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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Schilling, Robert 1843 - 1922

Definition:

labor leader, reformer, newspaperman, politician, b. Osterburg, Saxony. He migrated with his family to the U.S. and St. Louis in 1846. There he began union activities in 1863 when he joined the first cooper's union in Missouri. In 1871 he was elected 1st vice-president of the Coopers' International, moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and there edited the German-language edition of Coopers' Journal. In 1873 he was elected president of the national Industrial Congress, and in 1874, president of the Coopers' International. An ardent advocate of paper currency, Schilling was one of the founders of the Greenback party and was for several years Ohio state chairman of the party, editing various Greenback newspapers in that state. In 1880 he moved to Wisconsin, settling first in Oshkosh and shortly thereafter in Milwaukee, where he edited the German-language newspapers Der Reformer and Volksblatt. Active in the Knights of Labor since 1875, Schilling became state organizer for Wisconsin in 1881, and a national leader of the order. In 1885 and 1886 he led the Knights to a position of unprecedented, if short-lived, power in the state, culminating in 1886 when labor candidates swept all Milwaukee County political offices and elected Henry Smith (q.v.) to Congress. In the same year, however, a deep cleavage was already evidenced in Milwaukee labor ranks between conservative "populist" leaders like Schilling and the more militant socialist elements headed by men like Paul Grottkau (q.v.), and the violence in the Milwaukee city-wide strikes of 1886 only tended to widen the breach. In 1888 Schilling was national secretary of the Union Labor party, and in 1891 helped to organize the national People's (Populist) party, becoming its first national secretary. He headed the People's party in Wisconsin from 1892 to 1900, and in 1890 began publication of The Advance, a weekly newspaper devoted to municipal reform. With the growing strength of socialism in the Milwaukee political scene, Schilling tended to align himself ever more closely with the Populist and Democratic parties. Although he led the fight against the nomination of Democrat William Jennings Bryan at the Populist national convention of 1896, he campaigned actively for Bryan after his nomination, and in the same year Schilling himself was the unsuccessful Congressional candidate of the combined Democrat and Populist parties in the famous "sauerkraut" campaign. Refusing to support the emerging Social Democratic (Socialist) party in the Milwaukee campaign of 1898, Schilling engineered a fusion ticket (Democrat-Populist), which brought about the first election of David S. Rose (q.v.) as mayor of Milwaukee. In the same year Schilling failed to secure the Democratic nomination for Congress, ran unsuccessfuIly as Populist candidate, and two years later retired from active politics, discontinued his newspapers, and entered the milk business. He spent the remaining years of his life as a lecturer and advocate of Spiritualism, emerging only once from political retirement (1917) to support Robert M. La Follette, Sr. (q.v.), in his opposition to World War I, and to speak in behalf of his old political rival, Socialist Victor L. Berger (q.v.). M. Small, "Biog. of R. Schilling" [Unpub. M.A. thesis, Univ. of Wis., 1953; C. M. Destler, Amer. Radicalism (New London, Conn., 1946); B. Still, Milwaukee (Madison, 1948); Milwaukee Vorwaerts, Dec. 30, 1922; Milwaukee Sentinel, Dec. 27, 1922.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the Robert Schilling Papers for details.

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]
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