Abolitionist to Progressivist


Who were the defilers? The answer was not apparent at the time. They were the intellectual descendants of the influential “progressive movement” leaders of the latter half of the 19th Century, inspired by the revolutionary spirit of European socialists of the 1840’s and 50’s, who embraced the coercive challenges presented by Marks and Engels in the mid-19th Century’s The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.

These “progressives” took up the “defense” of the popularly ‘exploited’ poor to advance their causes through coercion in institutions like labor unions, the arts, the press and government – people like Eugene Debs, William Jennings Bryan, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, George Norris, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, the anarchist Emma Goldman, ‘Mother’ Jones, Margaret Sanger and, perhaps the most influential, John Reed. Their great coercive triumph was the 16th Amendment to the Constitution which established the ultimate coercive power and the gateway into every facet of the People’s lives for the federal government – the confiscatory income tax and the infamous and terrifying tax audit – a virtual and random “fishing expedition” into any American’s most private affairs and a chilling threat to every small business owner.

Their history begins with good intentions in 1789 with the ratification of the Constitution and its provision in Article I that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. Out of this grew the Abolitionist Movement which helped coerce the States into tortured compromises in 1820, 1850 and 1854 that led to the Civil War, eventually resulting in the utter destruction of the slave industry and the amending of the Constitution (13th and 14th Amendments) in the late 1860’s. Some of these “veterans” then moved on to other “causes”.

From the 1830s to the 1860s, the movement to abolish slavery in America gained strength in the northern United States, led by free blacks such as Frederick Douglass and white supporters such as William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the radical newspaper The Liberator, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who published, first in serial form, the bestselling antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852). While many abolitionists based their activism on the belief that slaveholding was a sin, others were more inclined to the non-religious “free-labor” argument, which held that slaveholding was regressive, inefficient and made little economic sense.

Free blacks and other antislavery northerners had begun helping fugitive slaves escape from Southern plantations to the North via a loose network of safe-houses as early as the 1780s. This practice, known as the Underground Railroad, gained real momentum in the 1830s and although estimates vary widely, it may have helped anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 slaves reach freedom. The success of the Underground Railroad helped spread abolitionist feelings in the North; it also undoubtedly increased sectional tensions, convincing pro-slavery southerners of their northern countrymen’s determination to destroy the institution that sustained them.

America’s explosive growth – and its expansion westward in the first half of the 19th Century – would provide a larger stage for the growing conflict over slavery in America and its future limitation or expansion. In 1820, a bitter debate over the federal government’s right to restrict slavery over Missouri’s application for statehood ended in a compromise: Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state and all western territories north of Missouri’s southern border (extended) were to be free soil. Although the Missouri Compromise was designed to maintain an even balance between slave and free states, it was able to help quell the forces of sectionalism only temporarily.

In 1850, another tenuous compromise was negotiated to resolve the question of territory won during the Mexican War. Four years later, however, the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened all new territories to slavery by asserting the rule of popular sovereignty (and States’ rights) over congressional edict, leading pro- and anti-slavery forces to battle it out (with much bloodshed) in the new state of Kansas – known as “Bloody Kansas”. Outrage in the North over the Kansas-Nebraska Act spelled the downfall of the old Whig Party and the birth of a new, all-northern anti-slavery Republican Party.

By the mid-19th Century, America’s westward expansion, along with a growing abolition movement in the North, would provoke a great debate over slavery that would tear the nation apart in the bloody American Civil War. Though the Union victory freed the nation’s four million slaves, the legacy of slavery continued to influence American history, from the tumultuous years of Reconstruction (1865-77) to the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1960s, a century after emancipation.

The end of the war brought the end to slavery in America with the passage of the 13th, 14th and (ultimately) 15th amendments to the Constitution. The abolitionists had won and although the victory was bittersweet with the institution of “Jim Crow” laws in the South, the true believers in social justice had to move on to new campaigns. They now became “progressives” and social justice became social engineering.

