A progressive movement thwarted

Quite often I come across quotes or passages in books – fiction and non-fiction – which seem like a page out of today's political saga.

This post is for lovers of history - an excerpt I transcribed from Irving Stone’s “Clarence Darrow for the Defense: A Bigoraphy.” Read at your leisure, then share your thoughts on how it relates to the current election cycle!


Although George Pullman, who made a tremendous contribution to the growth of this nation by creating the railroad’s Pullman Palace sleeper cars, was an American entrepreneur with great promise, his abuses of employees became notorious. When they threatened to strike over wage cuts, President Grover Cleveland issued an injunction against the strike on the grounds it would interfere with delivery of U.S. mail and sent in federal troops to “quell the anarchy.” The strike was peaceful: the anarchy invented by screaming newspaper headlines and a reactionary public. Union leader Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for defying the injunction and was defended, unsuccessfully, by Clarence Darrow, in a case that went before the Supreme Court. Darrow had quit his lucrative position as counsel for the railroad to defend Debs.

Debs, a Christian who began his political career as a Democrat servicng in the Indiana General Assembly, told Darrow, “I do not believe in socialism, but I qm forced to the conclusion that government ownership of railroads is decidedly better for the people than railroad ownership of government.” Debs did become a socialist while imprisoned and ran five times as the Socialist Party’s candidate for president.

The strike was broken; the workers returned to lower wages, higher rents and deplorable living conditions in Pullman's "model city."

According to court records, George Pullman was forced to disclose that for the depression year of August 1893 to July 1894, when he had slashed workers’ wages and refused to lower rent, his company declared a profit dividend of $2.8 million. In addition to the $36 million of capital invested in the company, which over a period of years had paid dividends of $25 million at rates ranging from 8 to 12 percent, there was in the treasury of the Pullman company, in available cash, earned but undistributed profits of another $26 million. Late 19th-Century dollars.

When union workers later were demanding an 8-hour workday, the resulting Haymarket Riot left seven policemen and an unknown number of civilians dead - some from friendly fire - when a bomb was hurled from a building into a workers' rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Rain had broken up the rally, and most of the workers and the mayor had gone home when the police chief and a number of policemen arrived on the scene.

Eight persons were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were sentenced to 15 years in prison -  despite the prosecuting attorney’s admission that none of the eight actually threw the bomb. All had proclaimed their innocence. They were convicted by a great public outcry.

When the facts proved the workers innocent, Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld pardoned the remaining three, and the wrath of an angry public came down on his head.

The excerpt - parenthetical information and subheads are mine:


“Because of his love for Gov. Atlgeld and his distress at the abuse heaped upon his friend, (Clarence) Darrow consented to run for Congress in the 1896 campagin on the same ticket with Altgeld, who was seeking re-election and a vindication of his political and economic liberalism. Darrow had little liking for politics, in which he had had a laboratory course while (Chicago) city counsel. He preferred to stay outside the arena so he could choose his own battlefields. But, he was overjoyed to see Gov. Altgeld rise once again in his full vitality and intelligence after the eclipse and illness he had suffered for the 1893 Haymarket (Riot) pardons.

“The (George) Pullman strike had become one of the issues of the campaign. Altgeld was out to wrest control of the Democratic Party from Grover Cleveland, who had defeated the working people by sending federal troops into Chicago in 1894.

“Darrow was out to indict government by injunction. One plank of the Democratic platform read: ‘We especially object to government by injunction as a new and highly dangerous form of oppression by which federal judges, in contempt of the laws of the states and the rights of the citizens. Become at once legislators, judges and executioners.’”


“However, the major issues were free silver and free golden oratory. The country was in the grip of one of its recurrent depressions. The farmers of the Midwest, in hock to the money interests in the East, believed with the intensity of a religious fervor that if silver were once again made legal tender the value of gold would be brought down, more money would be put into circulation, prosperity would come back, they would be able to pay their debts.

“Both Darrow and Altgeld embraced free silver – Altgeld because he wanted to use it to defeat gold standard Cleveland; Darrow because he thought it would be a good vote-catcher for a program which was the most progressive ever offered to the American public. But, they were neither of them so delighted when they found they had to embrace, along with free silver, the gaseous form of William Jennings Bryan, boy orator of the Platt.”


“Bryan, who was a member of a contested delegation to the Democratic convention, was invited to Chicago by Altgeld, expenses paid, because Altgeld wanted to stop him from splitting the free silver candidates and from making a nuisance of himself by begging and conniving for votes. Yet, four days after his arrival, when the Illinois delegation covened at the Sherman House, to Altgeld’s disgust there was Bryan buttonholing all the delegates.

“‘Tell Bryan to go home,’ Altgeld finally snapped. ‘He stands no more chance of being nominated for president than I, and I was born in Germany!’

“Bryan had no legitimate role to play at the convention, yet once he got his feet onto the platform as chairman of the debate on free silver, among the bearded veterans of the Party, glowing with youth, his raven locks gleaming, his face and manner electric, almost the first words of his rehearsed Chautauqua sermon cast the mesmeric spell he had hoped for:

“‘The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty, the cause of humanity.’ When he finished with, ‘Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the toilers everywhere, we will answer demands for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’

“Men went mad with emotional joy, threw their hats in the air, shouted and wept. The election was lost, and the Democratic Party, which had had an excellent chance of electing the popular “Silver Dick” Bland (Richard Parks Bland), went into eclipse and bondage for almost 16 years. (Bryan lost all three presidential bids as the Democratic Party nominee.)

“The cause of liberalism and the working people was shackled to an opportunistic demagogue who embarrassed his fellow liberals by being for the right causes for the wrong reasons.

“Darrow and Altgeld sat in the Illinois delegation, looking at each other questioningly. The next day when sonorous-sounding Bryan had swept the convention hall like a typhoon, Altgeld asked Darrow, ‘I have been thinking over Bryan’s speech. What did he say anyway?’

“Darrow didn’t get a chance to answer that question fully until 1925 during the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, when these two bull moose, each representing the faith and convictions of tens of millions of followers, locked horns in one of the most spectacular and fantastic battles over religion ever waged.”


What parallels do you see in 2010?


Ahab said...

History reminds us to be grateful for the rights we have now. They came at a steep price.

tnlib said...

This is one period in our history with which I'm not all that familiar. I have to say that the language was so flowery at this time I have a hard time understanding any of them! And I'm not sure much has changed.

I think one thing we might learn by taking a look back at history is the ebb and flow of issues, politics and political parties. It's never stagnant, yet the country always seems to survive no matter how hard either party tries to Greedy Ole Poops try to destroy it or how much Democrats insist on shooting themselves in the foot.