After losing her husband and all four of their children to a yellow fever epidemic at the age of thirty, Mary Harris Jones (1837–1930), became an urban reformer and a prominent labor activist. Known affectionately as “Mother” Jones, she never remarried but worked tirelessly to improve the living and working conditions of the urban laboring class, first with the Catholic Knights of Labor, and then later with other organizations as the need arose.
She was especially concerned about the plight of child laborers and in 1903 organized a march of several hundred children from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home on Long Island to protest the federal government’s refusal to intervene in the issue. In her autobiography, she wrote that she hoped that in seeing the obvious contrast between the health of the children who worked in the mills and that of his own sons and daughters would move President Roosevelt to intervene on their behalf out of fatherly concern.
During the march, Jones attempted repeatedly to contact President Roosevelt to make her case. He rebuffed her efforts, and Jones turned to the press. In the North American newspaper article where she is interviewed below, note how Jones refers to her cause as a “crusade” and links the issue of childhood morality to adult citizenship. The newspaper also published her letter to Roosevelt in the article.
Source: “Mother Jones Writes Plea to Roosevelt,” North American, July 30, 1903.
From a Staff Correspondent New York, July 30
In accordance with the instructions of Benjamin F. Barnes, assistant secretary to the President, “Mother” Jones wrote and sent her third letter to President Roosevelt this afternoon. Although Secretary Barnes said yesterday that the letter would reach the President’s hands and perhaps obtain the desired interview, the “Mother” does not build her hopes too high.
“Their policy of putting us back from time to time, while it shows weakness, indicates to me that they will have nothing to do with us,” said “Mother” Jones. “President Roosevelt seems to be afraid of offending the capitalistic class by granting our request, and at the same time does not wish to offend others by giving us an honest refusal.”
“It looks as though they were seeking to find something in my letters upon which they could be justified in refusing an audience. For instance, if we asked him to interfere or even given advice in some labor difference he might justly turn us down on the ground that it was the place of the law to attend to such matters. Such is not our intention, and I have been careful to eliminate anything which might be interpreted to suit their double dealing.
“I do not believe that this course is in accord with the wishes of the President. It has been engineered by subordinates who seek to curry favor by saving him chimerical annoyance.”
“Mother” Jones Writes Again
“Mother” Jones to-day wrote to the President as follows:
New York, July 30, 1903
The Hon. Theodore Roosevelt, President, USA
Twice before have I written to you in requesting an audience that I might lay my mission before you and have your advice on a matter which bears upon the welfare of the whole nation. I speak for the emancipation from mills and factories of the hundreds of thousands of young children who are yielding up their lives for the commercial supremacy of the nation. Failing to receive a reply to either of the letters, I yesterday, sent to Oyster Bay, taking with me three of these children that they might plead with you personally.
Secretary Barnes informed us that before we might hope for an interview, we must first lay the whole matter before you in a letter. He assured me of its delivery to you personally, and also that it would receive your attention.
I have espoused the cause of the laboring class in general and of suffering childhood in particular. For what affects the child must ultimately affect the adult. It was for them that our march of principle was begun. We sought to bring the attention of the public upon these little ones, so that ultimately sentiment would be aroused and the children freed from the workshops and sent to school. I know of no question of today that demands graver attention from those who have at heart the perpetuation of this Republic.
The child of today is the man or woman of tomorrow: the one the citizen and the other the mother of still future citizens. I ask Mr. President, what kind of citizen will be the child who toils twelve hours a day in an unsanitary atmosphere stunted mentally and physically, and surrounded with immoral influence? Denied education, he cannot assume the true duties of citizenship, and enfeebled physically and mentally, he falls a ready victim to the perverting influences which the present economic conditions have created.
I grant you, Mr. President, that there are State laws which should regulate these matters, but results have proven that they are inadequate. In my little band are three boys, the oldest 11 years old, who have worked in mills a year or more without interference from the authorities. All efforts to bring about reform have failed.
I have been moved to this crusade, Mr. President, because of actual experience in the mills. I have seen little children without the first rudiments of education and no prospect of acquiring any. I have seen other children with hands, finders, and other parts of their tiny bodies mutilated because of their childish ignorance of machinery. I feel that no nation can be truly great while such conditions exist without attempted remedy.
It is to be hoped that our crusade will stir up a general sentiment on behalf of enslaved childhood, and secure the enforcement of the present laws.
But that is not sufficient.
As this is not alone a question of the separate States, but of the whole Republic, we come to you as the chief representative of the nation.
I believe that Federal laws should be passed governing this evil and including a penalty for the violation. Surely, Mr. President, if this is practicable—and I believe you will agree that it is—you can advise me of the necessary steps to pursue
I have with me three boys who have walked a hundred miles, serving as living proof of what I say. You can see and talk with them, Mr. President, if you are interested. If you decide to see these children, I will bring them before you at any time you may set. Secretary Barnes has assured me of an early reply and this should be sent care of the Ashland Hotel, New York City.
Very truly yours,
Will Visit Other Towns
“Mother” Jones will stay in New York until an answer is received to the letter. Instead of taking the road back to Philadelphia as was intended, the “army” will make its headquarters here, and visit towns where meetings are to be held. . . .
- When Mother Jones refers to the children in the factories as “enslaved,” what does she mean? How is this a spiritual crisis?
- How does Jones’ plea for federal intervention into child labor in the states square with Jane Addams’ plea for greater activism by religious educators (“Religious Education and Contemporary Social Conditions”)?