Foreign-Born US Presidential Contenders, Part 2

The second pair of foreign-born presidential contenders both have similar political careers, revolving around turn of the century Chicago. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago experienced an astonishing rate of growth, going from under 30,000 in the 1840 census to surpassing 1 million people and becoming the second largest city in the US in 1890, to a peak of 3.6 million in 1950. The majority of this growth came from Irish and German immigrants in the 19th century, followed by Eastern Europeans in the 20th.

It was during this time that John Peter Altgeld became the first foreign-born governor of Illinois. Altgeld was born in central Germany in 1847. His family moved to the United States when he was just three months old, and he grew up in Ohio. Altgeld served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and after the war studied law in Missouri before moving to Chicago in 1875. In Missouri Altgeld was involved with the Granger Movement, a national agricultural advocacy group, where he first became involved with the Democratic Party and cemented his progressive politics. In 1884, Altgeld ran against incumbent George Adams to represent Illinois’s heavily Republican 4th Congressional District. While the district was heavily Republican, Altgeld only lost to Adams by 8 percent. In 1885, Altgeld was appointed as a judge to the Cook County Superior Court where he served until 1891.

In 1892, the Democratic Party selected Altgeld as their nominee for Illinois governor. Altgeld narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Joseph Fifer, becoming the first Democratic governor of Illinois since 1856, and the first Chicagoan to hold the office. Altgeld was governor for four years, during which he was one of the most progressive governors in the country. He passed significant child labor and work safety laws, and appointed several women to positions in the state government. Additionally, Altgeld pardoned the three surviving men who were convicted of the 1886 Haymarket Bombing in Chicago. In 1894, Altgeld again showed his progressive stance during the Pullman Strike. Altgeld refused to authorize president Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops to break up the strikes. Eventually Cleveland did send in federal troops without the governor’s approval in a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court. Altgeld’s decisions regarding the Haymarket Affair and the Pullman Strike brought plenty of resentment from pro-business conservatives, and he was narrowly defeated for reelection in 1896. In 1899, Altgeld ran for mayor of Chicago but lost. He died in 1902 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Altgeld’s primary lasting legacy lies in the impact he left on the Illinois state university system. Altgeld was a proponent of beautification, and suggested a Gothic style be used for university buildings. Several state universities in Illinois followed this direction, and have Gothic Revival buildings on their campuses. The buildings are now known as “Altgeld’s castles”.

If John Peter Altgeld were eligible, his best chance to run for president would either be 1896 or 1900. Altgeld was the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and frequently at odds with the more conservative Bourbon Democratic faction led by president Cleveland. When the Bourbon Democrats split off from the mainstream party in 1896, Altgeld would have possibly been a better candidate than William Jennings Bryan. Altgeld held similar positions as Bryan, but he was 13 years older than Bryan. Additionally, Altgeld would have been able to appeal more to German-American voters and connect with voters in the cities, who felt alienated by the Nebraskan Bryan. This could have given the Democrats the boost they needed in the Midwest to gain Illinois and Indiana and defeat William McKinley. However, it’s difficult to say how much of Altgeld’s progressivism would have gotten through Congress with many Bourbon Democrats and former president Cleveland bitter at Altgeld.

The next foreign-born presidential contender rose through the Chicago political ranks arrived nearly thirty years later in a much-changed city. The city had continued to swell with a new wave of immigrants from Italy, Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire, and had growing Jewish and African-American populations. Chicago and Cook County were dominated by the Democratic Party machine, which was in turn dominated by Irish Americans. Prohibition and the Depression led to a marked increase in violent crime in Chicago, with gangsters like Al Capone terrorizing the city.

It was in this political climate that a Czech named Anton Cermak had grown up in, after arriving in the United States from Austria-Hungary in 1874 barely a year after he was born. Cermak first entered politics when he was elected to the Illinois state House of Representatives in 1902. Cermak continued to rise the Democratic political ladder, serving as alderman of Chicago’s 12th ward and later as president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. In 1928, Cermak ran for Senate but was defeated by Republican Otis Glenn. In 1931, Cermak galvanized the non-Irish immigrant population to form a powerful political bloc which helped him defeat corrupt mayor Bill Thopmson.

Unfortunately, Cermak’s time as mayor of Chicago would be very brief. On February 15, 1933 Cermak went with President-Elect Roosevelt to Miami, as Roosevelt had been a big supporter of Cermak’s mayoral campaign. While Cermak was shaking hands with the President-Elect, assassin Giuseppe Zangara shot at them, missing Roosevelt but hitting Cermak in the lung. Cermak died on March 6 in Miami. While some theories say that Cermak was Zangara’s intended target because of mob retribution or other reasons, these are unsupported and it is more likely that Roosevelt was the target of the assassination attempt.

If Cermak had survived and been eligible for the presidency, it is still unlikely he would have been a candidate because of FDR’s unprecedented run as president. However, Cermak might have been a potential choice for Roosevelt’s Vice President. FDR replaced his vice presidents in both the 1940 and 1944 elections. In these cases, if Cermak had been a successful mayor, he may have been a top pick for the vice presidency in either election. Due to his age, however, Cermak would have probably not served long as vice president if he was selected.

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