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The Coal Kings Come To Judgment
When the anthracite miners downed tools in 1902, economic feudalism went on trial
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
Meanwhile autumn was at hand, and in great cities coal supplies were dwindling dangerously. Even President Theodore Roosevelt was worried. He had been worried, in fact, for some time. As early as June 27, he had asked Attorney General Philander Chase Knox if there was any way in which the federal government could intervene. Did the coal and railroad companies constitute a combination in restraint of trade liable to prosecution under the Sherman Act? The statute was too vague, Knox had answered. As Mayor Low of New York City and other local officials communicated to Washington their fears of the consequences of a continued fuel shortage, Roosevelt wrote to Robert Bacon of J. P. Morgan and Company: “The situation is bad, especially because it is possible it may grow infinitely worse. If when the severe weather comes on there is a coal famine I dread to think of the suffering, in parts of our great cities especially, and I fear there will be fuel riots of as bad a type as any bread riots we have ever seen.”
He was not oblivious to the political effect of the strike, either. Anthracite, which normally retailed for five or six dollars a ton, was up to twenty dollars in New York, and from Massachusetts, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was warning the President that factors like this could defeat the Republican party in the forthcoming congressional elections. At least, Roosevelt decided, he would do what he could. He dispatched telegrams to Mitchell and to the principal representatives of the operators, asking them to confer with him in Washington on the morning of October 3.
The meeting was held at No. 22 Lafayette Square, for the White House was undergoing repairs. At one end of the room were Baer and the other coal operators; Attorney General Knox; Roosevelt’s secretary, George B. Cortelyou; and Carroll D. Wright, Commissioner of Labor. At the other end were Mitchell and the presidents of the three United Mine Workers anthracite districts. A few seconds after 11 A.M. the President entered the room in a wheelchair—he had been injured in a traffic accident the month before—and launched at once into an earnest appeal for peace. Disclaiming any legal right to intervene, he asked both parties whether they had considered the interests of a third—the public. He went on to detail the horrors of a winter coal famine and concluded: “With all the earnestness there is in me I ask that there be an immediate resumption of operations in the coal mines in some such way as will, without a day’s unnecessary delay, meet the crying needs of the people. I appeal to your patriotism, to the spirit that sinks personal consideration and makes individual sacrifices for the general good.”
Mitchell was on his feet immediately. “I am much pleased, Mr. President, with what you say. We are willing that you shall name a tribunal which shall determine the issues that have resulted in the strike; and if the gentlemen representing the operators will accept the award or decision of such a tribunal, the miners will willingly accept it, even if it be against our claims.”
Baer quickly demonstrated an attitude that showed that his famous “divine right” letter had not been a temporary lapse of common sense. To the President of the United States, his tone was almost as condescending as to the obscure Wilkes-Barre photographer: “Thousands of other workmen are deterred from working by the intimidation, violence, and crime inaugurated by the United Mine Workers, over whom John Mitchell, whom you have invited to meet you, is chief.” John Markle, representing the independent operators, asked Roosevelt bluntly: “Are you asking us to deal with a set of outlaws?” And he proceeded to instruct the President in his responsibilities: ”… I now ask you to perform the duties invested in you as President of the United States, to at once squelch the anarchistic conditions of affairs existing in the anthracite coal regions by the strong arm of the military at your command.”
Baer and Markle had threatened the wrong man. Roosevelt kept his temper, but just barely. Inwardly he was seething. Afterward he said, speaking of Baer: “If it wasn’t for the high office I hold, I would have taken him by the seat of the breeches and the nape of the neck and chucked him out of that window.” And again: “There was only one man in that conference who acted like a gentleman, and that man was not I.” The reference was to Mitchell. Indeed, the President wrote to his friend Joseph Bucklin Bishop: “Mitchell shone so in comparison with [the operators] as to make me have a very uncomfortable feeling that they might be far more to blame relatively to the miners than I had supposed. I never knew six men to show to less advantage.” That was, in fact, the only effect the meeting had: to convince the President that maybe the miners were right.