Written: January 1949.
First Published: Fourth International (New York), Vol.10 No.2, February 1949, pp.53-57.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido.
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters.
Public Domain: George Novak Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.
Recent converts to capitalist “free enterprise” glorify this system of robber rule as the foundation of American democracy. However, the real traditions of plebeian democracy in the United States, especially since the Civil War, have been bound up with the mass struggles against Big Business. Many anti-monopolist battles have been waged under the banner of democracy by movements and individuals apart from the tendencies inspired and guided by Marxism.
However great their deficiencies in other respects, these forces at least correctly viewed the plutocracy as the deadliest enemy of the rights of the people. Until recently they occupied the foreground in American thought and politics. Their eclipse has been an integral part of the process by which the representatives of Big Business have sought to shove aside all critics and opponents of its regime.
The best of these standard-bearers of the anti-monopolist crusade were known beyond the borders of this country. Even in the midst of the reconstruction of the Soviet Union, Lenin, for example, found time to follow their work. In October 1922, Oscar Cesare, the American artist, went to sketch Lenin in his Kremlin office. Cesare told Walter Duranty the next day that, he had murmured something about political opinion in America. “Yes,” Lenin replied, “I’ve just been reading this,” and he held up a red-bound copy of Pettigrew’s Plutocrat Democracy (sic). “It’s a very fine book,” he said— and his eyes sparkled as he looked down at it. “I got the impression,” Cesare commented, “that Lenin didn’t admire the American political system as much as he admired the book.”
Who was Pettigrew? What sort of man was this Republican senator that he could call forth Lenin’s admiration? Lenin was not in the habit of praising bourgeois politicians or their works.
You will not find the answer to these questions in the best-known liberal histories of Pettigrew’s period— in the Beards’ Rise of American Civilization; in Kendrick and Hacker’s History of the United States Since 1865; or in John Chamberlain’s Farewell to Reform. As though designed to emphasize his obscurity, Pettigrew’s name remains misspelled and the title of his book misquoted in Duranty’s Moscow dispatches published in book form twelve years after Cesare’s interview with Lenin. It is only when we turn to Pettigrew’s book that we begin to see why he has been obliterated from official historical memory. His book is a scathing indictment of monopoly rule beside which the writings of the muckrakers and speeches of the reformers seem pale and harmless.
As we delve deeper into the events of Pettigrew’s career, we understand still more clearly why he has been cast into obscurity. Richard Franklin Pettigrew was the first United States senator from South Dakota. He was not only a picturesque personality but an influential figure in national politics at the turn of the century.
Pettigrew’s elimination from the political arena coincided with the defeat of the middle-class radicalism he represented. He was crushed by the political steamroller of the plutocracy as an obstacle to its concentration of power. In the process his reputation was so blackened and his deeds so distorted that he has never been accorded his rightful place as one of the staunchest opponents of monopoly domination in American public life.
Pettigrew’s resistance to tyranny carried forward his family traditions. Several ancestors fought in the Revolution and his father was an Abolitionist who helped many slaves to escape through the underground railroad. Pettigrew was born in Vermont in 1848 and spent his boyhood in Wisconsin. After studying law at the University of Wisconsin and teaching school for a year in Iowa, he went to Dakota in 1869 to help in the government survey of the territory. At that time Dakota was on the fringe of the frontier, a region of wind-swept plains and “bad-lands,” dotted with military posts and sparsely settled with unfriendly Indians and homestead farmers.
Pettigrew started a law office and real estate business in Sioux Falls, the urban center of the territory, and lived there most of his life, practicing law, promoting business enterprises such as the Midland Pacific Railroad and participating in the Territorial government. When South Dakota attained statehood in 1889, he was elected to the US Senate.
He served in that Millionaires’ Club for twelve years from 1889 to 1900, when he was defeated for a third term. Although removed from the national scene at that time under circumstances we shall soon set forth, he kept in close touch with the major political events and personages until his death twenty-six years later. Thus, for over fifty years Pettigrew had his finger on the pulse of American politics, during a period of tremendous transformations in American society.
Pettigrew entered public life as a member of the Republican Party which had been launched as the upholder of freedom against slavery on the basis of an alliance between the Northern bourgeoisie and the free-soil farmers of the West. However, he was an independent Republican, never hesitating to oppose party policy on any issue that ran counter to his convictions or to the interests of the farmers and merchants of South Dakota.
His first major conflict with the Republican Party leadership and its boss, Mark Hanna, came in the presidential campaign of 1896 when Pettigrew led a large group of Free-Silver Republicans in a dramatic walkout from the convention which nominated McKinley into the camp of the Bryan Democrats. He quit the Republican Party forever once he saw that it had been totally converted into a tool of the capitalist oligarchy.
The campaign of 1896 was fiercely fought. The Populists who had polled over a million and a half votes in the preceding presidential election endorsed Bryan along with the Free-Silver Republicans while the Gold Democrats went over to McKinley’s side. In this realignment of political forces only the Socialist Labor Party of DeLeon retained its independence.
For the first time since the Civil War the masters of industry and finance felt that the machinery of the Federal Executive threatened to fell into unreliable hands. Two weeks before election day John Hay wrote to Henry Adams that Cleveland capitalists had visions of themselves hanging from lampposts on Euclid Avenue. The rulers of America had become frightened by their own propaganda; McKinley was reelected.
Although Bryan and his cohorts were repulsed, the insurgent agrarians had won victories in several Western states. The most notable was in South Dakota, Pettigrew’s bailiwick, where the legislature, had been controlled by a Democratic-Populist coalition, headed by former leaders of the Knights of Labor and the Farmers’ Alliance, which proceeded to enact the first Initiative and Referendum measure in the United States. Populism in the West, as well as Pettigrew in the Senate, remained to plague the Republicans.
While the monopolists were consolidating their economic and political Supremacy at home, they had been reaching out beyond the national boundaries for fresh markets and sources of raw materials, planting the first seeds of imperialism which were soon to flower in “the splendid little war” against Spain. For five years before the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor, the Senate had been the arena of combat between the imperialists and anti-imperialists over the question of Hawaiian annexation.
Pettigrew was the leader in the rancorous debates that punctuated the five-year struggle in the Senate and cast the one Republican vote in the last desperate filibuster of the anti-imperialists against the adoption of the annexation resolution in July 1898. His anti-imperialist speeches, gathered by Scott Nearing in a book entitled The Course of Empire, constitute a valuable record of the first steps of American imperialism in Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines.
A study of Roman and European history, a first-hand acquaintance with British imperialism gained from a trip to the Far East, in 1897, and his daily contacts with the agents of the corporations had made him familiar with the forces behind imperialist enterprise. With the Pullman and Homestead strikes fresh in his mind, Pettigrew asserted that “the sum and substance of the conquest of the Philippines is to find a field where cheap labor can be secured, labor that does not strike, that does not belong to a union, that does not need an army to keep it in leading strings, that will make goods for the trusts of this country; and as the trusts dominated the St. Louis Convention and own the Republican Party, it is a very proper enterprise for them to engage in.”
Pettigrew warned the Republican party that even as “it had come into being as a protest against slavery and as the special champion of the Declaration of Independence, it would go out of being and out of power as the champion of slavery and the repudiator of the Declaration of Independence.” He helped found the Anti-Imperialist League which attracted a membership of over half a million people and became a center of popular agitation against McKinley’s administration. Pettigrew received another lesson in the interrelations between imperialist politics and monopoly when Andrew Carnegie, one of the League’s original backers, withdrew financial support after the Morgan organizers of the Steel Trust warned him that the tariff dependent on McKinley’s reelection was essential to the consummation of their plans.
In following the trail of corruption left by the captains of industry and finance, Pettigrew was led to the inner sanctum of the Republican high command and the Senate seat of Mark Hanna himself. Hanna was the Bismarck of Big Business. Ever since “Dollar Mark” had come forward, Pettigrew hated him and all he represented. When Hanna entered the Senate, a clash between the two was unavoidable, and they soon engaged in a duel epitomizing the struggle between the declining agrarian democracy of the West and the industrial magnates of the East.
