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Governor Altgeld's Protests Against the Use of Federal Troops in Illinois During the Late Strike and the President's Replies.



Hon. Grover Cleveland, President of the United States, Washington, D. C.:

SIR — I am advised that you have ordered Federal troops to go into service in the State of Illinois. Surely, the facts have not been correctly presented to you in this case, or you would not have taken this step, for it is entirely unnecessary, and, as it seems to me, unjustifiable. Waiving all questions of courtesy, I will say that the State of Illinois is not only able to take care of itself, but it stands ready to furnish the Federal Government any assistance it may need elsewhere. Our military force is ample, and consists of as good soldiers as can be found in the country. They have been ordered promptly whenever and wherever they were needed. We have stationed in Chicago alone three Regiments of Infantry, one Battery and one troop of Cavalry, and no better soldiers can be found. They have been ready every moment to go on duty, and have been and are now eager to go into service. But they have not been ordered out, because nobody in Cook County, whether official or private citizen, asked to have their assistance, or even intimated in any way that their assistance was desired or necessary.

So far as I have been advised, the local officials have been able to handle the situation. But if any assistance were needed, the State stood ready to furnish 100 men for every one man required, and stood ready to do so at a moment's notice. Notwithstanding these facts, the Federal Government has been applied to by men who had political and selfish motives for wanting to ignore the State Government. We have just gone through a long coal strike, more extensive here than in any other state, because our soft-coal field is larger than that of any other state. We have now had ten days of the railroad strike, and we have promptly furnished military aid wherever the local officials needed it.


In two instances the United States Marshal for the Southern District of Illinois applied for assistance to enable him to enforce the processes of the United States Court and troops were promptly furnished him and he was assisted in every way he desired. The law has been thoroughly executed, and every man guilty of violating it during the strike has been brought to justice. If the Marshal for the Northern District of Illinois or the authorities of Cook County needed military assistance they had but to ask for it in order to get it from the State.

At present some of our railroads are paralyzed, not by reason of obstructions, but because they cannot get men to operate their trains. For some reason they are anxious to keep this face from the public, and for this purpose they are making an outcry about obstructions, in order to divert attention. Now, I will cite to you two examples which illustrate the situation:

Some days ago I was advised that the business of one of our railroads was obstructed at two railroad centers, that there was a condition bordering on anarchy there, and I was asked to furnish protection so as to enable the employés of the road to operate the trains. Troops were promptly ordered to both points. Then it transpired that the company had not sufficient men on its line to operate one train. All the old hands were orderly, but refused to go to work. The company had large shops which worked a number of men who did not belong to the Railway Union and who could not run an engine. They were appealed to run the train, but flatly refused. We were obliged to hunt up soldiers who could run an engine and operate a train. Again, two days ago, appeals which were almost frantic came from officials of another road, stating that at an important point on their line trains were forcibly obstructed, and that there was a reign of anarchy at that place, and they asked for protection so that they could move their trains. Troops were put on the ground in a few hours' time, when the officer in command telegraphed me that there was no trouble, and had been none, at that point, but that the road seemed to have no men to run trains, and the sheriff telegraphed that he did not need troops, but would himself move every train if the company would only furnish an engineer. The result was that the troops were there twelve hours before a single train was moved, although there was no attempt at interference by anybody.

It is true that in several instances a road made efforts to work a few green men, and a crowd standing around insulted them and tried to drive them away, and in a few other cases they cut off Pullman sleepers from trains. But all these troubles were local in character and could easily be handled by the State authorities. Illinois has more railroad men than any other State in the Union, but as a rule they are orderly and well-behaved. This is shown by the fact that so very little actual violence has been committed. Only a very small percentage of these men have been guilty of any infractions of the law. The newspaper accounts have in many cases been pure fabrications, and in others wild exaggerations.


I have gone thus into details to show that it is not soldiers that the railroads need so much as it is men to operate trains, and that the conditions do not exist here, which bring the cause within the Federal statutes, a statute that was passed in 1881, and was in reality a war measure. This statute authorized the use of Federal troops in a state whenever it shall be impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States within such states by the ordinary judicial proceedings. Such a condition does not exist in Illinois. There have been a few local disturbances, but nothing that seriously interfered with the administration of justice or that could not be easily controlled by the local or State authorities, for the Federal troops can do nothing that the State troops cannot do.

I repeat that you have been imposed upon in this matter, but even if by a forced construction it were held that the conditions here came within the letter of the statute, then I submit that local self-government is a fundamental principle of our Constitution. Each community shall govern itself so long as it can and is ready and able to enforce the law, and it is in harmony with this fundamental principle that the statute authorizing the President to send troops into states must be construed; especially is this so in matters relating to the exercise of the police power and the preservation of law and order.

To absolutely ignore a local government in matters of this kind, when the local government is ready to furnish assistance needed, and is amply able to enforce the law, not only insults the people of this State by imputing to them an inability to govern themselves, or an unwillingness to enforce the law, but is in violation of a basic principle of our institutions. The question of Federal supremacy is in no way involved. No one disputes it for a moment, but, under our Constitution, Federal supremacy and local self-government must go hand in hand, and to ignore the latter is to do violence to the Constitution.

As Governor of the State of Illinois, I protest against this, and ask the immediate withdrawal of the Federal troops from active duty in this State. Should the situation at any time get so serious that we cannot control it with the State forces, we will promptly ask for Federal assistance, but until such time, I protest, with all due deference, against this uncalled-for reflection upon our people, and again ask the immediate withdrawal of these troops. I have the honor to be, yours respectfully,

Governor of Illinois.



