Mother Jones, "Open Letter to Mrs. Bertha Honore Palmer," 1907
In this open letter to Bertha Honoré Palmer, written in 1907, Mother Jones expressed her increasing skepticism of the upper class's involvement in social reform efforts. Mrs. Palmer, wife of Chicago businessman Potter Palmer, was a queen of society actively involved in social reform. Her home, Palmer Castle, now a Hilton hotel, featured an art gallery that displayed her collection of impressionistic art, including works by Claude Monet. Mother Jones wrote the letter in response to an announcement that Mrs. Palmer planned to host a dinner between workers and capitalists. In it, Mother Jones implicitly argues that Mrs. Palmer's efforts to resolve the social problems were in vain, because she was of the upper class and did not have first-hand knowledge of the plight of the worker class. Do you agree with Mother Jones that only those who live a problem can solve it? Does experience give an authority that reading, studying, cannot give? How did Mother Jones's life shape her view of society? Can one sincerely fight for justice without giving up his or her position of privilege?
On July 7, 1903, she announced her plan for 100 children textile workers, with adults and labor leaders, to march from Philadelphia to New York City. A week into the march, she wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt, asking for his support. Receiving no response, on July 28, 1903, Mother Jones with three children and two march organizers quietly attempted to meet with President Roosevelt at his home outside New York city. His secretary met them at the gate to inform her that the President was not in and to instruct her to write a second letter. This letter was published in Philadelphia's North American. Shortly after, she received a reply from the president's secretary, informing her that the issue of child labor fell under state jurisdiction and not federal. This assertion contradicted the fact that state child labor laws had been repeatedly struck down as unconstitutional.
Mother Jones's departure from the Socialist party in 1910 was due, in part, to her belief that only the working class truly understood society's problems and could solve them. At that time, the Socialist Party was attracting more middle-class Americans concerned about social problems. While the party welcomed these new members, Mother Jones, who questioned their sincerity and depth of commitment, openly expressed scorn for them.
This is Mother Jones's second letter to President Roosevelt. As you read the document, reflect on the following questions:
- Why did Mother Jones write President Roosevelt? What reaction did she expect from him?
- What action did she take because of her failure to gain his attention for her cause in the past?
- According to Mother Jones, why is the condition of working children important to American society as a whole?