As soon as the weather turned cold, Chicago’s police stations and City Hall filled up every night with men who had no jobs and nowhere to go. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition–which announced Chicago’s arrival as a world-class city–had closed October 30, stranding workers by the hundreds and adding local desperation to the deepest nationwide depression the United States had ever seen. On the city’s teeming west side, newly arrived Italians, Greeks, Bohemians, and Polish and Russian Jews added their own bewilderment and poverty to the local and national distress.
The young college-educated women at Hull House (Halsted and Polk streets) had insisted on living on the west side as neighbors, not as ladies bountiful. But “in view of the emergency of the present season,” they dropped their four years’ resistance to giving out coal, food, and clothing. Jane Addams, their leader, joined the Emergency Relief Association’s Committee for the Distribution of Supplies in Kind.
That winter Addams had told the Sunset Club, “We should consider not what we shall do with the unemployed, but what shall we and the unemployed do together.” But she soon learned that working “together” with the needy was not the Relief Association’s way. It had strict rules to ensure that “relief” went only to those it felt were truly needy:
“A shipping clerk whom I had known for a long time had lost his place,” Addams wrote 17 years later. The clerk went “to the relief station established at Hull-House four or five times to secure help for his family. I told him one day of the opportunity for work on the drainage canal [the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal] and intimated that if any employment were obtainable, he ought to exhaust that possibility before asking for help. The man replied that he had always worked indoors and that he could not endure outside work in winter. I am grateful to remember that I was too uncertain to be severe, although I held to my instructions.
“He did not come again for relief, but worked for two days digging on the canal, where he contracted pneumonia and died a week later. I have never lost trace of the two little children he left behind him, although I cannot see them without a bitter consciousness that it was at their expense I learned that life cannot be administered by definite rules and regulations; that wisdom to deal with a man’s difficulties comes only through some knowledge of his life and habits as a whole.”
This is not the happiest story Jane Addams ever told, but it’s among the most revealing. In her time (1860-1935), she was one of the most famous, and sometimes most admired, women in the world. Today her name draws either a blank stare or a cliche–“pioneer social worker,” “urban reformer,” “feminist.” The best versed among us may recall that she once became the garbage inspector of her ineffably corrupt 19th Ward, or that she had something to do with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom during World War I.
All true, but not quite to the point. Even back when a “Jane Addams Chorus” could be a self-explanatory part of a presidential campaign, few people really understood this Chicago original. She was a social worker, yes, but unlike most social workers she was committed to social change, and deeply suspicious of professionalism; she was a supporter of labor unions, but she detested class conflict; she was a good-government reformer who understood the enduring appeal of the machine; she was a suffragette who believed women had a special role to play as women; she was a person of great empathy who could act on her convictions.
Jane Addams didn’t fit the categories then, even as she helped define some of them, and she doesn’t fit our categories now. But today–with the stench of moral decay filling our streets, just as uncollected garbage perfumed the 19th Ward alleys a century ago–we could use her cool vision, warm heart, and willingness to learn from even the bitterest experiences.
I gradually became convinced that it would be a good thing to rent a house in a part of the city where many primitive and actual needs are found, in which young women who had been given over too exclusively to study, might restore a balance of activity along traditional lines and learn of life from life itself . . . [and that] the mere foothold of a house, easily accessible, ample in space, hospitable and tolerant in spirit, situated in the midst of the large foreign colonies which so easily isolate themselves in American cities, would be in itself a serviceable thing for Chicago. –Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House
Laura Jane Addams, the small-town girl from Cedarville, Illinois, dropped her first name when she graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881. Her force of will, combined with that of her father–a seminary trustee–persuaded the school to begin issuing college degrees to women who completed additional work, and Jane Addams returned to receive her A.B. degree in 1882.
And then–nothing. Her generation was the first in which a significant number of women took college degrees, but (in the words of historian William O’Neill) they “had been educated to fill a place that did not yet exist.” Of the few jobs and fewer careers available, ambition kept Addams from teaching and ill health kept her from medical school. For eight years she followed the largely decorative life-style prescribed for upper-middle-class females with inherited wealth, making two trips to Europe with friends and helping out with family affairs and relatives’ children. Finally, the missionary idealism she had felt at Rockford, the poverty she encountered in Europe, and the example of Toynbee Hall–where college-educated Englishmen “settled” in a desperately poor East London slum–provoked her and her friend Ellen Gates Starr to try something similar in Chicago.