Hon. John P. Altgeld, Governor of Illinois, Springfield, Ill:

SIR: Federal troops were sent to Chicago in strict accordance with the Constitution and laws of the United States, upon the demand of


the post office department that obstruction of the mails should be removed, and upon the representations of the judicial officers of the United States that the process of the Federal courts could not be executed through the ordinary means, and upon competent proof that conspiracies existed against commerce between the States. To meet these conditions, which are clearly within the province of Federal authority, the presence of Federal troops in the city of Chicago was deemed not only proper, but necessary, and there has been no intention of thereby interfering with the plain duty of the local authorities to preserve the peace of the city.



To the Hon. Grover Cleveland, President of the United States. Washington, D. C.:

SIR: Your answer to my protest involves some startling conclusions and ignores and evades the question at issue — that is, that the principle of local self-government is just as fundamental as our institutions as is that of Federal supremacy.

First — You calmly assume that the executive has the legal right to order Federal troops into any community of the United States, in the first instance, whenever there is the slightest disturbance, and that he can do this without any regard to the question as to whether that community is able to and ready to enforce the law itself, and, inasmuch as the executive is the sole judge of the question as to whether any disturbance exists or not in any part of the country, this assumption means that the executive can send Federal troops into any community in the United States at his pleasure and keep them there as long as he chooses. If this is the law, then the principle of self-government either never did exist in this country, or else has been destroyed, for no community can be said to possess local self-government if the executive can, at his pleasure, send military forces to patrol its streets under pretense of enforcing some law. This kind of local self-government that could exist under these circumstances can be found in any of the monarchies of Europe, and it is not in harmony with the spirit of our institutions.

Second — It is also a fundamental principle in our government that except in times of war the military shall be subordinate to the civil authority. In harmony with this provision the State troops are ordered out to act under and with the civil authorities. The troops you have ordered to Chicago are not under the civil authorities and are in no way responsible to them for their conduct. They are not even acting under the United States Marshal or under any federal officer of the State, but are acting directly under military orders issued from military headquarters at Washington and, in so far as these troops act at all, it is military government.


Third — The statute authorizing Federal troops to be sent into states in certain cases contemplates that the State troops shall be taken first. This provision has been ignored and it is assumed that the executive is not bound by it. Federal interference with industrial disturbances in the various states is certainly a new departure, and it opens up so large a field that it will require a very little stretch of authority to absorb to itself all the details of local government.

Fourth — You say that troops were ordered into Illinois upon the demand of the post office department and upon representations of the judicial officers of the United States that process of the courts could not be served, and upon proof that conspiracies existed. We will not discuss the facts, but look for a moment at the principle involved in your statement. All of these officers are appointed by the executive. Most of them can be removed by him at will. They are not only obliged to do his bidding, but they are in fact a part of the executive. If several of them can apply for troops, one alone can: so that under the law, as you assume it to be, an executive, through any one of his appointees, can apply to himself to have the military sent into any city or number of cities, and base his application on such representations as he sees fit to make. In fact, it will be immaterial whether he makes any showing or not; for the executive is the sole judge, and nobody else has any right to interfere or even inquire about it. Then the executive can pass on his own application — his will being the sole guide, he can hold the application to be sufficient, and order troops to as many places as he wishes and put them in command of any one he chooses and have them act, not under the civil officers, either Federal or State, but directly under military orders from Washington, and there is not in the constitution or laws, whether written or unwritten, any limitation or restraint upon his power. His judgment, that is, his will, is the sole guide, and it being purely a matter of discretion, his decision can never be examined or questioned.

This assumption as to the power of the executive is certainly new, and I respectfully submit that it is not the law of the land. The jurists have told us that this is a government of law, and not a government by the caprice of an individual; and, further, instead of being autocratic, it is a government of limited power. Yet the autocrat of Russia could certainly not possess or claim to possess greater power than is possessed by the executive of the United States, if your assumption is correct.

Fifth — The executive has the command not only of the regular forces of all the United States, but of the military forces of all the states, and can order them to any place he sees fit; and as there are always more or less local disturbances over the country, it will be an easy matter under your construction of the law for an ambitious executive to order out the military forces of all the states and establish at once a military government. The only chance of failure in such a movement could come from rebellion, and with such a vast military power at command this could readily be crushed, for, as a rule, soldiers will obey orders.


As for the situation in Illinois, that is of no consequence now compared with the far-reaching principle involved. True, according to my advices, Federal troops have now been on duty for over two days and, although the men were brave and the officers valiant and able, yet their very presence proved to be an irritant because it aroused the indignation of a large class of people, who, while upholding law and order, had been taught to believe in local self-government and therefore resented what they regarded as unwarranted interference.

Inasmuch as the Federal troops can do nothing but what the State troops can do there, and believing that the State is amply able to take care of the situation and to enforce the law, and believing that the ordering out of the Federal troops was unwarranted, I again ask their withdrawal.



Hon. John P. Altgeld, Governor Illinois, Springfield, Ill:

While I am still persuaded that I neither transcended my authority or duty in the emergency that confronts us, it seems to me that in this hour of danger and public distress discussion may as well give way to active effort on the part of all authority to restore obedience to law and protect life and property.