Pettigrew first grappled with Hanna during the spring session of the Senate in 1900, in a dispute over anti-trust legislation. The Steel Trust had been caught submitting bids to the Navy Department asking four times the average cost of production for armor plate. The anti-monopolists countered with a proposal to build a government armor-plate factory unless the steel manufacturers reduced their prices.
As Hanna was marshaling his men to combat this move, Pettigrew hurled a thunderbolt unto the Senate. He told how a wealthy shipbuilder named Cramp had given $400,000 to the Republican campaign fund in 1892 in return for promised contracts from the incoming administration. Cramp had complained to Pettigrew that his contribution had been “misused” to line the pockets of members of the Republican National Committee.
The Republican leaders tried to ignore this accusation until they began to be baited by the Democrats for their failure to reply. In view of the approaching fall elections, this challenge from the Democratic side of the Senate could no longer be left unanswered. Thereupon Senator Carter, who had received the $400,000 from Cramp, rose to defend the honor of his party by an attack upon Pettigrew’s character and a shout that “those who lie down with dogs must expect to get up with fleas.” Hanna followed with the curt statement that “he considered the accusation unworthy of notice and declined to dignify it with a reply.” He neglected to mention that an investigation might have proved extremely embarrassing since Cramp, who had been visited in the interim by a Republican delegation, stubbornly declined to deny Pettigrew’s story until he got back his $400,000.
After Carter and Hanna, had spoken, Pettigrew delivered his second blow. He charged that Hanna had bought his way into the Senate. His assertion was based upon a pending petition, signed by four out of the five members of the Ohio Senate Committee on Elections, asking the US Senate to inquire into Hanna’s bribery of two members of the Ohio legislature. Hanna dared not keep silent in the face of this personal accusation. Flushed with anger, he jumped up from his chair, which happened to be directly in back of Pettigrew’s and began an indignant but inadequate defense of his probity in business, politics and personal life. He wound up with a warning to Pettigrew, that the judgment day was at hand and accounts between them would he settled at the coming election.
This was Hanna’s maiden speech ill the Senate. Chauncey Depew later characterized it as “not so much of a speech as an explosion.” Luckily Hanna did not have to rely on his speeches to retain his seat. The Senate Committee on Elections, packed with regular Republicans, refused to pursue the investigation further, despite protests from the Democratic minority.
The presidential campaign of 1900 caricatured the contest of 1896. The same candidates, the same issues; but four years of prosperity and a successful war against Spain had seated the Republicans firmly in the saddle.
McKinley’s re-election was a foregone conclusion. The chief task of the Republicans was to sweep away the strongholds of Populism in the Middle West. Political strategy, and personal hatred combined to make Pettigrew and his fellow agrarians the focus of attack and Mark Hanna, the campaign manager, was eager to drive the nails into their political coffins with his own hands.
When the rumor spread in Washington during the summer of 1900 that Mark Hanna was preparing to make a speaking tour of the farm belt, the Republican leaders were alarmed. Hanna might be shot by one of those crazy Populists and, even if he was unharmed, his presence might offend the farmers and turn them against the Republican ticket. His already celebrated feud with Pettigrew was more than likely to redound to Pettigrew’s favor, if he showed himself in South Dakota. And with these arguments, Hanna’s friends protested in person and by letter against the expedition— and Hanna growled: “Isn’t it nice to be toll that you’re not fit for publication?” McKinley himself sent the Postmaster-General to dissuade Hanna. “Return to Washington and tell the President that God hates a coward,” was Hanna’s command to the envoy.
