The Coal Kings Come To Judgment

To Finley Peter Dunne, creator of Mr. Dooley, Roosevelt wrote: “I feel like throwing up my hands and going to the circus, but as that is not possible I think I shall try a turkey shoot or bear hunt …” For the benefit of the country, however, he played it straight: in naming as the “eminent sociologist” E. E. Clark, Grand Chief of the Order of Railway Conductors, the White House spokesman added, with tongue in cheek, ”… the President assuming that for the purpose of such a commission the term sociologist means a man who has thought and studied deeply on social questions and has practically applied his knowledge.”

John Lancaster Spalding, Bishop of Peoria, Illinois, was the Catholic prelate selected, and the other members of the commission were Judge George Gray of the United States Circuit Court, who was elected chairman; Edward W. Parker, editor of the Engineering and Mining Record ; Thomas H. Watkins, a businessman who for twenty years had operated a mine in Scranton; and Brigadier General John M. Wilson, formerly the Army’s Chief of Engineers. “Clark and Spalding,” wrote Walter Wellman, “would be set down as leaning toward the miners; Parker and Watkins to the owners; with Gray and Wilson as wholly neutral.” The President also appointed Labor Commissioner Wright as recorder, and the others promptly elected him a full member of the commission. Roosevelt had chosen an extremely well-qualified group, and in the process had managed to please both parties to the strike. The miners returned to work and the commission members, after a personal inspection tour of the mines, began their formal hearings in Scranton on November 14. There, in a high-ceilinged Victorian courtroom, economic feudalism went on trial.


No one, apparently, expected that the hearings would be brief, and Judge Gray allowed lawyers for all three factions—the nonunion mine workers were presenting their case separately—as much time as they wished. As a result, the hearings continued, in Scranton and later in Philadelphia, for over three months, with a recess at Christmas. A total of 558 witnesses were heard—240 for the United Mine Workers, 153 for the nonunion men, 154 for the operators, and eleven called by the commission itself. The fifty-six volumes of testimony—by turns bitter and shocking, funny and sad—constitutes a remarkable historical document.

As chief of its legal staff the union had hired Clarence Darrow, who in the next quarter century would make his name as the ablest defense attorney in modern courtroom history. Darrow, playing his cards skillfully, led with his ace: he called John Mitchell to the stand.

If any members of the commission had expected a wild-eyed, fire-eating agitator, they were soon disappointed. Mitchell, dressed as usual in his near-clerical black, the strain of the long strike written clearly in his still-youthful face, stated the union’s case calmly and fairly. After Darrow had completed his friendly questioning, Wayne MacVeagh, a former United States attorney general, took over for the operators. His long and grueling cross-examination lasted more than four days, but not once—despite ample provocation—did Mitchell lose his temper. On the contrary, he managed occasionally to enliven the proceedings with rare darts of dry wit. MacVeagh had been badgering him about how, when profits were low, he expected the operators to give the men a raise without passing it on to the consumers, many of whom were poor families:

MACVEAGH : … If you demand an increase and they have no profits, where are they going to place it except on the bowed backs of the poor?

MITCHELL : They might put it on the bowed backs of the rich.

With one eye on the commission, the other on public opinion, Darrow followed Mitchell with 239 witnesses, for the most part ordinary miners and their families. Day after day, week after week, there moved across the stand a pitiable parade of the blinded and maimed, the widowed and orphaned, the oppressed and exploited. Darrow was also careful to include a generous leavening of priests and ministers—and in truth such men were in the majority among the minefield clergy—who favored the union’s cause. Compared with their powerful stories, the testimony of the nonunion miners and that of the operators’ witnesses fails to move one nearly so deeply, at least when read at a remove of nearly sixty years.

But the hearings did more than lengthen the short and simple annals of the poor. The last two men the commission heard before adjourning to consider its decision were Baer, summing up for the operators, and Darrow, for the miners. American history rarely presents such an opportunity to study within a narrow compass the contrast between two utterly opposed philosophies of the social order. Baer—spade-bearded, almond-eyed, self-assured, quoting Seneca, Cervantes, and the Roman law—spoke for the glories of the half century just passed, when capitalism was unrestricted and capitalists answered only to their stockholders. Darrow—given to the florid phrase and the dramatic gesture—spoke for the century just beginning, which would assert the rights of the individual workingman and his union, and would bring an end to the world George Baer had known. A few statements from their long summations, selected at random and juxtaposed, will point up the contrast: