John Peter Altgeld

By Michael Magidson, Vassar '00

John Peter Altgeld was born in the German village of Nieder Selters on December 30, 1847. When he was about three months old, his parents brought him to the United States, settling in Ohio. After a brief stint in the Union Army during the Civil War, Altgeld read the law and was admitted to the bar in 1872. He served as city attorney of Savannah, Missouri and in 1874, was elected county prosecutor. He resigned this post after a year and moved to Chicago, where he established himself as a lawyer. He was married three years later. He soon began investing in real estate and made a small fortune.

Through various connections, he made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1884. Altgeld campaigned hard for Grover Cleveland and the entire Democratic ticket. It was not the last time Altgeld would speak about Cleveland. In what he saw as a stepping stone to Congress, Altgeld ran for a Cook County Superior Court judgeship in 1886 and won with the backing of both the Democratic and Labor Parties. It is worth noting that this election was held in the wake of the hanging of four of the convicted Haymarket Square bombers and at a time when anti-labor sentiment ran very high.

He resigned his judgeship in 1891 to concentrate on his real estate and construction ventures. His name was soon being floated, however, for the Democratic nomination in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Altgeld remained silent as the tide of support for his candidacy swelled. He was nominated on the first ballot and elected by nearly 25,000 votes. It was an historic election: It was the first time a Democrat had been elected governor since 1856, the first time a foreign-born citizen had been elected, and the first time a Chicago resident had been elected in Illinois, a Republican stronghold since the days of Lincoln.

Altgeld only served one term as governor. In those four years, however, he became a household name and rose to prominence within the Democratic Party. The event which propelled Altgeld onto the national scene was his pardon of the three living Haymarket bombers on June 26, 1893. In asserting his reasons for the pardons, Altgeld came down firmly on the side of law and order, but insisted, as many people had, that the accused had not been granted their constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial and that the evidence presented in the case was not sufficient to convict them. Altgeld was overwhelmingly condemned in the press for his action. Epithets such as 'anarchist,' 'socialist,' and 'murderer' were to haunt Altgeld for the rest of his career.

Nearly one year later, another incident involving labor brought Altgeld into the national limelight. On May, 11, 1894, workers of the Pullman Corporation, manufacturer of sleeping cars and equipment, went on strike in protest of wage cuts. It is important here to note Gov. Altgeld's behavior in previous strikes. Time and again, he showed himself to be absolutely willing to call in the Illinois militia to maintain law and order in strike situations. He refused, however, to allow the militia to be used as strike breakers or to visit violence upon the strikers. His action in previous strikes had been effective, and he had even been criticized, both in the conservative and liberal presses, for his occasional zealousness in calling out the militia.

Attorney General Richard Olney, a railroad lawyer and a director of railroads before his Cabinet appointment by President Cleveland, was determined to break the strike by any means necessary. He slapped an overarching injunction on the strikers, forbidding the obstruction of trains and assisting anyone involved in that act. He then ordered U.S. Army troops into Illinois.

Gov. Altgeld was shocked. He had not been informed of the troop movements. In two telegrams to President Cleveland, he respectfully demanded the withdrawal of Federal troops on the grounds that their presence was unconstitutional. Cleveland responded in defense of his actions. Cleveland was heralded almost universally while Altgeld was further condemned.

On July 6, violence broke out in Chicago. After receiving a telegram from the Mayor of Chicago requesting militia assistance, Altgeld complied. In the resulting melee, seven rioters were killed--not by Federal troops, but by Altgeld's militia. The strike collapsed the next day as its leaders were arrested under the terms of the injunction. Once again, Altgeld was slammed in the press as an 'anarchist,' while Cleveland was praised for his swift action against the strikers.

All of this history would be dredged up again in the 1896 Presidential campaign, in which Altgeld played a pivotal role. After the Pullman strike, Altgeld became thoroughly convinced that his fellow Democrat, Grover Cleveland, whom he had vigorously supported in 1884, was firmly allied against labor. He railed against 'government by injunction,' the conservative Chicago Tribune, and various other conservative and pro-business national leaders. Altgeld was determined to run Cleveland and his ilk out of the Democratic Party once and for all.

It was through 'the money question,' among others that Altgeld succeeded in bringing Cleveland down. Through the Illinois Democratic Committee, he lead the way nationally by calling a special silver convention in 1895 which committed the Illinois Democrats to 'free silver.' Cleveland refused to be conciliatory, and numerous states held special 'silver' conventions.

At the Democratic National Convention in July, 1896, all forty-eight of Illinois' delegates, led by Altgeld, were pro-silver. He was the head of the largest pro-silver contingent at the convention.

The 1896 Democratic platform, although probably not written by Altgeld, was undeniably influenced by him. The platform included a free silver plank, a pro-labor plank, an anti-injunction plank, pro-income tax plank which attacked the Supreme Court, a plank on personal and civil liberties and a plank reaffirming the principles of federalism, a direct reference to the Pullman strike. The platform undoubtedly bore the mark of John Peter Altgeld.

