- Historic Sites
Essay: Filial Piety And The First Amendment
Frick lawsuit threatens historians' ability to present all sides of a subject.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
As much as it depends on its paper and ink, this magazine, like all books and periodicals published in this country, owes its continuing existence to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees freedom of speech and the press, and to the Fourteenth, which requires the states to respect the same rights. Whenever a threat to these liberties arises, therefore, we must resist it. For this reason AMERICAN HERITAGE and its editor have become involved, together with a great many eminent historians, in one of the most curious legal cases in recent years, that of Frick v. Stevens.
The facts are a little complicated. The elderly plaintiff, Miss Helen Clay Frick, the only surviving child of Henry Clay Frick, the noted Pittsburgh steel master who died in 1919, nearly a half century ago, is angry about a book which in a few cursory references makes what she regards as defamatory remarks about her father. She wants either to alter it or to win an injunction halting further distribution. The defendant is Dr. Sylvester K. Stevens, a professional historian, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; he is also a member of the editorial Advisory Board of AMERICAN HERITAGE. His book, Pennsylvania: Birthplace of a Nation, was published by Random House in 1964. Miss Frick received a copy as a Christmas present and apparently turned at once to the index for references to her father.
What she found displeased her enormously, especially these two passages:
“In the bituminous coal fields of western Pennsylvania Henry Clay Frick had built a similar monopoly of coal and coke production and was equally successful in beating down efforts at unionization. Frick also made extensive use of immigrant labor and cut wages to an average of about $1.60 a day while extracting the longest hours of work physically possible. Most mines of the time were without anything resembling modern safety appliances or practices, and serious accidents were common.
“Still another abuse was the company town with its company store. The coal companies owned the houses, shoddy wooden shacks without sanitary facilities, which they rented at a high rate to workers.”
* * *
“The power of the union was broken in the bloody and disastrous Homestead strike in 1892 by stern, brusque, autocratic Henry Clay Frick.”
It does seem preposterous at this point in history and scholarship to protest such a mild view of a well-known figure in the harsh era of Rockefeller, Morgan, Fisk, Gould, and Carnegie. Hear, for example, what other historians have said about him:
“At the Homestead steel mills, Henry Frick displayed capitalist management in its ugliest and most relentless light …”
—Margaret Leech, In the Days of McKinley
“Frick was instrumental in establishing the anti-union policy of the Carnegie partners. In 1890 he annihilated the union in the coke fields and in 1892 with Carnegie’s approval directed the anti-union policy which brought on open warfare at Homestead. This strike started on July 1, 1892. Six days later 300 imported Pinkerton detectives, brought up the Ohio on barges, clashed with the unionists. After a bloody battle the detectives were escorted from town. On July 23, Alexander Berkman, an anarchist, attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Frick. By fall hunger, dissension, and the repressive action of about 8,000 Pennsylvania guardsmen had broken the strike.”
“Frick was the personification of the ruthless business leader who would tolerate no opposition. His attitude toward labor was uncompromising.”
—Philip Taft, Organized Labor in American History
“One of the most notorious of all labor strikes was that at Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. Beginning in a dispute over wages, it became a complicated case of the rights of private property against militant organized employees, a majority of whom were foreigners. Carnegie was in Scotland, and Frick was in full charge.”
Why didn’t Miss Frick sue some of these sources? Why didn’t she, for that matter, sue such noted historians as Allan Nevins, Henry Steele Commager, and Samuel Eliot Morison, all of whom have had strong things to say of Henry Clay Frick? It turned out, in the Court of Common Pleas in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, where she brought her suit, that Miss Frick had not read any such books. The kind of book she liked was The Romance of Steel, published in New York in 1907 and written by Herbert N. Casson. In this “very precious book,” as Miss Frick called it, appeared a very different Frick:
”… to the possession of this rare physical courage he adds the tenderest sentiment. His devotion to flowers, to painting and, above all, to his two children, Childs and Helen, is well known in Pittsburgh. … Mr. Frick has had a special checkbook made, which he uses for all charitable purposes; and upon every check is a picture of his daughter’s face.”
In her own complaint to the court, Miss Frick contemplates a figure scarcely recognizable to historians: