters face to face, not through mass media advertising.

Ray Ginger said the Chicago reformers were admirable not for what they accomplished, but for what they were and what they stood for.  He said they are examples of what it means to be free men and women—to be dedicated to goals that go beyond merely acquiring money, and to keep on striving even when the odds are against you.

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One Response to “Altgeld’s America and the America of today”

  1. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


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