One of the great memes of the first decade of the twentieth century, if you will excuse my use of that anachronistic phrase, surrounds the term “undesirable citizens,” famously used by President Theodore Roosevelt in reference to labor radicals.
That term was quickly appropriated as a badge of honor by socialist and trade union militants, and has been more or less absorbed into the mythology of the American labor movement. Its context has faded and those remembering the term’s actual use have departed from the scene, but a vague sense of ancient insult and reclaimed honor remains.
What of this phrase? Was it a creation from whole cloth by President Theodore Roosevelt? Is it true, as Gene Debs intimated several times in 1907, that Roosevelt used the phrase “undesirable citizen” specifically about him?
I decided to take a short look at this small footnote of history — largely so that I could write an accurate footnote to my history…
• • • • •
Meaning 1: Ne’erdowells of the Lumpenproletariat
The term “undesirable citizen” did not originate with Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, the exact phrase begins to pop up in American newspapers in the years immediately after the American Civil War. In its first iteration, “undesirable citizen” was a Gilded Age term mockingly employed by defenders of polite society from the aggressions and transgressions of the most brazen ne’erdowells of the lumpenproletariat.
Publisher John H. Oberly of the Cairo, Illinois, Evening Bulletin provides one particularly colorful example of this early use:
John Stricker, alias John Jones, alias “Louisville” is now in the calaboose, ruminating, it is hoped, on the wickedness of his ways and the pleasanter paths of uprightness and virtue. And who deplores his absence from the public walks of life? No one, as far as is heard from. On the contrary, his incarceration is spoken of, on all sides, as a mere taste of that punishment his bad life and long continued misconduct deserved.
For many years he has been a loafer, the frequenter of the vilest dens of the city, the blackmailer of bawds, and the companion of thieves, gamblers, and counterfeiters. A foul-mouthed, brazen-faced blatherskite, he appears here, there, and everywhere, and has done more than any ten loafers in the city to create the impression among strangers that Cairo is the general rendezvous of blackguards and villains.
On the streets, in saloons, in low dance houses and brothels, among the wicked and debased, he has spent ten years of his life in Cairo, and, all that time, he has been permitted to offend with impunity! … There is scarcely a citizen of Cairo who has not been approached by him with the impudent demand “give me half a dollar;” and there is scarcely a bawd in the city who has not paid him blackmail, extorted from her under the threat of prosecution in the event of her refusal.
He is, in short, generally and especially, a very undesirable citizen… (fn. “A Privileged Character Brought to Grief,” Cairo Evening Bulletin, April 2, 1869, p. 3. Emphasis added.)
In a similarly entertaining vein, here is the New York Herald celebrating the violent demise of one Irish tough in the fall of 1875:
Another of those gentlemen of muscular development who live on their reputation as bruisers has passed away from the earth, figuratively speaking, with his boots on and with a couple of ounces of lead in his inside. O’Baldwin, the Irish giant, whose “arm was as big as another man’s thigh,” and whose brawny fist could fell an ox as easily as it could be done with a poleaxe, died yesterday morning from the effect of pistol shot wounds, inflicted by the hand of one of his own breed….
In the good old days of Tammany’s ascendancy men like O’Baldwin could hold high their bullet heads and their broken noses and lord it in the first political circles of the city. Everybody remembers how they might be seen any bright, sunny afternoon, lounging on the Broadway corners opposite the City Hall Park or hanging about the steps of the public buildings, receiving kindly recognition from the “bosses”…
Since the old leaders passed away to the seclusion of prison cells, or sought recreation in foreign lands, the crop-haired heroes have been driven to seek a living in other ways than from the city payrolls. Some of them naturally took to the liquor business, and O’Baldwin was one of these…
It is probably a good thing for the public that these characters so frequently and so effectually dispose of each other…. Judging by his past career we may fairly congratulate ourselves that the city is thus speedily rid of him, although in the interests of justice the manner of his end may be deplored. Now and then the bullet finds a useful mark, and if the gallows can do its part and put O’Baldwin’s murderer out of the way we shall be happily relieved of two undesirable citizens by one event. (fn. “O’Baldwin’s End,” New York Herald, whole no. 14,283 (Sept. 30, 1875), p. 6. Emphasis added.)
