John Peter Altgeld

John Peter Altgeld

Infobox Governor
name= John Peter Altgeld

order= 20th
office= Governor of Illinois
term_start= 1893
term_end= 1897
predecessor= Joseph W. Fifer
successor= John R. Tanner
birth_date= December 30, 1847
birth_place=Westerwald, Germany
death_date=March 12, 1902
death_place=Joliet, Illinois
party= Democrat

John Peter Altgeld (December 30 1847 - March 12 1902) was the governor of the U.S. state of Illinois from 1893 until 1897. He was the first Democratic governor of that state since the 1850s. A leading figure of the Progressive Era movement, Altgeld improved workplace safety and child labor laws, pardoned three of the men convicted of the Haymarket Riot, and, for a time, resisted calls to break up the Pullman strike with force.

Early years

Altgeld was born in the town of Selters in the German Westerwald, the son of John P. and Mary Altgeld. He came to America early in life with his father's family, who settled on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio.

He left home at age 16 to join the Union Army (lying about his age), where he fought in Virginia with an ill-fated regiment and nearly died of fever. He then worked on his father's farm, studied in the library of a neighbor and at a private school in Lexington, Ohio, and for two years taught school.

After a brief stint in an Ohio seminary, he walked to Missouri and studied to become a lawyer while working on itinerant railroad construction crews. He was elected district attorney of Andrew County, Missouri, and a year later resigned and moved to Chicago, where he founded a prosperous law firm that soon employed such rising stars as Clarence Darrow.

He also became wealthy from a series of savvy real estate dealings and development projects, most notably the Unity Building (1891), the 16-story office building that was at that time Chicago's tallest building. In January 1890, Altgeld bought a lot at what is now 127 North Dearborn Street in downtown Chicago, and he established the Unity Company to build and manage the future Unity Building. He indiscriminately contributed his own fortune toward the endeavor, and for a while the construction was moving more quickly than expected. However, this led to a $100,000 mistake and much of the framework of the building had to be rebuilt. Altgeld also made an error by trying to borrow $400,000 from John R. Walsh, president of the Jennings Trust Company and of the Chicago National Bank. Technicalities in the contract caused many problems for Altgeld. Eventually a new contract was signed, but Altgeld was only able to borrow $300,000 from Walsh. He ended up raising the rest of the money himself, and the construction of the Unity Building was completed. In 1893, he declared that the Unity Building had given him the most personal satisfaction of all his achievements.

He was married to Emma Ford, the daughter of John Ford and Ruth Smith, in 1877 in Richland County, Ohio.

Political career

Altgeld ran for Congress in Illinois's Fourth Congressional District in 1884. Although this district was heavily Republican, Altgeld garnered 45.5 percent of the vote in his race against incumbent George Adams, a better showing than well-known Democrat Lambert Tree had made two years earlier. As a Republican leader recalled, "He (Altgeld) was not elected, but our executive committee was pretty badly frightened by the strong canvass he made." He was elected to a judgeship in 1886, and served on the bench until 1891.

He was drafted by the Democrats to run for governor, and narrowly defeated incumbent Joseph W. Fifer. He suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after his victory, and nearly died of a concomitant fever. He managed to appear at his inauguration, but was only able to deliver a brief portion of his speech. Although the General Assembly hall was so warm as to cause several men to faint, Altgeld, clad in a heavy topcoat, was pale and visibly shivering. The clerk of the Assembly delivered the remainder of his speech.

Labor issues

As governor, Altgeld spearheaded the nation's most stringent child labor and workplace safety laws, appointed women to important positions in the state government, and vastly increased state funding for education.

Historically, Altgeld is remembered chiefly for pardoning the three surviving men convicted in the 1886 Haymarket bombing (four others had already been executed, one committed suicide in prison). After reviewing their cases, he concluded, as have subsequent scholars, that there had been a serious miscarriage of justice in their prosecutions. He came under intense attack.

In 1894, the Pullman Rail Strike, led by Eugene V. Debs, flared into riots, sabotage, and crucially, disruption of U.S. Mail deliveries, a Federal concern. Altgeld, however, refused to authorize President Grover Cleveland to send in Federal troops to quell the disturbances. But on July 4, 1894, Cleveland went ahead and sent several thousand troops to Chicago without Altgeld's approval, an action later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Altgeld's opposition was seen as a highly unusual stance for a state governor at that time. [cite book
authorlink=Chris Wallace (journalist)
title=Character: Profiles in Presidential Courage
publisher=Rugged Land, LLC
location=New York, NY
id=ISBN 1-59071-054-1

The Pullman incident and the Haymarket pardons were used against Altgeld by his conservative enemies. In 1896 Altgeld was ineligible to run for president (since he was born in Germany), but he led the fight against the Cleveland forces. Altgeld publicly broke from Cleveland and his conservative supporters. Altgeld helped split the Democratic Party during the 1896 presidential election into Free Silver and Bourbon Democrats. He ran for reelection on the same ticket with Democratic nominee candidate William Jennings Bryan. Altgeld had not supported Bryan for the nomination and hesitated to support the "Free Silver" plank that was central to Bryan's campaign. [ Browne (1924) p 279-80] "Harper's Weekly," warned that Bryan would be a puppet of Altgeld, whom it referred to as "the ambitious and unscrupulous Illinois communist". However Bryan, who was being hurt by Republican charges that he was a stooge for Altgeld, avoided the governor and did not endorse him. [ Browne (1924) p 286]

Republicans in Illinois focused their attacks on Altgeld. TheodoreRoosevelt, before an audience of 13,000 cheering partisans in Chicago, said Altgeld was "one who would connive at wholesale murder," who "condones and encourages the most infamous of murders," and who "would substitute for the government of Washington and Lincoln a red welter of lawlessness and dishonesty as fantastic and vicious as the Paris Commune." [ Browne (1924) p 287] Altgeld campaigned energetically despite his failing health, and was defeated by John R. Tanner; Altgeld outpolled Bryan by 10,000 votes.

Altgeld ended his political career with a run for mayor of Chicago as the candidate of the Municipal Ownership Party in 1899. Although an early favorite to win, he finished a humiliating third, garnering only 15.56 percent of the vote.

Final years

Sickly since his brush with death in the Civil War, Altgeld had suffered from locomotor ataxia while governor, impairing his ability to walk. He lost all of his property except his heavily mortgaged personal residence, and only the intervention of his friend and former protégé, Clarence Darrow, saved him from complete financial ruin. Altgeld was working as a lawyer in Darrow's law firm when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while delivering a speech on behalf of the Boers in Joliet, Illinois in March 1902. He was 54 years old when he died. Thousands filed past his body as it lay in state in the lobby of the Chicago Public Library, and he was eulogized by Darrow and by Hull House founder Jane Addams.Altgeld is buried in Uptown, Chicago's Graceland Cemetery.

Poet Vachel Lindsay celebtrated his hero, "Altgeld the Eagle"::Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,:Whose name the few still say with tears?:Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,:Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years. [ "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," by Vachel Lindsay, ]


Bibliography and References

* cite book
title=Eagle Forgotten

* cite book
first=Waldo R.
title=Altgeld of Illinois
location=New York

* Wish, Harvey. "John Peter Altgeld and the Background of the Campaign of 1896," "Mississippi Valley Historical Review," Vol. 24, No. 4 (Mar., 1938), pp. 503-518 [ in JSTOR]

See also

* John Peter Altgeld's architectural legacy

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