Victor Berger Campaign Banner | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Victor Berger Campaign Banner

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Victor Berger Campaign Banner | Wisconsin Historical Society

United States Senate campaign banner for Milwaukee Socialist Congressman Victor L. Berger, April 1918.
(Museum object #1992.168)

EnlargeVictor L. Berger

Victor L. Berger, 1918

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1992.168

EnlargeBerger and Seidel

Emil Seidel and Victor Berger, c. 1910

Emil Seidel (left) and Victor Berger, c. 1910. When he was elected mayor of Milwaukee in 1910, Seidel became the first Socialist to serve as mayor of a major American city. View the original source document: WHI 56202

EnlargeBerger and Bismark

Berger opposition poster, 1918

Defaced Berger campaign poster, 1918. An unidentified supporter of the American war effort altered this poster to portray Victor Berger as both an agent of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and an advocate of Russian communism. In fact, Berger opposed Russia’s repressive Bolshevik government. View the original source document: WHI 57783

EnlargeBerger in Cartoon

Cartoon after Berger's victory, 1919

Cartoon published in the Milwaukee Leader after Berger’s victory in the 1919 special election, showing Berger knocking aside his opponents, including the Milwaukee Journal, the Democratic Machine, and Profiteers. View the original source document: WHI 48970

EnlargeDebs and Berger

Eugene V. Debs with Victor Berger, 1897

Five-time Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs (left) with Victor Berger in 1897. Berger was instrumental in converting Debs to Socialism in 1895. Source: WHI-56204 View the original source document: WHI 56204

Milwaukee teacher and newspaper editor Victor L. Berger was arguably the most successful Socialist politician in the United States. This large poster documents Berger's campaign for United States Senate in a special election in April 1918. Berger, a co-founder of the Socialist Party of America, was not only the first Socialist ever elected to the U.S. Congress, but was also chief architect and strategist for the longest-running Socialist municipal government in America.

This two-color lithographed poster was printed on eight separate sheets of paper, which were glued together into a dramatic finished size of over 8 feet high and 6 feet across. It was produced by the Riverside Printing Company of Milwaukee, a general job printer founded in the 1860s. By the early 20th century, the company advertised printing, engraving, electrotyping, zinc etching and bookbinding services as well as lithography. Riverside also made large outdoor advertisements for circuses, theatrical productions and on occasion, political campaigns. The artwork shows the characteristic soft, pencil-like marks of a hand-drawn lithograph, and was probably printed on zinc plates. The poster was printed primarily in blue, with only four sheets accented in red. Because each color required a different plate, this approach added a splash of extra color, while keeping production costs down.

Born in Austria-Hungary in 1860, Berger emigrated to the United States in 1878 and settled in Milwaukee three years later. His frustration with the social conditions of the day led him to adopt socialism in 1892, and he soon set himself the task of developing it into an organized and effective political movement in the United States. Berger's approach was pragmatic and local, less concerned with splitting ideological hairs than with providing quality government services like parks and sanitation to working people. This approach earned Berger and his colleagues the nickname "Sewer Socialists," a moniker they adopted with pride.

One of the keys to the Sewer Socialists' success was their ability to enlist the vigorous support of Milwaukee's substantial trade union movement. An inscription along the bottom edge of the poster, "Authorized and Published by Frank J. Weber," verifies that collaboration. Weber was one of Wisconsin's most influential and effective labor leaders. This inscription suggests that the Federated Trades Council of Milwaukee, of which Weber was the secretary, backed Berger's campaign.

At the time of Berger's April 1918 Senate campaign, Milwaukee's German community was in turmoil. America's entry into World War I a year earlier had unleashed a wave of anti-German sentiment. Wisconsin – whose Congressional delegation overwhelmingly opposed entering the war – was branded a hotbed of sedition. German language and culture were attacked, as was anyone who opposed the war effort. Berger, who as a socialist believed that international working class solidarity trumped the self-interest of nation states, dismissed the conflict as "a capitalist war caused chiefly by the struggle between Great Britain and Germany for the world market." Berger printed editorials opposing the war in his newspaper the "Milwaukee Leader", and in the fall of 1917, U.S. postal authorities revoked its second-class mailing privileges. In February 1918, Berger himself was charged with promoting the success of America's enemies under the recently passed Espionage Act of 1917.

Berger interpreted these attacks as infringements of free speech and freedom of the press, and said so on this campaign banner. "Freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of assemblage" were crucial components of the Wisconsin Socialist platform in 1918, as were "an early, general, lasting and democratic peace," "compelling the profiteers of the war to pay the cost of the war," and "national ownership of trusts and ... public ownership of public utilities." Running under federal indictment, Victor Berger won 26% of the vote statewide in the April Senate election, winning 11 counties.

Berger was more successful that November, running for and regaining the Milwaukee Congressional seat he had held from 1911 to 1913. Before Berger was seated, however, his espionage trial began. In the trial, presided over by an obviously antagonistic Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Berger was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Congress refused to seat Berger and declared his seat open. In a subsequent special election held on December 19, 1919, Berger won again, drawing 6500 additional votes, but Congress again refused to seat him. The seat remained open. A year later, perhaps frustrated with having no voice at all in Congress, Milwaukee voters chose Berger's long-time rival, moderate Republican William H. Stafford.

In 1921 the United States Supreme Court voided Berger's conviction on the grounds that Judge Landis, who had publicly made anti-German and anti-Socialist remarks, should have excused himself from the case. Berger commented, "I hail this decision as the first real sign of returning sanity in our ruling class." He continued, "I have proven my love for America, my faith in America's justice, by risking my liberty in defense of the constitutional right of all American citizens to discuss freely and fully the official acts and policies of their public servants."

Berger defeated Stafford in the 1922 elections and served in Congress from 1923 to 1929, where he continued to champion civil liberties. While World War I and its aftermath effectively destroyed the Socialist Party's influence on the state and national levels, Milwaukee voters continued to elect Socialist mayors until 1960.

Yet Berger's influence extended well beyond his party's electoral successes. Many of the causes Berger and his Socialist compatriots advocated — votes for women, old age pensions and workers' compensation, reforestation, the eight hour day, limits on child labor – nourished Wisconsin's famed Progressive tradition. Ultimately, they have become part of our baseline expectations of what a responsible government provides for its citizens.

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[Sources: Victor Berger Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives; Gurda, John. "The Making of Milwaukee" (Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999). Stevens, Michael E., ed. "The Family Letters of Victor and Meta Berger, 1894-1929" (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1995); Berger, Meta Schlichting. "A Milwaukee Woman's Life on the Left: The Autobiography of Meta Berger" (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2001).]


Posted on May 01, 2008