• • • • •
Meaning 2: Potentially Disruptive (Non-White) Immigrants
With the marked expansion of immigration to the United States in last two decades of the nineteenth century, we find use of the phrase “undesirable citizen” shifting from erudite editorialists bemoaning criminal thugs to the customs and immigration bureaucracy and non-governmental opponents of foreign immigration. The term was now used to describe potential naturalization candidates destined to fail the winnowing process — particularly those not “white” enough.
Here’s one typical application, an Associated Press report from 1890, damning Asian immigration:
Seattle, Wash., Nov. 28 .— The Congressional Committee on Immigration held hearings here today examining leading citizens and officers of labor organizations in regard to the Chinese question and Scott exclusion act.
Among the witnesses was C.M. Bradshaw, Collector of Port Townsend. The opinion was generally expressed that the Chinese were undesirable citizens. Mr. Bradshaw told how Chinese are smuggled across the border, giving it as his opinion that 50 or 60 came in each month…. (fn. “Undesireable Citizens: The Immigration Committee Investigating the Chinese Question,” Los Angeles Times, vol. 9 (Nov. 29, 1890), p. 4. Emphasis added.)
This immigration-related application of the phrase “undesirable citizen” seems to have been much more common than its earlier use in conjunction with drunks and thugs. The term was not limited exclusively to Asiatic peoples, it is worth remarking — as this 1891 snippet datelined New Orleans detailing the report of a select “citizens’ committee” makes clear:
The only radical remedy which suggests itself to us is the entire prohibition of immigration from Sicily and lower Italy. It was found necessary to prohibit Chinese immigrants and Congress passed the necessary law. The danger to California from Chinese was no greater than the danger to [Louisiana] from the Sicilian and Southern Italians. We have had a long experience with these people and that experience has been a sad one. They are undesirable citizens and there is no reason why they should be allowed to participate in the blessings of freedom and civilization, which they are not only unable to appreciate but which they refuse to understand or to accept. (fn. “In the Crescent City,” Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1891, p. 1. Emphasis added.)
The specter of increased financial burden upon taxpayers associated with certain immigrants accentuated their undesirability, as this 1904 piece entitled “Undesirable Citizens” from the Deseret Evening News of Salt Lake City emphasizes:
Inspector Webber of the Chinese Immigration inspection department including this state, is looking over the Utah penal and charitable institutions to ascertain whether any of the inmates come within the deporting regulations.
He found a young Italian, aged 26 at Castle Gate, who had been paralyzed from the hips down by a mine accident, and who will be a charge of the county for the remainder of his life. The man had been in the United States just long enough to escape from deportation rules when his accident came.
Another charge was found in Utah County in the case of a young Englishman who has been in jail five times in the short period of his stay in the United States, and it may be found possible to ship him back to the old country. (fn. “Undesirable Citizens: Inspector Webber Here Looking for Aliens Eligible for Deportation,” Deseret Evening News, vol. 54 (April 1, 1904), p. 10.)
In short, by the 1890s the phrase had emerged as a mainstream term of derogation towards those immigrants judged to be insufficiently dedicated to the rule of law, the maintenance of wage scales, or the cultural norms of American Anglo-Saxon society — especially those who would add to the tax burden of established society.
The racist undertones of such a construction were unmistakable. Here’s a December 1890 editorial rant entitled “Undesirable Immigrants” from the Nashville Tennessean in which the writer’s bigoted nativism is allowed to shine through:
There can be no doubt that some effective law restricting immigration should be passed by Congress. This country is, and for many years will be, a home for the oppressed of every country, but it should no longer be safe refuge for vagabonds, paupers, criminals, and all the various undesirable elements of society, which the countries of the Old World are glad to furnish us without extra charge….
The United States should no longer be a dumping ground for the human refuse of all Europe. The emigrant ships which daily pour out their foul contents upon our shores are so many ocean garbage carts employed in cleaning the population of other countries. Good men from every country, no matter what may be their race or religion, if they…embrace American ideas and assimilate with our population, are welcome. But let us draw the line on thieves, paupers, anarchists, and their like. Our poorhouses, our jails, our penal, charitable, and reformatory institutions of every kind are kept up largely to care for Old World paupers and punish Old World malefactors.
