From The New York Times
Review: ‘The Edge of Anarchy’ Offers Lessons From the Gilded Age
By Jonathan A. Knee
Jan. 7, 2019
Contemporary life seems to invite comparisons to the Gilded Age, but there is little consensus on the meaning of that era.
Some emphasize the unfettered accumulation of economic and political power by the few at the expense of the many. Tim Wu’s recent book, “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age,” argued that failing to break up the newest giant corporations posed a grave risk of repeating the worst excesses of the Gilded Age.
Others focus on the remarkable gains in productivity when the United States’ economy finally overtook Britain’s. Alan Greenspan’s “Capitalism in America: A History” stressed that the growth from 1870 to 1896 was not only in wealth but in real wages and living standards.
The implications of this historical debate for public policy today makes a recent book on the events that brought the Gilded Age to an end and ushered in the Progressive Era all the more timely and urgent.
Jack Kelly’s “The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America” opens in May 1893 with President Grover Cleveland surveying the half-million citizens who had filled the Chicago World’s Fair, “the most astounding metropolis ever built.” The Columbian Exposition, as it was known, was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World as well as “the productivity of American commerce.” Four days after the fair opened, the bottom dropped out of the United States economy, which was further crippled that summer by “an increasingly ferocious depression.”
The resulting economic turmoil provided the backdrop for a series of mass labor actions that are the focus of the book. These began with an unlikely 40-year-old Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey’s leading a hundred unemployed workers to Washington on foot to petition for a vast infrastructure investment project to alleviate unemployment and remedy the sorry state of the nation’s roads.
The improbable prophet picked up many more along the way and motivated multiple independent Coxeyite groups from across the West to make their way East. Although few ultimately completed the journey, and Coxey was arrested and convicted under a law making it a crime to deliver a “harangue or oration” on Capitol property, the nation was held transfixed by the progress of the so-called Coxey Armies.
The core of “The Edge of Anarchy” is a thrilling description of the boycott of Pullman cars and equipment by Eugene Debs’s fledgling American Railway Union. The strike caused much of the country’s commerce to grind to a halt, federal troops were called out over the objections of state officials, and many lives were lost. Mr. Kelly closely scrutinizes the roles not only of the American Railway Union and management but of state, local and federal officials, the courts, industry, the press, activists, and labor. No one comes out unscathed.
At the heart of the story is the complex figure of George Pullman. A paternalistic but benevolent capitalist, he had built an elegant planned community for his workers complete with parks, a library, a theater and an arcade. In the end, however, he decided that he would rather see the town and possibly the nation burn than accept any limitations on the inherent prerogatives of ownership.
The stark contrast between the rather modest concessions sought by the American Railway Union and the magnitude of the conflagration that ultimately erupted is a reminder of how wrong things can go when matters of principle are at stake. Few in power had much sympathy for Pullman’s intransigence, but fewer still were willing to even implicitly question the inviolability of property rights by forcing his hand. Pullman’s position — “There is nothing to arbitrate” — remained steadfast throughout.
Among the most eye-opening aspects of “The Edge of Anarchy” is the description of how government actually worked in that era. The current administration has nothing on Cleveland’s when it comes to conflicts of interest and illicit collusion among the organs of government and business.
Attorney General Richard Olney was a railroad lawyer and took the position on the condition that he could continue to represent clients. He remained a railroad board member with Pullman. He conspired with the White House and federal judges to draft the clearly unconstitutional injunction that landed Debs in jail. It was upheld unanimously, despite the fervent advocacy of Debs’s lawyer Clarence Darrow, by the same Supreme Court that would decide Plessy v. Ferguson the next year.
As depressing as some of this history is, it does provide hope that our institutions and our spirit are strong enough to survive even the most frontal attacks. When Debs was released from prison, over 100,000 supporters awaited his return to Chicago at Union Station. A commission empaneled to examine the causes of the boycott produced a scathing report that resulted in some of the earliest workers’ rights legislation. And the midterm elections of 1894 made President Trump’s corresponding performance look like a victory: Cleveland’s Democratic Party would go from a 94-seat surplus to a 161-seat deficit and not regain the presidency or either house of Congress until 1910.
Jonathan A. Knee is professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School and a senior adviser at Evercore. His latest book is “Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in Education.”
From The Wall Street Journal
‘The Edge of Anarchy’ Review: Blood On the Tracks
By Gregory Crouch
Jan. 7, 2019
Tremendous technological, economic, political and social upheaval transformed America in the decades following the Civil War, and with that progress came much pain. Mechanization and mass immigration eliminated the labor scarcity that had benefited America’s working class earlier in the 19th century. Postwar reconstruction, despite its initial promise, failed to deliver fair opportunity to former slaves and their children. In many industries, unfettered business interests established monopolies and trusts that raised prices, curried government concessions, and suppressed competition and wages.
Those years also witnessed a stunning concentration of wealth. By 1890, the total U.S. population had swelled to around 63 million, with the richest 200,000 families owning almost 75% of the nation’s prosperity. At the very top of this Gilded Age rode the robber barons—the first expert manipulators of the corporation, one of the industrial revolution’s most powerful innovations. Among them were men such as Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller and George Pullman, owner of the lucrative Pullman Palace Car Co.
George Pullman had created a powerful monopoly in the manufacture and operation of the sleeping cars that made long-distance train travel comfortable; his company built the cars and contracted the railroads to operate them. During the summer of 1894, the stubborn and irascible Pullman became a central player in what the New York Times called “the greatest battle between labor and capital [ever] inaugurated in the United States.” In “The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America,” veteran journalist and historian Jack Kelly tells the fascinating tale of that terrible struggle.
