The Other American Dilemma

By Kazin, Michael | The American Prospect, March-April 1998 | Go to article overview

The Other American Dilemma


Kazin, Michael, The American Prospect


A couple of hundred pages into the rich and sprawling narrative of Big Trouble, Anthony Lukas quotes an Irish-born union president named Ed Boyce who, one day in 1902, was moved to lay down the facts of life for his members: "There are only two classes of people in the world," Boyce told a convention of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), "One is composed of the men and women who produce all; the other is composed of men and women who produce nothing, but live in luxury upon the wealth produced by others."

That statement evokes much of the meaning and drama Lukas wants to convey. The "big trouble" of his title stemmed from a history of class violence in the silver mines and mining towns of the intermountain West. The drama began in Caldwell, Idaho, on a snowy evening in late December 1905. Frank Steunenberg, a former governor, opened his garden gate and was blown apart by a bomb attached to the gatepost. Almost immediately, his family and business associates suspected the miners union. While in office in 1899, Steunenberg had requested troops to battle the WFM's sway in the silver and lead mines of the Coeur D'Alenes, a rugged region of northern Idaho; hundreds of union workers were incarcerated in several boxcars and a barn. Forced to subsist on bread and water and without blankets to protect them against the mountain cold, several miners perished. "We have an account to settle with you," the union paper warned the governor at the time.

Days after Steunenberg's murder, Caldwell authorities arrested a drifter named Harry Orchard for the crime. They were immensely pleased when he fingered the WFM's top leaders for suggesting and bankrolling the murder. To make the case stick, Idaho's governor turned to the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the premier union-busting force of its day. Crack Pinkerton agents captured a trio of union officials--Charles Moyer, William "Big Bill" Haywood, and George Pettibone--near their Denver headquarters and spirited them across the Idaho border in a closed train. After the U.S. Supreme Court found the "extradition" constitutionally acceptable, the first trial--of the charismatic Haywood (who was also leader of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, remembered as the "Wobblies")--began in Boise, the state capital. Clarence Darrow was chief counsel for the defense.

So began a judicial drama that captivated the nation. "The Haywood case," writes Lukas, "may have been the first trial in American history in which the real target wasn't so much the jurors in the box as the larger jury of public opinion." President Theodore Roosevelt publicly branded the WFM trio "undesirable citizens" and rooted for Haywood's conviction. His epithet brought tens of thousands of workers into the streets of New York and other cities to protest. If even a "progressive" chief executive was calling for labor's blood, Ed Boyce's polarized worldview seemed indisputably accurate.

But Boyce himself was not among the demonstrators. His fiery remarks in 1902 were given during a farewell address to his union. By the time of Haywood's trial five years later, Boyce had tiptoed across the great divide. He was managing an exclusive hotel in Portland, Oregon, and, as befit the post, wore tailored suits and dined in the best restaurants. As far as one can tell, he never looked back.

Introducing his book, Lukas writes, "I hope that in telling this big story I've helped illuminate the class question at a time when the gap between our richest and poorest citizens grows ever wider." But the little story of Ed Boyce suggests one reason why through most of U.S. history class inequality has been, to paraphrase Gunnar Myrdal, the other American dilemma.

Since Tocqueville deemed it our ineradicable national curse, race has haunted Americans by its permanence. Our very skin reminds us of slavery's legacy. But class changes. If an immigrant worker like Boyce could vault the social ladder, seemingly throwing aside both his grievances and his poverty, why couldn't others do the same? …

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