There was excitement in the air in 1892 as Illinois’ German population watched the race for governor heat up.
For the first time in the state’s history, a foreign-born American citizen was a candidate for the highest office in the state. And, more than simply being foreign-born, he was from Germany. In securing enough votes to be elected, John Peter Altgeld reached out to the various counties and communities that were of the same ethnic background as his own.
During the 1890s, many of Illinois’ political leaders began to recognize that the sizable German population found in the state represented a powerful voting bloc for any person who could appeal to the concerns of those who were of Teutonic origin. At the beginning of the decade, two topics were the focal points of most discussions: the Illinois compulsory education law and the tariff. Both items were of great interest to German voters. The fear of any German who had children in a private church-related school, whether Lutheran or Catholic, was that the compulsory education law of 1890 would lead to a supervision of the schools which, in turn, would lead to the destruction of the private schools. The fundamental issue was the potential which the law had for interfering with the personal liberty of the citizen. Regarding the tariff, the debate focused on whether or not the United States should have free trade, or a protective tariff.
It was in the effort to reach out to the Effingham County German population that John P. Altgeld established a positive relationship with the local electorate, a relationship which would bring him first to this area in 1892 and then again in 1896 when he spoke at the Effingham County Courthouse. He was also a Democrat, a trait which increased his favorability rating even more with many people in the county.
Altgeld had risen to be contender for the governorship by working himself through the political ranks. After studying law in Savannah, Missouri, the 22-year-old Prussian-born young man was admitted to the Bar. In 1872, he ran for the office of Prosecuting Attorney in Andrews County, Missouri, but lost by four votes. Two years later, he was elected to the same position, an office from which he resigned in 1875 in order to move to Chicago. In a short time, he amassed a fortune of over $1 million and also had a reputation as a major player in the affairs in the “great metropolis of the West.” By 1884, he was politically powerful enough to be nominated as a candidate for Congress. Although it was a losing effort, he continued in the political realm and was elected Judge of the Superior Court of Cook County in 1886, a post which added to his reputation and led him to the 1892 gubernatorial race. To many, his quest seemed to be one lacking in a sense of reality because no Democrat had won the Illinois’ governorship since 1856. Those who doubted his chances simply did not understand the political prowess of the son of Prussian immigrants.
Judge Altgeld had a winning strategy all worked out. He put together, almost perfectly, a grand organization in which he had political lieutenants in nearly every town. By the day of election, those local leaders knew almost exactly how many votes each locality would provide for the Cook County judge’s final tally. He also made personal contact with the voters by visiting the various counties of the State of Illinois.
One newspaper account described the way in which the local visits were carried out:
“When he enters a city, he does not confine himself to interviews with the leaders and prominent members of the party, but without any bluster or fuss goes among the shops and chats to the workingmen like a plain, every-day sort of a man. He never fails to call upon every German minister, and quickly enlists his favor through the school law question, which is proving such a Republican boomerang. A German is always drawn to another German and the memory of the ‘vaterland’ is a tie that never breaks. Judge Altgeld interests himself in the affairs of each German church and parish and when he leaves has a warm supporter in the minister, and through his influence substantially a solid endorsement of the Germans in that town.” The 1892 visit to Altamont demonstrated that winning strategy.
In the days leading up to Oct. 14 in the year Altgeld was elected governor, the people for miles around Altamont began planning their visit to the political rally which seemed to many to be like one typically extended only to members of a visiting royal family. In Moccasin, Blue Point, Beecher City, Effingham and Teutopolis, special delegations were assembled to attend the Cook County judge’s speech, which Democrats hoped would bind together all people of Germanic origin.
Although dry weather that fall had created a great problem with dust, people still came by wagon from distances as great as 30 miles. When they arrived in the town, they were literally covered by dust from head to foot. One writer stated that “when they got in town, the people looked like they had spent their days in a flouring mill or lime kiln.” But the crowd was still of huge size. Altamont’s streets were jammed. The sidewalks were overflowing with people. The same could be said of the stores. Although there was no way to accurately count the number, local newspaper accounts indicated that somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people had come to listen to the man who would become governor of the Prairie State.
Altgeld’s speech was one which, although plain, was powerful in effect as he covered the major issues of the day. The crowd’s enthusiasm for what they heard was clear to every observer. Effingham County’s German population was going to vote for the man who shared their cultural interests.
After the keynote speech, Carl Herting of Chicago addressed the crowd by speaking to them in the native tongue of the “Vaterland.” The day’s activities continued into the evening hours with a torchlight parade followed by speeches delivered by local, or area, political figures, such as Flora’s General Parsons, Vandalia’s W.M. Farmer, and Effingham’s E.N. Rinehart. To the delight of the crowd, Altgeld joined the festivities by offering a brief five-minute address. Singing groups from Altamont, Teutopolis, Effingham and Jackson township provided musical entertainment for the well-received affair.
John Peter Altgeld went on to defeat the incumbent Gov. Joseph Fifer, 425,558 to 402,676 votes. To historian Charles Church, a major factor in Altgeld’s victory was the defection of many Germans who had voted for Republicans in earlier elections.