Pullman’s cars were built at a massive manufacturing facility 14 miles south of Chicago; his workers were housed in an adjacent and eponymous planned community, a “model town” that at the time was, as Mr. Kelly writes, “one of Chicago’s premier tourist attractions . . . a rebuke to [the city’s] squalid tenements.” As a “withering depression” gripped the country, Pullman slashed wages at his company but made no corresponding reduction in his own salary or those of his corporate executives. He also refused to lower rents in the town of Pullman. An employees’ grievance committee complained to management. At a meeting with the committee, George Pullman wouldn’t budge, but also gave his word that he wouldn’t retaliate against any committee members for complaining. The next day, three of them were fired.
For the Pullman workers, the reprisals against the committee members were “the last straw.” They voted to strike. A large portion of Pullman’s 4,000 employees had secretly joined the American Railway Union (ARU), which sought to organize all workers in the railroad industry. By the middle of 1894, the ARU had 150,000 members. The ARU’s leader, Eugene V. Debs, was “the single most powerful labor leader in the country.” The strike spread quickly as ARU members across the nation, in sympathy with their Pullman brothers, refused to handle any trains that included Pullman sleeping cars.
The Pullman boycott would have been exponentially more effective had the ARU not made an immense strategic error when it narrowly voted—over Debs’s strenuous objections—to exclude African-American workers from its ranks. Pullman was one of the few railroad companies that employed African-Americans, but it employed them only as sleeping-car porters in degrading conditions for minuscule wages. The ARU’s decision stands as a shining example of ingrained racism trumping concrete self-interest, for the African-American porters were perfectly positioned to bring Pullman service to a standstill. Excluded from the union, they saw no reason to jeopardize their jobs by standing with the strikers.
In response to the union action, the antilabor General Managers’ Association (GMA) placed Pullman cars near the head of most trains—a position from which they couldn’t easily be detached. The union retaliated by refusing to handle those trains, paralyzing the commerce of the entire nation.
As the GMA forced through trains that intentionally included Pullman cars and “sacrosanct” carriages of U.S. mail, violent rioting swept through rail yards in Chicago, the Midwest and the West. With the threat of anarchy looming, President Cleveland brought the power of the federal government down on the side of industry, tasking Richard Olney—who was President Cleveland’s attorney general but who also drew a salary as the lawyer and director of several railroads—to quash the strike. President Cleveland “saw no conflict of interest in the arrangement.” Olney, “by force if necessary . . . made it his personal mission to bring the union to its knees.”
He succeeded. In dramatic detail, Mr. Kelly tells how thousands of hastily deputized U.S. Marshals and as many as 16,000 regular U.S. Army troops crushed the strike with bullets, bayonets and improvised injunctions from federal courts—often over the objections of Midwestern and Western mayors and governors. As Mr. Kelly notes, “the idea of turning . . . the authority of the [federal] government [into] a police force whose clear purpose was to serve a private interest veered far from American ideals and legal traditions.” The sight of the federal government colluding with moneyed interests to suppress the living standards of hard-working Americans would have appalled the country’s revolutionary fathers.
In the aftermath, “the [railroad] corporations made liberal use of the blacklist to ruin men’s lives . . . three-quarters of railroad strikers did not get their jobs back.” Debs and other strike leaders served time in jail for defying a federal injunction. But Debs’s efforts had made him a hero of the downtrodden. Upon his release, a crowd of at least 100,000 people packed Union Station and the surrounding streets to welcome him back to Chicago.
Mr. Crouch is the author, most recently, of “The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle Over the Greatest Riches in the American West.”
From RAILROAD HISTORY MAGAZINE, Fall/Winter 2018
In 1894, the United States came to a standstill as George Pullman faced off against railroad workers, led by Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union. Commerce halted, blood was spilled, and street battles raged. The Edge of Anarchy brings this epic struggle to vivid life in a readable, accessible fashion.
. . .
The Pullman boycott was a cataclysmic event that has been well covered in academic volumes, yet little popular history captures the tensions between Pullman’s capitalism and workers’ struggle.
Kelly does a masterful job; his portrayal not only of Debs and Pullman, but other players – from Grover Cleveland to emerging lawyer Clarence Darrow – are well written. He contextualizes the times – which brought on only the Pullman confrontation, but also Coxey’s March of the Unemployed, and coalfield outbreaks. In 1892, Chicago showcased itself through the Columbian Exposition, but two years later, the empty fairgrounds became a mocking tableau of progress as bankruptcy and unemployment haunted the land.
Kelly deserves great credit for reliably sourcing his story. He avoids Pullman’s mythology, like the fanciful tale of the Pioneer running as part of slain President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train. Tension is built without falling to exaggeration. The author’s sympathy lies more with Debs than Pullman, yet the achievements and the failings of both are well covered.
The Edge of Anarchy is masterfully written and should attract a wide audience, whether the interest is general American history, railroad history, or labor history.
—Michael G. Matejka, Normal, Ill.
Editor, Grand Prairie Union News
★The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America by Jack Kelly Jan. 2019. 320p. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (9781250128867).
In 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company near Chicago went on strike against their powerful employer, George Pullman. This set off the greatest labor action in U.S. history, one that threatened a true national strike. Kelly explores this event in all its conflict and confrontation. Workers, led by the indomitable Eugene V. Debs, rebelled against a company that had dictated their living conditions as well as their working conditions. George Pullman really believed he was a model employer, but he would not respond to workers’ grievances. Unrest spread from Chicago across the nation, particularly into California. Realizing the threat this posed to the economy if not the body politic itself, President Cleveland called out troops against the counsel of Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld. Yet even army troops’ loyalty was tested when they were asked to fire on their fellow countrymen. The strike may have failed and Debs was jailed, but legislation followed that protected worker rights. Kelly vividly portrays the personalities involved, from elected officials to labor leaders, and makes the tensions of the time quite contemporary.
— Mark Knoblauch