Amid the fears and prayers of the Republican leaders Hanna set out after his prey. Lest the goal of his trip seem too manifest, Hanna looped his itinerary through Iowa and Nebraska, Bryan’s home state. But his route converged on the den of the “rattlesnake Pettigrew” in South Dakota. Teddy Roosevelt, the vice-presidential candidate, exposed the animus behind Hanna’s mission when he joined the chorus howling for Pettigrew’s scalp. “Good Lord,” he telegraphed Boss Platt of New York, “I hope we can beat Pettigrew for the Senate. That particular swine seems to me, on the whole, the most obnoxious of the whole drove.”
Hanna mobilized his full resources to effect Pettigrew’s defeat. He handed out free railroad passes, reckless promises, adroit flattery to key citizens. A battery of celebrities was brought into South Dakota to blast away at Pettigrew. Vast sums of money were put in the hands of local leaders to buy votes.
Shortly before election, Hanna had the state polled and discovered that Pettigrew might win by a few thousand votes. The alarm was sounded. Hanna raised a special fund of $500,000 among the railroad interests, trusts and financial institutions. According to Pettigrew, the Republicans visited every banker in every country town of the state and deposited a sum of money with them together with instructions on the part they were to play in the campaign. Farmers were promised ten dollars before and ten dollars after the election if they voted right. After these preparations, Hanna returned home and awaited the results.
About ten o’clock on election night, Hanna telephoned from Cleveland to his private secretary in Chicago for news, of the balloting. He was told that McKinley was undoubtedly elected. “Oh, I know that,” Hanna replied, “but how about Pettigrew?” “Pettigrew is undoubtedly beaten,” his secretary assured him. “If you are sure of that,” said Hanna, “I can go home and to sleep. I anted to accomplish two things in this election— to elect McKinley and to beat Pettigrew— and I did not know which I wanted most!”
“Dollar Mark’s” hatred of Pettigrew lasted to his dying day. In an oration at Hanna’s funeral in 1904 Chauncey Depew alluded to their feud, stating that Pettigrew had written his political epitaph by opposing Hanna: “the titanic power the Dakota Senator had evoked was his political ruin.”
Pettigrew’s defeat at the polls climaxed the long campaign directed against him by the placemen of capital. They could not enjoy the sweets of office in comfort so long as he remained in the Senate. They winced whenever he arose, not knowing what he might reveal nor whom he might attack. As he unfolded his exposures, according to Charles Willis Thompson, “they shivered silently and were thanked when he was through with them.” Thomas Beer relates how Senator Cushman Davis, the wit of the Senate, greeted Pettigrew’s approach one day with the remark: “Here comes pale malice.” John Hay described him as “a howling lunatic.”
During the Spanish-American War the yellow press damned Pettigrew as pro-Spanish and pro-Filipino. Soon the respectable journals set to work discrediting him. They manufactured a picture of Pettigrew as a venomous fanatic. The following portrait of Pettigrew by a conservative Washington correspondent, Charles Willis Thompson, shows how his chromo was tinted and twisted.
“Pettigrew was a malicious minded man whose guiding star was hatred. His sole pleasure lay in hurting somebody. He was suspicious to an almost insane degree, and saw evil in every action of other men. He had an uncanny genius for tormenting people. He was so skillful in hurling his poisoned darts that men were afraid of him, and let him go unrebuked; though one day a Senator who was his direct antithesis in character, sturdy, jolly, open-hearted Ed Wolcott of Colorado, who feared no man, woke the Senate echoes with a speech painting Pettigrew as one ‘who views the world with jaundiced vision’ and who, ‘when the sun shines sees only the shadow it casts.’ Pettigrew listened with a white face that grew whiter, and when Wolcott ended, he made a low-voiced bitter reply that sounded to me like the hiss of a rattlesnake.”
The facts we have presented enable us to see the reality behind this malicious caricature, Pettigrew’s “insane suspiciousness” meant that he was alert to the maneuvers of the money power and ready to expose them fearlessly. He was called a “rattlesnake,” not because he menaced the people, but because his thrusts were dreaded by the sycophants of the rich and the purveyors of corruption in high office.
