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Sometimes mistakenly branded as "one of those German revolutionists of 1848," Altgeld was born in southern Germany December 30, 1847. His family arrived in a farming community of Richmond County, Ohio when he was three months. After serving as a substitute in the Civil War at the age of sixteen, Altgeld was filled with new aspirations and ambitions that prompted him to travel west where he soon would enjoy a rapid rise in American politics.
Algeld was the governor of Illinois during a very important period in its history. He is best known for pardoning the three surviving Haymarket defendants and quashing some of the labor unrest of the 1890s. Barnard described Altgeld as a "law and order" governor during the Pullman strike. Altgeld encouraged labor to strengthen itself through organization, however, he would not tolerate any threat of violence on the part of labor agitators. Altgeld also palyed a pivitol role in the 1896 Democratic convention. Barnard maintained that every plank in the 1896 Dmocratic platform was revolutionary and entirely the achievement of the Illinois governor.
Barnard presented a clearly-written account of John Peter Altgeld's political career. He effectively placed Altgeld within the context of the general issues facing the nation. These issues included the Granger movement, economic depressions, the labor question, and the debate over currency.
In considering Altgeld's role within the general history of the United States in the 1890s, one can find many problems with Barnard's analysis. Barnard credited Altgeld for the demise of President Cleveland, however, the 1893 depression and Cleveland's role in the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act were, most likely, more instrumental in the decline of Cleveland's influence in the party then were his ongoing tiffs with Altgeld. Cleveland's defense of the gold standard alienated him from the southern core of the Democratic party. Moreover, Barnard admitted that Altgeld cared little for the currency question until 1894. Altgeld may have dominated the 1896 platform; however, he was unable to prevent the nomination of William Jennings Bryan (Altgeld supported Richard Park of Missouri). In addition, the role of the Illinois governor may have been elevated because the convention was held in Chicago.
Barnard presented convincing arguments to refute a number of traditionally held views regarding Altgeld. Chief among these views was the belief that the Haymarket pardons ruined Altgeld's political career. Barnard clearly demonstrated that Altgeld remained very strong in the Democratic party during the 1896 convention. He cites poor health, a desire to leave politics, and the hard work spent on Bryan's presidential campaign at the expense of the gubernatorial race for Altgeld's failure to gain re-election. The fact that Altgeld died only eight years after the pardons may make it difficult to access the actual effect the pardons had on his career.
The biography is, for the most part, well-written with an excellent use of primary sources; however, it is often overburdened by long quotations which interupt the flow of the reading. An exchange of these long quotes for more information on Altgeld's day-to-day gubernatorial record would make this work more complete. Still, it is an essential source of information on an important figure in American Progressivism.
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If you're interested in Soviet History than I recommend Brian Crozier's The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire.
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