For more than a year, Addams and Starr plotted their “scheme” with care. They moved temporarily to a Chicago boardinghouse in late January 1889, and began circulating in the top and bottom strata of society–looking both for a place to settle and for others to settle with them. They moved into Hull House in September. Addams’s reasoning (laid out a few years later) eerily echoes the malaise of the early 1960s:
“We have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties. They hear constantly of great social maladjustment, but no way is provided for them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily. . . . This young life, so sincere in its emotion and yet so undirected, seems to me as pitiful as the other great mass of destitute lives. One is supplementary to the other, and some method of communication can surely be devised [her emphasis].”
She and Starr soon met with Dr. Frank Gunsaulus, a leading liberal clergyman, who (according to Ellen Starr’s report) asked unctuously if their idea was “to have a little training school where young ladies could be instructed how to deal with the poor.” Certainly not, they replied. “When we quite repudiated it & said we would have naught of a training school or any ‘institution’ whatever: that we were tired of institutions: that Miss Addams & Miss Starr simply intended to live there & get acquainted with the people & ask their friends of both classes to visit them he was ‘tickled to death.’ He said ‘good! The kingdom of heaven isn’t an organization or an institution.'”
Their “scheme” was the right idea in the right place at the right time. Its promulgation plunged Addams into a maelstrom of activity that, except for repeated bouts of illness, never let up until her death. Even before she spotted the old house whose name was to become inseparable from hers, the patterns had been set.
Addams accompanied relief workers and “attendance agents” (truant officers) on their rounds in the immigrant neighborhoods, and began her education in how the other half lived in Chicago. “It was exactly as if we were in a quarter of Naples or Rome,” she wrote to her sister, in a letter now stored in the University of Illinois’ Jane Addams memorial collection. “The parents and the children spoke nothing but Italian and dressed like Italian peasants. They were more crowded than I imagined people ever lived in America, four families for instance of six or eight each, living in one room for which they paid 11 dollars a month, and were constantly afraid of being ejected. Yet they were affectionate and gentle. . . . They never begged nor . . . complained, and in all aspects were immensely more attractive to me than the Irish neighborhood I went into last week . . .”
She made herself available in the salons of the wealthy. At a reception hosted by Ellen Henrotin, she wrote, 30 young ladies “evinced a good deal of enthusiasm and a Wellesley girl and a Smith graduate Miss Perry may take up residence next winter with us. It has become something of a fashionable ‘fad’ and of course we realize that the ardor may all disappear before next winter.” At another reception, more than half the attendees were men, “so that our whilom fear of founding a ‘House for single women and widows’ is being allayed.”
The mission-minded sought her out. A committee of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union wanted to reach girls “who would not come to Sunday School nor meetings,” she wrote. “We organized last Saturday–‘A Girls’ Social Club.’ . . . The material is rather unpromising but I am very glad for the experience.”
She sought out the politically marginal, visiting an anarchist Sunday school through the good offices of a hardware-store proprietor named Stauber. “He was pleased that I wanted to see the Sunday School. Said that ‘Americans never came up here, except the reporters of the capitalist newspapers and they always exaggerated.’ I went on Sunday afternoon, and found about 200 children assembled in a hall back of a saloon with some young men trying to teach them ‘free thought–without any religion or politics.’ The entire affair was very innocent. I was treated with great politeness and may take a class.”
Within weeks of arriving in Chicago, in April 1889, she was making connections that no one else seemed able to manage. “I have just come from the Maurice Porter Memorial Hospital on Fullerton Ave. It is a beautiful house built for 15 sick and poor children,” she wrote. “I made arrangements there the other day for a little Italian boy 9 years old. He has been almost blind since he was 2 and is very delicate without being absolutely sick. I took him this morning. His father went with me and was delighted with the house and the assurance that the child should always have enough to eat.
