Our Progressive Days

A retired ASU professor looks back at Arizona's populist roots

In front of the old neoclassical courthouse in Prescott, there's a life-size statue of William "Buckey" O'Neill.

Miner, lawman, journalist, politician and adventurer, O'Neill was a popular and colorful presence during the state's Territorial era. He's remembered today mostly for dying in Cuba while fighting with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. A plaque on the statue, which the town erected in 1907 to honor those who served in the Spanish-American War, neglects to mention that O'Neill, as a charter member of Arizona's Populist Party in the 1890s, called for government ownership of the railroads. I suspect the statue would be pulled down like Saddam's if it did.

Yes, everybody knows that our troubled state is these days firmly under the sway of the Gospel of Trickle-Down Economics, the Old Testament and Fox News. But it hasn't always been so. Indeed, Arizona was once considered to be an arid nest of socialist vipers, so dangerous and unpredictable that President Taft, a Republican, had to approve the new state's Constitution along with Congress, just to make sure it wasn't too progressive.

Retired Arizona State University professor David Berman traces the rise and fall of such anti-corporate, pro-labor sentiment and political action in Arizona from the late Territorial days through World War I in his new study Politics, Labor, and the War on Big Business: The Path of Reform in Arizona, 1890-1920.

It wasn't that men like O'Neill, who started out as a Republican, came to the territory to stir up trouble; in some ways, it was thrust upon them. The railroad and mining corporations, as Berman tells it, took advantage of the seemingly blank slate. They kicked the workers in the teeth and the guts whenever they got the chance, and paid virtually no taxes. They spent the money that should have gone into the public coffers on bribing Territorial legislators. The railroad corporations were O'Neill's particular target. He frequently cried out that most of the land and capital in the territory was controlled by elites who were "richer than any class the world has ever seen."

O'Neill and the populists never had much success at the ballot box, but Berman traces their influence all the way to statehood and the progressive policies of Gov. George W.P. Hunt. Populist ideas such as direct democracy—initiative, referendum and recall—were essential to Hunt's progressive Democrat platform, many planks of which found their way into the state's founding document.

Hunt, an energetic and determined reformer, did much to further the cause of labor rights in Arizona's mines. Few industries in the history of capitalism have treated their workers with less humanity. Miners had to fight to get any concession from the owners, who claimed they'd have to shut down if forced to pay their workers fairly and to make the mines safe. These dangerously thin profit margins didn't seem to be a factor when it came to hiring private armies and spies to put down worker unrest. The workers themselves were far from blameless; unions often fought among themselves more than they did against management, and everybody hated Mexicans.

Berman is at his best when he is reforming the somewhat-tarnished image of Hunt.

When he took office in 1912 as Arizona's first governor, Hunt, armed with his "People's Constitution," called for an increase in corporate taxation, an eight-hour work day, workers' compensation, free textbooks in public schools, old-age pensions and other progressive legislation, dredging up the everlasting hatred of the corporate class.

Viewed from the perspective of history, Hunt's policies now seem pretty tame. In fact, Berman's précis of Hunt's politics could well serve as a general statement of purpose for a centrist resurgence.

"Hunt in many ways was typical of the middle-class progressive reformers of the period who, unlike radicals, did not want to mobilize the working class into a movement aimed at fundamentally restructuring the capitalist system, but instead hoped to eliminate class conflict by changing the behavior of both the public and the business elite—especially the latter—toward pursuit of public interest rather than selfish interest," Berman writes. "He sought the golden mean somewhere between Socialism and rugged individualism."

Of course, these days in Arizona, that golden mean is nowhere to be found. But it is somewhat heartening to know that things can always change.

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