A few weeks ago, I posted a book review of Failures of the Presidents as well as an excerpt. I had actually requested a different excerpt than the one I posted (on Kennedy) from one of the chapters I had noted as particuarly well done. The approval for that excerpt just came through, so now you are getting a second excerpt from this book - I personally think this chapter was one of the best in the book and hope you enjoy it as well.
The Pullman Strike
Grover ClevelandDEATH, WORK, AND TAXES The Pullman debacle was the first national strike in American history. In President Cleveland's defense, there was no precedent of this magnitude on which to base a response. Some people later claimed that Cleveland should have acted sooner, before the strike got out of hand, or perhaps sent in an envoy to act as a mediator between Pullman and the strikers. But he of course did neither. In any event, by day's end on My 6, 1894, American forces would make history by firing on and killing American citizens. As it happened, US. marshals and American military forces moved in and tried to take back the town of Pullman- In doing so, soldiers killed six to eight men, according to an official report of the incident. Many more deaths were later attributed to the strike, though it was impossible to point a finger at which law enforcement group--if any--was responsible.
On July 8, President Cleveland issued a proclamation in haste, making it clear that he was cautioning “all good citizens ... against aiding, countenancing, encouraging, or taking any part in such unlawful obstructions, combinations, and assemblages.” Anyone refusing to abide by the order would be subject to arrest. The troops in Pullman and Chicago, in addition to those across the country, were given full authority, the president wrote, to "act with all the moderation and forbearance consistent with the accomplishment of the desired end.”
The violence came to a slow end in Pullman and Chicago, but it escalated in other parts of the nation. In the days following the president's proclamation, the White House received dispatches from North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington State, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, and New Mexico. Most echoed what Idahogovernor W.J. McConnell wrote:
Domestic violence in the form of an unlawful conspiracy to destroy life and property exists in Shoshone County, Idaho. Armed men in such force that I am powerless to aid the civil authority in restoring order. Citizens residing in the county are deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Constitution. The legislature of the state cannot be convened at this time. The presence of regular troops is absolutely necessary. I therefore call upon you to direct that at least two companies of regulars be stationed in said county until order is restored and the laws recognized.
By the end of July, trains were running again, commerce was literally back on track, and the US mail was being delivered. President Cleveland assigned a commission to investigate and assess the outcome and the reasons why the strike turned into a pitched battle that temporarily crippled the country's transportation system. Known as the President's Strike Commission, Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright, John D. Keenon of New York, and Nicholas E. Worthington of Illinois could never pinpoint a direct cause of the destruction or identify one specific group responsible for the damages. What it did conclude, however, was how much the strike cost America, as well as the rail- roads, estimating that Pullman employees lost somewhere around $350,000 in wages. In addition, railroad workers in and around Chicago who participated in the strike lost about $1.4 million more. But more than any of that, the commission concluded, “On the plea of upholding the law and protecting life and property, the General Managers’ Association ... asked for and obtained the judicial and military arms of the federal government to crush the strike." Moreover, the commission further stated that “the facts obtained by the investigating commission appointed by Mr. Cleveland showed that there was very little disorder at Chicago [and Pullman] up to July 3, when the federal troops appeared on the scene.” On top of that, according to the Chicago fire department's official report, “the total damage up to July 6 had been less than $6,000.”
The commission reported twelve as its official number of people “shot and fatally wounded," a number few agreed with, considering that hundreds had died from being caught in burning buildings, hit by falling debris, or crushed by the crowds, while others were beaten to death and stoned, with perhaps thousands more dying under residual circumstances throughout the country. The commission recommended that Congress pass a federal law prohibiting employers from firing striking workers or "blackballing" labor union supporters. Born strictly out of the Pullman strike, the Erdman Act, passed in 1898, provided "voluntary mediation of railroad labor disputes and recourse to a board of arbitration.” Congress passed the law specifically in response to “growing public opposition to the use of federal troops to put down strikes."
Writing about the strike in 1921, historian David Saville Muzzey called it the 'Most serious industrial struggle in the history of our country." Surely, beyond changing the way labor disputes were later settled, the Erdman Act was likely a direct result of the Pullman strike. American labor and industry, in addition, changed drastically as big business became wealthier and union membership grew-enormously-from 447,000 to 2.1 million members between 1897 and 1904.
The precedent set in Pullman certainly made government less likely to get involved in labor disputes and encouraged businesses to hire special management teams to deal with unions and labor spats. The rise of the union, in general, helped increase blue collar wages and broaden public support for the American workforce, as support for the capitalists who hired them waned. Yet it would take years for corporate America to accept these changes. Suffice it to say that socialism was on the rise as the twentieth century dawned. In fact, Eugene V. Debs, who had played such a pivotal role in Pullman, emerged from his six-month prison term a radical socialist, running for president five times on a ticket that included his new title as the principal talking head for the Socialist Party of America.
The above is an excerpt from the book Failures Of The Presidents; From The Whiskey Rebellion And War Of 1812 To The Bay Of Pigs And War In Iraqby Thomas J. Craughwell with M. William Phelps
Published by Fair Winds; September 2008;$19.95US/$21.95CAN; 978-1-59233-299-1
Copyright © 2008 Thomas J. Craughwell
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of several books, most recently How the Barbarian Invasions Shaped the Modern World (Fair Winds Press, 2008) and Stealing Lincoln's Body(Harvard University Press, 2007). He has written articles on history, religion, politics, and popular culture for the Wall Street Journal, American Spectator, and U.S. News & World Report. He lives in Bethel, Connecticut.
Journalist, lecturer, and historian M. William Phelps is the author of eleven books, including his most recent, Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy (Thomas Dunne Books, 2008). He lives in Vernon, Connecticut.