American in the Making

A native of New York City, son of Italian immigrants, FIORELLO H. LA GUARDIA spent his boyhood in Arizona, where his father was bandmaster of the 11th U.S. Infantry, and his early manhood in Fiume, where as our Consular Agent he continued the self-education which was to make him one of the most creative statesmen of our time. In this, the first of three installments drawn from his autobiography, which he did not live to finish, we see the unforgettable interaction between his youthful experience and his mature legislation. The autobiography, edited by M. R. Werner, will be published by Lippincott in May.
More

My first attempt at applied mathematics—I must have been fourteen or fifteen then—was to figure out the percentage against the player in a crap game, a faro game, and what was then called "policy," now known as "the numbers," "bingo," and other fancy names as well as the old name "policy." Nearly every saloon in Prescott had its gambling department, mainly crap, faro, and some Chinese game. There was, of course, a good deal of poker played—not under professional auspices. These games must have been exciting, according to the stories we kids would hear: the guns were laid on the table at easy reach, and of course the games were on the level.

Policy came to town. I remember Mother telling me that it was the same as lotto, which was sponsored in her native Trieste by the city or the state. Mother would play a 10 cent policy slip almost every week. If she had an exceptional dream, she would risk a quarter. She never won. No one else I knew ever won. The game did not last very long in Prescott and folded up after a few months. I figured it out then as nothing but petty larceny from the pockets of the poor, and showed Mother how she couldn't win.

I was astounded when I finally returned to New York to live, in 1906, to find the great influence there of professional gamblers, numbers monarchs, and big bookies, with their close political and judicial connections. They also had many, many friends among the press. I do not mean the reporters. It is easy for this scum of society, these economic vermin, to make friends when they are able to take bets and pay cash if the influential one "happens" to win, and to give unlimited credit if Mr. Big Shot "happens" to lose. They are no good. They never were any good in Prescott or New York, and they never will be any good anywhere.

Another early impression that made its mark on my mind was gained from watching the railroad being built between Ashfork, Prescott, and Phoenix. There was no machinery used then. It was all manpower and draft animals. The laborers were all immigrants, mostly Mexicans and Italians. If a laborer was injured, he lost his job. If he was killed, no one was notified, because there was no record of his name, address, or family. He just had a number. As construction moved on, it left in its wake the injured, the jobless, the stranded victims. Even as a young boy, this struck me as all wrong, and I thought about it a great deal. The more I thought about it, the less able I was to make sense out of that kind of situation.

Years later, when I studied law, I learned about such things as "assumed risk," "the fellow servant rule," "contributory negligence," and other similar principles of law, all for the benefit of the employer. I still thought they were all wrong, and later, as a legislator, I did what little I could to have these antiquated eighteenth-century rules of law changed. None of them are in use today. Employers' liability, workmen's compensation laws for injury, safeguards against accidents, sanitary and safety laws in factories and for other jobs, unemployment insurance, have taken their place. It was this early glimpse of the condition of working people, of their exploitation and their utter lack of protection under the law, which prompted me to take an interest on their side in society. I hope I have made a contribution to progress in this respect.

I remember when the troops were called out to guard the property of the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad during the great Pullman strike of 1894. I was twelve years old then, and it was the first strike I ever knew. I was deeply interested. The whole thing had started with a small group of workers in the bedding department of the Pullman Company, and it spread until it became a general railroad strike throughout the country. Even then, as a boy, it occurred to me that surely there should be some way of settling labor disputes of this kind, and that the law should afford equal protection to both sides. I recognized the necessity for President Cleveland's order that there should be no interference with transportation of the United States mail. But I did not quite understand why it was unlawful for employees to inform other employees of grievances, or why they should be kept away from one another by a court mandate, enforced by bayonets of United States soldiers.

These memories were very helpful. It was nearly a lifetime later, as a member of Congress, that I had the opportunity of taking part in preparing the Railway Labor Act and in the passage of the Norris-La Guardia Anti-injunction Act. The job is not yet completed. Satisfactory machinery for equitable and just settlement of labor disputes is still required. I do hope some day to see that job completed.

3

OUT there in Arizona I also got my first glimpse of racial feeling born of ignorance. I must have been about ten when a street organ-grinder with a monkey blew into town. He, and particularly the monkey, attracted a great deal of attention. I can still hear the cries of the kids: "A dago with a monkey! Hey, Fiorello, you're a dago too. Where's your monkey?" It hurt. And what made it worse, along came Dad, and he started to chatter Neapolitan with the organ-grinder. He hadn't spoken Italian in many years, and he seemed to enjoy it. Perhaps, too, he considered the organ-grinder a fellow musician. At any rate, he promptly invited him to our house for a macaroni dinner. The kids taunted me for a long time after that. I couldn't understand it. What difference was there between us? Some of their families hadn't been in the country any longer than mine.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In