How 'Progress' Stopped

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FOR a long time there had been heard the rumbling of a coming storm (but the Upper Classes mistook it for the humming of the wheels of prosperity). The mob had broken out again and again, and been shot down. The impunity of the deputy sheriffs at Homestead, and later at Lattimer, where unarmed men were slaughtered, encouraged such violence. The hands of authority had been strengthened. By flattering local pride and conceding appropriations for armories, militia regiments had been increased. After the Spanish-American war various scares were carefully nurtured by the monopolistic newspapers, and the standing army and navy were greatly increased. The propaganda of the socialists, the philosophic anarchists, and the single-taxers, however, had been vigorously carried on during the whole time. But people at large never seemed to take any interest in the choice of judges, so that, when strikes occurred among the miners and rapidly spread over various mining districts, injunctions covering every possible act toward the continuance of the strike were promptly issued by Judge Showalter, Judge Allen, and others. The strikes, in the face of such orders of court, backed by deputy sheriffs in the employ of the coal roads, seemed hopeless, and Mr. Carnegie, whose counsel had been sought by the mine operators, announced in an interview given to the New York World that the back of the strike was broken.

The miners, however, peaceably but persistently, and in great bodies, ignored the injunctions. They were arrested in crowds by the deputy sheriffs paid by the State, but nominated under the law of 1897 by the mine-owners. The deputies were well drilled, and when the Lattimer plan was repeated not one of the marching strikers escaped. The popular indignation was unbounded. Even the deputies were appalled by the slaughter made by their weapons. As usual, little confidence was felt in the militia; therefore, federal troops were called out to protect the sheriff and his men. So great was the uneasiness on the part of Monopoly that General Miles himself took command. A howl of joy went up from the subsidized press, but there were some who felt that the time for such heroic measures was inopportune.

Many of the clergy, led by Dr. Rainsford of New York, protested against military violence, but in vain. A conflict was provoked by the sheriff in person, and he and his party were wiped out by the sheer force of numbers of the dis-employed hungry workers, although after frightful massacre. The soldiers were hurried to the scene. To the horror of the plutocracy, however, the soldiers refused to shoot.

The President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the principal road directly interested, advised a cessation of hostilities. He pointed out that the police had failed in the draft riots in New York in 1863; that the militia had proved unreliable in the Pittsburg riots in 1877; and urged that the experience of Chicago in 1893, when the strikers were allowed to couple cars guarded by troops, should have shown that it was rash to play the last card of repression.

In vain; the soldiers were promptly court-martialed, and twenty of them condemned to die for mutiny. Their comrades refused to execute the sentence. Roosevelt only added to the sentiment against violence by offering to lead a troop of horse against the mutineers.

At the suggestion of J. Pierpont Morgan, the forces of plutocracy united, and most of the factories were shut down—on the plea that it was dangerous to bring the working classes together, in their present temper.

The payment for the poorest sort of houses all over the country stopped. Most people had no resources, and the few who had money saved it. Seeing the rows of vacant buildings, they refused to pay rent. The district court calendars were choked with dispossession cases, every one of which was cared for by young lawyers, ambitious of political preferment. The judges, unwilling to add to the confusion and distress, and bidding for their reelection, allowed every technical defense, and, although without authority, always granted time to dispossessed tenants to move. There was difficulty in finding marshals to execute, in the face of frequent resistance, the warrants that were granted. Capital became frightened, and a tremendous panic set in, beginning in Wall street. Hardly any money remained in circulation, and a system of barter, store orders, and individual and corporate checks sprang up, the usual prohibition of which under the ten per cent. "State Bank Tax" the United States District Attorney had no means of enforcing. Most of the leading men and of the very rich had fled to Europe or retired to their country homes.

The stocks of merchandise became exhausted, and, as nearly all production had ceased, the prices of everything rose enormously.

The workers, seeing the unsatisfied demand for goods, began to organize into groups and to get the use of factories for themselves. This self-employment was greatly facilitated by the use of electric power for small and isolated industries..

Employers generally began to weaken. The corporations were afraid to trust arms in the hands of even their private detectives and special police. Their condition was becoming desperate. Sales of real estate had ceased; the courts were already overcrowded with foreclosure suits. The distress in the middle and ordinarily well-to-do classes set them thinking. The charities and poor-houses, and especially the jails, were overburdened, insomuch that it was impossible to find room for the prisoners. The magistrates and governors discharged every one they could, and the police ceased to make arrests.

