The Idol of the People

Hazen Stuart Pingree was born in 1840 to a poor family, had worked on a farm, had little education, and had gotten a job in a factory when he was younger.  But from these beginnings, he became a successful businessman.  During the 1880’s Pingree’s shoe company had brought in nearly a million dollars to become the second largest shoe manufacturer in the U.S.  It was during this time that Detroit needed help.  There were cases of bribery, corruption, and questionable practices everywhere.  Detroit’s influential citizens and business leaders encouraged a reluctant Pingree to run for mayor in 1889.  He won.

Pingree proved himself to be a social reformer through a number of decisions that he truly believed helped the common man and that reduced the corporate business’ influence of government.   In Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State, we learned that when utility companies refused to lower their rates, Pingree called for municipal ownership of gas and light companies.  When street railroad firms refused to reduce fares, he threatened to establish a city-owned transit company.  When strikes occurred, he urged arbitration rather than calling in a militia to be strikebreakers. With the Depression of 1893, Pingree set aside vacant city lots where the poor could plant vegetable gardens and potato patches.  Pingree even sold his prize horse at auction and donated the proceeds for relief programs (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, p.126).  For the unemployed, he started a program of public works.  He called for the improvement of the paved streets and he modernized the sewer system.  He built a city-owned electric plant that resulted in a large savings for the citizens.  He also fought to have railway companies and other large corporations pay a fair share of taxes.  “As governor, Pingree continued to fight for equalized taxation, improved labor standards, and an end to corrupt business practices” (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, p. 128). Hazen Pingree simply became a popular leader among the common people.

Pingree focused his efforts on bringing fairness to the people.  When comparing Pingree’s efforts with today’s politics, he would probably be viewed as a democrat: wanting equality and opportunity for everyone, working for the betterment of the working class, and improving the quality of people’s lives through government involvement.  When thinking about politics, the most recent presidential election comes to mind.  In some ways, Hazen Pingree could be compared to Donald Trump today.  Regardless of people’s personal beliefs and political views, both men had substantial wealth and great influence.  Because of his wealth, it may have been difficult for Pingree to relate completely with those who were affected by the Panic of 1893 and the Depression that followed.  Most people lost everything, yet Pingree probably still had more resources than most.  But Pingree could relate better to the common people and felt a sense of obligation in helping those less fortunate.   His heart was in the right place.  And in some ways, Hazen Pingree could also be compared to Hillary Clinton, a presidential candidate who wanted to continue many of the democratic programs from the Obama administration for the common people.

But is it the job of the politicians to reform society when things aren’t going well?  My first thoughts were that when there are problems, we look to leaders that are elected.  We look to the mayor or city council to handle municipal problems, to the governor to handle state problems, and we look to the President and Congress to handle national problems.  We may think that they are representing our views and wishes.  But not every person voted to elect them, only a certain percentage of society did.  The candidates run on a platform of various issues.  When we vote, do we all agree the same way on every issue?  Do politicians also have their own personal views that come into play when they govern or lead?   Many candidates campaign and raise money for an election.  Do the contributors have more influence since they support the candidates?  One question then came to mind: What if every tax-payer had a part in the reform?  What if we decided how our tax dollars are used?  Would we want 15% to go to education, 15% to the military, 15% to health care and social programs, etc?  Would it make a difference?

There is a bronze monument that sits at West Adams and Woodward in Detroit honoring Hazen Pingree.  The plaque on the monument reads: “The citizens of Michigan erect this monument to the cherished memory of Hazen S. Pingree. A gallant soldier, an enterprising and successful citizen, four times elected mayor of Detroit, twice governor of Michigan. He was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by powerful private corporations. And the first to awake to the great inequalities in taxation and to initiate steps for reform. The idol of the people. He died June 18, MDCCCI, aged 60 years”.


Bruce A Rubenstein and Lawrence E. Ziewacz.  Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State.  Wiley, 2014 n.d.”Hazen S. Pingree Monument.”  Accessed February 13, 2018. 1/06/2013.  “Hazen Pingree: Quite possibly Detroit’s finest mayor.”  Accessed February 14, 2018.

PHOTO: “Pingree’s Potato Patches.”

15 thoughts on “The Idol of the People

  1. I like how you incorporated Pingree to todays presidential elects, I would also agree he was much like clinton. Also it would be nice in todays times if there was someone fighting for the people with power companys and their price hikes, it seems lately all you hear of is everyones consumers bills going up with the new meters, but there is no other power company to compete with them so the people are stuck paying these prices.

