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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 235

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This is the grave of John Altgeld.

Born in 1847 in what is today Germany, Altgeld’s parents immigrated to Ohio when he was an infant, settling on a farm near Mansfield. He grew up there, lied about his age to join the Union Army in the Civil War, where he somehow managed to avoid combat except for one skirmish, and then returned to Ohio. He worked on his parents’ farm for a bit and then walked to Missouri. He wandered around the Midwest for a few years, working in Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa, before settling down to study the law. He was admitted to the bar in 1871 and found instant success, including in politics. He was elected state’s attorney of Missouri within a couple of years. He resigned after a year though to move to Chicago, start a law practice, and enter big-time politics. He also went into real estate and streetcar lines and became wealthy by the early 1880s.

Altgeld was a reform Democrat. He came of age just as the post-Civil War farmers’ revolts were in their initial stages. He had become involved with the Grange movement in Missouri. He also saw a lot of legal injustices during his short stint as state’s attorney (he was a city attorney just before that as well). He wanted to reform the criminal justice system. In 1884, he decided to run for Congress against an entrenched incumbent in a heavily Republican district. To build his case, he wrote a tract against the criminal justice system called Our Penal Machine and Its Victims, arguing that incarceration just led to hardened criminals. His positions impressed a lot of people and he only lost by 8 points, a very impressive showing for the district. So he ran in 1886 for Cook County Superior Court judge and won, remaining there until 1891.

In 1892, the Democrats nominated Altgeld for governor of Illinois and he defeated incumbent Republican Joseph Fifer. This made him the first Democrat to win the position in this heavily Republican state since 1856 and, interestingly, the first person from Chicago to ever win. Although he was in bad health and nearly dropped dead shortly after the election, he managed to recover and work on his ambitious reform agenda. He signed new laws against child labor and to protect women workers. He appointed women to high-level state positions for the first time. He also greatly expanded public funding for education.

But what makes Altgeld famous and brave is his stands for workers’ rights. He was disgusted by the execution of the Haymarket martyrs in 1887. Like many Americans, he saw that these people probably had nothing directly to do with the bombing and that in any case, there was no evidence against them. They had been executed for being anarchists. The fate of the last three in prison was still up in the air. But while there was a lot of national and international outrage over these executions, in Illinois, they were popular. So when Altgeld pardoned the last three men, after reviewing their cases carefully, Illinois Republicans were outraged and he received extremely negative press.

Then, the next year, the Pullman strike happened. Grover Cleveland was a Democrat, but the only significant difference between Cleveland’s conservative wing, very much including his attorney general, the odious Richard Olney, and the Republicans was tariff policy. Cleveland had little in common with the farmer-labor reform movement of the Democratic Party. The two sides hated each other and would battle over control of the party for the next couple of decades. Olney was a railroad executive and since the Pullman strike targeted railroads, Olney wanted to use the military to bust it. Cleveland had no problem with it. But Altgeld did. Cleveland wanted Altgeld’s permission to bring the military into his state. Altgeld refused. He wrote to Cleveland, saying that the reports of striker violence were lies and he was not going to approve of this. He claimed that Article IV of the Constitution prohibited the occupation of a state by federal troops without that state’s consent. Cleveland didn’t care. He ordered them in anyway, the military crushed the strike, Eugene Debs was sent to prison, and the lovely Melville Fuller-led Supreme Court happily upheld these actions. Altgeld telling Cleveland and Olney to go jump off a cliff in that letter brought Altgeld more negative press. With the media controlled by right-wing elements (the present is not so different from the past) ridiculous stories of Debs and his merry band of anarchists destroying America were all over the place. Altgeld was pillaged.

Altgeld had some measure of revenge in 1896. The Democratic convention was a battle between conservative and reform forces. Cleveland wanted another term. Altgeld led the Democrats determined not to let that happen. They won that battle and William Jennings Bryan became the nominee. Altgeld wasn’t super happy about this, as he wasn’t much of a Bryan guy and wasn’t sold on free silver. Altgeld was so toxic nationally, with Harper’s running an article calling him “the ambitious and unscrupulous Illinois communist” who controlled Bryan, that the candidate actually distanced himself from the governor. Altgeld was up for re-election that year and for national Republicans, he was their top target. They went all out to defeat him and defeat him they did, although he did run better than Bryan in Illinois.

Altgeld was a sickly man. His health was failing him through his four years as governor. He did have one last campaign in him though. He wanted to throw out Carter Harrison as mayor of Chicago. Harrison was his enemy at the state level, a conservative close to Cleveland. So Altgeld ran as a third party candidate in 1899. He didn’t really think he would win, but he wanted to deny Harrison the nomination and thus undercut his influence in who would pick the 1900 Democratic candidate. He won 15 percent of the vote, but Harrison still won. However, the era of the Gilded Age conservative Democrats nationally was largely over and Bryan won the nomination again. And lost again, but that was hardly uncommon during this Republican-dominated era.

Altgeld was also struggling financially, having lost much of his fortune and spending more time on politics than the law. His friend Clarence Darrow rushed in to save him, giving him a job in his law firm working on defending the innocent and oppressed in the Gilded Age. But he didn’t have long to live. He died while giving a speech defending the Boers in 1902. He was still only 54 years old. His boy lay in state at Chicago Public Library. Clarence Darrow and Jane Addams gave the eulogies at his funeral.

John Altgeld is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois. What I love about his grave that is that it includes his pardon of the Haymarket prisoners and his letter to Cleveland. Standing up for the innocent and the workers from the grave is my kind of guy.

This grave visit was funded in part by LGM readers and I am highly grateful for being able to write about Altgeld, who I have long admired. If you are interested in this series profiling some of the all too rare good politicians of the Gilded Age, you can donate to support the required travel here. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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