John Peter Altgeld

Altgeld, John Peter (ältˈgĕlt) [key], 1847–1902, American politician, governor of Illinois (1892–96), b. Germany. He was taken by his immigrant parents to Ohio, where he grew up with little formal schooling. After service in the Union army he spent some years as an itinerant worker on farms, read law, and became county attorney of Savannah, Mo. In 1875 he moved to Chicago, where he wrote Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims (1884), arguing that American judicial methods were weighted against the poor. In 1886 he was elected to the Cook co. superior court, and in 1892 he was elected governor. In office he established himself as a champion of labor, reform, and liberal thought. Charging a miscarriage of justice, he pardoned three anarchists imprisoned as parties to the Haymarket riot of 1886. During the Pullman strike of 1894, when President Cleveland sent federal troops into Chicago, Governor Altgeld publicly termed the act unconstitutional. His extreme liberalism, coupled with his espousal of free silver, lost him reelection in 1896. Denounced as a radical in his own day, he was later regarded as a defender of the freedom of the individual against entrenched power.

See his writings and speeches, ed. by H. M. Christman (1960, repr. 1970); biography by H. Barnard (1938); study by R. Ginger (1958, repr. 1965).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. History: Biographies