In 1848 the Women’s Suffrage Movement began in Seneca Falls, NY and gained strength and influence after the Civil War when women were denied equal treatment in the 14th and 15th Amendments. Some also took up additional “causes” under the “progressive” banner.

The Industrial Revolution came late to America but was hurried along by the Civil War. By the early 1870’s the industrialization of America was in full swing and laborers rightly began to feel exploited by industrialists who were literally inventing an entirely new world. Led by the National Labor Union, which was formed in 1866, American workers organized around ideas from European labor organizations which were decades ahead of America in industrialization and in socio-political movements that went along with it, most importantly – socialism – the ultimate form of elected coercive government. Like the suffragettes, other movements with other “causes” joined labor under the “progressive” banner.

For context from widely available sources, more about socialism:

“The revival of republicanism (not the political party) in the American Revolution of 1776 and the egalitarian values introduced by the French Revolution of 1789 gave rise to socialism as a distinct political movement.

Modern socialism originated from an 18th Century political movement, primarily in France, that criticized the effects on society of a capitalism of nascent industrialization and the large holdings of private property by the gentry. The political philosophies of several groups survived the French Revolution to provide tactical inspiration for later social movements.

Since the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848, the sympathy for the troubles of historic allies – specifically, the French working class – by many Americans during America’s industrialization was a significant inspiration in the tactical development of the intense social and political competition between labor and capital that marked the history of the Progressive Movement in America.

In the French Revolution of 1789, the sans-culottes (French for “without pants” – their “uniform” being knee-length britches) were essentially an organization of Paris street-gangs rallied to provide critical crowd-support for the radical and far-left factions of the successive revolutionary governments. Shifting crowds of militant sans-culottes also provided the strength behind some of the more violent and visceral events of the revolution.

Another group was the Jacobin Club. Lead by lawyer Maximillien Robespierre, the Jacobins established a revolutionary dictatorship. The Jacobin dictatorship was known for enacting the Reign of Terror, which targeted speculators, monarchists and traitors, and led to many beheadings. When the moderate bourgeois Jacobin Club took over the National Convention in 1793, many sans-culottes even supported Robespierre ‘s bloody Reign of Terror which, in the end, ensnared Robespierre himself.

The rise and fall of Napoleon and numerous governments after him left France, along with most of Europe, unprepared to deal with the historic changes the Industrial Revolution would bring to the poor and middle classes alike. By 1848, European population had exploded and the Industrial Revolution had changed the very nature of life on the Continent. With changes came social unrest and growing conflict between a disorganized working urban poor and a disorganized middle class of land owners and industrialists, large and small. Both wanted reforms.

To this environment came two German social philosophers writing in London, Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, who published The Communist Manifesto in 1848 – criticizing the idealistic aspects of socialism and instead advocating socialism as a phase of industrialization which would come about through social revolution instigated by class conflict, sometimes violent, within capitalism.

Using their organizing principles, isolated worker insurrections became more organized on the Continent. While much of the impetus came from the middle classes, much of the cannon fodder came from the working classes. Tens of thousands died. They were immortalized as revolutionaries in Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Miserables, in 1862. The uprisings throughout Europe failed within a year.

By the latter Nineteenth century, “socialism” had come to signify opposition to capitalism and advocacy for an alternative, post-capitalist, system based on some form of social ownership. Alongside this there appeared other movements such as anarchism, Marxist-Leninism and social-democracy as well as the confluence of socialism with anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles around the world.

The socialist movement came to be the most influential worldwide movement and political-economic worldview of the 20th Century. Today, socialist parties and ideas remain a political force with varying degrees of power and influence in all continents except North America – leading national governments in many countries.

In America, since Chief Justice John Marshall had been so successful in defining the centrality of private property (originally, concepts known as jus publicum and jus privatum) basic tenets of the Justinian Code – named for the Roman Emperor Justinian in the early 6th Century and revived during the Enlightenment in the 17th Century), a distinct middle class had arisen.

