With its funds drying up, the Jane Addams Hull House Association, a social service agency in Chicago, shut its doors in January 2012 after 122 years of continuous work. The demise of the organization that bears her name brings to mind what Jane Addams accomplished in 1889 when she created Hull House. In doing so, she took Lincoln as a prime inspiration.
Born in 1860, Addams was 29 years old when she founded Hull House as a “settlement” of college-educated women in a working-class neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. (The house took its name from its original owner of 1856.) For them, Hull House offered a new experience of social and vocational freedom. They got to test their book knowledge against the realities of urban life.
Hull House gave direct assistance to the poor, but its mission encompassed an attack on inequality across the board — publicizing inferior housing and working conditions faced by immigrant laborers, acquainting adults and children with the democratic ideals espoused by Lincoln and others.
In the 1880s, a chorus of reformers bewailed the deep class divisions threatening the ideal of citizen equality. A gap between rich and poor had seemed more acceptable when most people believed (as Lincoln did) that any white man working for wages could acquire capital through diligent labor, and eventually become an employer himself.
By the late 1880s — after a decade of class conflict culminating in Chicago’s Haymarket Riot of 1886 — more and more middle-class reformers joined labor organizers in concluding that equal opportunity was dying out. To give every man a shot at economic independence, and to preserve a republic of equal citizens, fundamental change could no longer be avoided, they felt.
But what kind of change could equalize life chances? Addams imagined Hull House as an experimental institution searching for answers. Weekly lectures on political economy brought in eager crowds, including socialists and anarchists. The House became a center of intellectual debate, and Lincoln emerged as a staple of the conversation. Addams modeled her approach to social progress after his.
In the 1850s, he had pushed the American founders’ principle of equality for all, while going slow on the abolition of slavery and seeking an accommodation between free and slave states. In the 1890s, Addams pushed Lincoln’s goal of equality for all, while pursuing an accommodation between labor and capital, and deeper bonds of understanding between immigrants and native-born Americans.
In her memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), she noted how much Lincoln had meant to her since childhood. Her father John Addams, an Illinois State Senator starting in 1854, had known him personally (Lincoln liked to address him as “Double D’ed Addams”). She could remember the moment her father told her, at age four, that “the greatest man in the world” had died. He was sobbing as he said it, and looking back years later, Jane saw his torrent of tears over Lincoln as her “baptism” into the wider world.
Devising the Hull House “settlement” — a residence for independent women on the urban frontier, and a living bridge between the classes — assured Addams that she had found a calling worthy of her father’s and Lincoln’s generation, those who had saved the Union and freed the slaves.
But in 1894, when class conflict erupted again in Chicago with the Pullman Strike, she confronted the apparent breakdown of her bridging campaign. “Labor” and “capital” had reached an impasse, and she was bewildered about how to proceed. She was tempted by the Socialist program — government ownership of major industries — but decided it was too rigid. On the other hand, leaving large companies in the hands of men like George Pullman, who could lower his workers’ wages at will, seemed intolerable too.
In her confusion, Addams sought Lincoln’s help. She set out on a three-mile pilgrimage from Hull House to Lincoln Park, where Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s acclaimed bronze statue of Lincoln had been dedicated in 1887. She wanted to meditate at this shrine to her hero, “to look at and gain magnanimous counsel, if I could, from the marvelous Saint- Gaudens statue.”
Reflecting on Lincoln’s ideas, she found him mute on the labor-capital conflict, since he had never encountered “labor” and “capital” in their late-19th century forms. But she gathered ample wisdom from the words chiseled into the granite bench that stretches around the statue: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
The injustices built into modern industrial life would have to be addressed pragmatically, she realized, not according to the Socialist vision of a progress unfolding through prescribed historical stages. To Addams, “pragmatism” meant practical problem-solving, informed by a set of chosen ideals. Addams took her ideals straight from Lincoln: equality for all and respect for one’s opponents.
One must prepare for partial victories and frequent setbacks. Lincoln had shown the proper patience, being content “to dig the channels through which the moral life of his countrymen might flow.” Amidst all the turn-of-the-century calls for wholesale social transformation, she found that “the memory of Lincoln… came like a refreshing breeze from off the prairie.”
“In the unceasing ebb and flow of justice and oppression,” she concluded, “we must all dig channels as best we may, that at the propitious moment [something] of the swelling tide may be conducted to the barren places of life.”