Title Reviewed:
Altgeld's America: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities

Author Reviewed:
Ray Ginger

Walter B. Hendrickson


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 45, Issue 1, pp 102-103

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

Altgeld's America: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities. By Ray Ginger. (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1958. Pp. 376. Bibliography, index. $4.95.)

Through a penetrating analysis of the men and events in the history of Chicago during the decades from 1885 to 1905, sometime Hoosier Ray Ginger tells the story of the testing of American ideals at the turn of the century when the Lincoln ideal of the dignity of man and equality of opportunity came face to face with industrialism and the struggle for private fortunes. Here, in microcosm, is the whole struggle of free enterprise against monopoly, of labor against capital, of democracy against bossism, of human rights against property rights. Mr. Ginger writes tautly and with objective compassion about people, great and small, who are caught up by forces they cannot control—the Haymarket anarchists; the women and children, and men, too, who worked in the packing houses and sweat shops, hired and fired as though they were automatons; and the ward bosses who accepted bribes from utility companies.

He writes about the merchants, industrialists, lawyers, and street railway magnates—Field, Pullman, Armour, and Yerkes; the politicians and boodlers—Carter Harrison, "Hinky Dink" Kenna, and "Bathouse" John Coughlin. They and others did what they thought best for themselves and saw no conflict between their interests and those of the public. They sweated their employees but contributed generously to provide Christmas baskets for the poor; they wrested favorable franchises from the city council and, at the same time, established the Chicago Art Institute and patronized the Symphony.

Mr. Ginger shows the other side of the society of the time, too—he tells of those who fought, and sometimes won, the battle of the individual against increasingly powerful and impersonal economic forces: of Jane Addams and Hull House, Florence Kelley and factory inspection, Clarence Darrow and the reform of the criminal law, Thorstein Veblen and philosophic condemnation of conspicuous consumption, Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair and literary social criticism, Peter Altgeld and pardon for the Haymarket anarchists, and William Rainey Harper and Chicago University.

But, for Mr. Ginger, there is no absolute black and white; as he finds good and bad in his villains, so he finds clay feet on his heroes. Darrow the champion of labor took legal fees from business tycoons, Veblen and Sinclair criticized the status quo so savagely that they are looked upon as mad dogs, and Jane Addams accepted contributions from the very men who refused to support social legislation advocated by her.

In conclusion, Ginger finds that while American society has changed in many material ways in the last fifty years, yet there has been little spiritual change. The struggle to make money and get ahead in the world still goes on, and Ginger feels there is no other goal for the modern American. Ray Ginger's volume is more than a competent history of an era in one city; it is a call for Americans to understand themselves today by taking a long, sharp look at their past.

MacMurray College Walter B. Hendrickson

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.