Altgeld and Anarchism


 "Leader Altgeld and His Mask"
  Cartoonist:  William Allen Rogers
  Source:  Harper's Weekly
  Date:   July 18, 1896, p. 697

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Complete HarpWeek Explanation:
This cover cartoon for the Harper’s Weekly issue reporting results of the 1896 Democratic National Convention gives a dire warning to voters. It portrays presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan on a silver coin as a mask for the evil intensions of Governor John Peter Altgeld of Illinois. “Repudiation” on Altgeld’s headband refers to the Democratic platform’s explicit rejection of “monometallism,” the use of one precious metal—gold—to give value to paper currency. Cartoonist W. A. Rogers, Harper's Weekly editor Carl Schurz, and other gold-standard supporters opposed free silver and similar inflationist monetary plans on the grounds that it would be detrimental to the national economy and, in turn, undermine social stability. However, they considered the Democratic promotion of free silver to be part of a more encompassing embrace of a radical agenda, signified in the cartoon by the torch labeled “anarchy”—a catchall term for socialism, communism, nihilism, or any type of political radicalism.

In particular, Bryan’s opponents criticized what they called the “anarchy plank” of the Democratic platform, which indirectly condemned federal intervention in the Pullman strike of 1894. That walkout brought transportation to a standstill in Chicago and interrupted postal delivery and interstate commerce as the strike spread nationally under the leadership of union president Eugene Debs. Against the objections of Governor Altgeld, the Cleveland administration secured an injunction against the strikers from a federal judge and the president ordered federal troops to protect transit of the U.S. mail and operation of the railroads generally. As a result, Debs was jailed and the administration’s actions broke the strike. Cleveland argued that the federal intervention was constitutionally justified by presidential emergency powers.

By contrast, the 1896 Democratic platform contended that such “arbitrary interference by Federal authorities in local affairs” was a violation of the constitutional rights of states and individual citizens. It advocated trial by jury in cases of contempt against the federal courts (as in the case of Debs when he ignored the injunction). Throughout the 1896 campaign, supporters of the Republican ticket associated the Democrats in general and the plank in particular with labor unrest, social anarchy, and states rights. The last issue was a sort of revival of the “bloody shirt” campaigns of previous years, which linked states rights to secession, Civil War, and the suppression of black civil rights.













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