What history remembers, and why

The incomparable Heather Cox Richardson, doing what she does best:

On October 8, 1871, dry conditions and strong winds drove deadly fires through the Midwest. The Peshtigo Fire in northeastern Wisconsin and parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula burned more than 1.2 million acres and 17 towns, claiming between 1,500 and 2,500 lives. The Great Chicago Fire burned 3.3 square miles of the city, destroying the wooden structures that made up the relatively new town, killed about 300 people, and left more than 100,000 people homeless.

The Peshtigo Fire is the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history.

The Chicago Fire is the one people remember.

The difference is in part because Chicago was a city, of course, easy for newspapers to cover, while the Pestigo fire killed people in lumber camps and small towns. But the Great Chicago Fire also told a political story that fit into an emerging narrative about the danger of organized labor.

It was not clear, coming out of the Civil War, how Republicans would stand with regard to workers. After all, the U.S. government had fought the war to protect the right of every man to enjoy the fruits of his own labor. But immediately after the war, workers had started organizing to demand adjustments to the wartime financial policies that favored men with money. By 1866 the Democratic Party had begun to listen to them, and leaders called for rewriting the terms of the Civil War debt, which had been generous to investors in the days when they were a risky investment. After the war, with the U.S. secure, the calculations changed, and Democrats charged that investors had gotten too good a deal.

Republicans were horrified at the idea of changing the terms of a debt already incurred, and added to the Fourteenth Amendment the clause saying, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

They were also concerned when more than 60,000 people came together in August 1866 to launch the National Labor Union, calling for the government to level the playing field between workers and their employers. They asked for an eight-hour day, an end to monopolies, and cooperation between Black and white workers. In 1867, in what was almost certainly a misquoted comment, stories spread that Republican lawmaker Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio had told an audience in Kansas that “property is not equally divided, and a more equal distribution of capital must be wrought out.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s