The German-immigrant governor became a nationally known figure during the next four years. In 1893, he pardoned three anarchists who had been convicted as a result of their involvement, or influence, in the notorious Haymarket Square riot, during which several Chicago policemen died when someone tossed a bomb into their midst. There was a strong public reaction against the governor’s action. In fact, many branded him as an anarchist who was undermining the justice system.
The next year, in 1894, Altgeld was back in the national news when he clashed with President Grover Cleveland in the debate over the best way to handle the violence associated with the Pullman Strike. Contrary to Altgeld’s ideas, the federal government sent troops into Chicago to enforce an injunction directed against the American Railway Union. The Illinois governor believed that such strong intervention was unnecessary, that, in fact the federal intervention was unconstitutional.
Those two incidents led to a national notoriety which served to shape a negative public opinion against the former Prussian. Those who supported his several reform-minded measures, such as a women’s eight-hour law, an act prohibiting discrimination against union members, and a factory inspection law, often had serious reservations about the wisdom demonstrated by the governor both in the Haymarket Square pardon and in the Pullman Strike.
The 1896 political season served to demonstrate whether Altgeld still had the ability to create another winning strategy. The 1896 election also brought Altgeld back to Effingham County; this time to the courthouse steps on Oct. 13.
Early in October, as Altgeld was running for re-election, he showed that he believed he needed to return to his 1892 strategy. He visited many towns to restore his support from four years earlier. From all appearances, it seemed that the support was still there. For example, on Oct. 6, nearly 25,000 overcrowded the streets of Mt. Vernon to hear him speak. The rally drew spectators from a wide area, including many from Salem and Centralia. The day after the Mt. Vernon success, however, Altgeld got a rather “chilly reception” at Quincy, where only 3,000 or 4,000 came to listen to his appeals.
On Oct. 9, a portrait of Altgeld appeared in the Effingham Democrat, a local newspaper, announcing that the governor would be in town on Tuesday, Oct. 13, at the courthouse at 1:30 p.m.
The special train carrying the governor’s party traveled on a hurried schedule across southern Illinois as he visited Robinson, Lawrenceville, Mt. Carmel, Eldorado, Vienna, Mound City and Cairo. On the morning of Oct. 13, the “special” train had allowed the governor to talk to voters in East St. Louis, Collinsville, Greenville and St. Elmo, as the politically astute German steamed toward the county where so many people had shown great enthusiasm almost exactly four years earlier.
The weather, once again, presented a potential problem. This time it was not the issue of dry weather creating massive dust, but rather, how to deal with the rain which began to fall beginning on Saturday and continuing until Tuesday morning, the day of the speech. Then, almost as on cue, at 10 in the morning, the sun began to dominate the sky and a marvelous warm fall day resulted. The beautiful weather seemed also to be an almost providential sign that a warm welcome was awaiting Governor Altgeld in Effingham’s county seat.
The progressive and controversial chief executive of Illinois saw nothing in the city which indicated that his popularity had waned since 1892. From the time he arrived at the depot at 1 p.m. where 1,500 people awaited him, through the time of thunderous cheering as he was escorted along Banker and Jefferson streets to the courthouse square, until he finally stood on the steps of the center of county government, Altgeld was the recipient of massive affection from the citizenry of this county. Some estimated that upwards of 10,000 had assembled to hear the governor. He was, however, working within the confines of a strict time schedule — within one hour, his train had to leave the community. That meant there would be no music, or any other type of entertainment which frequently were part of political rallies.
Local political leader, Judge Gilmore, introduced the governor. Great cheers greeted him; then, for half an hour, the son of immigrants spoke to the respectful crowd. A local correspondent described the speech as “masterful,” and as one which “showed that the speaker felt every word he uttered.”
When Altgeld finished, other speakers moved onto the courthouse steps to continue building support for the Democratic candidate. One politician, a Mr. L.E. Williams from Pittsfield, spoke for two hours, concluding long after the “special” train had departed from the Effingham depot.
The rally continued into the evening hours with political leaders from area towns, such as Mattoon and Hillsboro. The huge crowd remained. No one could doubt that this German immigrant was highly revered in Effingham County.
But the larger question was whether or not that veneration was representative of the whole State of Illinois. In a matter of a few weeks, the November election revealed the answer. The Republican John Tanner from Clay County was elected by a plurality of 113,381 votes. The Republicans elected their entire state ticket, won majorities in both houses of the state legislature, and won 18 of the 22 congressional seats.
It was a stunning defeat for Altgeld and his fellow Democrats. In the aftermath of the election, the German immigrant faded from the public scene as his popularity waned. When, in 1899, he ran as an independent candidate for the post of mayor of Chicago, he finished third in a field of three. He did play a major role in securing William Jennings Bryan’s second nomination for the Presidency only to see that candidacy also suffer defeat.
On March 12, 1902, John P. Altgeld died. To many analysts, it seemed that the public had rejected the political leader because of his involvement in championing liberal causes. The great enthusiasm shown by Effingham County citizens as they gathered on and around the courthouse square had not reflected the views held by the majority of the Illinois electorate.