“This hospital was built by Mrs. Porter as a memorial to her little son. It is free but they have had vacancies all Spring because no one has applied. It is a curious instance of the need of communication between the benevolent people at one end of the city and the poverty at the other.”
As early as May 1889, Addams had also begun her lifelong struggle with journalists–with both the reporters’ own irretrievably conventional minds and their bosses’ hidden agendas. After one unspecified but no doubt egregious report, Addams wrote, “I positively feel my callers peering into my face to detect ‘spirituality.'”
Clearly, Addams didn’t have to move to the slums to become useful–or, as we might say today, to provide services. But that’s just the point. “There is nothing so dangerous as being good to people,” she told a conference of settlement workers in 1895. “You should not be good to people or to a people. You must be good with people, and here lies the . . . secret of success.” Her aim was not to be a service provider but to become a neighbor. You can’t commute to be that.
On a snowy morning between Christmas 1891 and New Year’s 1892, I arrived at Hull-House, Chicago, a little before breakfast time, and found there Henry Standing Bear, a Kickapoo Indian, waiting for the front door to be opened. It was Miss Addams who opened it, holding on her left arm a singularly unattractive, fat, pudgy baby belonging to the cook, who was behindhand with breakfast. Miss Addams was a little hindered in her movements by a super-energetic kindergarten child, left by its mother while she went to a sweatshop for a bundle of cloaks to be finished. We were welcomed as though we had been invited. –Florence Kelley, “I Go to Work”
In 1889, Addams finally found the “fine old house” she was searching for on Halsted Street just south of Polk. Real-estate developer Charles Hull (“If I could live to be a hundred, I could be one of the richest men in the country”) had built it for himself in 1856 when Halsted Street was a country lane; by 1889, its spacious piazza was squeezed between a saloon and an undertaker’s. Hull had just died, and Addams and Starr were able to rent the second floor and a big drawing room on the first floor from his niece, Helen Culver. For the first year or so they shared the building with the Sherwood Desk Company.
The house made its impression even on those who missed the point of the settlement. When Ellen Starr’s mother visited, Addams wrote, “We were so amused this morning by her wistful sighs that she did wish this beautiful old house was in a better neighborhood, without reflecting that if it were we would not be in it.”
The near west side in 1889 offered a less than savory combination of the vices of city and country. Immigrants of 19 nationalities were shoehorned into ancient wooden tenements. A three-story building at 197 Ewing was reported to contain at least 25 families, more than 200 people in all. In 1893, under the unsparing headline, “Foul Ewing Street,” the Tribune wrote: “If there is a block pavement, all signs of it are concealed by a surface layer of spongy mold. . . . The street is lined with irregular rows of dingy frame houses innocent of paint and blackened and soiled by time and close contact with the children of Italy. The garbage boxes along the broken wood sidewalks are filled with ashes and rotting vegetables and are seldom emptied.”
Addams’s view of the neighborhood omitted none of the squalor, but she saw beyond it, and eschewed the racist epithets that were then so casual and common; she mentions the “genuine kindness and hearty welcome extended to us by the families living up and down the street.” On Addams’s and Starr’s first night in the house, September 18, 1889, they forgot, in their “enthusiasm over ‘settling’ . . . not only to lock but to close a side door opening on Polk Street, and were much pleased in the morning to find that we possessed a fine illustration of the honesty and kindliness of our new neighbors.”
But since she had to live there, she soon learned better than to get sentimental. She and a young Greek man were watching a Greek woman spin on a spindle. Addams said to him, “I suppose this reminds you of your mother.” He replied, “Yes. I don’t like to look at a stick spindle; she always beat me with it.”
Any leisure implied in Starr’s reference to asking “friends from both classes to visit” was quickly used up. The neighbors, at first bemused, quickly found that the college ladies were anything but snobs. They were ready and willing to help out, to call and return calls, and within three weeks were shepherding two boys’ clubs, two girls’ clubs, a drawing class, and a kindergarten–the first in Chicago–that had 24 children enrolled and “a list of at least 70 more mothers who have applied and begged for their children.”
