Labor History

John Altgeld - friend of labor

Today, in the world of politics, the phrase "friend of labor" means different things to different people. While its true that a lawmaker who, as a matter of principle, places a priority on improving the economic security of working families over, say, winning tax breaks for the rich, will be viewed by most working people as their 'friend', it is also true that over the years it has become easier and easier for lawmakers to stake-out that principled territory without ever placing their own political future on-the-line.

In an age when investing political capital in even the most principled stand typically results in some net political gain, it is important to remember those individuals who made principled stands on behalf of workers because it was simply the right thing to do.

John Peter Altgeld was such an individual. Unfortunately, besides a statue in Chicago's Lincoln Park and a street named after him in that same city, few people today associate this past Governor of Illinois, who left office one century ago after only one term, as a friend of labor.

In 1893, just seven years after a bomb rocked an 8-hour day demonstration, killing a police officer in Chicago's Haymarket Square, Altgeld had the political courage to pardon those convicted of the crime for what he believed to be a simple and compelling truth - they were innocent.

Born in Germany in 1847, Altgeld came to America as a boy and was raised on a farm in Ohio, where he learned the value of hard work and learned to value working people - a value that never left him.

Altgeld fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. After the war he became a teacher, then a lawyer, and held his first political office as a Democratic county attorney in Missouri. He moved to Chicago and became a wealthy builder before being elected county judge in 1886.
In 1892, Altgeld was elected Governor. He gained a reputation as a champion of the worker against the government-backed power of big business, by repeatedly demonstrating the courage to support working people during the often painful struggle for workers rights.
Despite being of the same party, he was an outspoken critic of Democratic President Grover Cleveland, who Altgeld felt was aligned too closely to corporate interests.

In late 20th century Chicago, supporting workers over big business was not a politically prudent thing to do. Nor was issuing a pardon of those convicted of crime in connection with a workers' riot that resulted in the death of a police officer.

In all, seven men were sentenced to death for their role in the riot at Haymarket. While none was ever found to be connected to the bomb, or the killing of the officer, the men were "dangerous." All had been organizers of the 8-hour day movement and the demonstrations that followed.

Lucy Parsons, wife of one of the condemned men, set out on a mission, speaking to workers about the 8-hour fight and making the case that all workers, if not all Americans, had a stake in this miscarriage of justice. Even Samuel Gompers, President of the newly formed AFL and ardent opponent of violent social change, saw the issue as one of free speech and argued passionately, but unsuccessfully, for clemency.

On November 11, 1887, four of the men, including Lucy Parson's husband, were executed outside the Cook County Jail. While awaiting execution, one of the condemned men had earlier taken his own life. Death sentences for the three surviving men were subsequently commuted to life.
Still, in 1893 Altgeld knew issuing a pardon would be the end of his political career. Yet, he steadfastly refused to allow men to be punished for a crime they did not commit.

"By God, if I decide that these men are innocent I will pardon them if I never hold office for another day," Altgeld said to a friend who tried in vein to dissuade him.

After a painstaking examination of court procedings and police records surrounding the case, as well as evidence that never came to light during the trial, Altgeld surmised that the imprisoned men were in jail not because they had conspired to commit a violent act, but because they had been involved in leading workers to fight for an 8-hour work day.

Despite the evidence, the court record, and the admission of police as to a conspiracy meant to frame those convicted, Altgeld was portrayed in the press and political circles as a lunatic for his action and served only one term as governor.

To the freed men and their families, and to the memory of the innocent men who had been executed, Altgeld's pardon was an act of political courage that breathed new life into the 8-hour movement that had suffered in the years following Haymarket.

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