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
HistoricDetroit.org. n.d.”Hazen S. Pingree Monument.” Accessed February 13, 2018. http://historicdetroit.org/building/hazen-s-pingree-monument/
DetroitNews.com. 1/06/2013. “Hazen Pingree: Quite possibly Detroit’s finest mayor.” Accessed February 14, 2018. http://blogs.detroitnews.com/history/2013/01/06/hazen-pingree-quite-possibly-detroits-finest-mayor/
PHOTO: “Pingree’s Potato Patches.” https://communityofgardens.si.edu/items/show/29