In November, Ellen Starr wrote to her parents, “We are getting on well with the ‘neighboring.’ Two young men have called voluntarily, a woman has presented us with a bottle of catsup, and another has requested to leave her baby with us one morning while she moved her household effects.”
“So many things are constantly opening up that we might do and that we would like to do, if we had the room and the people,” Addams wrote to her sister Alice just before Thanksgiving. They tried but failed to persuade an uncomprehending Italian mother to feed her kindergartner something other than wine-soaked bread for breakfast. They succeeded in another small battle: the club boys “have quite given up spitting tobacco or keeping on their hats–two things that we almost despaired of curing them of.”
But while they were curing delivery boys of etiquette deficiencies, Addams, Starr, and the later residents were being cured of some of their own middle-class assumptions. That first Christmas they learned that many neighborhood children, fresh from 14 hours of work in a candy factory, could hardly look at a Christmas gift of sweets. A more painful lesson came when an infant was abandoned in the Hull House nursery, and later died. Its parents were never found, and the settlement residents, with great practicality, decided to have it buried “by the county.” The neighbors were horrified and “took up a collection out of their poverty with which to defray a funeral.” There ensued a vigorous argument. Addams does not say who won, but concludes, “It is doubtful whether Hull House has ever done anything which injured it so deeply in the mind of some of its neighbors. . . . No one born and reared in the community could possibly have made a mistake like that.”
Living at 335 (now 800) South Halsted was no melodramatic quirk of Victorian imagination. It was integral to Addams’s work and to her learning. One of her neighbors, a Bohemian immigrant, periodically drank himself into a rage. In one fit, he almost choked his daughter to death; in another, he committed suicide. Even the kindest humanitarian might sigh, consider that perhaps the talented daughter and widow were better off, and leave it at that.
But Addams was a neighbor, and the widow spent a week at Hull House after the disaster. “One day,” wrote Addams, she “showed me a gold ring which her husband had made for their betrothal. It exhibited the most exquisite workmanship, and she said that although in the old country he had been a goldsmith, in America he had for twenty years shoveled coal in a furnace room of a large manufacturing plant; that whenever she saw one of his ‘restless fits,’ which preceded his drunken periods, ‘coming on,’ if she could provide him with a bit of metal and persuade him to stay at home and work on it, he was all right and the time passed without disaster, but that ‘nothing else would do it.’ This story threw a flood of light upon the dead man’s struggle and on the stupid maladjustment which had broken him down.” Again, characteristically, Addams asks herself, “Why had our interest in the remarkable musical ability of his child, blinded us to the hidden artistic ability of the father?”
The Hull House residents had more to deal with than their immediate neighbors, however. During the desperate winter of 1893-1894, 19th Ward alderman Johnny (“de Pow”) Powers, chairman of the City Council Finance Committee and “Prince of the Boodlers,” first approached Addams and asked if Hull House would distribute “thousands of pounds of turkey and beef to the poor of the ward at Christmas.”
Few poor families would hold mere corruption in public office against an alderman who so brightened their Christmas; now he was offering Hull House a chance to join his machine. Addams at first said she could do no more than give him a list of needy people; when she brought the question to the house meeting, the residents divided over whether to do even that much. Finally, according to the meeting minutes, “by general consent it was agreed that the Chief should write to Mr. Powers, as she had herself suggested, to the effect that Hull House had so much provender sent in at Christmas that it would be well for him to distribute his turkeys through other agencies.”
(Something of Addams’s dry wit shines through when she writes about these early years; looking back, she described settlement-house life as “so curious a mixture of hope and frivolity, of casualness and constant endeavor.” The residents were given to vigorous arguments on social issues; after one, a refugee from the 1905 Russian Revolution is said to have sighed and remarked, “I haven’t felt so much at home since I first joined the terrorists.”) During the late 1890s, Addams and her colleagues fought in three arduous and unsuccessful campaigns to oust Powers from his aldermanic seat.
Within a year, the residents’ activities had filled the old house to overflowing; within two years they had built–of all things–a new art gallery. Neighborhood residents did indeed respond to this uncondescending assumption that they, too, could be moved by the same masterpieces that stirred collegiate newcomers. “An Italian expressed great surprise when he found that we, although Americans, still liked pictures, and said quite naively that he didn’t know that Americans cared for anything but dollars–that looking at pictures was something people only did in Italy,” Addams wrote. A lending library for pictures was also heavily used.
By the turn of the century the residents of Hull House were taking “native” arts more seriously. According to Mary Ann Johnson–curator of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Hull House Museum–instead of bringing fine art to the masses, they realized the value of the art and culture within the neighborhood, and gradually changed their emphasis from appreciation to participation.
By 1908, Hull House had filled a solid city block with 13 buildings that were interconnected like a labyrinth. (The University of Illinois, which bought up and tore down the Hull House block and much of its neighborhood in 1963, maintains the original house–restored to circa 1889 condition–and one other building as a museum. Hull House itself has become the Hull House Association, an umbrella organization of six neighborhood centers with 28 outposts across the city that are involved in social services, community economic development, and advocacy for change.) Addams’s style was to start a new project–a kindergarten, public bath, or playground–and then, once it had proved its value and popularity, to let the government or another agency take it over. Still, the settlement grew. It remained her home, but it had undeniably become an institution–“a complex of buildings and programs,” writes Addams’s most perceptive biographer, Daniel Levine, “exceeded in size in the city only by the University of Chicago.”
Hull House had quickly become a regular stop for locals from Eugene Debs to John Dewey (who was sometimes confounded by the knowledge elderly Greeks had of Plato) and for out-of-town visitors like Theodore Roosevelt, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Beatrice Webb.
Some of the visitors understood the house’s mission no better than Ellen Starr’s mother had; Dr. Alice Hamilton, a Hull House resident and pioneer in occupational disease research, recalled with amusement an English socialist who “was talking eagerly about the need of vacation schools for London slum children as we stepped out into our courtyard, which was crowded with children waiting to go on a picnic in the country. He never saw them, at least not as slum children like those he was eager to help; he saw them only as obstacles in his way, and he pushed them aside impatiently as if they were so many chickens, all the time telling me about the pitiful children in London.”
As time went on, the original, specifically Christian impetus of Hull House diffused into a more tolerant ideal of democracy and human unity. Formal piety and Victorian propriety increasingly took a backseat. The donor of a parrot to the house was scandalized to learn from resident Julia Lathrop that it might learn to swear in the Hull House nursery. Alice Hamilton worried about what the head resident of an evangelical Christian settlement would think of Hull House: “Last Sunday morning,” she wrote to her cousin in 1904, “Miss Addams toted some Gospel Settlement people into the Lecture Hall where Miss Nancrede was folding theatrical costumes and Miss Goodrich was doing cross-stitch and Mr. Yeomans was popping corn”–on Sunday morning! “What am I to do if that happens while she is here?”
Addams herself was almost constantly swamped; after a few years she was no longer in danger of becoming a celebrity–she was one. She was nothing if not accessible–coming down to chat with a newsboy who had brought a message and was warming himself by the fire, going to assist an unwed mother at birth when her own neighbors would have nothing to do with her, even accosting a burglar in her room with an injunction to come back the next morning for help in finding an honest job (he did)–but there had to be limits. A half-welcoming, half-harried sentence that had appeared in every issue of the Hull House Bulletin–“Miss Addams will be home as far as possible Saturday afternoons and evenings and will be happy to meet anyone who may wish to consult her in regard to Hull House matters”–disappeared from the publication in 1899.
In 1896, the bulletin listed 26 people in charge of such diverse functions as the playground, relief bureau, factory inspection, coffeehouse, and the circulating pictures. Addams did her best to run this institution in a noninstitutional way. Unlike most other settlement houses, Hull House had no rules as to what the residents should do or how much. In practice, there was no need. Existing residents voted on the admission of new ones, and it was a hard-hearted person indeed who could withstand her entreaty, “You can help us. What do you think?” When Alice Hamilton contemplated leaving the house in 1899 due to overwork, Addams urged her to stay “and do nothing at all.” Hamilton wrote to her cousin that she would indeed stay–“but as for doing nothing, one might as well resolve to go to a small-pox hospital and not catch small-pox.”