Class-warfare never became a popular political movement because of the many examples of upward social mobility based on personal initiative and the sanctity of private property – not to mention that half of the country didn’t have to pay for labor at all.

Young American readers, especially boys, were treated to wonderful examples of the value of how hard work and determination could lead to success in America by nearly 100 volumes of “juvenile novels” written by author Horatio Alger beginning in 1864. Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832 –1899) was a prolific 19th Century American author, best known for his many juvenile-targeted novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. His writings were characterized by the “rags-to-riches” narrative, which had a formative effect on America during post-Civil War industrialization and the Gilded Age.

Essentially, all of Alger’s novels share the same theme: a young boy works hard work to escape poverty. Often though, it is not the hard work itself that rescues the boy from his fate, but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty, which brings him into contact with a wealthy elder gentleman. The boy might return a large sum of money that was lost or rescue someone from an overturned carriage, bringing the boy – and his plight – to the attention of some wealthy individual. Alger secured his literary niche in 1868 with the publication of his fourth book, Ragged Dick, the story of a poor bootblack’s rise to middle-class respectability. This novel was a huge success. His many books that followed were essentially variations on Ragged Dick and featured casts of stock characters: the valiant hard-working, honest youth, the noble mysterious stranger, the snobbish youth, and the evil, greedy squire.

In the 1870s, Alger’s fiction was growing stale. His publisher suggested he tour the American West for material to incorporate into his fiction. Alger took a trip to California. The trip had little effect on his novels: he remained mired in the tired theme of “poor boy makes good”. However, the scene was changed from the urban world to the American West – eventually leading to the great morality plays in the nascent moving picture industry – cowboy movies. “Horatio Alger” type success stories became part of the American lexicon and remain so today.”

As a result of America’s middle-class mentality, socialism never gained a foothold in the United States. However, a movement with similar goals was born in the years immediately following the Civil War during the infancy of the great industrialization of America. This cousin of socialism became known as Progressivism.

The Progressives in America believed in the Hamiltonian (from the first Secretary of the Treasury – Alexander Hamilton) concept of positive (read activist, coercive) government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home (at the expense of the States) and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored groups.

Famous Americans, such as Jane Addams, Samuel Gompers, Wm. Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Robert La Follette and Walter Lippmann, among many others, all contributed to the success of the Progressive agenda.

Among these, Theodore Roosevelt was the most interesting and influential. His biography is well known but, in short, he could best be described in the phrase “When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. He never met an issue that he didn’t want to bludgeon into submission and no one could influence TR to do anything other than what he wanted to do the way he wanted to do it.

Unlike most Progressives, he was born to a life of privilege and was inspired by his family and social class to a life of philanthropy and service. To him, progressive ideals were not a political philosophy but were a lifeline for his chronic and compulsive energy. Although a frail youth, he idealized his father and, to live up to his expectations, he drove himself to overcome his health issues and, in a true-life story of “mind over matter”, literally willed himself to robust health with what can only be described as “hyper-kinetic” energy.

One incident in his youth with which he never came to terms was the failure of his father to serve in the Union cause during the Civil War – choosing instead to buy his way out of service for a few hundred dollars. As TR matured, in all probability, he saw this as the abuse of power in a corrupt system and it probably inspired him to a life of service fighting corruption and abuse of power wherever he found it.

This mindset and energy was eminently well suited to success in his first appointive government offices as a U.S. Customs Officer in Washington, D.C. and as a New York City Police Commissioner, tasked with rooting out corruption and abuse of power in both locales. However, his success at the local level in NYC and at the State level as Governor of New York did not translate well at the national level when the U.S. Constitution tended to get in the way of “progressive friendly” national reforms he desired to implement.

