Charles Edward Russell was the
most prolific and controversial of the muckrakers who crusaded for
social changes in America during the early years of the twentieth
century. Dubbed the "chief of the muckrakers" and “the prince of
the muckrakers,” Russell spent a life in passionate pursuit of a
better world. After a fabulous career as a newspaper reporter in New
York, he edited the nation's two largest newspapers. Then, as an
investigative reporter, he forced the richest church in America to
clean up its slum housing, helped bring about federal oversight of food
and drugs, and forced Georgia to end abominable prison
conditions. Russell also helped found the NAACP, ran for
political office and won the Pulitzer Prize. Like a fire-and-brimstone
preacher, he warned Americans about the dangers of a profit-driven world.
Edward Russell, Charles’ father, made
clear to his son the purpose of journalism. The press, he lectured,
must be "the guardian and nourisher of civic virtue." Its goal:
"terrify evil‑doers and arouse the communal conscience."
When Russell was criticized after his expose of Trinity Church’s tenements,
he wrote: “I am glad to be called a muck-raker. The only thing I
object to is living in a world full of needless horrors and suffering
without uttering one word of protest, however feeble and unheard.”
“The best way to abolish the muckraker is to abolish the muck,” he once commented.
About, John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil
magnate he wrote, “all he wants is possession,
accumulation.” What a sad example Rockefeller was for
America’s youth, he wrote. “How do we benefit by
teaching young men to sneer at reform, scoff at democracy, and view
gain as the chief end of man.”
Russell was no less critical of J. Pierpont
Morgan, the powerful banker. Why did Americans admire the “wholly
barren and bitter existence” of a man “whose sole pursuit
Expressing both disgust and anger, Russell
once pleaded to a national audience: “Let us have some one
blessed thing done in this country on some other basis than that of
Wrote Russell in 1909: “The hearts of
men are not naturally cruel; cruelty is the offspring of greed, and
greed is born of the social system that enables the strong to prey upon
the weak and one man to live upon another’s toil… It is
the system, not the individual, that is at fault, and nothing is so
pathetically hopeless as the various movements for better government
that go fumbling around the edges of the questions. Deal with
causes and not results.”
In 1908 he wrote, “It seems to me now
that the abolition of poverty is the only thing at present that is
worth thinking about.”
He once commented, "The greatest joy that
life affords is something done for somebody else. The man that lives
for himself dies within himself."
Throughout his life the preacher’s
grandson hoped to convince mankind that "the only real
happiness on this earth is spiritual and intellectual, that in the
pursuit of the material there is literally nothing but ashes and
bitterness, vacuity and sorrow." For Russell, "making our fortunes the
god of our idolatry, and our business its religion, all this is but
sorry employment for the aspiring human soul."
He believed that America needed to makes
improvements from one generation to the next, once remarking: "To all
persons really believing in the forward march of man, every struggle
for his emancipation is an instruction and an inspiration. The name and
the shape of the enemy he confronts will change from century to
century….The men of the American Revolution fought it in one
shape; the Nonpartisan League confronted it in another." Russell
concluded, "Progress is slow, but surely there is something gained."
world does not grow worse, does not stand still, but slowly grows
better," he concluded. Reform is a "vast, complicated and often
mysterious evolution. It is not to be had with the naiveté of a
single push. It calls for the persistence of each
When his close friend William English
Walling died, Russell spoke at a memorial service. He could have been
talking about himself when he said: “He lived with
unswerving loyalty; he fought the good fight; he loved his fellow man
and served him. Greater achievement is not allowed to any upon
Such Stuff as Dreams (1902, poetry)
Thomas Chatterton: The Marvelous Boy (1908, biography)
The Greatest Trust in the World (1905) (expose of the beef trust)
The Uprising of the Many (1907)
Lawless Wealth (1908) ((expose of the tobacco trust)
Why I Am a Socialist (1910)
These Shifting Scenes (1914)
Unchained Russia (1918, nonfiction)
After the Whirlwind (1919, nonfiction)
Bolshevism and the United States (1919, nonfiction)
The Story of the Non-partisan League (1920, nonfiction)
The Outlook for the Philippines (1922, nonfiction)
Julia Marlowe: Her Life and Art (1926, biography)
The American Orchestra and Theodore Thomas (1927, biography)
Bare Hands and Stone Walls: Some Recollections of a Sideline Reformer (1933, memoir)
Robert Miraldi, The Pen is Mightier: The Muckraking Life of Charles Edward Russell, 2003.
- Charles Edward Russell was one of the
most famous muckraking journalists in America during the early years of
the twentieth century.
- He wrote more investigative and expose
articles than his more famous muckraking colleagues Lincoln Steffens,
Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair.
- Russell wrote 31 books and hundreds of magazine articles.
- Many of Russell’s exposes are remarkably similar to what we see in America today.
- Russell’s articles on the
meatpackers caused a congressional investigation and came out right
before Upton Sinclair’s more famous The Jungle in 1906.
- His articles on Trinity Church in
1908-9 forced the world’s richest church to sell off and improve
its vast array of slum tenements.
- In the 1890s Russell was the top editor
at the two largest newspapers in the world under Joseph Pulitzer and
William Randolph Hearst.
- When he worked for James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, he was called one of the 10 best reporters in America.
- Russell became famous for his reporting from Johnstown during the great flood of the 1880s.
- He won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1927.
- His most prolific years of writing were 1904-1920.
- He was one of three founding members of the NAACP in 1909.
- Russell ran for governor of N.Y. twice, U.S. Senate once and NYC mayor as a Socialist Party candidate.
- Russell was almost the party’s Presidential candidate in 1916 before he split with the party and supported World War I
- Russell was one of the first American advocates of a Jewish homeland in the 1930s.
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