Estimates of Pettigrew differed according to the reporter’s sympathies. Charles Edward Russell, a Socialist journalist, declared that Pettigrew had one of the coolest, clearest, and steadiest minds he had ever encountered in a long acquaintance with public men of affairs. His speeches confirm that impression. They are eloquent, firmly knit, well-informed, and keenly perceptive of the immediate and long-range bearing of the issues involved. No, Pettigrew was regarded as a Wild Man from the West, was defamed and driven from public office not because he was a half-demented crank, but because he would not bend his knee in homage to the plutocracy.
During his active political life, Pettigrew moved in the social orbit and shared the political point of view and provincial prejudices of the Middle-Western farmers and merchants among whom he lived. He was an ardent patriot given to spread-eagle spouting (“I yield to no man in my devotion to my country and my flag”), an anti-monopolist, Free-Silverite, Single-Taxer, and part-protectionist. His prejudices stand out in his mixed motives for opposing Hawaiian annexation. He not only declared that imperialism endangered democracy, violated the Constitution, threatened the dignity and character of American labor, but that the tropical natives were debauched, unchaste, unfit and incapable of self-government.
Like other reformers, he sought to curb the power of the trusts by placing the bridle of government regulation upon them. He had yet to realize that the monopolies could not operate without controlling the federal government which was supposed to control them. In 1897 Daniel DeLeon, the Socialist Labor Party leader, saw in the trusts, not only the growing centralization of capitalist ownership and wealth, but also a material prerequisite for socialized industry. The task was not to break up the capitalist combines or regulate them, but to deprive the monopolists of their economic and political strangleholds through the rule of the working class. While not unsympathetic to DeLeon’s socialist viewpoint, Pettigrew still hoped to reverse the wheels of economic development and return to the bygone era of free competition.
Although Pettigrew lacked the insight into the laws of capitalist development, and the nature of the state which Marxism had given DeLeon, he nevertheless learned many things in the harsh school of struggle with his own bourgeoisie. He grasped the character of capital (“capital is stolen labor and its only function is to steal more labor”) and the connection between free land and capitalist democracy (“free land makes a free people”).
In 1900 the American Red Cross invited Pettigrew to contribute to a symposium on the topic of progress in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here is the essence of his views on the character of our epoch:
“The early years of the century marked the progress of the race toward individual freedom and permanent victory over the tyranny of hereditary aristocracy, but the closing decades of the century have witnessed the surrender of all that was gained to the more heartless tyranny of accumulated wealth ... I believe the new century will open with many bloody revolutions as a result of the protest of the masses against the tyranny and oppression of the wealth of the world in the hands of the few, resulting in great progress toward socialism and the more equal distribution of the products of human toil and as a result the moral and spiritual uplifting of the race.”
After leaving Washington, Pettigrew went to practice law in New York City where he could observe the capitalist overlords at work in their private demesnes. Although he never again held public office, he participated in all the movements of middle class insurgence against the unrestrained domination of Wall Street. He was a delegate to the Democratic national conventions in 1904 and 1908 and served as a member of the platform committee and chairman of the subcommittee on the tariff planks and the Philippines.
When Woodrow Wilson became the Democratic nominee in 1912, he concluded that the Democratic Party was no less irremediably tied up with Big Business. He termed Wilson “the worst Tory in the United States.” He transferred his allegiance to Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, wrote the original draft of its platform and helped carry South Dakota for Roosevelt in 1912 as he had carried it for Bryan in 1896. With the collapse of the Progressive Party venture, he severed all political affiliations and became a man without a party.
The outbreak of the First World War and the entrance of the United States into the conflict came as no surprise to this old student of imperialism. Early in the nineties he had predicted that the first step of the United States in acquiring “the tainted territory of Hawaii by a robber revolution” would be fast followed by the taking of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba and the conquest of South America. The first parts of his prophecy were fulfilled in short order; the second was being realized during the early decades of the century.