His signature policy of ending the power of the industrial trusts is the best example of his activist philosophy. Believing that the trusts – cabals of industrialists and financiers – were anti-capitalist because they amounted to monopolies that prevented fair competition between large and small businesses, he threatened the use of federal government power through “Executive Order”, like nationalizing the coal mines or extorting the meat packing industry, to achieve his ends – the end of the trusts.

It was his desire to make the American experience a winning one for all – what he called his “Square Deal” in the 1904 Presidential election campaign – that separates him from the European socialist-inspired progressives who desired to create an “equal” experience for all by taking from the rich and giving to the poor – thereby creating winners and losers – something anathema to Theodore Roosevelt.

In the 1912 election campaign, as the candidate of the Progressive Party, he was “out- progressived” by the Democrat candidate, Woodrow Wilson, and was badly beaten in the election.

In general, Progressivism began at local levels and did much good because it worked closely with the People. As TR found out, it was when it progressed to the national level that it came into conflict with the Constitution – and the “real enemy” of the Progressives became States’ Rights and limited government. Inherent in this view was the time tested European model of the use of coercion by the national government to effect changes at all levels of society – according to the popular fashion of the day – the print media.

Context again – according to widely available sources:

“[Reporters like] “…Ida Tarbell … exposed the activities of the Standard Oil Company. In The Shame of the Cities (1904), Lincoln Steffens dissected corruption in city government. In Following the Color Line (1908), Ray Stannard Baker criticized race relations. Other muckrakers assailed the Senate, railroad companies, insurance companies, and fraud in patent medicine. Novelists, too, criticized corporate injustices. Theodore Dreiser drew harsh portraits of a type of ruthless businessman in The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914). In The Jungle (1906), Socialist Upton Sinclair repelled readers with descriptions of Chicago’s meatpacking plants, and his work led to support for remedial food safety legislation.

A universal and comprehensive system of education was at the top of the Progressive agenda, reasoning that if a democracy (meaning government) were to be successful, its leaders needed a good education – in contrast to the original purpose of public education in the mid-1800s – to enable the general public to find work in newly industrializing America.

Progressives worked hard to expand and improve public and private education at all levels. They believed that modernization of American society into an efficient and empathetic institution necessitated the compulsory education of all children under government guidance. While home-schooling of the day was a privilege of the rich, when home-schooling by the middle-class began to become popular in the mid-20th Century, the progressives added its advocates to their list of political enemies.

Also on their list were workers’ rights, the direct election of Senators, the temperance movement, the income tax, child labor laws, women’s suffrage and stamping out government corruption. Further, labor progressives argued that industrial monopolies (“trusts”) were unnatural economic institutions which suppressed the competition which was necessary for progress and improvement. More than 130 Trusts were brought down in less than eight years by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

It was the labor movement however, that did the heavy lifting for the Progressives. The American labor movement of the 1860s-1920s was initiated by strikes that began because of wage cuts, the new inventions of machinery, and the depersonalization of workers. During the late 1800s, the unions, principally the railroad unions, were conducting strikes that led to rioting and disorder. In order to restore peace, the government was taking action to secure power again. The public was angered by the carelessness of union officials who allowed violence to occur. As a result of their outrage, riots broke out, strikes began, and mobs formed.

In 1886 the “Haymarket Affair” began as a protest rally and subsequent violence on May 4 at the Haymarket Square in Chicago. The rally supported striking workers. When police began to disperse the public meeting, an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb into their midst. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers, mostly from friendly fire, and an unknown number of civilians.

In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were tried for murder. Four men were convicted and executed, and one committed suicide in prison, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb.

The causes of the Haymarket Affair are still controversial, but can be traced in part to an incident the previous day, in which police fired into a crowd of agitated workers during shift change at the McCormick Works, where the regular work force was on strike, and at least two workers were killed. In popular literature, the Haymarket Affair inspired the caricature of “a bomb-throwing anarchist.”

Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld later pardoned the three living survivors of the Haymarket prosecution, concluding (as have subsequent scholars) that there had been a serious miscarriage of justice in their prosecutions.

At the head of the American Railway Union was Eugene V. Debs. His concern for the well-being of his workers was demonstrated when he instructed union members at the Pullman Company to avoid violence. However, the employees went on strike and events were soon out of control, resulting in Debs’ incarceration. During the Pullman Strike in 1893, Debs was not regarded as a good influence on employees but was seen as a lawbreaker whose disorderly teachings must be stopped.

The first of these strikes was the great railroad strike of 1877 which saw considerable violence by, and against, workers, and occurred before unions were widespread. It started on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in response to the cutting of wages for the second time in a year by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O). Striking workers would not allow any of the stock to roll until this second wage cut was revoked. The governor sent in State militia units to restore train service, but the soldiers refused to use force against the strikers and the governor called for federal troops.

Violent street battles also occurred in Maryland between the striking workers and the Maryland State militia. When the outnumbered troops of the 6th Regiment fired on an attacking crowd, they killed 10 and wounded 25. The rioters injured several members of the militia, damaged engines and train cars, and burned portions of the train station. On July 21–22, in a compromise, President Rutherford B. Hayes sent federal troops and Marines to Baltimore to restore order.

In Reading, Pennsylvania, workers conducted mass marches, blocked rail traffic, committed train yard arson, and burned a bridge. A militia shot sixteen citizens in the “Reading Railroad Massacre”. The militia responsible for the shootings was mobilized by Reading Railroad management, not by local public officials.

Chicago was paralyzed when angry mobs of unemployed citizens wreaked havoc in the rail yards. The strike was eventually suppressed by thousands of vigilantes, National Guard, and federal troops.

In Pittsburgh, strikers threw rocks at local militiamen, who bayoneted their antagonists, killing twenty people and wounding twenty-nine others.

During an 1888 strike against the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, workers were arrested for wrecking a train. When one of those arrested turned out to be a detective, organized labor complained that the detective had incited the others.

The year 1892 was one of considerable labor unrest. Governors of five states called out the National Guard and/or requested the Army to quell unrest by miners in East Tennessee, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where a shooting war followed the discovery of a labor spy, against switchmen in Buffalo, New York, against a general strike in New Orleans, Louisiana, and against the Homestead steel strike.

The strike of 1892 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho erupted in violence when a union miner was killed by mine guards and was further inflamed when union miners discovered they had been infiltrated by a Pinkerton agent who had routinely provided union information to the mine owners.

On Sunday night, July 10, armed union miners gathered on the hills above the Frisco mine. At five o’clock in the morning, shots rang out, and the firing became continuous. The union miners, exposed on the logged-off hillside, hadn’t positioned themselves for a gunfight, while mine guards were able to shelter in buildings.

The union men circled above the mill where they could send a box of black powder down the flume into one of the mine buildings. The building exploded, killing one company man and injuring several others. The union miners fired into a remaining structure where the guards had taken shelter. A second company man was killed, and sixty or so guards surrendered. Union men marched their prisoners to the union hall.

The violence provided the mine owners and the governor with an excuse to declare Martial Law, and bring in six companies of the Idaho National Guard to “suppress insurrection and violence.” Federal troops also arrived, and they confined six hundred miners in bullpens without any hearings or formal charges. Some were later “sent up” for violating injunctions, others for obstructing the United States mail.

A strike known as the Homestead Strike began in 1892 with workers at the Carnegie Steel Company at Homestead, Pennsylvania. Next was the Pullman strike which occurred in 1893 when the nation was faced with another financial depression – The Panic of 1893. Labor was then relatively quiet for most of the next 30 years.

Theodore Roosevelt and his third party supported such union goals as the eight-hour work day, improved safety and health conditions in factories, workers’ compensation laws, and minimum wage laws for women. Labor unions grew steadily until 1916, expanded quickly during the First World War. Then, in 1919 a wave of major strikes alienated the middle class, and the strikes were lost, which alienated the workers.

