Not every politician is able to identify a single event, a singular moment, that defines an entire career and shapes a political philosophy. Burton K. Wheeler had such a moment very early in his political life. The sadistic, politically motivated murder of a labor organizer in Butte, Montana in the summer of 1917 was Wheeler’s defining moment.
The labor organizer was Frank Little, the executive chairman of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW. The Wobblies, as they were known, advocated class struggle spurred by “One Big Union” that would, in the words of one historian, “transform American workers into a revolutionary vanguard.”
Little came to Butte, the rough, often violent copper mining town high in the Rocky Mountains, to agitate against what he considered a capitalist-inspired European war fought by the working class for the benefit of kings and tycoons. His fiery speeches, condemning President Woodrow Wilson, capitalism, imperialism, the draft, and U.S. involvement in World War I prompted intense, sustained demands for Little’s arrest for sedition. B.K. Wheeler, then the U.S. attorney in Montana, stood against the public frenzy and refused to arrest a man for opposing a war.
A group of vigilantes took the law into their own hands and kidnapped and executed the labor organizer touching off a sustained period of political hysteria in the state – Montana’s Agony, as one historian has called it – that is virtually unprecedented in American history. Protections for free speech virtually disappeared. Books were banned and the German language outlawed. Hundreds were arrested and many imprisoned. The entire state fell into an orgy of political unrest and patriotic excess. Many politicians not only accepted the chaos, but encouraged the assault on civil liberties seeing the turmoil as an opportunity to consolidate personal power and punish enemies real and imagined. Wheeler was one of the few who stood against the excesses and kept his head amid months of violence, fear, and political reprisals. Rejecting the prevailing sentiment and defending the dissenters eventually cost Wheeler his job as U.S. attorney and it appeared a promising political career only just beginning had been ruined. Yet Wheeler doggedly fought back and eventually, and improbably, prevailed winning four terms in the United States Senate.
Having seen in 1917 how war-induced political hysteria and patriotic excess can overwhelm free speech and eliminate common sense, Wheeler fiercely opposed all forms of concentrated power and for the remainder of his life stood against war. He came to value independence more than political party and he embraced, even welcomed, the controversy that became a fixture of his career. Wheeler’s improbable political story began when the young New England Yankee ended up in Montana, a place as Montana writer Joseph Kinsey Howard said, was “a State of few people, entirely surrounded by space.”