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Is Sioux Falls going red?

It started small. Just a Socialist Club at a local high school in the fall of 2007. Then, a year ago, the city designated an area of town “Pettigrew Heights,” after original Sioux Falls booster and former U.S. Richard Pettigrew. Now, the school district has named a new elementary school “R.F. Pettigrew.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great given that, among other things, he was the state’s first full-term U.S. Senator, served on the city’s first school board, and was one of its first lawyers, if not the first. His role in the formative history of Sioux Falls and the state is significant. It’s just that I doubt many people are familiar with his political philosophy and I’d wager it gets little if any exposure in our education system. Otherwise, I’d expect more of an uproar. Why? Because although it was written some 20 years after Pettigrew left office, his 1922 book, Triumphant Plutocracy, displays that at some point Pettigrew adopted a socialist/Marxist bent. Here’s just a few excerpts from the book:

The first sentences of the Foreword:

The American people should know the truth about American public life. They have been lied to so much and hoodwinked so often that it would seem only fair for them to have at least one straight-from-the-shoulder statement concerning this government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” about whose inner workings the people know almost nothing.

On why laborers have none of the country’s wealth:

[The laborer] is exploited out of it by the landlord, by the corporation which employs him, by the corporations which furnish him public utilities, by the insurance companies and trust companies which charge three times what it is worth to do the business, and by the general system of combination of the parasites and idlers of society, who get away from the producers of wealth what their labor has created.

On capitalism:

[Capitalism is] an unworkable system of social organization — a system that has been tried repeatedly during the past three or four thousand years, and that has destroyed civilization as often as it has been tried.

More on capitalism:

This is the system of dividing the community into two classes — owners and producers — and of rewarding the owners at the expense of the producters. As I read history, this method of social organization has had and can have only one result. The leisure class rots out and drops to pieces; the workers starve and suffer and die

His prediction on the 20th Century: (quoting his Nov. 22, 1900, letter to Clara Barton)

I believe the new century will open with many bloody revolutions as a result of the protest of the masses against the tyranny and oppression of the wealth of the world in the hands of a few, resulting in great progress toward socialism and the more equitable distribution of the products of human toil and, as a result, the moral and spiritual uplifting of the race.”

On Russia:

The Russian Revolution is the greatest event of our times. It marks the beginning of the epoch when the working people will assume the task of directing and controlling industry. It blazes a path into this unknown country, where the workers of the world are destined to take from their exploiters the right to control and direct the economic affairs of the community.

Curious about whether these were lifelong views or ones developed late in life, it’s prompted me to resume reading Wayne Fanebust’s Echoes of November: The Life and Times of Senator R. F. Pettigrew of South Dakota. One thing is certain: Pettigrew could never win a U.S. Senate seat today, in South Dakota or any other state.

But since we’re naming so many things after this iconoclast, maybe we should also take the time to learn about the man and his times, how he arrived at his views, whether they were reflective of the opinions of the day and what they reflect not only about his life but our own local and national history.


[Lawyers] should not be entrusted with any share in the direction of public affairs.

R.F. Pettigrew, Triumphant Plutocracy

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2 comments to Is Sioux Falls going red?

  • ew keane

    I am glad to hear that many are learning of RF Pettigrew. If Pettigrew be a socialist, then he was not a red, but that of a populist, american socialist bent, like quakers, amish, ammanites, ect. Pettigrew may be labled many things, but could not be tagged as an internationalist. His comments upon revolutionary russia are a reflection of the times, before the excesses of the soviet system were known. This mans writings ought to be required reading.

  • Wayne Fanebust

    Pettigrew must be judged within the context of his time. He was elected to the Senate because his views were similar to those of the sodbuster and main street merchant, in other words, western Republican positions.

    When the Russian revolution occurred, Pettigrew and most other Americans cheered on the peasants for having overthrown the Czarist regime, one of the most opporessive in human history. The Revolution was just then giving off a faint, utopian glow. All that was to change, however, and Pettigrew would have in time, had he lived long enough, rejected Leninism and Stalinism the same as he rejected the gold bugs of the Republican Party of McKinely. He would have understood that the Russians simply exchanged one yoke of oppression for another. Pettigrew was not the kind of man who could submit to oppression. He spent too many years of his political life fighting for the common man, bucking the tide….