When the United States went into the war, Pettigrew openly declared that if he had been in the Senate he would have voted against America’s entry. He was indicted for sedition in Sioux City for making statements like this to a reporter: “We should never have gone into a war to help the Schwabs make $40,000,000 a year.” He was never tried for treason and the indictment was dropped. But he remained proud of his anti-war stand and kept the indictment framed in his home as one of his treasured possessions.
Later he wrote: “Capitalism produced the war. Capitalism profited by the war.” He saw that the imperialist powers were preparing bigger and bloodier wars through the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, which he characterized as another Holy Alliance against Soviet Russia, the backward countries and the defeated nations for the purpose of crushing out socialism, safeguarding the British Empire, and uniting the exploiters against the exploited.
Upon Harding’s election in 1920, Pettigrew had to admit that his fight for the preservation of democracy within the framework of bourgeois politics had been irrevocably lost. Like Grant and McKinley before him, Harding was nothing but the puppet of the political gang who ran the Grand Old Party and acted as orderlies for the financial aristocracy. The financial aristocracy itself was no longer the invisible government of Wall Street but the open and undisputed possessors of state power. As Lincoln Steffens observed, “Washington was no longer the kept woman but the legally wedded wife of Wall Street.”
Guided by these experiences and reflections, in the evening of his life Pettigrew sat down to review the political development of the United States since his youth. He was well equipped for the task. For a half century he had observed the real rulers of America. He had been on the inside of the Big Business of Politics and the politics of Big Business. He had been personally acquainted with all the important men in the major parties, the members of the diplomatic corps, ten presidents, and the industrialists and financiers who oiled the political machines and made and unmade presidents. The fruit of this knowledge was his book Triumphant Plutocracy , privately published in 1922 and reprinted by Charles H. Kerr under the title of Imperial Washington.
Triumphant Plutocracy is Pettigrew’s minority report on the degradation of American bourgeois democracy; a documented exposure of the men, methods, and measures used by the piratical plutocracy to capture the ship of state and steer it in line with their greedy desires. The book is like a magnifying glass which concentrates hitherto scattered rays of light on the dark deeds and hidden recesses of national politics since the Civil War.
Pettigrew was a homespun democrat of the frontier, truckling to no man and to no party, and standing unawed before official authority and manufactured reputation. He had known all the presidents from Andrew Johnson to Woodrow Wilson. This is his judgment on the decemvirate.
“These ten presidents were not brainy. They were not men of robust character. They were pliable men, safe men, conservative men. Many of them were usable men, who served faithfully the business interests that stood behind them.”
Grover Cleveland he recalls as the chief actor in the scandalous bond transactions of 1894 and 1805 whereby Morgan and his fellow financiers dipped their endless chain of buckets into the Treasury for a cool thirty million dollars.
Teddy Roosevelt seemed to him an egotistic poseur who permitted lies to be spread about his heroic feats in the taking of San Juan Hill, using them as a political stepladder in his career, and who talked of “trust-busting” while sanctioning the purchase of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company by the Steel Trust.
Wilson was a Southern aristocrat who feared and despised the masses and who ran for reelection on the slogan “he kept us out of the war” while making preparations to enter it.
Even Bryan, whom he twice supported for president, was only “an American politician, vacillating, uncertain, overlooking the fundamental things, ignorant of the forces that were shaping American public life, incapable of thinking in terms of reality, but making phrases a substitute for thought.”
There is scarcely a method of mulcting the masses and appropriating the public wealth that Pettigrew did not encounter in his career and describe in graphic detail: land-grabbing by the railroads, the preemption of mineral lands and natural resources by predatory individuals and corporations; tariffs, trusts, and monopolies; railroad reorganization proceedings; the centralization and control of credit in Wall Street through the national bank, system; the creation of a huge national debt; control of political parties by campaign contributions and of the judiciary by rewards of fat fees and sinecures. His book is a guide to the grand larceny practiced by the chief citizens of capitalist America between the close of the Civil War and the beginning, of the First World War.