The constant bustle alone was enough to intimidate new residents. After a few days of bewilderment, in 1905, a timid Jessie Binford managed to catch up with Addams and asked what she should be doing. What leader of an understaffed enterprise could not think of a dozen projects to assign to an eager apprentice, who could accomplish something that more experienced hands agreed needed doing? But no. Addams replied that Binford “should do nothing for a while and that, after being at the settlement for a few more days or weeks, she might find something which no one had ever thought of before.” (She did, and remained for more than half a century.) With confidence like that radiating from the leader, it’s small wonder that Hull House spilled over with talented and zestful reformers.
This feeling of disdain to any class of men . . . substitutes party enthusiasm for the irresistible force of human progress. The labor movement must include all men in its hopes. . . . Any grudge treasured up against a capitalist, any desire to ‘get even’ when the wealth has changed hands, are but the old experiences of human selfishness. All sense of injury must fall away and be absorbed in the consciousness of a common brotherhood. . . .nowhere is [the settlement’s] influence more needed than in the labor movement, where there is constant temptation towards a class warfare. –Jane Addams, Hull House Maps and Papers
In the 1890s, it was a little too easy to get a reputation as a radical in Chicago. The virulent propaganda following the Haymarket affair had done its work, and for at least a generation afterward the mere mention of “anarchism” was enough to make the city’s establishment jump. Addams took no part in this paranoia, and wrote bemusedly of visiting an anarchist Sunday school with a newspaper reporter, who spoke no German and asked her “what abominable stuff they were singing.” She translated the words for him and explained that they were the poetry of Koerner, who had inspired the German people to resist Napoleon, and whose poems graced the most respectable libraries. “He looked at me rather askance and I then and there had my first intimation that to treat a Chicago man, who is called an anarchist, as you would treat any other citizen, is to lay yourself open to deep suspicion.”
But this was nothing compared to the atmosphere in 1901, when the professed anarchist Leon Czolgolz assassinated President McKinley. The police dragnet promptly swept up Abraham Isaak, editor of a Chicago anarchist paper, whom Jane Addams had once met and described as “a quiet, scholarly man, challenging the social order by the philosophic touchstone of Bakunin and Herbert Spencer.”
The police dumped him and some comrades in an old, dirty cell in the basement of City Hall and wouldn’t let him see anyone, let alone a lawyer. (The American Civil Liberties Union did not exist yet; Addams helped found it in 1920.) Some Russian Jews from the neighborhood descended on Hull House–long known to welcome lecturers of all political stripes as a matter of course–and excitedly denounced the sham of a legal system that would so terrorize an innocent man.
“Challenged by an anarchist,” wrote Addams, “one is always sensitive for the honor of legally constituted society, and I replied that of course the men could have an attorney, that the assassin himself would eventually be furnished with one, that the fact that a man was an anarchist had nothing to do with his rights before the law! I was met with the retort that that might do for a theory, but that the fact still remained that these men had been absolutely isolated, seeing no one but policemen, who constantly frightened them with tales of public clamor and threatened lynching.”
“It seemed to me at the time that mere words would not avail,” she wrote later. The following morning–a Sunday–she went to Mayor Carter Harrison’s home to intervene. Recalls Alice Hamilton, “Nobody who has not lived through one of Chicago’s attacks of anti-radical hysteria can understand what courage it took to do this. It would have been easy to reason that her first duty was to Hull-House, that these anarchists had never been inside its doors, and that if she espoused their cause she would be injuring an institution which could succeed only if it had the confidence of the public.” But Addams did not choose to play the usual liberal game of protecting her turf through timidity. Mayor Harrison finally allowed Addams herself to visit Isaak (who said he didn’t want a lawyer) and to report to his family and friends; he was released in a few days.
The newspapers were rabid against her; her nephew and biographer James Weber Linn says that she “had hundreds of personal letters at this time, some filthy, many abusive, a few merely reproachful; but almost none of approval.” Some ministers began to pull away from the settlement house, and society leader Mrs. Potter Palmer withdrew her support. But the storm of hysteria eventually blew over and the house survived.
