He was born in Davenport, Iowa, a transportation center on the Mississippi River on the far eastern border of the state. His father, Edward Russell, was editor of the Davenport Gazette and a noted abolitionist. The Russell family was staunchly religious Christian Evangelicals, with Charles' grandfather a Baptist minister and his father a Sunday school superintendent and a leader of the Iowa YMCA.
In his memoirs, Bare Hands and Stone Walls, Russell stated that "transforming the world... to a place where one can know some peace... some joy of living, some sense of the inexhaustible beauties of the universe in which he has been placed" was the purpose that inspired his work and his life. Russell felt very strongly about the well-being of others after seeing the struggles that people all over New York had to undergo like the unfair working conditions and wages that people from all walks of life were forced to endure. People were placed into cramped working spaces with few, if any, breaks. Aside from the physical conditions, most big employers did not value the well-being of their employees, especially immigrants. With those horrendous mental images in place, Russell became inspired.
Russell was one of a group of journalists at the turn of the 20th century who were called muckrakers. They investigated and reported not with cold detachment but with feeling and rage about the horrors of capitalism. The muckraker movement helped to jumpstart numerous reforms that included prison conditions, railroads and church-building conditions.
In Soldier for the Common Good, an unpublished dissertation on Russell's life, author Donald Bragaw wrote, "HistorianLouis Filler has called Russell the leader of the muckrakers for contributing 'important studies in almost every field in which they ventured.'" Shortly after his hiatus from writing because of the death of his first wife, Russell wrote one of his best books, "The Greatest Trust in the World," exposing the horrific ways of the meatpacking industry.
Russell's reports on the corrupt practices and inhuman conditions at Chicago stock yards were the inspiration for Upton Sinclair's powerful novel The Jungle, which caused a national uproar that led to inspection reforms. Comparable to the writings of Sinclair, Russell's most controversial exposé was fixated on the Trinity Church. It was detrimental to the church's reputation, as it accused the church of being one of the leading slum landlords in New York City.
That accusation resulted in the church taking swift action to the report by cleaning up or selling the worst of their properties.
After traveling all over the world in investigative journalism, Russell's beliefs about capitalism began to be stronger and stronger. He believed that capitalism itself was quite faulty and that the financial endeavors of the United States that led the economy were corrupt. As his convictions became deeper, Russell recognized that his beliefs were in line with that of the Socialist Party, leading him to join in 1908.
Russell was its candidate for Governor of New York in 1910 and 1912, and for U.S. Senator from New York in 1914. He also ran for Mayor of New York City. Russell's belief that Germany was an undeniable threat to the US in 1915 made him unexpectedly come out in support of President Woodrow Wilson's war "preparedness campaign." That decision painted Russell into a tight corner politically as the majority of the party's rank and file remained strongly antiwar. Its leader, Eugene Debs believed that Russell's decision to support Wilson's move for rearmament probably cost Russell the party's presidential nomination in 1916. Later that year, Russell separated from his party and became a part of a group known as "prowar socialists." Debs disagreed profoundly with Russell on the issue but applauded him for the courage of his convictions.
Russell would ultimately be expelled from the Socialist Party in 1917 for supporting American intervention in the First World War.
Root mission to Russia
Charles Edward Russell with other members of the US diplomatic mission sent to Russia in 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson.
Aligning himself with Sinclair, among others in the right wing of the party, Russell continued to agitate for "responsible... Marxian" positions inside the Socialist Party until 1917.
In 1929, Russell wrote a book, From Sandy Hook to 62°, where he talked about the history of the Sandy Hook service and how the pilots were notable figures. He wrote, "The pilots of New York were trusted with secrets about the defenses of the port and the operation of the American Navy department that would have been priceless to the Germans. No pilot ever mentioned one of these to a human being, to wife, child, brother, father, anybody. If the captain of a German submarine had known what every Sandy Hook pilot knew, the submarine could have appeared off the Battery and thrown shells into Wall Street."
^James D. Startt, "American Film Propaganda in Revolutionary Russia,"Prologue magazine, vol. 30, no. 3 (Fall 1998). See also: "Motion-Picture Publicity: It's Relation to Aiding the Work of the Industrial Commission Which Has Been Sent to Russia," June 17, 1917. Charles Edward Russell Papers, Box 7. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
^George Creel, "Plans for American Cooperation to Preserve and Strengthen the Morale of the Civil Population of Russia," enclosed in Creel to Woodrow Wilson, June [Aug.] 20, 1917. Published in Arthur S. Link (ed.), The Papers of Woodrow Wilson: Volume 42: April 7-June 23, 1917. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983; pg. 463.
Miraldi, Robert (2003). The Pen is Mightier: The Muckraking Life of Charles Edward Russell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ruotsila, Markku (2006). "Neoconservatism Prefigured: The Social Democratic League of America and the Anticommunists of the Anglo-American Right, 1917-21". Journal of American Studies. 40 (2): 327-345. doi:10.1017/S002187580600140X. JSTOR27557795.
Schultz, Stanley K. (1965). "The Morality of Politics: The Muckrakers' Vision of Democracy". Journal of American History. 52 (3): 527-547. doi:10.2307/1890846. JSTOR1890846.
Thompson, J. A. (1971). "American Progressive Publicists and the First World War, 1914-1917". Journal of American History. 58 (2): 364-383. doi:10.2307/1917605. JSTOR1917605.