John Peter Altgeld was the first foreign-born governor of Illinois. He was also the only Democrat to be elected during a long era of Republican dominance in the governor's office over fifty-six years between 1856 and 1912. Altgeld was born in the village of Nieder Selters in the state of Hesse in Prussia (now part of Germany) on Dec. 30, 1847. His parents brought John to America when he was a child and they settled on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio.
John lied about his age to join the Union Army in 1864. He almost died of fever while on a campaign with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. After his war service he worked on his father's farm, got additional schooling at a seminary in Ohio, and read for the law while working on a railroad gang in Missouri. In 1874 John was elected district attorney of Andrew County in Missouri but only served a year before resigning to move to Chicago in 1875 where he was the founder of a prosperous law firm that included Clarence Darrow. He returned to Ohio briefly in 1877 to marry Emma Ford.
John ran as a Democrat for Congress in 1884 but lost in a heavy Republican district. He was elected as a judge in Cook County in 1886 and served until 1891. He was successful in both his law practice and in real estate investments in downtown Chicago office buildings including The Unity Building that was completed in 1891. It was sixteen stories tall and was the tallest building in the city at that time.
John was drafted as the Democratic candidate for governor in the election of 1892 and won office as part of a national Democratic sweep that also included the election of Grover Cleveland to his second nonconsecutive term as president defeating Benjamin Harrison and electing Adlai Ewing Stevenson of Bloomington as vice president.
The foreign-born voters in Chicago were important to the election of Altgeld, particularly since almost 25 percent of Chicagoans were German immigrants. Many immigrant voters had resented the arrest and imprisonment of German-American anarchists who were present at the Haymarket riots during the McCormick Harvesting Machine strike in 1886. While the defendants were present with hundreds of others when a bomb killed several police officers, Altgeld, who hated the judge in the case, felt the evidence that these particular Germans were the ones responsible for the crime was very flimsy.
In June 1893, with the city's attention on the Columbian Exposition and World's Fair then in progress, Gov. Altgeld pardoned the Haymarket defendants who were still in jail. The pardons set off another round of national controversy. Feelings ran high against both anarchists and European immigrants in general many of whom were attracted to the anarchist movement. Altgeld was considered to be a national leader in the Progressive Era movement that started in the 1890s and ended just after World War I. He had defeated Republican Gov. Joseph ("Private Joe") Fifer who had strong backing from Civil War veterans active with the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The national GAR has been founded in Decatur in 1866.
During his one eventful term from 1893 to 1897, Altgeld worked with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate during his first two years to enact workplace safety laws and child labor laws. But his agenda slowed during his last two years when Republicans took back majorities in both houses in the election of 1894. One of the reasons for the Republican victory in November 1894 was negative public reaction to how Gov. Altgeld handled or failed to handle the strike of 50,000 Pullman Palace Car workers against their company starting in May of that year. George Pullman had cut the wages of the workers by 25 percent in reaction to financial hard times. But most of the workers lived in the company town of Pullman, Illinois and their rents were not lowered at the same time as wages putting them in a tremendous squeeze just to meet monthly expenses for food and housing.
The Pullman Strike turned violent when socialist Eugene V. Debs led his members of the American Railway Union in a sympathy strike and tied up all rail traffic, including U.S. mail, west of the Chicago rail center. President Grover Cleveland, a fellow Democrat, wanted to send federal troops to Chicago to restore order but Gov. Altgeld at first refused permission for the federal troops to come. Cleveland sent 2,000 troops anyway along with U.S. Marshalls who put down the strike as 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. Debs went to federal prison for interfering with the mail.
The Pullman Strike was one contributing factor to a bitter feud between the faction of the Democratic Party led by Altgeld and that led by Cleveland. Atlgeld worked hard to bounce Cleveland from the Democratic nomination for 1896 and nominate William Jennings Bryan, who had grown up in Illinois, for president instead. Bryan won the nomination but both Bryan and Altgeld lost in 1896. Altgeld tried to be elected mayor of Chicago in 1899 but his ad hoc Municipal Party was not successful.
John Peter Altgeld remained a hero of reformers in Chicago such as Jane Addams and Clarence Darrow and a hero of progressives nationally. He died in Chicago on March 12, 1902 at the age of 54 and is buried in Graceland Cemetery.