Isaak, Abraham (1856-1937)
On 6 September 1901 in Buffalo, New York, a young man named Leon Czolgosz shot United States President William McKinley. Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist, believed his deed was in the interest of the working class. Three days later, McKinley was dead. What followed was the questioning, detention, and arrest of hundreds of anarchists across the country. One of those arrested more than 500 miles away, in Chicago, was Abraham Isaak. He had been born in fall 1856 to Abraham Isaak (1832-1898) and Maria Wiebe Isaak (1835-1882) in the Chortitza Mennonite colony in South Russia.
At the turn of the century anarchism, a movement and doctrine that rejected all government authority, was as popular as it would ever be in the United States. Far from meaning chaos or violence, the doctrine espoused a natural order based on voluntary association in which people would live peaceful and productive lives. Isaak was well-known in late 19th-and early 20th century anarchist circles. He contributed to the American anarchist movement through a publishing career in three different cities, a career that spanned at least 13 years.
After he immigrated in 1890, Isaak with his wife and three children first settled in Portland, Oregon. In 1895, with the help of several friends, the Isaaks launched the publication of an anarchist weekly called The Firebrand. This paper was short lived. In 1897, it was suppressed and its associates arrested after they published an issue that contained a poem by Walt Whitman. Portland officials declared that the poem, "A Woman Waits for Me," was "obscene" and that mailing it violated federal law. Sometime between 1898 and 1900 the Isaaks left Portland for San Francisco in search of greater tolerance. Here again they published an anarchist newspaper.
In San Francisco they also met and became close friends with America's most prominent anarchist, Emma Goldman. Goldman warmly described them as "unusual" people. "The particular attraction of the Isaaks for me," she later wrote in her autobiography Living My Life, "was the consistency of their lives [and] the harmony between the ideas they professed and their application." The Isaaks, whose family lifestyle was authentically anarchistic, were indeed "unusual." But they were unusual for other reasons.
The Isaaks had roots in the Mennonites, whom Goldman called a "liberal religious sect in Russia, of German origin." In Russia Abraham Isaak became involved in revolutionary activity, and under threat of arrest left for the United States. His wife, Maria whom he had married in 1879, and their three children joined him in Portland, Oregon. In response to a letter that asked whether there has ever existed a true anarchist society, Isaak wrote in 1897 in the pages of The Firebrand: "I was born and raised in a community of Mennonites in Russia.... These people [had] obtained the privilege from the Russian government to manage their own affairs, and as their religion was against civil laws they lived for about 70 years without laws or officers .... These people had been persecuted. . . in western Europe and were considered as the lawless, just as the anarchists are today." But when wheat-raising became profitable and accumulation began, Isaak continued, the "rich and the poor" among Russia's Mennonites had become distinct. Hence, "government stepped in, and today there are beggars, thieves and drunkards among them, but I have not heard of a murder yet."
By 1901, at the time of McKinley's assassination, the Isaaks were living and publishing yet another anarchist newspaper in Chicago. Incidentally, there they met the would-be assassin Czolgosz, whose constant espousal of violence evoked Abraham Isaak's suspicion. These suspicions would soon prove well-founded.
Isaak was released soon after his arrest. The Isaak family remained in Chicago publishing Free Society until 1904 when they moved to New York. After five years of struggle to continue Free Society in that setting, they moved to California to establish what became the Aurora Society. Abraham Isaak purchased a ranch and subdivided it and sold it to other settlers in an attempt to establish an anarchist community. However this venture ended in failure by 1920. Isaak remained on the property, farming it until his death in 1937. By all accounts he remained an anarchist until his death.
Some of Abraham and Maria Isaak's descendents were distinguished -- daughter Mary worked for lawyer Clarence Darrow, Abe Jr. campaigned to presidential candidate Al Smith and became a New Deal Democratic.
As anarchists, the Isaaks were social and political "gadflies." They rejected the authoritarianism of organized religion and government. As ethnic Mennonites (although they stepped beyond Mennonites' religious, political, and socialperimeters) they participated in a heritage from which they could not divorce themselves. Their history reveals a most rare yet creative "Mennonite response" to an age of turbulence and transition.
Smith, Steven Kent. "Further notes on Abraham Isaak, Mennonite anarchist." Mennonite Quarterly Review 80 (January 2006): 83-94.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 838-839. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Smith, Steven K. "Isaak, Abraham (1856-1937) ." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/I8329.html.
APA style: Smith, Steven K. (1989). Isaak, Abraham (1856-1937) . Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/I8329.html.