- Labor Poet Ralph ChaplinResister to the “Great War,” Prisoner of the “Class War”
Most men and women go where income promises and social preferment beckons. But not all! There are some whose love of justice, truth and beauty; whose yearning for betterment and increased social opportunity, outweighs the tempting bait of ease and respectability. Them the established order smites.—Scott Nearing (1922)1
His life and work may be mostly forgotten now, yet in the first half of the last century American radical Ralph H. Chaplin (1887–1961) was one of the most important authors, artists, and activists in the movement for the rights of organized labor. In the current day, Chaplin is probably best remembered as the writer of the lyrics to “Solidarity Forever” (1915),2 the venerable union anthem that is still sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“John Brown’s Body”) at labor events in the United States and throughout the world.
During his lifetime, Chaplin published four books of song and verse.3 His second, Bars and Shadows (1922, 1923),4 was written while he was an inmate in the Cook County Jail in Chicago and in the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was serving part of a twenty-year sentence [End Page 157] for his conviction under the Espionage Act of 1917. With nearly 100 fellow members of the Industrial Workers of the World (or the IWW), Chaplin had been found guilty in federal court in 1918 of hindering military recruitment for the First World War. (He had indicated on his draft registration that he was “conscienciously [sic] opposed to war,”5 and in a newspaper column had urged other IWWs to do the same.6) Chaplin was not a religiously motivated objector to conscription for military service, yet for much of the period between September 1917 and June 1923, he endured harsh imprisonment for his resolute opposition to America’s involvement in the war.
Aside from his poetry, Chaplin published two books about union struggles and an autobiography that made its way into the hands of figures as different as Jacques Maritain, Ernest Hemingway, and Julius Rosenberg.7 In addition, he edited four newspapers situated from Chicago west to California and Washington. He wrote innumerable essays and columns, sketched countless cartoons and drawings, and composed some of the favorite songs and poems of workers everywhere.8 In the process, he remains possibly the sole twentieth-century American to be blacklisted both by socially reputable groups such as the National Civic Federation, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and by less reputable ones, like the Communist Party U.S.A.9
This article discusses the role in Chaplin’s life of his opposition to war. It examines the circumstances under which he was tried and imprisoned for his beliefs; his experiences as a “class-war prisoner”; the means by which his sentence ultimately was commuted and his actions pardoned; and, once liberated, his work to win the release of other political prisoners and have a formal amnesty extended to all who had criticized America’s entry into the Great War.
Ralph Hosea Chaplin was born in 1887 in Cloud County, a small agricultural community along the banks of the Republican River in north-central Kansas and the place where his grandfather settled the entire family from Vermont after the Civil War. Chaplin’s father, Edgar L. Chaplin, was something of a rural entrepreneur. As a young man, “Ed,” as he was called, made (and [End Page 158] subsequently lost) a fair amount of money, first by raising different crops and then in buying and selling farmland. Later he operated a hotel and a livery, bought a small-town drug store, helped to edit a local newspaper, and even chartered a state bank for the village of Ames.
However, none of these enterprises won lasting economic security for him and his family. As a consequence, Ed moved the Chaplins to Chicago, where he first found work as a towerman, using switches and signals to raise and lower gates in a railroad yard, and then...