We thus kindly rid our friends across the water of undesirable citizens as well as the trouble and expense of looking after them…. (fn. “Undesirable Immigrants,” Nashville Tennessean, vol. 16, whole no. 5197 (Dec. 7, 1890), p. 4. Emphasis added.)
It all sounds perfectly Trumpian.
• • • • •
Meaning 3. Labor Movement Activists
Applicability of the term “undesirable citizen” was further extended to cover strikers and strike leaders during the days of the so-called Citizens’ Alliances around the turn of the 20th Century. The former association of the term with a need to stop a stream of alien outsiders from entering and disrupting the fabric of the nation was supplanted by a new emphasis on those disrupting the divine right of profits of American “captains of industry,” thereby undermining the national economy.
This precise phrase was still not commonly being used for strikers during the last years of the 19th Century. This June 1899 article from Southeastern Kansas during a coal miners’ strike clearly uses the phrase in its earlier ne’erdowell and racist context against those brought in to break a strike.
Judge A.H. Skedmore has granted the injunction prayed for against the Kansas and Texas Coal Company, enjoining that corporation from bringing in for the operation of its mines from which the strikers withdrew, of any convict labor, undesirable citizens, or people with malignant or contagious diseases. This was caused by the threat of the company to import Negro labor, and it is remembered that during the strike of 1893 this company imported from Alabama a lot of Negroes who have been the worst citizens ever brought from the district. The people in general hope no more such will ever be brought into this district. (fn. Kansas Semi-Weekly Capital [Topeka], June 2, 1899, p. 5. Emphasis added.)
Within a few short years the phrase would be exclusively used against strikers themselves, however. Here’s a piece entitled “Banishing Undesirable Citizens” from the New York Times of August 2, 1903:
The action of the people of Idaho Springs in rounding up fourteen men suspected of complicity in or guilty knowledge of the blowing up of the buildings of the Sun and Moon Mine, marching them to the town border, and bidding them depart, never to return, on penalty of “hearing something to their disadvantage,” is at least a good deal better than a lynching. The explosion is popularly believed to have been a trades union outrage, planned and executed to discourage further resistance to a strike now in progress in that district… The evidence probably was not sufficient to give assurance of a conviction, although the men in question had been arrested and were in jail at the time. In some communities the intensity of local feeling would have suggested lynching the suspects on general principles. The Idaho Springs method was preferable. (fn. “Banishing Undesirable Citizens,” New York Times, Aug. 2, 1904, p. 6.)
For another example of troublesome strikers given the new appellation “undesirable citizens,” see this dispatch bearing the subhead “Undesirable Citizens Sent Out by Colorado Officials” published during the period of Governor Peabody’s martial law:
Telluride, Colo, Jan. 5 .— Twenty-six men arrested here by the military authorities, including former Attorney General Eugene Engley, counsel fo the Telluride Miners’ Union, Guy E. Miller, president of the union, and J.S. Williams, vice-president of the Western Federation of Miners, were placed on board a north-bound train yesterday and taken beyond the boundaries of San Miguel County under military guard. They will not be allowed to return to this district while martial law is in effect. (fn. Wire report, “Were Transported: Undesirable Citizens Sent Out by Colorado Officials,” Ottawa [KS] Evening Herald, vol. 8, no. 40 (Jan. 5, 1904), p. 1.)
And the most “undesirable” of all would be those trade union functionaries who led such strikes, would they not?
• • • • •
And Then Teddy Takes Over…
So we see that when he made use of the term “undesirable citizens” in 1906 and 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt was merely echoing a popular phrase which had evolved and become part of the vocabulary of contemporary conservatism — a phrase used directly in the context of labor disruption.
