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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 591

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This is the grave of Ray Stannard Baker.

Born in 1870 in Lansing, Michigan, Baker went to Michigan State Agricultural College, which is now Michigan State University. He then got a law degree at the University of Michigan, but instead of practicing, he decided to become a journalist. He got a job with a Chicago paper in 1892, putting him in the right place to cover the 1894 Pullman strike.

Baker became associated with the “muckrakers,” the Gilded Age journalists exposing the underbelly of America’s society of inequality and oppression to the rich people who didn’t want to know about it. He was hired by McClure’s which became the most important of the muckraking magazines and which also hired Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. He wrote some children’s stories too, but it was his journalism that made him famous.

In 1907, Baker, Steffens, and Tarbell all left McClure’s to start The American Magazine. This was part muckraking and part human interest stories. Baker published frequently there, often under his pseudonym, David Grayson. He became particularly interested in race issues. He was in Atlanta for the 1906 race riot, which he covered. Progressives were usually pretty hesitant to question the just hardened southern racial line of Jim Crow, so when Baker published his book Following the Color Line: An Account of Negro Citizenship in the American Democracy, it was a sensation. Baker was no radical on race or any other issue. Fundamentally conservative, he tried to paint a positive spin on the issue, very much channeling the influence of Booker T. Washington. Still, it was seen as an accurate depiction of the American South in the early twentieth century. He also wrote articles strongly denouncing lynching at a time when this was a shockingly common practice in America.

We often look at the muckrakers as journalistic heroes, but again, like many Progressives, they really were fundamentally conservative. They might have exposed the horrors of John D. Rockefeller or urban corruption, but they fundamentally came out of the individualistic society of the Gilded Age that they wanted to restore, not end. For instance, Baker dismissed Coxey’s Army and the Populist movement as outliers in a nation that was fundamentally sound. Baker covered the 1902 anthracite strike in Pennsylvania. This was the famous strike when Theodore Roosevelt intervened to mediate instead of using the military as strikebreakers because he thought the United Mine Workers of America and its president John Mitchell reasonable and the railroads and mine owners not reasonable. This is the strike during whose arbitration hearings that mine executive George Baer infamous said, “These men don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t speak English!”

You’d think a muckraker like Baker would be on the side of the miners. But he really wasn’t in his articles on this for McClure’s. Oh, he fully admitted that the conditions the mine workers faced were horrible. But like many Progressives, unions were as big a problem as corporations in this new industrial turmoil and big organization America that restricted the individual. Baker went there and met Mitchell. He liked him, as the union leader held the same relatively conservative nature as he did, which would later lead to the UMWA membership kicking him out of the job. Baker then went out to meet the miners themselves. But he was deeply disturbed at how much the miners genuinely hated the men taking their jobs as scabs. Rather, he began sympathizing with the scabs and made their plight the point of much of his reporting there. That many of the scabs were from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds and many of the strikers from eastern Europe absolutely influenced his reporting.

Baker fundamentally felt that unions restricted competition and preferred finding stories of labor racketeering and blaming unions for raising the price of consumer goods. Interestingly, Baker saw labor racketeering as the fault of big business, with the corruption infecting American society ultimately coming from there and polluting everyone they dealt with, including unions. He basically saw union bosses the same way he saw urban political bosses–stand-ins for lazy Americans unwilling to do the work to improve society themselves and thus opening the door for people in power to profit. He repeatedly returned to his theme that America could be improved or saved (when he was more pessimistic) by an effort that reinstated by the individualism at the core of his political beliefs. In short, for Progressives like Baker, really simplistic thinking about society went along with their groundbreaking exposés. He did move to the left over the years, coming to believe by 1906 that only government ownership over the railroads could cure the great ills of the Gilded Age and he challenged Theodore Roosevelt, who he then supported, over the limited impact of what became the Hepburn Act. In fact, he and other muckrakers eventually saw Roosevelt as a traitor to good government when he became angry over a story one wrote about corruption among TR’s appointees.

With that disillusionment, Baker briefly flirted with socialism in 1908 and 1909 but came to reject that too. In 1912, Baker became a huge supporter of Woodrow Wilson and they became close. Baker became a part of Wilson’s foreign policy team and was sent to Europe in 1918 to study the continent at the end of World War I. He was Wilson’s press secretary at Versailles. Baker’s later career was pretty much about Wilson’s legacy, including publishing the six-volume Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson between 1925 and 1927, the eight-volume Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters between 1927 and 1939, and then served as an advisor on the 1944 biopic Wilson, which was a big Darryl Zanuck project. Baker won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1940 for the last two volumes of the Life and Letters work. He finished his career with two autobiographies, published in 1941 and 1945. Baker died in 1946 at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he had lived since 1910.

Ray Stannard Baker is buried in Wildwood Cemetery, Amherst, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other muckraking journalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses. Ida Tarbell is supposedly in Titusville, Pennsylvania, but I spent an an hour and a half searching through the relatively small cemetery and could not find her so I am extremely skeptical of that claim and am not fondly remembering that frustration. Lincoln Steffens is in Colma, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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