History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  The Debs Case: Labor, Capital, and the Federal Courts of the 1890s

John Peter Altgeld (1847–1902)

John Peter Altgeld was governor of Illinois during the Pullman strike and boycott. After immigrating to the United States from his native Germany, Altgeld served as a private in the Union Army and worked as a teacher and then as a lawyer in Missouri. He moved to Chicago in 1875, became active in the Democratic Party, and served as a judge of the Cook County Superior Court from 1886 to 1891. He was elected governor in 1892 with strong support from farm and labor groups. Believing that the Anarchists convicted in the notorious Haymarket Trial of 1886 had been denied a fair trial, he pardoned the three who remained incarcerated in 1893.

During the Pullman strike and boycott, Altgeld ordered companies of the state militia to Danville and Decatur with directions to quell rioting and to clear the way for rail traffic. This initiative seemed to produce calm, but President Grover Cleveland appeared unmindful of Altgeld’s efforts and ordered federal troops into Illinois. Altgeld was outraged and complained to the President. The railroads, Altgeld thought, were disrupted not because men had blocked the traffic but rather because strikers and their sympathizers would not work for railroads carrying Pullman cars. Altgeld also protested when U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney and his assistants sought and obtained an injunction against Eugene V. Debs and the leadership of the American Railway Union.

Altgeld’s opposition to the use of troops and the injunction made him a great hero to many reform-minded Democrats, but it also contributed to his defeat when he sought reelection in 1896. Altgeld, however, did not change his opinion. Before his death in 1902, he said the decision in
In re Debs “marks a turning point in our history, for it established a new form of government never before heard of among men, that is, government by injunction.” “The Constitution declares that our government has three departments,” he said, “the legislative, judicial and executive, and that no one shall tread on the other, but under this new order of things a federal judge becomes at once a legislator, court and executioner.”


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