American reformer and jurist and a governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld (1847-1902) became nationally prominent when, in 1893, he pardoned three anarchists convicted of the Haymarket bombing and, in 1894, was critical of the Federal government's intervention in the Pullman strike.
John Peter Altgeld was born at Nieder-Selters, Germany, on Dec. 30, 1847, and was brought to the United States by his parents when he was 3 months old. He grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, quitting school at the age of 12 when his father insisted that he work full time on the family farm.
In 1864 Altgeld volunteered for military service in the Civil War. After brief duty on the eastern front, he returned to Mansfield and entered high school against his father's wishes. He did so well in his studies that at 19 he was teaching school himself. At 21 Altgeld went west, working on a railroad-building crew in Arkansas until illness forced him to stop. Virtually penniless and still sick, he wandered eastward to Savannah, Mo., where he settled.
Altgeld's fortunes improved rapidly from this point as his talents and immense energy began to assert themselves. While teaching school, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1871. The next year he was appointed city attorney. In 1874 he won his first election as the Democratic and Granger candidate for county attorney. He resigned a year later to move to Chicago.
There Altgeld established himself in two areas, real estate and politics. He began to invest in property, and in the early 1880s he started constructing buildings as well. Soon his transactions in real estate and office buildings involved hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the same time he built up political connections, which led to his nomination in 1884 as Democratic candidate for Congress. Although he failed to carry the normally Republican district, he ran well. In the same year he published Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims, in which he criticized the tendency of the penal system to discriminate against poor persons. In 1886 he was elected to the superior court of Cook County as the Democratic and United Labor party candidate.
Altgeld was an impartial and forceful jurist, but he was dissatisfied with the judgeship and worked for higher political office. His public-speaking appearances featured endorsements of antisweatshop legislation, 8-hour laws, and union rights—views published in his book Live Questions (1890). Failing in a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1891 and worn out by his varied commitments, he resigned his judgeship to devote himself to his most ambitious construction project, a 16-story skyscraper which he called the Unity Block.
In 1892 Altgeld returned to politics as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, winning the election by carrying Chicago decisively. As the first Democratic governor of Illinois since the Civil War, Altgeld rewarded loyal Democratic party members with patronage plums, being fairly ruthless in the dismissal of Republican appointees. However, his appointment of Florence Kelley, a leading settlement-house reformer, indicated his commitment to progressive ideas. Though the reform legislation passed during his gubernatorial years was not extensive, it did include a factory inspection law, a women's 8-hour law, and an act prohibiting discrimination against union members.
Altgeld achieved national notoriety in 1893, when he pardoned three anarchists who had been convicted of complicity in the infamous 1886 bomb-throwing incident that had killed several policemen at Haymarket Square, Chicago. (Four of the others convicted had been hanged and one had committed suicide.) Altgeld refused to take the politically expedient course of granting clemency on grounds of mercy; instead he attacked the conviction on legal grounds. His case against the presiding judge was worded very severely. Public reaction was largely negative, branding Altgeld as an anarchist and demagogue who sought to undermine the court system.
Altgeld's conduct during the Pullman strike in 1894 was widely censured, especially by conservatives. In May the men at George M. Pullman's works near Chicago had gone on strike, supported by the American Railway Union's national boycott of Pullman cars. President Cleveland's attorney general, Richard Olney (formerly a railroad lawyer), struck back early in July and got an injunction against the union leadership. Knowing that some minor violence had occurred, Altgeld stood ready to send state troops to maintain order, as he had in earlier strikes. But Olney and Cleveland ignored Altgeld and sent Federal troops to Chicago. In spite of Altgeld's strenuous protest that Federal intervention without the request of state officials was unconstitutional, the strike was broken by the Cleveland administration's decision.
From 1894 to 1896 Altgeld was a leader of the growing anti-Cleveland element within the Democratic party. At the party's Chicago convention in 1896, Altgeld's views triumphed. Although he was not especially impressed with William Jennings Bryan, he was pleased that Bryan's nomination and the free-silver platform decisively repudiated Cleveland's leadership.
The remainder of Altgeld's career was less happy. He had overextended himself financially to build the Unity Block, and debts plagued him. His political power remained great, but his influence brought him little success. He was defeated for reelection in 1896, although he ran ahead of the rest of the Democratic ticket in Illinois. Though he successfully promoted Carter Harrison II for mayor of Chicago, Harrison proved to be very conservative. In 1899 Altgeld ran against Harrison as an independent and finished third in a three-way race. He figured prominently in Bryan's renomination in 1900, only to see Bryan defeated again. At the time of Altgeld's death on March 12, 1902, it seemed that public opinion had rejected his views. However, despite the widespread criticism of his major public acts, he had won the loyalty of many progressives, and his reputation—based on his sympathy for the disadvantaged—has grown rather than diminished in recent years.
Some of Altgeld's major speeches are collected in Henry M. Christman, ed., The Mind and Spirit of John Peter Altgeld: Selected Writings and Addresses (1960). There are two excellent books on Altgeld: Harry Barnard, Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld (1938), and Ray Ginger, Altgeld's America: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities (1958), which discusses some of Altgeld's contemporaries. These studies largely supersede the biography by Waldo R. Browne, Altgeld of Illinois: A Record of His Life and Work (1924). See also Arthur and Lila Weinberg, Some Dissenting Voices (1970).