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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 317


This is the grave of the odious Gilded Age lawyer and capitalist George Baer.

Born in 1842 in Lavansville, Pennsylvania, Baer dropped out of school at the age of 13 and started working in a printer’s shop and then attended Franklin and Marshall College. He volunteered for the Union in the Civil War and rose to the rank of captain, fighting at Antietam and Chancellorsville, among other battles. He was out of the war by 1864, when he was admitted to the bar. In 1868, he settled in Reading, Pennsylvania and started a law practice.

Over time, much of that practice was for the railroads, far and away the most powerful entity in the United States during the Gilded Age, and that includes the federal government. The railroads controlled much of American life. Not only did they provide the nation’s transportation network, but they went far to set prices on both agricultural and industrial goods through their rates that were often disparate depending on the size and power of the buyer, they reshaped cities through their tracks, and they employed many thousands of workers. They could call in for government help when they felt threatened, they bought off politicians and judges, and they served as a symbol for everything wrong with the Gilded Age for millions of people. One reason for all of this was George Baer. An effective lawyer, Baer soon got to know powerful people, for the railroads were not an isolated corporation. Rather, they controlled mines and timber resources, had close to ties to steel mills and banking, and had a hand in nearly everything in the American economy. In serving these corporate interests, Baer gained a powerful patron in the capitalist J.P. Morgan, which was settled when Baer helped Morgan find a terminus in Pittsburgh for one of his railroads.

In 1901, the president of the Reading Railroad retired. This was one of many Morgan interests and so he had Baer take over as president, as well as president of a couple of other companies. The following year, the coal miners in the anthracite country of eastern Pennsylvania went on strike. As many of those coal mines were owned by the railroads, ultimately they were striking against them too, which meant that they were striking against eastern capital in the end. The United Mine Workers of America took a very moderate position in the strike, gaining the respect of leading Progressives, including Theodore Roosevelt. But the capitalists, led by Baer, were furious. They weren’t going to give one inch to these workers. When the strike started, By 1902, the union demanded union recognition, a pay raise of twenty percent, the eight-hour day, a new system to weigh coal that would not cheat the miners, and the establishment of a grievance system that would allow disputes between employers and workers. Baer and the coal operators rejected it completely. They wanted to take back control over their mines. Baer said, “There cannot be two masters in the management of business.”

Baer was a hard-core social Darwinist, someone who believed that the rich were rich because they were better people than the poor, who deserved their fate. He wrote, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.” This statement, leaked to the press, led Clarence Darrow to refer to Baer as “George the Last.” Jack London referred to the letter directly in The Iron Heel. Condemnation of Baer came in across the country. Baer couldn’t care less about any of this. He had no interest in popularity. Only power appealed to him.

Given this attitude, he was not going to meet UMWA leader John Mitchell on an even playing field, even after Roosevelt intervened, as he did that fall, worried about eastern coal supplies as the winter approached. Roosevelt brought both sides together for a meeting. Baer refused to even acknowledge Mitchell’s existence. This really pissed off Roosevelt, who felt personally insulted, which was not what you wanted to do with that guy. He wrote, speaking first of Mitchell, “He made no threats and resorted to no abuse. The proposition he made seemed to me entirely fair. The operators refused to even consider it, used insolent and abusive language about him, and in at least 2 cases assumed an attitude toward me which was one of insolence.” Baer was a real piece of work, as you can see.

Finally, Roosevelt intervened directly with Morgan and told him to knock it off. Morgan responded to this and ordered Baer to accept the mediation commission. But that didn’t mean Baer was giving up. Rather, testifying about the strike and the horrible conditions the workers lived in, he gave perhaps the most famous statement of capitalist contempt for workers in the entire Gilded Age. Baer ranted before the commission about the natural right of employers to advance society through their monopolies while accusing unions of creating a “monster monopoly” that produces nothing. He claimed the union was a violent organization that did not deserve legitimacy. He defended the long hours of work and coal operators’ right to total control over their minds by stating “the masses of men have advanced, and are continuing to advance under the powerful stimulus of individual liberty gives to individual initiative.” Any employer behavior was justified under Baer’s extremist position. Finally, Baer simply denied the miners’ humanity, stating, “These men don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

That my friends is how capitalists in the first and now present Gilded Ages think of the poor.

Baer was also president of Franklin and Marshall at this time, having been named to the position in 1894. He retained that position until his death in 1914.

George Baer is buried in Charles Evans Cemetery, Reading, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to profile more hideous capitalists, you can donate to cover the require expenses here. Steve Jobs is in Palo Alto, while U.S. Steel’s Elbert Gary is in Wheaton, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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