Lyman Trumbull in the Pullman Strike
Lyman Trumbull is noted in American political history for his relationship with Lincoln, his Radical Republican influence in the Senate, and his authorship of the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of his long life as a member of America's political elite, however, he took the case of Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs, who appealed his conviction for violating a federal injunction in the 1894 Pullman railroad strike. Subsequently, Trumbull re-emerged politically as a fiery, if elderly, champion of "the laboring masses" in support of the newly formed People's party in the elections of 1894. On the surface, that last significant political act of a "grand old man" of nineteenth-century politics appears incongruous, even incomprehensible. He was, after all, a famous member of a class of people whose interests would appear to be quite the opposite of those of the Pullman strikers. His defense of Debs is seldom even mentioned in most history books, perhaps because this last act seemed perhaps so distant from his original historical significance as a Radical Republican. How do we explain it? There is actually a certain consistency in Trumbull's political positions that can be seen as a logical transition throughout the decades of his long public life.
Trumbull began his political career as a local rival of Abraham Lincoln. Their differences centered on slavery; Trumbull tended to be less extreme on the issue than his fellow Illinoisan. Yet Trumbull took an active part in antislavery agitation in the late 1830s and 40s in opposition to local popular opinion. Illinois was politically a nonslave state, but blacks were held virtually as slaves by the system of indenture, a system he believed was illegal. Trumbull devoted much of his time to cases involving that practice, though they offered little money or political gain. With Trumbull's election to the U.S. Senate in 1855, he joined political forces with Lincoln, and the two men remained close allies until Lincoln's death.
During the Civil War, Trumbull was one of the Republican party's leaders and strongly supportive of Lincoln against congressional opposition. Trumbull's other important political act during this period was his authorship of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. He was also active in promoting the Freedmen's Bureau and in introducing a bill recognizing the civil rights of black people as equal to those of whites. He seemed especially concerned that the freedmen be given homesteads of their own, because "so long as the relation of employer and employee existed between the blacks and the whites, there would always be a dependent population," as historian Arthur Robertson wrote. His philosophy can perhaps be seen as an early indication of the general development of his protective attitude toward employees and his distrust of monopolies.
Although generally regarded as a Radical Republican during the war, Trumbull gradually became more protective of the rights of the South during the Reconstruction era. Over time, he drifted away from the Radical Republicans and into the ranks of the Democrats. His name appeared on the Democratic ticket when he ran for governor of Illinois in 1880. During his last campaign for public office he became acquainted with Illinois' newly established factories and urban labor force. It was perhaps that experience, at age 75, that provides the immediate link between his early antislavery efforts and his concern over the struggles of the new urban labor class against the excessive power of wealth and monopoly.
During the latter years of the nineteenth century, working men fought for their rights through unionization. In June 1893 one of America's early industrial labor unions, the American Railway Union, was founded by Eugene V. Debs to unite railway labor into a single organization. A few months later, the wages of workers in the Pullman Works were reduced, which in turn led the Pullman workers to join the American Railway Union in April 1894. When Pullman refused to negotiate, the workers voted to strike. Local, state, and federal politicians got involved. On the grounds of protecting the United States mail. President Cleveland ordered fedral troops to the site of the dispute to enforce a federal injunction. By August the strike was over, but Debs was convicted of violating the federal injunction. Trumbull, at age 89, volunteered to help argue the case without compensation before the Supreme Court. Although he and Clarence Darrow did not win the case, they brought the question of organized labor's legal rights to national attention.
After the trial, Trumbull made his last important speech at the mammoth Central Music Hall of Chicago to signal his formal political conversion to the People's party, an alliance between farmers and urban workers. Clarence Darrow's introduction of Trumbull the night of October 6, 1894, was probably more accurate than even Darrow realized at the time:
It is my pleasure and honor to first introduce a man who has been many times honored with high positions of trust, and in spite of all this has always honored his State in return, a man who during his
whole life has been the friend of human freedom, a man who has been too consistent to bind himself irretrievably to any party, a man whose life has been consistent, consistent in its devotion to truth and to justice.
Between 1865 and 1890 America had been transformed from an agrarian nation of free men and slaves to an industrialized nation in which the major form of slavery was that of the "wage-slave" of the industrial revolution. Trumbull's stand against the paternalistic capitalist, George Pullman, and monopolies in general shows the same basic impulses that had led him to his anti-slavery stand decades before. Whether it is the individual rights of slaves or workers, against monopolistic slave owners or industrial monopolists, Trumbull was consistent in his defense of individual human rights against the powers that employed the worker, be he or she a black slave from Africa or an immigrant laborer from Europe. Trumbull's later years may be neglected by historians because they do not see the consistency in his actions. His farewell to public life as a populist and a defender of Eugene Debs shows us the same Trumbull of old. Trumbull had not changed; America had.—[From Mark M. Krug, Lyman Trumbull; Almont Lindsey, The Pullman Strike; Arthur H. Robertson, "The Political Career of Lyman Trumbull," Master's thesis, University of Chicago, 1910; Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel; and Horace White, The Life of Lyman Trumbull.]