Finally, Williamson County, Illinois, a county with a “unique history of violence” for a rural county, was the location of the “Herrin Massacre”, one of the most horrific and perplexing incidents of union violence. The 1922 incident is considered the most notorious of John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers’ struggles in Illinois.

Williamson was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity at the time, with many in the community embracing that organization in opposition to bootlegging of liquor during Prohibition, and for purposes of racial exclusion. The massacre was committed by members (and possibly at the instruction of local leadership) of the United Mine Workers.

Accounts differ, but most record the strike-related deaths of three union men, followed the next day by union miners committing the brutal murders of 20 men of a group of fifty strikebreakers and mine guards. The ruthless retaliation occurred against the backdrop of broken promises, double-dealing, and missed opportunities on both sides.

For the rest of the 1920s the unions were in the doldrums; The American Federation of Labor, under Samuel Gompers after 1907, began supporting the Democrats, who promised more favorable judges. The Republicans appointed pro-business judges.

Real life union bosses continued to rule with an iron fist and labor union power has survived. It still plays a major role in national politics – becoming a political weapon by attacking members of the public who may disagree with the progressive-socialist politics championed by union management, by raising huge sums for progressive/liberal candidates for elective office and providing an intimidating, and sometimes violent, presence in labor-management issues – just as their sans-coulottes ancestors taught them over 200 years ago.

To keep their jobs, more than 550,000 American non-union workers per year are forced to pay union agency fees. In the 25 states without right-to-work laws, unions can take mandatory “fair share” or “agency” fees from workers who decline union membership. Those fees often amount to hundreds of dollars per year. Unions can’t spend agency fees directly on politics, but taking fees from non-members frees unions to spend more from members’ dues on political activism for “progressive,” big-government policies.

So, in the fifty years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the American interest in World War I, progressives had changed the face and character of America. They had seen the inhumanity and brutality of slavery and had slain the dragon of aristocratic slavers through the power of the Northern militia armies. They had seen the unimaginable and incomprehensible poverty and filth of the tenement slums in the great northern cities and had slain the dragon of the aristocratic robber-barons of the North with the militant power of the trade and labor unionists.

Now, with ultimate political power in their own hands, as Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson became President in 1913, what dragons were left? Only the inalienable power of the People guaranteed by the Constitution.

The common People, of course, whom the Progressives had saved time after time, should be grateful for their freedoms – grateful to the Progressives – and should be ready to bow down to their altruistic protectors. They just needed to understand the truth about their Constitution – the Constitution which had allowed the plantations of slavery and the trusts of the robber-barons. They must learn the truth – the Progressive’s truth. Wilson was only too happy to help.

But the Progressives also saw the saloon as political corruption incarnate, and bewailed the damage done to women and children. They believed the consumption of alcohol limited mankind’s potential for advancement. Progressives achieved success first with state laws then with the enactment of the 18th Amendment in 1919.

Unfortunately, the golden day did not dawn; enforcement was lax, especially in the cities where notorious criminal gangs, such as the Chicago mob of Al Capone, and his chief lieutenant, Frank Nitti, engaged in a decade long crime spree based on illegal sales of liquor in speakeasies.

The “experiment” (as President Hoover called it) also cost the treasury large sums of tax revenue. The 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1933. However, the working relationship between crime syndicates and the American labor movement was not.

It is fair to say that by the end of the 20th Century, union violence/thuggery had gone full circle. At the beginning of the movement the violence was outer directed; toward the government, management, or the police who were using violence themselves to destroy the labor movement. As the movement matured, the violence became directed inward, targeted towards keeping the rank and file “in line,” going after replacement workers, or sabotaging the particular company under siege. According to a study in 1969, the United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world, and there have been few industries which have been immune.

Continued in the next post.




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