The Steps by Which I Became a Progressive, September-October 1912

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When I try to write down the steps by which I became a Progressive, I am inclined to trace them first to the gradual discovery that philanthropic effort everywhere, is merging into civic effort. In fact the line between philanthropy and politics is so constantly changing that it is very difficult to know when the given step has been taken, which carried one from the first field into the second.

To illustrate from my own experience: When I first went to live at Hull-House in 1889, one of the most [conspicuous] things upon the streets were the women and children who constantly passed with huge masses of clothing on their backs or in their arms, which they were carrying from the sweatshops. This clothing disappeared into the dark halls and up the narrow stairways of tenement houses to be finished in crowded little homes where the entire family sewed upon it late into the following night. But because the season was so short and the pay so small in spite of their utmost efforts they never earned enough to tide them through the long, dull season which followed the period of rush work; and the poor widow who had taken home work so that she might be with her children and have their help, always had to receive charitable aid because her pay was far below a living standard. When Hull-House, with the trade unions of Chicago began an agitation for a law which should regulate sweat-shops and the age at which a child might begin to work, it was these underpaid women and their undernourished children whom we hoped to help. We had found that there were too many of them, the effects of their wretched mode of life were too far-reaching to be cared for by any private philanthropy, and were convinced that only a state-wide [page 2] regulation could make an impression upon the situation.

It is difficult for me to remember just when I became convinced that it was useless to provide classes and social diversions for working girls who were too tired to profit by them, because of the overstrain due to long hours and night work; but it was certainly many years ago, in 1893, that I was one of an ardent group who appeared before the Illinois Legislature to urge the enactment of an eight-hour law for women. During the winter of its enforcement, the Hull-House classes were full of working girls, glad to use their new leisure for self-improvement; and their disappointment remains in my mind as one of the sharp, definite results which followed the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court that the law was unconstitutional.

I could go on through many pages reciting my experiences as I "learned of life," to use Dante's fine phrase, and became convinced that only the people themselves, by utilizing their own powers of self-government could rectify the evils which the rapid development of modern industry and the crowded city had brought about. Long before I knew that two million people in the United States are compelled to do Sunday work I was distressed over the hundreds of men in our neighborhood who never had a day off for family life or for quiet recreation; these men seemed an illustration of the sheer stupidity of consuming all of life's energies in order to keep alive.

Hull-House is not in a criminal neighborhood, and yet we have our share of convicts whose labor adds to the profits of prison contractors while their families suffer. The shame and wrong of such an arrangement was made clear through personal acquaintance with those families who faced actual want in [page 3] order to hide their disgrace, for they would not apply to established charities lest the family secret be discovered.

I knew hundreds of other families in which the bread-winner had been crippled and killed through industrial accidents, before I realized that in older and wiser nations such families are cared for through a well devised system of social insurance.

I have always been particularly appealed to by forlorn old age, and Hull-House has always had a pension list of old people who had reached the end of their working strength and yet could not bring themselves to go to the poor-house. Nothing is more pitiful than this premature old age which comes so swiftly to the man who has gone to work too young and has worked too hard throughout his life. More than one case whom we have sent to the hospital has been diagnosed as premature senility although the man was still in the forties and once or twice in the thirties. But not private philanthropy, not even with the fine help of the Associated Charities of Chicago, can begin to care for these old people in their homes as they should be cared for; only some system of old age pensions, such as the Germans have, can make an impression on the situation.

For all of these reasons, and many more, I was gradually driven from philanthropic efforts to political action. I was glad to appear before one session of the Legislature after another to urge improvements of our child labor law, and I was grateful for every bit of remedial legislation which Illinois placed upon its Statute books; the improved factory code which protected men from unguarded machinery and the more obvious industrial diseases; the ten hour law secured largely through [page 4] the efforts of the working girls themselves and finally sustained by the Supreme Court and much else. Of course we all rejoiced in the splendid legislation of Wisconsin, but after all, taking the country as a whole it was pretty discouraging and one constantly felt the futility of detached and partial effort.

I found myself a member of one National body and another, which was organized to secure concerted action such as The National Child Labor Committee and The League for Labor Legislation. Many times I felt that what was needed was a great cause which should pull together the detached groups in the various states that they might not only work simultaneously for the same things in many States but that they might have the help and backing of the Federal Government itself.

I should say therefore that the second step or series of steps, the discovery that partial effort was of necessity ineffective, led to the third; the conviction that groups of people also were filled with the same social compunctions, and who knew that the social legislation of America was falling behind the rest of the world, needed the help and energy of all other intelligent and conscientious people in the nation. It was the necessity to place these questions before the entire country, and make them into a coherent political program.

It is not surprising therefore that many of the people who had long been working for social legislation, at once identified themselves with the Progressive Party. "Born of the people's hard necessities," it was organized to consider great human needs, and to recommend well-tried legislation for their relief. Its founders insisted upon those implements of direct government -- the initiative and referendum, through which alone all the people may participate in legislative discussion; and they furthermore urged the extension [page 5] of the franchise to women that women may bear a full share in the solution of these grave, social problems which America has been so slow to connect with governmental action.

The candidates of the Progressive Party, are not only committed to these measures of social justice, but one of them through his long experience has learned the value of Federal action and has come to stand to the nation as a representative of its own nationalism. The other, having demonstrated the power for righteousness inherent in the State, has come to represent the potency of the State. Certainly only through Nation and State, reacting upon each other, can we ever attain a code of legislation fitted to control the abuse of our industrial system and to maintain a standard of living which we shall be proud to call American.