    1. Pingree just really didn’t like the monopoly that big business seemed to have on politics and how it affected everybody in society. I read some place while doing research for this blog, that when Pingree found out that the gas companies in Detroit had been overcharging customers, including himself, he went ahead and filed a lawsuit against them and demanded reimbursement. Although he had the means to pay the bill during some struggling times compared to the poor, even he didn’t like how he was being treated. Another example of Pingree’s concern for all people is shown in his dealings with the railways. He wanted to make sure that riders were safe in all areas of Detroit, and not just the riders that would be in well-to-do areas. It’s amazing to me how much he accomplished.

  2. Even though Pingree had strong political views, I feel he was a very smart and caring man. With setting aside vacant city lots so the poor could plant vegetable gardens and potato patches from him selling his prize horse at auction and donated the proceeds for relief program showed he cared.

    1. Yes i noticed this as well, today we can’t always tell if our politicians care about our overall well being, but you can tell he really did care about making things right for Michigan citizens.

  3. Because Pingree grew up in a poor household I am sure that helped him to relate to the less fortunate. Nonetheless I still don’t think he could ever truly relate to the all poor citizens. It simply wasn’t his life, he didn’t know what all they were dealing with, however what made him different was that he tried, he did his best to relate to them, and then he took action to make their lives better.

    1. Yes, I agree with your statement about Pingree not being able to relate to all the poor citizens. However, he did an excellent job in making sure they were not left out in society. Sure he couldn’t relate to them on everything, but I feel he did his best in helping them out and being an advocate for the lower class.

  4. I feel that Pingree was a very influential man. The ties that you made between him and the modern presidential elect really helped to establish what kind of man he was. He seems as if he was all for the people, and not just the wealthy. He supported the lower class and wanted to see them succeed. This is the kind of man that made a great leader.

    1. “all for the people, and not just the wealthy.” I like that, I feel like a lot of politicians try to please the wealthy folk much more than they try to help the poor. They too often loose sight of where they are and what they could be doing, they just try to please the wealthy so that they stay there in power.

  5. It feels weird for me to try to place Pingree in a political class. He didn’t seem to me as though he was trying to be a politician or fit into a political category, more like he just plain and simply wanted to help people. He was nothing more than a humanist that became a mayor and governor. If you ask me, I think we need more people like him in our political system today.

    1. I agree with you that someone like him, someone who was just out to help people and it didn’t seem like he would even fit into a class. He was just a very giving man, he wanted to see change being done on every level and he intended to make it happen. I believe that everyone should be like him, no one should have a hidden agenda, they should all just be out to help everyone else.

  6. Pingree was someone who introduced innovative approaches to challenges posed by a new urban society (pg 128 Rubenstein). Pingree had a great idea to turn vacant & unused properties in Detroit into thriving little gardens to provide food for the hungry people of Detroit. I think this was a brilliant idea! This same idea was used a few years back in Saginaw, where a plot of land in the city was cultivated and seeds were planted. City folks learned how to supplement their food sources by working in this garden and harvesting the fruits & vegetables. Hopefully people are planting gardens of their own after the experience.

  7. Hello,

    I really like how you incorporated the most recent presidential elects into your argument and blog by using them to compare Pingree’s characteristics to. The question you ask of, “What if we decided where our tax dollars were used?” really made me start to think. I think this would be a disastrous idea to let the people decide where their tax dollars are used, I feel this would lead to mass chaos and disagreement. Everybody would have different opinions on this and would congregate into separate groups depending on their opinion. Lets say it was decided on a vote, ultimately the largest group would always win the vote and the smaller groups would always have to conform to these opinions. Good job on your post.

    1. I appreciated your response and the points you mentioned. I had some of those same thoughts when I considered the possibility of way too many opinions and a general mess. On a state level, I thought of the Flint Water Crisis recently. On a national level, think of the Immigration Crisis, etc. The list goes on and on. Instead of dealing with politics in government, what if the citizens decided how to fix those problems. Do politicians really make the best decisions? There are so many opinions and those opinions usually do end up forming separate groups, usually opposed to each other. Think Republicans and Democrats. Things are now decided on a vote with the largest group, whether in the House of Representatives or Senate, winning the vote and the smaller groups having to conform. Perhaps there isn’t a perfect system. Perhaps our country shouldn’t have a mainly two-party system. Maybe we should just have elected leaders representing the citizens by focusing on benefitting society as a whole. More to think about.

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