When spring arrived, destitute workers began to cultivate unused lots. The entire force discharged from the Hocking Valley and Calumet mines began to take coal and copper from the idle mines. It soon became apparent that the authorities were unable to enforce the laws for the protection of such property. However, life was safe, and there was far less moral delinquency than usual—a fact that caused no little comment and comparison with a similar experience during the reign of the communalists in Paris.

The lack of currency was readily made up by the organization of mutual guarantee associations among those whose checks and orders were circulating as currency. The superiority of notes so guaranteed was so evident that all issuing them were shortly forced into a central association. Gradually it dawned upon the workers that they were succeeding without the "employers." They began to see that they could employ themselves if they were only left what Nature had supplied, and the mines began to fill with the old hands, who, appointing such superintendents as were necessary to avoid confusion, established a new order of things. "Why," said they, "should we wait for the nod of the mine 'owner,' who levied the blackmail of rent upon oUr labor? If we pay gratuities to any one, let them be to the poor among us, not to the rich." So, at a great meeting held by the representatives of the workers, it was decided to lay aside for public purposes a certain amount out of the proceeds of each ton mined.

As to the reimbursement of the original mine-owners, there was at first a feeling that they should be paid for their "property"; but Eugene V. Debs pointed out that the original title to all these lands was obtained through trick and fraud, either from the Indians or through an "imperial" charter to some faithful courtier. The community had been a loser by the private ownership of land for all the many years past. No one could be found to stand up for the landed "proprietor." The miners urged that the cost of even their. very tools had been extorted by Monopoly from Labor, and that they were but reclaiming their own. Later, however, to silence complaint, the owners were given certificates for the value of their machinery and "plant," redeemable in produce; these were paid off in a few months.

The question of transportation soon became a vital point of attack. The companies operating the various lines of road had, first of all, refused to carry any product of the miners, and finally stopped running completely, in order further to demoralize the new labor community. But, the employees of the road appealing to the recently established General Labor Bureaus of the State, it was decided that, inasmuch as it was for the public welfare that the workingman should be employed, the companies should resume work. The companies flatly refused, and the roads were finally seized for the interest of the community. Compensation was granted to the holders of railroad securities, based upon the actual cost of the rolling stock and plant; and this was generally approved, as it gave all really innocent holders whatever they could justly claim.

By the very act of seizure, the union of the classes was strengthened and confidence bred. Laborers began to think that, in the working of the mines and in the public ownership of the rail-highways, they were not only improving their general welfare but actually adding to the wealth of the country instead of that of a few individuals; and when men think hard they generally develop something. Seeing their power, the people turned out to the primaries, and elections took on a new aspect. New judges, upright men of the people, soon occupied the benches formerly held by "disturbers of the peace," as the old magistrates were dubbed. Everything made by labor was exempted from local taxation and execution for debt, and sufficient income for the general government expenses was derived from taxing corporations and special privileges. The demand for labor created by the anxiety of land-owners to get something out of their buildings with which to pay the high taxes gave the people practical certainty of the uselessness of a tariff, which was abolished by the plan of an annual reduction extending over four years. The general disregard of land-titles, where land was held unused and for speculation, forced capital into productive enterprises. Occupation and use of land, with the payment of yearly assessments based on the public value of the same, gave every one who preferred it opportunity to labor for himself—rather than to take a place in the mills, factories, or offices of the great cities.

An attempt was made to import Slavs and Huns as "defenders of Society," and to organize them as deputy sheriffs, special police, and laborers; but the influence of our course, coupled with the concessions to the people in Europe, due to the fall of the Spanish throne, was found to be so decided that no influx of immigrants could be relied upon, and the few who came quickly joined the ranks of free labor or struck out for themselves.

The threat of those formerly in power, that "Progress would stop," was answered. Progress stopped for the few, to be sure. But the mine-toilers rather than the mine-owners, the community rather than the few railroad bond-owners, the many landless rather than the landlords, found that Progress had begun when the Deputies' rifles were fired in the final strike.

Bolton Hall.

New York.

  • Bolton Hall, “How ‘Progress’ Stopped,” The Arena 22, no. 4 (October 1899): 530-535.