But this was not the first time that TR had made use of the construct of “undesirable citizens” — he had already latched on to the phrase even before he became president. In Roosevelt’s 1899 biography of Thomas H. Benton, written more than a decade earlier, TR wields the epithet “undesirable” against New England religious pacifists, of all people, adding insufficient militarism to the official list of fundamental character flaws:
But, after all, this [Southern] ruffianism was really not a whit worse in its effects on the natural character than was he case with certain of the “universal peace” and “non-resistance” developments in the Northeastern states; in fact, it was more healthy. A class of professional non-combatants is as hurtful to the real, healthy growth of a nation as is a class of fire-eaters; …and, in the long run, a Quaker may be quite as undesirable a citizen as is a duelist. No man who is not willing to bear arms and fight for his rights can give a good reason why he should be entitled to the privilege of living in a free community. (fn. Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas H. Benton . Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1899; pp. 33-34. Emphasis added)
• • • • •
Use of the term “undesirable citizens” positively exploded in 1907 and President Roosevelt was the direct cause. In the spring of that year a campaign finance controversy around the president erupted, with millionaire railroad executive E.H. Harriman asserting that TR had asked him to raise $250,000 for the 1904 presidential campaign, in exchange for moving New York Senator Chauncey Depew out of Washington as the next ambassador to France — thereby opening up the Senate seat for former governor Benjamin Odell, Jr., a friend of Harriman’s.
As the Washington Post put it, “aggressive and impulsive, President Roosevelt came back at Harriman in true Rooseveltian fashion,” calling Harriman a liar and publishing an entire chain of correspondence with Rep. James S. Sherman of New York (future vice-president under William Howard Taft), chair of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee as a means of documentary refutation of the charge. (fn. “Harriman Lies, Says President,” Washington Post, April 3, 1907, p. 1.)
One of these pieces of correspondence published for the first time in the spring of 1907 was a lengthy letter from Roosevelt to Sherman written on October 8 of the previous year, in which Roosevelt remarked:
Far more important are the additional remarks he [Harriman] made to you [Sherman], as you inform me, when you asked him if he thought it was well to see Hearstism and the like triumphant over the Republican Party.
You inform me that he told you that he did not care in the least, because those people were crooks and he [Harriman] could buy them; that whenever he wanted legislation from a state legislature he could buy it; that he “could buy Congress,” and that if necessary he “could buy the judiciary.”
This was doubtless said partly in boastful cynicism and partly in a mere burst of bad temper, because of the interstate commerce law and to my actions as president. But it shows a cynicism and deep-seated corruption, which make the man uttering such sentiments, and boasting, no matter how falsely, of this power to perform such crimes, at least as undesirable a citizen as Debs, or Moyer, or Haywood. (fn. “Harriman Lies, Says President”, p. 2. Emphasis added.)
Bear in mind that this was written in October 1906, when the public controversy and tsk-tsking of Debs for his ostensibly insurrectionary writing on the Moyer-Haywood-Pettibone kidnapping from the previous spring was fresh in the public consciousness.
As the trial finally approached, matters were getting even more serious. Defenders of the jailed leaders of the Western Federation of Miners, facing trial for their lives, were positively aghast at Roosevelt’s characterization of the defendants. One of the numerous letters of protest received by Roosevelt was from Honoré Jackson of Chicago, chair of the Cook County Moyer-Haywood Conference. In his April 19 communication Jackson had queried Roosevelt about his characterization of Moyer and Haywood as “undesirable citizens” and declared that “death cannot, will not, and shall not claim our brothers.”
This provoked the hot-blooded Roosevelt, who responded on April 22 that Jackson’s language “shows you are not demanding a fair trial or working for a fair trial, but are announcing in advance that the verdict shall be one way and that you will not tolerate any other verdict.” This, Roosevelt contended, was “flagrant in its impropriety and I join heartily in condemning it.” Roosevelt railed:
…It is a simple absurdity to suppose that because any man is on trial for a given offense he is therefore to be freed from all criticisms upon his general conduct and manner of life. In my letter to which you object I referred to a certain prominent financier, Mr. Harriman, on the one hand, and to Messrs. Moyer, Haywood, and Debs, on the other, as being equally undesirable citizens…. I neither expressed nor indicated any opinion as to whether Messrs. Moyer and Haywood were guilty of the murder of Gov. Steunenberg. If they are guilty, they certainly ought to be punished. If they are not guilty, they certainly ought not to be punished.