At the same time, such activism gained Addams few plaudits from the left. Socialists and anarchists could easily see that her aim was to rectify and preserve American democracy, not to replace it with their dreams. Her niece, Marcet Haldeman-Julius, put this view most sharply: “It is inconceivable that, like Eugene Debs, she could have spoken with a full breath of defiance and condemnation. . . . Jane Addams never went so far as to separate herself from those who held the instruments of power and those who guarded the portals of conventional honor and ease.”
Addams never left Hull House, but her sphere of influence expanded even faster than did its complex of buildings. From lobbying the city for better garbage pickup, Addams and her many associates moved to lobbying the state legislature (for the eight-hour day and for the vote for women, and against child labor), lecturing around the country, and writing magazine articles and books (Democracy and Social Ethics, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, and her semiautobiographical masterpiece Twenty Years at Hull-House).
The reformist platform she and others pieced together finally found national political expression in the 1912 presidential campaign, when Theodore Roosevelt led a progressive split from the Republican party. At a time when women still had no vote, Addams became the first woman to second a major party’s presidential nomination. But as Daniel Levine points out, she spoke almost exclusively about the social-justice issues championed in the Progressive party’s platform, and very little about candidate Roosevelt. “Probably,” he writes, “no national political convention ever had a seconding speech which was so lukewarm about the nominee.”
Addams had plenty to be lukewarm about. In the platform debates, she had had to agree to seating all-white delegations from some southern states (an especially galling concession to a member of the NAACP executive committee), to the fortifying of the Panama Canal, and to the building of two new battleships a year. “I must confess,” she wrote later, “I found it very difficult to swallow those two battleships.”
Two ships may not seem like much in the wake of Caspar Weinberger’s blank-check Navy, but Addams had come to believe in mediation and arbitration of disputes between nations just as between capital and labor. When war broke out in Europe late in the summer of 1914, most Americans, like Addams, saw it as the last gasp of a decadent monarchical system, not as the prototype of 20th-century horrors yet to come.
Addams herself was prompt to compare war to human sacrifice–it was both barbaric and (soon to be) obsolete. “I recall a woman’s club in Boston in September, 1914, which applauded [this comparison] heartily,” she wrote.
But as President Woodrow Wilson’s pretense of neutrality crumbled and the country’s mood shifted, Addams found herself increasingly at the edge of the mainstream–and excruciatingly well aware of the delicacy of her position. Just after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, she told the Chicago Woman’s Club that the declaration of war “has not changed my views of the invalidity of war as a method of settlement of social problems a particle, and I can see no reason why one should not say what one believes in time of war as in time of peace.” She was greeted with silence.
What had been delicate before the declaration of war became almost untenable afterward. Chicago had been no more hysterical about anarchists than the United States soon became about pacifists. Addams had championed reform movements before, but always with a sense of being in the vanguard of progress rather than heading in the opposite direction from everyone else. This was different. Most other settlement houses supported the war. Most of the residents of Hull House supported the war; many of the men volunteered. According to Linn, “All soldiers from the district were given their last meal ‘at home’ by Hull House, and said their farewells in the Hull House courtyard.”
One morning Addams came downstairs to one of the house’s large rooms, which had long been used as a precinct polling place and where she had served as an election judge. “The room that morning was being used to register the men for the first draft. In they came somewhat heavily, one man after another, most of them South Italians. I knew many of them had come to this country seeking freedom from military service quite as much as they sought freedom of other sorts, and here they were about to be securely caught once more. The line of dull workmen seemed to me to represent the final frontier of the hopes of their kind; the traditional belief in America as a refuge had come to an end and there was no spot on the surface of the earth to which they might flee for security.
“I said nothing beyond the morning’s greeting, but one of the men stopped to speak to me. He had been in the Hull-House citizenship classes, and only a few months before I had delivered a little address to those of the class who had received their first papers. . . . The new citizen turned to me and spoke from the bitterness of his heart: ‘I really have you to thank if I am sent over to Europe to fight. I went into the citizenship class in the first place because you asked me to. If I hadn’t my papers now I would be exempted.'”