Pettigrew analyzes the roles played by the various branches of the government in defending and extending the power of the plutocracy. He spares no category of office-holders in his investigation; county and state officials, governors, representatives, senators, presidents and justices. The lawyers, who make up the majority of the political plunderbund, he places on a par with prostitutes. “Under the ethics of his profession,” he says scornfully, “the lawyer is the only man who can take a bribe and call it a fee.” He lets loose ferocious blasts upon that holy of holies of the propertied classes, the Supreme Court, asserting that it usurped the law-making powers from the elected representatives of the people and ran roughshod over the Bill of Rights in one case after another.
Pettigrew did not confine his criticism to the bourgeoisie and its political servants. He pointed out the part assigned to the officials of the American Federation of Labor in fixing the yoke of capitalist control upon the shoulders of the working class. Gompers and the labor aristocracy, he says, entered into combination with the industrialists and aided their exploitation of the unorganized masses. The capitalists were thus enabled to buy out the upper crust of the working class by giving them a small share of their profits.
The policy of pure and simple unionism, restricting trade union struggles to higher wages and shorter hours, played into the hands of the capitalist parties and helped perpetuate the system of wage slavery. When Gompers solicited his opinion on the trade union movement in 1911, Pettigrew insisted that trade unions should be universal, embracing everyone that toils in either farm or factory. Labor could not be emancipated, he said, until the lands and implements of production en cooperatively used and publicly owned.
When Gompers denounced this as socialism, Pettigrew wrote him in 1916:
“The position of the American Federation of Labor as represented by you is that of standing in with the corporations who employ labor to secure a part of what labor is entitled to and make the corporations divide with organized labor what they take from the public ... The only way to make a federation of labor effective is to combine all those who are producers of wealth in a political organization and take charge of the government and administer the government in the interests of the rights of man. It is now being administered in the interests of the rights of property and administered by the men who did not produce any of the properly, but have stolen it from those who did produce it.”
When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Pettigrew hailed the event as a beacon of hope to the international working class.
“The war,” he wrote, “was an affirmation of capitalism. The Russian Revolution was the answer of the workers... It is the greatest event of our time. It marks the beginning of the epoch when the working people will assume the task of directing and controlling industry. It blazes a path into the unknown country, where the workers of the world are destined to take from their exploiters the right to control and direct the economic affairs of the community.”
With these resounding revolutionary words Pettigrew chose to a close his story of public life in America from 1870 to 1920. His conclusions are clear and decisive. Democracy has been strangled by plutocracy. The society of free land and free competition, which had inspired the democratic dream of the pioneers, had been transformed into a society owned and ruled by a small oligarchy which, in its insatiable greed for profits and world dominion, was driving the United States toward the shambles of imperialism.
The issue before the American people was no longer democracy versus class rule, but socialism, the rule of the working class, or barbarism. With Jefferson and Lincoln, Pettigrew appealed to the historic and democratic right of revolt by the people against a governing class which represented neither the interests of the people nor the necessities of social progress. He urged the masses to rise from their enslavement and seize the power and property that was rightfully theirs. A half century of struggle had convinced him that the entrenched plutocracy could not be otherwise overthrown.
Triumphant Plutocracy was Pettigrew’s last testament to the American people. He died four years later in 1926 at the age of 78. He had traveled a long and winding road in the course of his political career and his final position was far from his starting point. He had entered the Republican Party soon after the Civil War, a devout believer in the virtues of capitalist democracy, the Constitution and the Flag. As the bankers and industrialists tightened their grasp upon the economic and political life of the nation, throttling resistance to their ever-expanding power, plunder and privileges and extending their sphere of exploitation around the globe, Pettigrew, fighting them all along the way, gradually shed his illusions.
The clarity of this insight into the development and destiny of American monopoly capitalism deepened until at the end of his life this plebeian fighter for democracy began to see the dawning of a new light and a new era.
1. A gibe on Andrew Carnegie’s book Triumphant democracy: Sixty years’ march of the republic, New York : Charles Scribner, 1893. For another online edition of Pettigrew’s book see: http://www.geocities.com/7897401/pettig/.
Last updated on: 11 April 2009