Commentary Magazine


The Guns of Lattimer, by Michael Novak

Silent Americans

The Guns of Lattimer.
by Michael Novak.
Basic Books. 276 pp. $10.95.

Unlike its counterparts in other Western democracies, the American labor movement has never embraced revolutionary ideologies calling for the ultimate transformation of the economic order. And yet, ironically enough, trade unions in this country encountered far more intense opposition to their struggle for social legitimacy than did the organized labor movements of practically every other democratic nation. For the early capitalist entrepreneurs, the challenge posed by the unions transcended the obvious issues of economic self-interest; as historian Lewis Lorwin observed, the employees of the late 19th and early 20th centuries fought the unions “with [the] conviction of serving a cause.” They were encouraged to maintain the hard line by a dominant political and social structure that was permeated with an antiunion animus. Newspapers, particularly the largest and most influential, routinely characterized unions as violence-prone, subversive of democratic values, and motivated by foreign ideas and individuals. More crucial than the bias of the press were the policies of government officials. Every branch of government—but especially and most significantly the law-enforcement agencies—was hostile to the emerging trade-union movement. In fact, the principal reason for the existence of many state militias was the maintenance of industrial peace, which in practice often meant intervening in strikes on the side of business.

Given the lethal combination of worker outrage over the degrading conditions of early industrialism and the self-righteous unwillingness to compromise of the capitalist class, it is hardiy surprising that the history of the American labor movement is filled with incidents of violence and bloodshed. One of the most tragic—and senseless—occurred on September 10, 1897, when a sheriff’s posse opened fire on a group of striking coal miners at Lattimer, a mining hamlet near Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The details of the Lattimer massacre are the stuff legends are made of: seldom has there been such a clear-cut case of powerful economic interests combining with cooperative civil authorities in an effort to crush a workers’ movement.

The miners were, of course, among the most wretched of the industrial workforce. They lived in ramshackle houses near the pits, suffered the exploitation of the company-store system, and were subject to a wage system—they were paid by the amount of coal extracted rather than by the hours spent on the job—that exacted an economic penalty for any minutes devoted to the construction of safety equipment.

Until the shooting broke out, the strike had been almost completely free of violence; nor had mine property been destroyed. Radicalism was not an issue: John Fahy, the United Mineworkers official who organized the anthracite district, was politically moderate and tactically conservative; he was more concerned with building a strong union than with precipitating futile and unnecessary confrontations with the owners. At Fahy’s insistence, the miners refrained from carrying weapons; the eyewitness accounts of the massacre agreed that the deputies’ barrage was unprovoked. Indeed, subsequent evidence showed that most of the deadmen were shot in the back as they fled from the initial volley. As for the deputies, almost all were connected by relation or occupation with the coal companies; their attitudes—or at least the attitudes of a crucial minority—were reflected by one of their number, Alonzo Dodson, who declared before the confrontation that deputies “ought to get so much a head for shooting down these strikers.” When the gunfire ended, some deputies roamed around the massacre site, kicking and cursing the dying and wounded; others bragged as they rode back to town about how many miners they had brought down.

Nineteen miners were killed and another sixty wounded. Measured by the standard of sheer loss of life, Lattimer ranks among the half-dozen or so greatest tragedies in American labor history. More men were killed in five minutes at Lattimer than died in the Homestead or Pullman strikes, or in the 1937 Chicago Memorial Day massacre, or the auto-industry organizing drive during the 1930’s.

Yet Lattimer has until now been ignored by historians, including labor specialists and those who have written studies of American violence. Even in its own time, the shooting failed to capture wide popular interest; a campaign to raise a charity fund for the victims’ widows brought in a pitiful $4,000.

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It is Michael Novak’s thesis that Lattimer has been forgotten because of the ethnicity of the victims. All of the dead were Slavs, “the most silent, the most invisible, Americans,” according to Novak. For Novak, race and ethnicity have exerted far greater influence on the shaping of the American character than class differences; he believes, further, that this was the case even in the days when workers fought the representatives of capital with fists, clubs, and guns. He asserts:

The tragic destiny of America is hidden in its virtue. Its founders, so noble and enlightened in countless ways, suffered from racial blindness in the largest sense: those of Northern European culture have imagined themselves to be superior to other races of any color, including white. Moral in so many ways, they have found reason even in their moral virtue for feeling superior. Every other race feels this whip.

