A new monthly blog feature: we will be spotlighting an immigrant from American history that you may have never heard about. These are immigrants who made a real difference in American history but aren’t as well known today as they should be.
Our inaugural figure is John Peter Altgeld. John Peter was born in Germany in 1847, his family fled to the United States to avoid the revolutions sweeping through Europe in 1848. One of the tens of thousands of refugees from that year of turmoil in Europe.
They settled in the Midwest near Mansfield, Ohio. His parents were illiterate and didn’t see much value in education. They were simple farmers and expected their children to become farmers as well. John, however, had other ideas. When he was only 16 years old he ran away and joined the Union Army by lying about his age. He served in a reserve unit in Virginia, his biggest achievement of the Civil War was not dying from the malaria he contracted – a disease that plagued him for the rest of his life.
When he returned from the Civil War John entered an Ohio seminary but didn’t last long. He wanted something more. So, he walked to Missouri, became an itinerant railroad construction worker while he took classes at the University of Missouri.
He moved to Savannah, Missouri and taught school while he studied law in his spare time. He was accepted into the Missouri bar, served as a state’s attorney for a short while, then moved to Chicago. There he married his childhood sweetheart and opened a law office.
He began to develop real estate. He was very good at it. He was the developer and builder of the Unity Building, at 16 stories high it was the largest building in Chicago when it was completed in 1891.
John wanted to give back. From the moment he began practicing law he took a keen interest in helping the poor. He never forgot where he came from. His real estate transactions and his representations of the poor and downtrodden of Chicago drew statewide attention. In 1884, he ran for Congress on a penal reform platform, publishing an essay entitled, Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims in which he argued that not only did incarceration produce hardened criminals while reform should be the goal of punishment, but that the criminal justice system was heavily biased against the poor.
He lost an extremely close race, the closest a Democrat had come to winning an important office in Illinois since before the Civil War. But he made a name for himself, he was noticed on a national level as a leader on progressive stances.
He continued with his law practice, served a brief term as a judge that only confirmed his opinion of the criminal justice system, and continued to develop real estate.
He was drafted to run for governor in 1892. He did not campaign for himself, never really spoke or appeared, just went about his usual business. He won by over 25,000 votes, an impressive margin. He was the first democrat to be governor of Illinois since 1856, the first foreign born citizen ever elected, and the first resident of Chicago to become governor.
He took office in 1893 and made a difference immediately. He enacted the nation’s strictest child labor and occupational safety laws, a factory inspection law, a women’s 8-hour work day law, and an act prohibiting discrimination against union members.
He pardoned the three surviving Haymaker ‘bombers’ while noting that their trial had been a farce, a kangaroo court to place blame on union workers. It was a highly controversial move, he could have taken the easy way out – the expected and politically expedient step of pardoning them as an act of mercy – but his sense of justice was outraged by the convictions. Historians have since proven him right.
Altgeld appointed women and immigrants to positions of authority in the Illinois government. He made a career of supporting the poor workers of Illinois. He did so knowing that he would he would be labeled a leftist, if not a communist, and was hurting his political future.
While he, of course, could not run for president himself he did back the democratic opposition to President Cleveland. He delivered Illinois’ votes to William Jennings Bryan in the Democratic National Convention, sealing his nomination. Such was Altgeld’s influence over the Democratic Party that many people feared that Bryan was simply a puppet and Altgeld – born a foreigner – would be the man actually running the country.
In the campaign of 1898 Teddy Roosevelt did indeed label John a dangerous communist who would ‘burn down institutions’ and ‘murder millions’. William Jennings Byran lost the election but went on to have a long political career, culminating as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State.
Altgeld, though, never recovered from the damage done to him on the campaign trail. He lost reelection as governor and subsequently suffered severe financial losses, some attributable to his political losses and some attributable to the malaria he contracted during the Civil War that he never shook.
He rebounded however with the help of the great lawyer Clarence Darrow, the man who had defended the Haymarket defendants. Darrow never forgot what Altgeld had done for the men he knew were innocent. Darrell invited John to join his firm, a firm famous throughout the country as defenders of injustice wherever they found it
John Peter Altgeld died in 1902 from a recurrence of the malaria he contracted during the Civil War. Although he was ill, pale, and shaking with chills, he went to Joliet, Illinois one cold night to speak at a rally to support the Boers. He died shortly after delivering an impassioned plea to support the Boer women and children being imprisoned by the British.
He is remembered today mostly by the buildings on University of Illinois campuses around the state, buildings that are named after him, buildings that he helped design and build. Several of them on the National Historic Register.