The Lone Fighter

Ray Stannard Baker

McClure’s/December, 1903

IF the articles on politics and trusts and labor unions, which have been appearing recently in this magazine, mean anything at all, they mean this: that, brag as we will, we Americans are not a free people, and this is not a free country.

Whatever may have been the dream of 1776, no thoughtful American will venture to assert that we have, today, a government by the people. This has become a government of the Bosses, by the Bosses, and distinctly for the Bosses. And not only in politics — our gall sores there have even begun to callous—but in other departments of our life. For the Boss is not peculiar to politics; he is the very disease of democracy. In theory there are few more magnificently democratic institutions than the trades-union, but in fact how often degraded by the Labor Boss! Croker never ruled his party with a stronger hand than Sam Parks ruled the Housesmiths’ Union and paralyzed the building industries of New York City. Why not? The trades-union is a body composed of American citizens having the power to vote; it has, therefore, exactly the weakness of the political party. In business half a dozen Financial Bosses, led by John D. Rockefeller, control most of the important industries of this country. A trust, too, is a body composed of American citizens with the power to vote: it is a business democracy. And we find these five or six men, a sort of “extra-constitutional cabinet,” directing in no small degree the policies of this government; they control the country’s money; they cause or stop panics; they “settle” great strikes.

No, we are not even ruled by aristocrats, who have at least some hereditary claim to the exercise of authority and whom we could fawn upon, if we desired to fawn, with some historical warrant. In short, we are ruled by usurping middlemen; the Boss is a middleman, a sort of broker in government to whom we assign our obvious and personal rights and duties (allowing him to take his own percentages) because we are too busy making money or spending it, to care whether we are free or not. Nothing short of absolute monarchy is comparable in its usurpations and tyranny to the rule of the Crokers and the Addickses, the Sam Parkses and the Dick Carvills, the Rockefellers and the Morgans. They are all of the same stripe—all Bosses!

What are the conclusions to be drawn from these conditions?

We hear it said: “Republican institutions are a failure ; the English and the Germans are much better governed than we are here in America. They are freer to-day than we are.”

But freedom is only incidentally a condition of government or laws; a free government is not the result of constitutions or declarations or of rights assured, or of wrongs forbidden.. Freedom is an expression of character, a condition of morality. No government is ever despotic or free save as the people make it despotic or free.

No, this is not a free country, because we, the people, are not intelligent and honest and brave enough to use freedom. What we do have in this country to a degree unequaled elsewhere in the world is the opportunity of freedom. That is the triumph of the American democracy; it insures the people freedom if they wish to take it; but it cannot force freedom upon any man who does not want it, or who is too lazy or too selfish or too ignorant to take it. Half of our reformers are to-day engaged in the utterly stupid task of trying to make people free by new laws. It is like trying to legislate a man happy.

The Russian has a despot that he cannot depose without bloodshed; the American has a despot—the Boss—that he can get rid of if only he will use the simple means placed at his hand by our excellent system of laws. We are strong in democratic ideals but mighty weak in practice.

In short, the advantages of a free country are conditional upon the assumption of the responsibilities of a free country.

It comes back, after all, to you and to me, personally, individually. If you want to be rid of the Boss in your city, you have got to go to the primaries and the election booth and protest and vote and protest again. If you, as a working-man, want honest and efficient unionism, you have got to go to the union meetings and make things right, and if you, as a stockholder, want to see common business honesty in your trusts and in your corporations, you have got to look after the thing yourself. No one says it is easy: good things never do come easily.

It is safe to say that a majority of the people in this country would prefer an honest free government to boss-rule, but most of us are drifters—honest enough, but pulpy; we have no courage to stand up and say what we believe, or to back it up afterwards, if necessary, with hard knocks. We don’t like to get our hands soiled, or to have our ease disturbed.

“What can I do against all this corruption ? I don’t like it; but the bosses have got everything their own way; I should only be turned down and kicked out.”

These are the words of a member of the Housesmiths’ Union in New York, bewailing the rule of Boss Sam Parks and the ruin which inevitably followed. Thousands of Americans are saying exactly the same thing regarding our corrupt politics, our greedy millionaires. “Why,” exclaims our good citizen, ” I wouldn’t be seen associating with such political plug-uglies and heelers.” And that is just why, good citizen, you suffer, why you are not free—but you shouldn’t whine if the medicine is bitter!

Fortunately, however, we have in this republic a leaven of fighters. Almost everything worth doing in this world has been done by the man who believed something strongly enough to fight for it alone.

We have citizens—and not men, either, who are paid for doing it, but honest obscure Hampdens who, making no pretensions as reformers, are stirred by a sort of righteous anger at the rule of the Boss, and who get up and fight.

“By God,” 1 heard one such fighter say—a union man—”I won’t be bossed by Sam Parks.”

He didn’t reason, he had no highfiluting ideas of reform, and he wasn’t secretly calculating on success or failure; he was white-hot at being wronged and he was willing to fight; and he did fight. It is to be noted, too, that he didn’t say: “Isn’t it too bad now, about this Parks business ; we must really do something.” He said “I won’t be bossed.” No man who says “we” ever does anything.

In a former article I mentioned Robert Neidig, of the Housesmiths’ Union of New York, leader of the minority against Sam Parks, the corrupt Labor Boss. Neidig is of Pennsylvania Dutch stock, bred in the country, with the hard qualities which belong to that race, which thrive best in the open country air. Beginning as a private in the ranks, he got it into his head that he couldn’t expect the union to do everything for him when he did nothing for the union: a simple civic idea, but the very foundation of success in a republic.