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So sweeping a conclusion is at best debatable, particularly when one examines the level of racial tolerance in other societies. But it is not difficult to understand how Novak could reach such a judgment; unquestionably the Slavs were feared and despised by the English-speaking natives of Pennsylvania’s coal region. The Guns of Lattimer is in fact a powerful indictment of a dominant group’s prejudice against a minority of foreigners who were industrious, law-abiding, and prepared to adhere to democratic norms. (Many Slavic miners endured their harsh existence with one goal in mind: to save enough money to bring the rest of their family to America.) Contempt for the Slavs, Poles, and Italian immigrants was not limited to the mine owners; it touched every segment of the English-speaking population, including workingmen. So strong were nativist feelings in Pennsylvania that the state legislature passed a resolution labeling the new wave of immigrants as “an ignorant and vicious class” and enacted laws relegating foreigners to the most dangerous, unpleasant, and poorly paid jobs in the mines.

The attitudes of the state’s economic and civic elite were no better than those of the state legislators. Unlike the working classes, the distinguished representatives of what Novak calls “the ruling race of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” felt no economic threat from the new immigrants, and in the case of the industrialists, actually profited from the Slavs’ willingness to hire cheap. But if the workingmen and farmers were simple bigots in their attitude to the Slavs, the elite could be characterized as enlightened nativists. General John Gobin, who commanded the National Guard brigade dispatched to Hazleton in the shooting’s aftermath, described the Slavs as “dull to fear and indifferent to death” and suggested that they were quite capable of scheming to overthrow the American government. (Gobin was later to serve as lieutenant governor.) More appalling was the conduct of the defense during the trial of the ninety-odd deputies, all of whom were indicted for murder. The defense conceded almost all of the prosecution’s arguments; with the overwhelming weight of the evidence against them, the two attorneys simply resorted to the crudest form of Slav-baiting. To defense attorney Henry W. Palmer, one of the region’s wealthiest and most respected men, the miners were a “barbarian horde”; his co-counsel asserted that “the history of the Hun and the Slav in the old country is that of mischief and destruction. . . . No home was too sacred . . . or virgin too pure for their assault.” When the jury—all English-speaking natives—returned a not-guilty verdict, the press mostly praised the outcome, asserting, in a typical phrase, that the judgment represented “a triumph for order and civilization.”

However, justice was not entirely denied the miners. The strike was at least partially successful: the owners, who had earlier vowed to shut down their operations before they would accede to the union demands, were forced to grant concessions when the miners held out after the massacre. Moreover, it was the United Mineworkers which learned the most important lessons from the events of 1897. Where once the union had acquiesced in the nativist prejudices of its English-speaking members by supporting an alien tax on immigrant workers, it now made a determined effort to enlist Italian and Slavic workers. Between 1897 and 1902, the union grew from 40,000 to 200,000 members. And in 1902, the UMW, after a difficult strike, won the right to organize and negotiate for its members, an achievement that marked a major breakthrough for American trade unions.

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Although Michael Novak’s sympathies clearly lie with the union and immigrant workers, he is sensitive to the complexities of human character and to the moral ambiguities dictated by class and ethnicity. A self-described “democratic capitalist” and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Novak is generally well served by his political convictions in an area where scholarship often takes a back seat to sentimentalism and ideology. He is, however, overgenerous to the mine owners. True enough, the entrepreneurs who built the American industrial system were tough-minded, shrewd, industrious, and in some cases visionary, but that is hardly justification for describing the mine owners as “intelligent, active, farseeing, admirable people . . . bold men and women [who] transformed a wilderness into a vast source of power and wealth, not only for themselves, but for the entire nation and the world.” Novak’s own account of the events surrounding the Lattimer tragedy suggests that a common characteristic of the owners was a studied and rather callous disregard for the well-being of their employees.

In the United States, ethnic consciousness, the rise of industrialism, and the development of the labor movement have often combined to produce an explosive and tragic chemistry. In addition to providing a work that is gripping as literature and rich in historical detail, Michael Novak reminds us that the clash of these forces was part of a process which eventually expanded democratic opportunities for immigrant working people. The raw injustice of the shooting and trial is a galling memory of the worst aspects of early industrialism. But as Novak notes, the American future was to hold better things for the descendants of the Lattimer martyrs:

America has yielded them the one significant form of equality: not love, and perhaps not even respect, but at least room to work. Given this gift, they could break free from centuries of serfdom. Of those killed and wounded at Lattimer, the descendants are now spread to the winds. For all we know, they or their children may surpass in talent and achievement the children of [those] who in 1897 represented privilege.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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