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Looking Back

By       Message Stephen Jones       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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From Democracy for New Mexico

Among the many architectural gems in the city of Chicago, a city of landmark architectural gems, stands a large stone home constructed in 1886 and designed by the Boston architect H.H. Richardson. Because of its open interior floor plan, the Glessner House is considered by many to be the first "modern home." Commissioned by John Glessner, a partner in Warder, Bushnell & Glessner, a 19th-century farm equipment manufacturer. The dichotomy between the home's flowing open interior spaces and rich wooden detail and its severe fortress-like, harsh-stone exterior, with a facade lacking of any large windows, is a striking, often unnerving experience to present-day tourists and other visitors to the building.

One of the most unusual features of the structure is a stark, brick-walled servants' corridor that runs the entire length of the exterior walls of the house and separates the interior of the home and the outer stone walls. The exterior windows along the corridor are mere arrow-slit openings only a few inches wide.

Glessner's fortress home was not so much a statement of avant-garde architectural tastes as it was a domestic military engine, conceived by design, by the architect, and intended to protect the Glessner family from the working people of Chicago. For all of their wealth, John Glessner and his neighbors on Prairie Avenue in Chicago were a frightened and miserable lot, virtual prisoners in their opulent homes. 

George M. Pullman, the railway sleeping car manufacturer, and Glessner's immediate neighbor, was laid to rest at a secret midnight funeral, buried in a lead-lined coffin within a reinforced steel-and-concrete vault, under a slab of several tons of reinforced cement, due to fears that his body might be exhumed and desecrated by his angry employees. Marshall Field, the legendary retailer and another Prairie Avenue neighbor, lived in hiding, moving from his downtown businesses to his home in a dark, sealed carriage. His family, cooped up in their gilded-age mansion, lead lives more resembling the confines of a penitentiary than that of respected leaders of the community, a family wracked by scandal, murder and suicide. 

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Class Warfare
Just beyond their fortified homes were America's working people, and a state of virtual war. Beginning in March of 1886, as H.H. Richardson was designing the Glessner home, a series of labor conflicts spread through the streets of the city and culminated in a general strike on May 1, 1886. Four days later, violence between police and workers escalated to a bombing. Though the perpetrator, or their political intentions, were unknown, Marshall Field led efforts on behalf of the Chicago business community to hang eight innocent men. The "Haymarket Tragedy," as the event became known in the United States, set off world-wide pro-labor protests, and the events known as "Haymarket" to Americans have been commemorated internationally ever since, as May Day.

Conditions in Chicago were repeated in every major city that year, and deep into the plains. In 1886 alone, over 1400 violent strikes crippled the nation. 350,000 industrial workers struck in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New York. Over 200,000 railway workers struck for seven months in states from Missouri to Texas, violently battling the hired vigilantes of the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads, the state militias west of the Mississippi and the Texas Rangers. The labor unrest spilled north into Canada and south into Mexico. Conflict also spread out onto the farms on the great plains, as Granger farmers called "populists" demanded the immediate nationalization of the banks and railroads.

Anti-Democratic Utopia
In the aftermath of 1886, Americans began to wrestle with the ongoing conflict between labor and business owners that threatened to turn the nation into Armageddon. A utopian novel by Edward Bellamy titled Looking Backward: 1887-2000, became the top-selling book of the era. Concerned with the incalcitrance of the special interests, the book envisioned an ideal future where labor and business lived in a world of perfect co-operative harmony. Largely forgotten today, Bellamy's novel spurred a mass movement of followers, and Bellamy Clubs organized thousands of chapters in all corners of the United States. If Bellamy's comforting vision of harmony between the classes attracted many, that projected harmony came at a very high price -- the abolition of American democracy -- which Bellamy thought corrupt.

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Choosing Progressive Reform
Fortunately for all of us, Americans embarked on a substantially different path in the years following 1886, choosing progressive reform instead of the various extremist visions that devoured many of our sister nations. In choosing reform, Americans were able to bring labor and farmers together with business, and forge a prosperous nation for all Americans. One key to that prosperity, and a major one, was the recognition of America's unions. 

Faced with the challenge of extremism, either the anti-democratic extremism of the corporate special interests, or the anti-democratic visions of people like Bellamy, Americans chose, at the beginning of the 20th century, to steer the nation onto a path of principled, democratic reform -- and back onto the sound republican vision of the Americans that had gone before them. "Friends," Theodore Roosevelt said, "our task as Americans is to strive for social and industrial justice, achieved through the genuine rule of the people."

Using the "bully-pulpit," Roosevelt took on the special interests and adopted the path of reform of the progressives. "I prefer to work with moderate, with rational, conservatives," Roosevelt said, "provided only that they do in good faith strive forward toward the light but when they halt and turn their backs to the light, and sit with the scorners on the seats of reaction, then I must part company with them." 

Today's Radicalism
After some of what we have seen coming from the Republican Party and their corporate sponsors in the past few months, we would all be wise to spend a little time looking backward. We are right to be concerned about the extremist radicalism of the governments of Wisconsin and elsewhere -- including the Martinez administration here in New Mexico -- that seeks to replace moderate leadership with class, gender, ethnic and race hatred, against LGBT people, and to strip the unions of collective bargaining rights. This radicalism aim to turn back the clock a full century and a quarter, back to the dark world-vision of Glessner, Pullman, and Field.  

We, as Americans, chose a different path in Roosevelt's time, and prospered as a nation for that vision. We need to pick up the torch and get back to basics, and to our genuine American values, again today.

 

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Stephen Jones is contributing writer to the progressive website Democracy for New Mexico. He lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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