Between 1880 and 1920, the United States evolved from a rural and agricultural society to an industrial and urban one. This period of unfettered industrial growth created both social problems and economic inequities. As a consequence, labor and reformers got together to deal with industrialization’s downside.
One remedy to industrialization’s ills was socialism. The socialist antidote to the economic inequities of capitalism was expanded government and public ownership of transportation, utilities, and communication. Though socialism never took hold in the United States, the Socialist Party in America did, however, garner enough attention and followers in the early twentieth century to elect several office holders.
Beginning in 1906, the Socialist Party in Quincy nominated candidates for ward and town offices. About the local Socialists, the Daily Herald snidely commented: “The usual calamity platform was adopted and it was resolved that the world is going to the dogs.” But by 1912, they succeeded in electing an alderman.
Coming off the 1908 Presidential election, where the Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, received 420,820 votes, the party looked to the future and in 1910 took three mayoral races—the most significant being Milwaukee. The following year, 1911, theSocialists elected 18 mayors.
“Lewis J. Duncan, an old Quincy boy, was elected mayor of Butte, Montana, yesterday, as Socialist”,the Quincy Daily Herald reported on April 4, 1911. The newspaper noted: “Mr. Duncan was a long time resident of Quincy and began his active career in this city. Later he entered the Unitarian ministry and he has filled the pulpit of the local church on many occasions.”
With her husband’s death in 1860, Emma Duncan left St. Louis with her two children and returned to her parents’ Quincy home. Here, Lewis, born May 4, 1857, lived until 1893. He attended Quincy’s public schools. Eventually, he studied law and was admitted to the bar. However after two years, he gave up law for a railroad job. Finding this not to his liking, Duncan took up bookkeeping and with years of self-study, he “qualified himself for the Unitarian ministry. He accepted a position in Streator.
After stops in Sheffield, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Rev. Duncan in 1902 took “charge . . . of the Unitarian church” in Butte. But Duncan’ssocialist’s beliefs “crept into his sermons,” and after nine years he “was compelled to leave. . . .” In his own words: “I got out of the church and into the socialist party. It had been my party for years, but then it became my political religion.”
In a lecture delivered on November 20, 1911, Duncan explained: “It was here in Quincy, and in this Unitarian church, that I first obtained a vision of ideals which have become tangible to me in the form of socialism.” He continued: “I stand here, preaching the doctrine of equality under socialism, where I once stood as a minister. This old town was my home for more than thirty years. This old church was where I was led into the religious beliefs which I preached for so many years.”
Duncan told the packed house that on leaving the ministry he “joined the union and became a union laborer.” “But the boys of Butte,” Duncan continued, “understood me, and they made me state secretary for the socialist party, and then they made me mayor.”
Collier’smagazine reported that Duncan’s election was largely due to auditors discovering shortages in the city’s books that had occurred under both the Democrats and Republicans. Colliers’added that the Amalgamated Copper Company dominated Butte and controlled “both parties until the public . . . rebelled.”
In addition to Duncan, the Socialists’ candidates for treasurer and police judge won office. Five out of eight Socialist aldermanic candidates were also elected, but the old parties still held a majority on the city council.They did, however, approve the Socialists appointed to be city attorney, assistant treasurer, street commissioner, and sanitation inspector. With his team in place, Duncan ran an efficient and competent administration.He wanted social change, but felt that it could only be accomplished by the ballot and with the aid ofthe labor movement.
Under his guidance Butte’s finances were soon in order; the streets and alleys were clean; contagious diseases were reduced; laws regulating prostitution and alcohol sale were strictly enforced; corrupt police and public officials were dismissed; and consumers were protected from dishonest merchants. Duncan may not have achieved socialism, but he had brought reform.
To emphasize the Socialist’s success, Duncan told this story: “‘Say, Duncan, I’m mighty glad to see you. . . . You’ve hurt my business. . . . I sell coffins, but not many in Butte. I dropped down here . . . to see why we didn’t get our regular orders, and our best customer said that before he could order any more we’d have to call off Duncan and make him quit his pure food and street cleaning work. Infant mortality’s way down. Can’t be helped, I s’pose.’”
Duncan’s Socialists were re-elected in April 1913. But by late June 1914, the Quincy Daily Journal reported there was “serious rioting going on in Butte and Mayor Duncan has his hands full. The difficulty is caused by labor troubles, factional differences . . . between the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World.” While Duncan’s Socialist Party believed the ballot was the best means to free the working class and bring change, the IWW called for immediate revolution, using the tools of general strike, violence, and sabotage. When Butte’s Miners Union Hall was blown up, they were blamed.
Turmoil continued and the Journal on July 6 reported that an irate IWW miner stabbed Mayor Duncan, who managed to shoot and mortally wound his assailant.
Duncan’s problems, however, were not over. The federal government intervened and proceedings were instituted to remove him as mayor. On October 5, 1914, a federal court ruled that Mayor Duncan had “refused and neglected to perform the official duties pertaining to his office,” writing that he had made no attempt to suppress the rioting and disorder on June 23.
Quincy’s Journal wrote the newspaper hated to hear of Duncan’s removal and added, “He has been elected mayor of Butte on the socialist ticket a couple of times . . . and has made a good record while in office.”
Calver, Jerry W. The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana, Montana Historical Society Press 1988.
Congressional Edition, Vol. 7599, 1919.
Connolly, C. P. “The Labor Fuss in Butte,” Everybody’s Magazine, Vol. 31, August 1914.
Dewitt, Steve, Butte: Town and People, American Graphic Publishing, 1988.
Emmons, David M. The Butte Irish, University of Illinois Press, 1989.
“Freedom,” Collier’s, Vol. 47, April 22, 1911.
“The Week,” The Nation, May 18, 1911.
Sanders, Helen Fitzgerald, 1913 History of Montana, Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1913.
Spence, Clark C. Montana: A Bicentennial History, New York: Norton & Co., 1978.
The Quincy Daily Herald, March 14, 1908, April 4, 21, 1911; November 17, 20, 21, 1911; November 4, 1913; and
September 11, 1914.
The Quincy Daily Journal, June 25 and July 6, 1914.
The Quincy Daily Whig, November 21, 1911, April 4, 1912.