The pain of good intentions gone awry was no less than the pain of the wall that had grown up between Addams and most of the rest of the country. “She had spent her life,” writes Linn, “in seeking identification of her own spirit with the spirit of democracy. . . . She was not made for a ‘leader,’ any more than she was made for a ‘follower.’ She was made for a comrade and an interpreter. Her profoundest conviction had been of the worth and sanctity of the opinions of others. And now suddenly she found fellowship with the majority refused, and her interpretation mocked.”
Like any frequent public performer, Addams naturally fed from appreciative crowds, of which there were now none; but her discomfort reached deeper than a frustrated need for mass flattery. “She was very dependent on a sense of warm comradeship and harmony with the mass of her fellow men,” writes Alice Hamilton, “but at the same time her clear-sighted integrity made it impossible for her to keep in step with the crowd in many a crisis. Most reformers I have known have enjoyed, more or less, the sense of being in advance of their times, of belonging to a persecuted minority. That was never true of Jane Addams.”
Though she did not realize it, during the course of the war the nation was not only rejecting Jane Addams as a pacifist, but also the entire reform impulse which she represented. A reaction was gathering force. –Daniel Levine, Jane Addams and the Liberal Tradition
War fever became Red-scare fever after the Armistice, and Addams continued to be the victim of irrational attacks while she pleaded for food relief for German as well as English children. When “Bolsheviks” succeeded “Germans” as bogeymen for the right wing, the Daughters of the American Revolution took to vilifying her as a “pink.” She was amused, saying that she’d thought the DAR had made her a member for life, but apparently it was only for good behavior.
Although the acclaim and honorary degrees returned as the Depression and a resurgence of reform loomed ahead, and although she did receive half of a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, Addams’s unflagging belief in “the irresistible force of human progress” was less convincing after the war than it had been before. She did not live to see the full flowering of the welfare state, but she deserves credit for laying much of the ideological groundwork for it–gradually convincing Americans that the Horatio Alger myth was obsolete and that public cooperation was essential. But that change remained almost invisible in the 1920s.
“We share a certain desire to conform and be safe,” she told the National Conference of Social Work at her last appearance before it in 1926, giving her colleagues as sharp an edge of her tongue as she ever gave anyone. She recalled for them how socialistic speeches had once been common at their gatherings. Once such a speaker was challenged for carrying his “ism” too far: “You act as if you thought socialism would cure the toothache.” The speaker replied indignantly that of course it would, since under a good socialist government every child’s teeth would be well looked after from birth. Addams carried on the example:
“I am sure that in most cities, with their nursery schools, their nutrition classes, their school nurses, and their dental services sustained by the city health departments, toothache is being abolished. But this effort is quite divorced from any social theory. Indeed, if a social theory were to be attached to it, social workers would probably be frightened away and feel they must drop it.
“Proud as we are of the toothache achievement, we would almost rather have the children go about with poultices tied around their heads than to have the result called socialism, and if a powerful newspaper called a dental clinic bolshevism, I venture to predict that social workers could be found who would say, ‘We don’t really approve of dental clinics. We are only experimenting with baby teeth.'” Ouch! But the social workers, infatuated with Freud and individual casework, weren’t interested.
Sarcasm was never Jane Addams’s strong point, anyway. Long after most moderns would give up, she maintained the perhaps naive view that the things people have in common are more valuable and important than the things that separate them, and that in the long run moral force was the only force that would bring lasting peace. Her nephew tells this story of her visit to Europe after the war:
“In Berlin a group of doughboys of the American army of occupation asked Jane Addams to a reception. She went, and made them a little talk. When she returned to her hotel she was rebuked by one of the English [pacifist] women present.
“‘You would eat with soldiers in uniform?’
“‘Certainly. Why not?’
“‘If I found a wounded soldier in uniform at my very door, I would not take him in.’
“‘Oh, I think you would,’ she said. ‘You would take him in, and feed him, and take off his uniform. Isn’t that what we are working for–to feed the world at our doorstep, and take off its uniform?'”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/University of Illinois at Chicago Library–Jane Addams Memorial Collection.