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William Dudley Foulke

Civil rights champion at home and abroad

Many of us are familiar with Foulke family history in the Pennlyn/Gwynedd/Quakertown area of Pennsylvania. Our family did not, however, all remain in this area. In the past, we have published many articles about family members as they spread across the country. Recently, more information on William Dudley Foulke has surfaced. He is best known for his civil service and support of the women’s suffrage movement, but he also had a well-developed interest in Russia and was a vocal supporter of causes that supported freedom in that country. Once again we have an example of a family member helping to shape the course of the country.

William Dudley Foulke, son of Thomas, was born in New York City in 1848. His father, a lay minister, was the principal of a large grammar school and William was raised in the strict Hicksite/Quaker tradition. He was educated at the Friend’s Institute in Rutherford Place and later at Columbia University. He married Mary Taylor Reeves in 1872, while in Paris. Shortly after being admitted to the bar in 1870, William became involved in the Young Men’s Municipal Reform Organization and fought unsuccessfully against “Boss” Tweed’s political machine. Although his New York law practice continued to grow, William and Mary moved west in 1876 to be closer to her family. He established his law practice and the Foulke home became a focal point of society in Richmond. Many prominent guests visited, especially those in the social reform movement. The Foulkes were also instrumental in organizing literary, musical and artistic organizations.

William served in many capacities. He was elected to the Indiana Senate, championing women’s rights causes. He also spent several years working with the National Civil service Reform League investigating patronage in various government departments. Not only were the Foulkes concerned with social reform and suffrage, William also helped to organize the “League to Enforce Peace”, a precursor to the League of Nations.

Sometime during the 1870’s or early 1880’s, William developed an interest in Russia. He was concerned that a struggle for world supremacy was developing between Russia and Great Britian could result in the imposition of Russian despotism world-wide. He published “Slav Or Saxon” in 1887 to demonstrate “what seemed the menace of autocracy to free institutions.” His belief was that only by allowing the Russian people to have a say in the governing of the country, could Russia’s expansionist policies be curbed. He believed that the Russian struggle for freedom and a constitutional government justified the use of extreme measures and that the American public should support such a cause.

During the next twenty years, William fought an 1887 American/Russian treaty, kept the American press aware of conditions in Russia, supported American tours of Russian revolutionaries attempting to secure money and munitions for their cause, and served as president of the American Society of Friends of Russian Freedom. (Other members of this group were Julia Ward Howe, Mark Twain, William Lloyd Garrison, Jacob Schiff and Lillian D. Wald.)

Although poor health confined him to his home, by 1907, William was preparing for a prolonged European vacation with the intent of spending time in Russia to observe the conditions first hand. He carried with him letters of introduction to many opponents of the tsarist regime and traveled in constant concern for his safety. Nothing that he saw during his trip caused him to revise his opinions about the backwardness of conditions in the Russian Empire. He did not approve of the extreme measures that the revolutionaries had adopted, but he understood their desperation and believed that the seeds of democracy had finally been planted. Although he was surprised by the March Revolution in Russia in which Nicholas II abdicated, William was encouraged by the possibility of a free government. He was soon disillusioned when “crazy Bolshevism” perverted the cause of a free government. He later reflected in his autobiography that “today the greatest danger in that quarter is from the propagation of the communist doctrines so suddenly adopted.” Later in life, he called attention to the advantages to be enjoyed from following a temperate course in life and to some of the disadvantages to be found in radical stands. He found the Soviet regime to be one of the most conspicuous examples of radicalism in the world. He believed that Americans should be cautious not to believe that our governmental institutions were permanently fixed or that they should be radically altered. Either course was fraught with dire consequences and threatened liberty. After spending his remaining years writing, William Dudley Foulke died on May 30, 1935. He had devoted his life to social causes and, truly, did affect the course of history.

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