Richard F. Pettigrew: Republican Radical

On November 2, 1889, North Dakota and South Dakota were admitted into the union. One of the first two senators elected from South Dakota that day was Republican Richard F. Pettigrew (1848-1926), a prominent attorney and developer from Sioux Falls. Despite his party affiliation, he often had substantial differences with fellow party members. These differences would only increase after the Panic of 1893, which resulted in a depression as well as the collapse of Pettigrew’s investments. He supported government regulation of big businesses, opposed the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and opposed the gold standard. In 1896, Pettigrew bolted the Republican Party, becoming a “Silver Republican”, and endorsing Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president. He also stood as a staunch opponent of American expansionism. On the annexation of Hawaii, Pettigrew stated, “The American flag went up on Hawaii in dishonor, it came down in honor, and if it goes up again now it will go up in infamy and shame and this Government will join the robber nations of the world” (Los Angeles Herald). In 1900, he participated in the Populist convention and lost reelection.

Pettigrew moved to New York City to practice law but returned to Sioux Falls. In 1912, he endorsed Theodore Roosevelt’s bid for president on the Bull Moose ticket, but after this loss his views grew more radical. In 1917, he stated his belief in an interview that the First World War was a capitalist plot to enrich the wealthy and encouraged draft evasion. Pettigrew was subsequently indicted for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, the law that had resulted in the imprisonment of socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. He managed to hire an all-star team of attorneys, including his personal friend Clarence Darrow. After numerous delays, the charge was dropped. Pettigrew subsequently framed the indictment, placing it alongside a framed document of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1922, he wrote Triumphant Plutocracy, a staunchly anti-capitalist book in which he criticized capital as theft, condemned the Supreme Court for ruling government regulations on commerce unconstitutional, called for the abolition of federal courts, and praised the Russian Revolution as “the greatest event of our times. It marks the beginning of the epoch when the working people assume the task of directing and controlling industry. It blazes a path into this unknown country, where the workers of the world are destined to take from their exploiters the right to control and direct the economic affairs of the community” (Pettigrew).  Pettigrew also condemned the Republican Party, stating that “It had come into being as a protest against slavery and as the special champion of the Declaration of Independence, it would go out of being and out of power as the champion of slavery and the repudiator of the Declaration of Independence” (Pettigrew). He also claimed that bribe-taking was commonplace in the Senate, specifically charging that Senators Nelson Aldrich (R-R.I.), George Edmunds (R-Vt.), and Edward Wolcott (R-Colo.) took bribes. It is worth noting that all three men were dead by the time this book was published. He was not critical of all his colleagues; he praised Silver Republican Senator John P. Jones of Nevada and Populist Marion Butler of North Carolina, political allies of Pettigrew.

Pettigrew died on October 5, 1926, and left his Sioux Falls home to the city for preservation as a museum, which stands to this day.


Pettigrew, R.F. (1922). Triumphant plutocracy: the story of American public life from 1870 to 1920. Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr & Co.

Retrieved from

“Pettigrew’s Speech”. (1898, July 3). Los Angeles Herald.

Retrieved from

Staggers, K.L. “Pettigrew, Richard (1848-1926)”. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

Retrieved from



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s