But no possible outcome…can affect my judgment as the the undesirability of the type of citizenship of those whom I mentioned. Messrs. Moyer, Haywood, and Debs stand as representatives of those men who have done as much to discredit the labor movement as the worst speculative financiers or most unscrupulous employers of labor and debauchers of legislatures have done to discredit honest capitalists and fair-dealing businessmen.
They stand as the representatives of these men who by their public utterances and manifestos, by the utterances of the papers they control or inspire, and by the words and deeds of those associated with or subordinated to them habitually appear as guilty of incitement to or apology for bloodshed and violence.
If this does not constitute undesirable citizenship, then there can never be any undesirable citizens. The men whom I denounce represent the men who have abandoned that legitimate movement for the uplifting of labor with which I have the most hearty sympathy; they have adopted practices which cut them off from those who lead this legitimate movement. In every way I shall support the law-abiding and upright representatives of labor, and in no way can I better support them than by drawing the sharpest possible line between them on the one hand and on the other hand those preachers of violence who are themselves the worst foes of the honest laboring men. (fn. “President Scorns Enmity of Labor,” Chicago Tribune, vol. 66, no. 98 (April 24, 1907), p. 1. Emphasis added.)
And so was a meme born as the left rallied to the slur by appropriating it as a self-description in defiance.
I’ll close with one quick example of the way the left rapidly turned the insult into a badge of honor — of which there are many, including several from the pen of Debs.
This is by Phil Hafner, publisher and editor of the Scott County Kicker of Benton, Missouri:
About “Undesirable Citizens” — Washington and Lincoln Were Classed as Such in Their Day
These “undesirable citizens” are a great source of annoyance to the ruling class. The men on top are satisfied to let “well enough alone.” The same platitudes and “arguments” used in defense of existing conditions have been used for ages by the exploiters of the people. “Obey the law,” is their cry…
But the “undesirable citizen” is always with us. And the preachers, teachers, editors, lawyers, and officials of the time are hot on his trail. An “anarchist” they call him because he rebels against the injustices of the day….
Christ drove the money-changers (we call them capitalists) from the temple. They had polluted the house of worship into a “den of thieves,” he said. Of course the Savior was a very “undesirable citizen” and you need not be told what the ruling powers did to him. * * *
The Tories, who owned the colonies under British rule, wanted no change. They were satisfied. Living on the fat of the lad by absorbing, in arrogant idleness, what others produced in toil and self-denial, the Tory element was in clover and, of course, wanted to remain there. Its organs violently denounced as traitors those who ventured to suggest a change of program. These miscreants included Paine, Franklin, Adams, Hancock, Washington, Jefferson, and a number of other “undesirable citizens,” who have since become quite respectable. The Tory has gone the way of flesh and is remembered only as an abomination. * * *
Men who write as Debs writes, and talk as Debs talks, are, and always have been, “undesirable citizens” in the eyes of the ruling class. Debs has never violated any law, neither has it been shown that either Moyer, Haywood, or Pettibone have, yet the president of the United States publicly declares them to be “undesirable citizens.” * * *
When past history is taken into account, it is not surprising that the revolutionists of today take great pride in wearing badges on which is inscribed, “We Are Undesirable Citizens.” (fn. Phil A. Hafner, “About ‘Undesirable Citizens’ — Washington and Lincoln Were Classed as Such in Their Day,” Scott County Kicker, May 18, 1907, p. 1.)
The official deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 4 is October 15, 2019. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 14 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.
- “The Coming Climax” (May 18, 1907) — 3,790 words
- “Roosevelt’s Labor Letters” (May 18, 1907) — 2,368 words
- “The Trial and Its Meaning” (June 8, 1907) — 2,085 words
- “Sweep of the Social Revolution” (Nov. 9, 1907) — 2,227 words
Word count: 149,523 in the can + 10,470 this week +/- amendments = 159,993 words total.
David Walters will be running all of this material up on Marxists Internet Archive in coming days.
To find it, please visit the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive
Here’s the microfilm that I’ve scanned this week, available for free download. Bear in mind that there is generally a short delay between completion of the scanning and its appearance on MIA. Thanks are due to David Walters for getting this material into an accessible format.
• Lincoln [NE] Socialist-Labor — 1896 (Jan. – July) [end of run]
• New York Call — 1908 (May-August)