MONMOUTH, Ill. — Today, the terms Socialist and Social Democrat are often associated with far-left political ideology and conjure up images of politicians who are sometimes viewed as controversial, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. There was an earlier period, however, when socialism had a more mainstream following, particularly in association with its support for trade unions and industrial workers.
In 1901, after serving a prison term for defying a federal injunction against a railroad workers strike, a former Democrat named Eugene V. Debs became a founding member of the Socialist Party of America. Under that party’s banner, he would run for president five times, garnering as much as 6 percent of the popular vote. In the 1904 presidential election, he received 316 votes in the heavily-Republican Warren County, Ill.
I have previously written about an early women’s rights and labor union activist named Lena Morrow Lewis, who grew up in Gerlaw, Ill., and graduated from Monmouth College in 1892. After joining the Socialist Party of America in 1902, she became a well-known lecturer and pamphlet writer, spending much of her career on the West Coast, where she was a California candidate for U.S. Senate in 1928.
I recently learned that Lewis had a contemporary classmate at Monmouth College who was also a prominent socialist and who, with Eugene Debs and others, was a founder of the Socialist Party of America.
John McClelland Work transferred to Monmouth in the fall of 1890 after completing preliminary work at Washington (Iowa) Academy and studying law under an elderly lawyer who was a family friend. Then known as “Mack,” he considered himself a rebel, writing in the Monmouth student newspaper that at Washington he had “studied law the first year, consisting principally in keeping feet well up on the tables and ‘sassing’ people,” and having had “the dishonor of taking honors in the classical department.”
But under the guidance of Washington professor John T. Matthews, an 1887 Monmouth graduate, Work had become a serious student. He was particularly active on the Washington student newspaper, serving as society editor, editorial writer, exchange editor, local editor and business manager. That experience would help guide his later journalism career, which would begin in 1917 as an editorial writer for The Milwaukee Leader, an anti-war newspaper that came under fire under the Espionage Act of that year. Work’s editorials would get his editor indicted by a grand jury in Chicago. Work would hold that position until 1942.
Work, who was born in 1869 on a farm near Washington, Iowa, entered Monmouth with senior status as a student in the Classical Course. He immediately joined the Eccritean literary society and became a popular debater, known for his wry sense of humor. A glimpse of his future socialist activism can be seen in an essay he submitted to the student newspaper titled “A Struggle.” The piece began by looking at the history of European powers which, under the guise of Christianity, oppressed the common people. The same hypocrisy, he argued, extended to America, under the institution of slavery. He ended by saying that while despots had finally been dethroned and slavery ended, a new despot — money — continues to oppress the working class. Politically, however, Work supported both the Republican and Prohibition parties.
After graduating from Monmouth, Work took a job writing and selling ads for a weekly Monmouth newspaper, but his poor salesmanship skills caused him to be fired after just six weeks. He returned to the family farm, while also clerking in the lawyer’s office. Soon a Monmouth classmate named William R. McKnight convinced him to enroll with him at Allegheny Theological Seminary and the pair headed to Pennsylvania.
While McKnight would become a Presbyterian minister, Work disliked the seminary from the outset and shortly thereafter traveled to Washington, D.C., where he enrolled in law school at what would become George Washington University. He completed the course in just one year and returned to Iowa, where he passed the state bar exam and began practicing law in Des Moines.
A lifelong teetotaler and vegetarian, he served as an 1893 delegate to national Republican clubs in Louisville, where he was shocked by the drunken antics of the Iowa delegation — an observation that would lead him to abandon the Republican Party in 1896 and pursue an alternative to traditional politics.
At Monmouth, Work had met a brilliant classmate named Lucie Hoisington, a Warren County native. Hoisington was assistant secretary of the student newspaper, secretary of ABL literary society and president of the senior class. After college, she and a fellow alumna — future Monmouth professor Eva Louise Barr — enrolled in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University.
Mack and Lucie had apparently maintained a long-distance relationship, for in 1896 they were married at the Presbyterian parsonage in Monmouth. The following year, Lucie gave birth to a daughter, Josephine.
In 1900, Work published his first article on socialism and made his first “soapbox” speech on behalf of the Social Democratic party. He joined the new Socialist Party of America in 1901 and in 1902 became its candidate for mayor of Des Moines. He ran for Iowa governor as the SPA candidate in 1903.
Work’s most well-known socialist treatise, the best-selling What’s So and What Isn’t, was written in 1905 and would appear in five printings, selling 200,000 copies. Lucie Work was also a public advocate for socialism. At a meeting of the Des Moines Ananias Club in 1909, she was a speaker along with her husband attacking Theodore Roosevelt as a liar in his recent editorial broadsides against socialism.
In 1910, Work was a delegate to the National Congress of the Socialist Party and later that year again ran unsuccessfully for Iowa governor. When the executive secretary of the party was forced to resign in 1911, Work was appointed interim secretary and then elected secretary, but political infighting led to his ousting in 1913. Later that year, he returned to his college town and gave an address on Socialism in the Warren County Courthouse. He was offered a job at LaSalle Extension University in Chicago, primarily because it had enrolled 3,000 socialist correspondence students and needed a socialist professor to teach law by correspondence.
While in Illinois, Work ran for Chicago alderman, for U.S. Congress and for governor on the Socialist ticket. He also ran for superior judge in Chicago, despite the fact that by then he had become a newspaperman in Milwaukee. In 1925, he was the Socialist candidate to fill the seat of Wisconsin’s Sen. Robert La Follette, who had died in office.
After the Milwaukee Leader was discontinued in 1942, Work suspended his activities with the Socialist Party, focusing his attentions instead on writing, including a series of legal texts published by LaSalle Extension University. At the age of 75, however, he did attend the party’s 1946 national convention as a delegate.
The Works’ daughter, Josephine, never married or sought a career. She lived with her parents her entire life, helping to care for them in their old age. John Work died in Milwakee at age 92 in 1961, shortly after his wife, Lucie. Josephine died in 1962.
The John M. Work papers are in the collection of the Milwaukee Public Library. Special thanks to Kevin Conroy of Fairfield, Iowa, for the suggestion to write this column.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.