By Russell Lidman, Special to The Jewish Sound
Governor John R. Rogers enjoys a prominent place in this state. Schools are named after him in Seattle, Spokane, Olympia and elsewhere around the state. His statue is located in Sylvester Park in downtown Olympia, in front of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction building.
Governor John R. Rogers was a noted Washington State populist. He was the state’s third governor, serving from 1897 through his death in 1901. Carved in his statue in Olympia’s Sylvester Park is this quote: “I would make it impossible for the covetous and avaricious to utterly impoverish the poor. The rich can take care of themselves.” His legacy is the “Barefoot School Boy Act.” This was the basis of the state’s funding of public education, relieving localities of a burden many could not support. Its aim was to guarantee funding for an adequate education for children in even the state’s poorest areas. To this day, this act is cited by advocates when they express concern about the state’s declining level of funding of public education.
The populists anticipated the “Occupy” movement by over a century, with their focus on the impacts on the typical American farmer and worker of Wall Street and of other domestic and foreign “rich” people.
John R. Rogers focused his attention on a particular group that in his view brought about the first U.S. great depression of the 1890s: Jews.
Here was the cause of the economic distress, in his 1892 book “The Irrepressible Conflict.”
“As I write, a daily paper of today lies on the desk. At the head of one the columns I see a big ‘scare head’ which reads in startling letters MORE GOLD MAY GO. Thus the people who deal in money are warned from Europe that the money market is to be made closer and tighter. Gold is shipped to Europe and the ability of our people to buy and sell, or exchange labor and the products of labor is to be still further reduced by making all money scarcer and harder to get. The excuse offered is ‘Europe wants our Gold.’ And because Europe — or the Jewish Money Lords of the world — can thus interfere in American trade and take from the American laborer his opportunity to labor and reduce the value of American property is reason enough for the establishment of an American system, not dependent upon the Jews of either London or New York.”
This quote is mild compared to his expression of hostility elsewhere in this same volume.
“At the present time the people of the United States confront a world-wide and world-long evil of far greater magnitude that chattel slavery was — the private monopoly of money.… [I]ts sleek and prosperous agents stand high in every community, occupying — as of yore — the highest seats in our synagogues. That vague, yet potent force, ‘good society,’ is controlled by it, legislation has listened painfully for its lightest whisper, the bar, the bench and pulpit have become…mere minions, registering Mammon’s decree.”
Does John R. Rogers deserve a prominent place in Olympia’s Sylvester Park? Does his revolting anti-Semitism of over 120 years ago negate the importance of his legislative accomplishment? Surely he deserves some acknowledgment for his legislative achievements, which have had a significant impact on state funding of public education. However, Governor Roger’s anti-Semitism in my view has been too long overlooked.
Look at the Rogers biography on Wikipedia as an example. There is no mention of him as an anti-Semite. Go back to the first biography of the state’s governors, “Governors of Washington : Territorial and State,” written University of Washington professor Edmond Meany in 1915, and no mention of Rogers’s anti-Semitism appears there.
What to do about the essentially unacknowledged anti-Semitism of one of the seeming heroes of our state’s early years? I have been mulling this over for a couple of years after first coming upon Rogers’s screed in the Washington State Library. I have talked it over with friends from my careers in academics and government.
One option I put to them is to do nothing, leaving the statue and Rogers’s reputation untouched. A second option is to push for a second plaque on his statue in downtown Olympia, providing a more complete picture of this populist. A third option is to push for removal of this statue to a less prominent spot, inside the office building of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for example.
What was the result of my informal poll? Whether Jew or non-Jew, most favor doing nothing. No one knows whether Governor Rogers truly was an anti-Semite. What, I was asked, would be the aim of sullying his reputation at this point?
Anti-Semitism was hardly uncommon in 19th-century America, especially among Populists. But Rogers’s anti-Semitism was hardly benign. Imagine yourself as a Jewish person during that time, hearing or reading such vile language coming from a man who would shortly be the governor of the state?
Libels such as those disseminated by Rogers have a long history and a long life. While Governor Rogers was in many ways a product of his times, that is hardly a reason to ignore his hostility to the Jewish people and his bizarre linking of Jews and the crisis of the 1890s .
Let me pose two questions to you: Is there a time limit on holding a public figure in this state responsible for his anti-Semitism? What should be done about Rogers’s statue or the schools named after him?
Russell Lidman is a retired professor in public policy at Seattle University, and has worked at The Evergreen State College and in the governor’s office for more recent incumbents. He is also the outgoing board president of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia.