The Chicago Anarchists: Samuel Fielden

Samuel Fielden (1847-1922) was one of the few Haymarket defendants whose life was spared after pleading for clemency. Fielden joined the International Working People’s Association in 1884 (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 55) and became a popular and effective speaker among the Chicago workers. He was speaking at the Haymarket protest meeting when the police arrived, right before the bomb was thrown. As he points out in his trial speech, he successfully defended himself against the charge of murder, only to find out after he had called the evidence in his defence that what he and the other defendants were really on trial for was preaching “anarchy.”

Samuel Fielden

Your Honor, I was brought into this court by the police officers and the civil authorities of the city of Chicago to answer to the charge of murder… I answered that charge in this court. My attorneys on my behalf met that charge; we brought evidence which we thought was competent to rebut and meet the charge of murder. After all our evidence was put in, after all the speeches had been made on both sides, with the exception of one, we were suddenly confronted with the fact—and there is in that statement of the State’s Attorney, in his closing argument, an acknowledgment that the charge of murder had not been proven—when all the witnesses had been heard, I am suddenly told that I am being tried for ‘Anarchy.’

If I had known that I was being tried for Anarchy I could have answered that charge. I could have justified it under the constitutional right of every citizen of this country, and more than the right which any constitution can give, the natural right of the human mind to draw its conclusion from whatever information it can gain, but I had no opportunity to show why I was an Anarchist. I was told that I was to be hung for being an Anarchist, after I got through defending myself on the charge of murder. Now, your honor, my reputation, my associations, my history, as far as the lynx-eyed detectives of Chicago could get it, has been raked up, as Mr. Foster has said, from the cradle to the grave. I have been charged here with being a disturber of the peace, an enemy of public order, and generally a dangerous man…

Being of an inquiring disposition or turn of mind, and having observed that there was something wrong in our social system, I attended some meetings of workingmen and compared what they said with my own observation. I knew there was something wrong. My ideas did not become settled as to what was the remedy, but when they did I carried the same energy and the same determination to bring about that remedy that I had applied to ideas which I had possessed years before.

There is always a period in every individual’s life when some sympathetic chord is touched by some other person. That is the open sesame that carries conviction. The ground may have all been prepared. The evidence may all have been accumulated, but it has not formed any shape. In fact, the child has not been born. The new idea has not impressed itself thoroughly when that sympathetic chord is touched, and the person is thoroughly convinced of the truth of the idea. It was so in my investigation of political economy. I knew there was something wrong, but I did not know what the remedy was; but discussing the condition of things and the different remedies one day, a person said to me that socialism meant equal opportunities—and that was the touch. From that time I became a socialist; I learned more and more what it was. I knew that I had found the right thing; that I had found the medicine that was calculated to cure the ills of society. Having found it I had a right to advocate it, and I did. The constitution of the United States, when it says: ‘The right of free speech shall not be abridged,’ gives every man the right to speak his thoughts. I have advocated the principles of socialism and social economy, and for that and no other reason am I here, and is sentence of death to be pronounced upon me?

What is socialism? Taking somebody else’s property? That is what socialism is in the common acceptation of the term. No. But if I were to answer it as shortly and as curtly as it is answered by its enemies, I would say it is preventing somebody else from taking your property. But socialism is equality. Socialism recognizes the fact that no man in society is responsible for what he is; that all the ills that are in society are the production of poverty; and scientific socialism says you must go to the root of the evil.

There is no criminal statistician in the world but will acknowledge that all crime, when traced to its origin, is the product of poverty. It has been said that it was inflammatory for me to say that the present social system degraded men until they became mere animals. Go through this city into the low lodging houses where men are huddled together into the smallest possible space, living in an infernal atmosphere of death and disease, and I will ask you to draw your silks and your broadcloths close to you when these men pass you. Do you think that these men deliberately, with a full knowledge of what they are doing, choose to become that class of animals? Not one of them. They are the products of conditions, of certain environments in which they were born, and which have impelled them resistlessly into what they are. And we have this loadstone. You who wish it could be taken from the shoulders of society. What is it? When those men were children, put them into an environment where they have the best results of civilization around them, and they will never willfully choose a condition like that. Some cynic might say that this would be a very nice thing for these men. Society, with its rapidity of production of the means of existence, is capable of doing that without doing injury to a single individual; and the great masses of wealth owned by individuals in this and the old world have been produced in exactly the same proportion as these men have been degraded—and they never could have been accumulated in any other way.

I do not charge that every capitalist willfully and maliciously conspires to bring about these results; but I do charge that it has been done, and I do charge that it is a very undesirable condition of things, and I claim that socialism would cure the world of that ulcer. These are my ideas in short, on socialism. The ultra patriotic sentiment of the American people—and I suppose the same comparative sentiment is felt in England and France and Germany—is that no man in this country need be poor. The class who are not poor think so. The class who are poor are beginning to think differently; that under existing conditions it is impossible that some people should not be poor.

Why is it that we have ‘over-production?’ And why is it that our warehouses are full of goods, and our workshops have to shut up, and our workmen are turned out on the highway because there is nothing to do? What is this tending to? Let me show the change of conditions as shown in Boston in forty years. Charles Dickens, a man of acute perceptions, visited this country forty years ago, and be said that the sight of a beggar in the streets of Boston at that time would have created as much consternation as the sight of an angel with a drawn sword.

A Boston paper in the winter of 1884-5 stated that there were some quarters in Boston where to own a stove was to be a comparative aristocrat. The poor people who lived in the neighbourhood paid a certain sum of money to rent the holes on the top of the stove that belonged to the aristocrats. You see the change, and there is this comparative change in the working classes of that city, and in every large city in the Union. It is a noted fact that within the last twenty or thirty years the farms of this country have been gradually going out of the possession of the actual cultivators until today there is a little more than a quarter of the actual cultivators of farms in this country who are renters; and within twenty years in the states of Iowa and Illinois the mortgages on farms have increased thirty-three per cent of the actual value of the farms. Is it not enough to make any thinking man ask if there is not something wrong somewhere? Possibly it would be answered ‘yes, a man has a right to inquire whether there is something wrong or not, but for God’s sake, don’t think that socialism will do it any good, or if you do we will hang you! It is all right to think, but we will punish you for your conclusions.’

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