“I have got to be a union man,” he says. “Should I let the union run itself and not attend meetings because I do not like its methods, or should I turn in and help change the methods?”

Quietly, doggedly, this Dutch American fought for what he thought was right. He had a family to support, he had to work hard every day—and the steel builder’s employment leaves a man tired at night—but no meeting found him absent. Elected president of the union, he began a systematic fight on the Boss. Hampered on every side, he received not one penny of salary, while the Boss was driving about in his cab and “treating” his heelers with the money of the union. At times when Parks was employing every resource of union politics and corruption, Neidig was compelled to use odd minutes at night and to pay his own expenses in prosecuting the struggle, expenses not small for a working-man. Threatened with personal violence, with loss of his job, and even with expulsion from the union, jeered at because he went to church, this man Neidig never once lost his patience, never stopped fighting, doing his best to curb the progress of sure ruin which Parks was bringing upon the union. And he had faithful supporters, too, for there are always honest followers where there is an honest leader. When the union struck, though Neidig opposed Parks’ highhanded actions, he did not desert, nor threaten to desert; he stayed with the union and fought and fought. When District Attorney Jerome wanted information to help convict Parks, Neidig gave it, though he knew it would make him unpopular, endanger his own life. At the Labor Day parade he refused to march behind Parks, who had just then been temporarily released from State’s Prison and who was being “vindicated” by his union. To unionism, refusal to parade is a deadly offense.

“I won’t march behind that jailbird,” said Neidig. “I am prepared to take the consequences.”

Again he was threatened. Boss Parks set his “entertainment committee”—the committee that slugs and gouges eyes—to dogging him. Neidig got a license to carry a revolver; he wore it under the tail of his black coat when he sang in the church choir on Sunday.

“If an attack is made on me,” he said, “one man may die before it is settled; I am not going to stand any monkey business from Parks’ ‘entertainment committee.'”

Many another honest and timid housesmith had been slugged, “beaten up ” by Parks’ committee; a really brave man like Neidig is protected by his own bravery.

And not once in all the course of the struggle did he get one single reward for himself, not once did he succeed in overthrowing Parks; on the other hand he was abused, threatened, jeered at. But he kept alive the spark of honesty and faith in that union; he limited, at least, the excesses of the Boss, and—though it really doesn’t matter—there is now an excellent prospect, Parks being overthrown, that he will win out and reorganize the union on a sound and honest basis.

“If our failures,” says Thoreau, “are made tragic by courage, they are not different from success.”

It has rather an odd sound, “a hero in politics,” but I want to tell of just such a hero. His name was John D. Huffman, and he lived at Bluffs, Scott County, Illinois. A few years ago his neighbors, who knew him well, elected him to the State Legislature, at that time, perhaps, one of the most corrupt legislative bodies in the world. He had a seat on the Democratic side of the house; he seemed out of place there; he was not well dressed; his hands were hard and rough with work; he couldn’t make a speech to save his life. Indeed, he was only a farm laborer earning $25 a month. But he sat there, day in and day out, listening intently, making up his mind as to the simple rights and wrongs of the question, and then voting right. Sometimes his “No”—his voice was always loud enough when he voted—was the only negative on his side of the house. Once—by the word of the “leader” who offered the money—he could have had $10,000 for his vote. But he shook his head, and when the bill came up he voted an honest vote. In a sense he was an outcast; he could not herd with the “good fellows” who were banded together for plunder; he took no part in the horse-play of those around him; some even accused him of stupidity, but no one ever said that he was dishonest. Before the session was over, old John Huffman, of Bluffs, stupid, perhaps, uncouth, unlearned, came to be a marked man, a monument of decency and dignity of character, winning the respect of the corrupt men around him, even coming to prominence in the Chicago newspaper dispatches for the very miracle of his honesty. And when the session was over he went back to work again on the farm, having done his duty.

One Chicago newspaper said of him: “He saw Senators and representatives voting for boodle measures. He saw men of wealth and social position accepting bribes. He saw the Governor of the State—but that is another story. But John Huffman, of Bluffs, in Scott County, could not be coaxed by fair words or persuaded by foul money to violate his duty to the people. He voted on all measures and he voted right. When the noisy crew of thieves, flown with insolence and wine, left Springfield to spend in barroom or brothel the wages of their infamy, John Huffman, of Bluffs—God bless him!—returned to Scott County to earn his daily bread by the valor of his hands.”

And if it were not for hundreds of these quiet workers to-day in our American life we might just as well go out of business as a republic. It is a dead man who does not thrill when he reads of the citizens of Chicago and New York and other cities who, setting aside their business interests, having no hope of reward, subject to misunderstanding and abuse and foul questioning of their motives, have yet gone on doggedly fighting political corruption, because something inside of them was honest and angry.

One such man, no matter how obscure, quiet, simple, can get results amazing in their importance; one such man is worth about four thousand so-called respectable citizens who stay at home and talk about the shame of boss-rule. Several correspondents, commenting on the article in this Magazine describing the capital-labor conspiracies in Chicago, point to socialism as the only way out. In fact, many people in this country to-day are gropingly reaching toward socialism, often without knowing what socialism really is. But socialism is the extremest form of democracy. If our people are not able to use and enjoy the mild republicanism which we already have and keep it out of the hands of Bosses, how can we expect them to use, successfully, any more pronounced form of democracy? Socialism, if it should come, must be accompanied by a sterner sort of moral individualism than is commonly exhibited in this country to-day. If this republic is saved it must be saved by individual effort.