‘The Peculiar American Stamp’

Novels, 1875-1886

by William Dean Howells
The Library of America, 1,232 pp., $25.00
William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells; drawing by David Levine


On May 1, 1886, American workers in general and Chicago’s workers in particular decided that the eight-hour work-day was an idea whose time had come. Workers demonstrated; and a number of factories were struck. Management responded in kind. At McCormick Reaper strikers were replaced by “scabs.” On May 3, when the scabs left the factory at the end of a long traditional workday, they were mobbed by the strikers. Chicago’s police promptly opened fire and America’s gilded age looked to be cracking open.

The next night, in Haymarket Square, the anarchists held a meeting presided over by the mayor of Chicago. A thousand workers listened to many thousands of highly incendiary words. But all was orderly until His Honor went home; then the police “dispersed” the meeting with that tact which has ever marked Hog-city’s law-enforcement officers. At one point, someone (never identified) threw a bomb: a number of policemen and workers were killed or wounded. Subsequently, there were numerous arrests and in-depth grillings.

Finally, more or less at random, eight men were indicted for “conspiracy to murder.” There was no hard evidence of any kind. One man was not even in town that day while another was home playing cards. By and large, the great conservative Republic felt no compassion for anarchists, even the ones who had taken up the revolutionary game of bridge; worse, an eight-hour workday would drive a stake through the economy’s heart.

On August 20, a prejudiced judge and jury found seven of the eight men guilty of murder in the first degree; the eighth man (who had not been in town that night) got fifteen years in the slammer because he had a big mouth. The anarchists’ counsel, Judge Roger A. Pryor, then appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court.

During the short hot summer of 1886, the case was much discussed. The peculiar arbitrariness of condemning to death men whom no one had seen commit a crime but who had been heard, at one time or another, to use “incendiary and seditious language” was duly noted in bookish circles. Yet no intellectual of the slightest national importance spoke up. Of America’s famous men of letters, Mark Twain maintained his habitual silence on any issue where he might, even for an instant, lose the love of the folks. Henry James was in London, somewhat shaken by the recent failure of not only The Bostonians but The Princess Casamassima. The sad young man of The Princess Casamassima is an anarchist, who has had, like James himself that year, “more news of life than he knew what to do with.” Although Henry Adams’s education was being conducted that summer in Japan, he had made, the previous year, an interesting comment on the American political system—or lack of one:

Where no real principle divides us,…some queer mechanical balance holds the two parties even, so that…

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