Altgeld also held a good deal of sway over the Party's nominee. He supported former U.S. Senator Richard P. Bland of Missouri, a committed pro-silver man respected nationwide, for the nomination. Support for William Jennings Bryan, however, grew rapidly following his electrifying 'Cross of Gold' speech. Altgeld held out until the fifth ballot, when, following the mood of the convention and his delegation, he cast Illinois' forty-eight votes in favor of Bryan, who quickly won enough votes to become the nominee.

John P. Altgeld

It was widely recognized, however, that Altgeld still held enormous influence within the Party. He had succeeded in driving Cleveland and his followers out of the Party and in committing the Party to a fairly radical platform. This made Altgeld a prime target for Republicans nationwide during the campaign. He was denounced as an 'anarchist,' 'socialist,' 'foreigner,' and 'murderer.' Republicans claimed that he would be the power behind Bryan if the latter were elected. Despite the fact that Altgeld himself was running for reelection, he refused to distance himself from Bryan. Although he was not reelected, Altgeld ran 10,000 votes ahead of Bryan.

After his defeat, Altgeld ran for mayor of Chicago in 1899 and was soundly defeated. He campaigned hard for Bryan again in 1900, but in vain once again. He was never to be active in politics again.

Altgeld returned to his law practice, but the physical ailments which had troubled him for most of his life were catching up with him. As early as 1896, he was diagnosed with locomotor ataxia, which caused a shuffle in his walk. Sick and tired, Altgeld suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in 1902 at the age of fifty-four.

Mr. Altgeld is a much more dangerous man than Bryan. He is much slyer, much more intelligent, much less silly, much more free from all the restraints of public morality. The one is unscrupulous from vanity, the other from calculation. The one plans wholesale repudiation with a light heart and bubbly eloquence, because he lacks intelligence... the other would connive at wholesale murder and would justify it by elaborate and cunning sophistry for reasons known only to his own tortuous soul. For America to put men like this in control of her destiny would be such a dishonor as it is scarcely bearable to think of.
-Theodore Roosevelt, Oct. 15, 1896

It is a remarkable fact that those men and those influences whose slime is dissolving our institutions are all helping Mr. Hanna. Everything within their reach is being prostituted. Where they can, they degrade the religious press and defile the pulpit. They have dragged the American flag in the mire by using it as an advertising sheet for McKinley and Hobart... Wave the flag and plunder the public is the gospel of McKinleyism!
-John Peter Altgeld, Oct. 17, 1896

Eastern papers had habitually represented him as snorting thunder and crying for blood. They painted him in the reddest hue of the red flag. They were prepared for wild talk of revolution, for indecent raving about the rights of mankind, for a riot of oratorical madness. New York was disappointed... He had neither hooks nor horns nor tail. He looked and acted very much like any other dignified gentleman. He spoke with vigor and adroitness. He argued with the acumen of a trained lawyer. He made an elaborate, closely reasoned defense of the Chicago platform. It is conceded that he made the ablest presentation... that has been offered to the public... He proved to be an orator of ability, a man of power...
-Chicago Times-Herald on Altgeld, Oct. 18, 1896

Governor Altgeld... is the brains and inspiration of the movement for which Mr. Bryan stands... It is he who chose Mr. Bryan in preference to Mr. Bland... Governor Altgeld preferred the impulsive, susceptible, imaginative, yielding Mr. Bryan... who would be as clay in the hands of the potter under the astute control of the ambitious and unscrupulous Illinois communist... To Governor Altgeld the passage of a law establishing free coinage of silver would be but a step towards the general socialism which is the fundamental doctrine of his political belief... He seeks to overturn the old parties, the old traditions, and the essential policies which have controlled the government since its foundation.
-Harper's Weekly, Oct. 18, 1896

Whenever our people elect a president who believes that he must ask of Governor Altgeld... permission to enforce the laws of the United States, we have surrendered the victory the boys won in 1861.
-Ex-President Benjamin Harrison

...The substance of the[ir] whole argument is that we will be better off and suffer less if we keep quiet and that the remedy proposed by the Chicago platform would only make matters worse instead of better, or, as Mr. Schurz puts it, the application of this remedy would be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
-John Peter Altgeld, Sept. 19, 1896

The sentiment now animating a large proportion of our people can only be suppressed, as the Commune of Paris was suppressed, by taking ten or a dozen of its leaders out, standing... them against a wall, and shooting them dead. I believe it will come to that.
-Theodore Roosevelt

... If these American institutions as Hamilton designed them, as Marshall defined them, as Lincoln consecrated them, shall continue... or whether they shall be changed, corrupted and disrupted along the lines that John C. Calhoun and John P. Altgeld have surveyed!
-Albert Beveridge on the issue at stake in 1896


1. Barnard, Harry, Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1938).

2. Browne, Waldo, R., Altgeld of Illinois (New York: B.W. Huebsch, Inc., 1924).

The Illinois Labor History Society has posted more information on the Haymarket Affair and on Altgeld's pardon of the alleged assassins.

Cartoons on this Site in Which Altgeld Appears

July 12, L.A. Times
July 18, Harper's Weekly
July 25, Judge
September 6, L.A. Times
September 12, Harper's Weekly
October 10, Harper's Weekly
October 24, Harper's Weekly


© 1997, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College