Jack Kelly’s The Edge of Anarchy: the Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America tell the story of the Pullman strike of 1894. This is another of those books that shows exactly how little progress has been made in America over the last 127 years. Reading it in the context of the wealth gap increasing during a pandemic also struck a cord. Still,Kelly did a great job telling a critical story.
If you like history and/or you want to learn more about the real America, The Edge of Anarchy will not disappoint. It will upset you though.
One thing I really appreciated about the book is how Kelly tells the story through the perspectives of the major players. George Pullman was the inventor of the famous Pullman luxury railroad car. He basically invented the company town, which he used to claw back much of the little wages he paid.
Eugene Debs was, in my opinion, the greatest labor leader in American history. During the summer of 1894, it briefly looked like Debs and the workers were going to change the course of American history. Sadly, many of the things that hold workers back today ultimately crushed the strike then.
Grover Cleveland was the president in 1894. The Democrat basically declared martial law and used the military to help end the strike. Under Cleveland’s direction, the United States military shot Americans for striking.
I want to point out a few things covered in the book that really got my attention:
- Over Debs’s objection, the American Railway Union voted to exclude black workers. During the strike, black workers then took some of the vacated positions. The racism of the union members really hurt.
- There was an attempt at a general strike. leaders from large labor unions refused to support the general strike, causing it to have a limited impact for a short time.
- The media worked with the government and the corporations to publish outright lies about the strike, Debs, and the actions of the government.
- The attorney general was on the payroll of the railroad industry while serving as attorney general.
- The judicial system made several outrageous rulings at the behest of the corporations and the government.
If you want to feel dirty while you take a trip through an important part of American history, The Edge of Anarchy will be worth your time.