A History of Trade Unionism in the United States
by Selig Perlman
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Assistant Professor of Economics in the University of Wisconsin; Co-author of the History of Labour in the United States

New York





Set up and electrotyped. October, 1922.


The present History of Trade Unionism in the United States is in part a summary of work in labor history by Professor John R. Commons and collaborators at the University of Wisconsin from 1904 to 1918, and in part an attempt by the author to carry the work further. Part I of the present book is based on the History of Labour in the United States by Commons and Associates (Introduction: John R. Commons; Colonial and Federal Beginnings, to 1827: David J. Saposs; Citizenship, 1827-1833: Helen L. Summer; Trade Unionism, 1833-1839: Edward B. Mittelman; Humanitarianism, 1840-1860: Henry E. Hoagland; Nationalization, 1860-1877: John B. Andrews; and Upheaval and Reorganization, 1876-1896: by the present author), published by the Macmillan Company in 1918 in two volumes.

Part II, "The Larger Career of Unionism," brings the story from 1897 down to date; and Part III, "Conclusions and Inferences," is an attempt to bring together several of the general ideas suggested by the History. Chapter 12, entitled "An Economic Interpretation," follows the line of analysis laid down by Professor Commons in his study of the American shoemakers, 1648-1895.[1]

The author wishes to express his strong gratitude to Professors Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons for their kind aid at every stage of this work. He also wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to Mr. Edwin E. Witte, Director of the Wisconsin State Legislative Reference Library, upon whose extensive and still unpublished researches he based his summary of the history of the injunction; and to Professor Frederick L. Paxson, who subjected the manuscript to criticism from the point of view of General American History.



[1] See his Labor and Administration, Chapter XIV (Macmillan, 1913).







(1) Early Beginnings, to 1827 8 (2) Equal Citizenship, 1827-1832 9 (3) The Period of the "Wild-Cat" Prosperity, 1833-1837 18 (4) The Long Depression, 1837-1862 29

2 THE "GREENBACK" PERIOD, 1862-1879 42


4 REVIVAL AND UPHEAVAL, 1879-1887 81


6 STABILIZATION, 1888-1897 130




(1) The Miners 167 (2) The Railway Men 180 (3) The Machinery and Metal Trades 186 (4) The Employers' Reaction 190 (5) Legislation, Courts, and Politics 198















(1) Early Beginnings, to 1827

The customary chronology records the first American labor strike in 1741. In that year the New York bakers went out on strike. A closer analysis discloses, however, that this outbreak was a protest of master bakers against a municipal regulation of the price of bread, not a wage earners' strike against employers. The earliest genuine labor strike in America occurred, as far as known, in 1786, when the Philadelphia printers "turned out" for a minimum wage of six dollars a week. The second strike on record was in 1791 by Philadelphia house carpenters for the ten-hour day. The Baltimore sailors were successful in advancing their wages through strikes in the years 1795, 1805, and 1807, but their endeavors were recurrent, not permanent. Even more ephemeral were several riotous sailors' strikes as well as a ship builders' strike in 1817 at Medford, Massachusetts. Doubtless many other such outbreaks occurred during the period to 1820, but left no record of their existence.

A strike undoubtedly is a symptom of discontent. However, one can hardly speak of a beginning of trade unionism until such discontent has become expressed in an organization that keeps alive after a strike, or between strikes. Such permanent organizations existed prior to the twenties only in two trades, namely, shoemaking and printing.

The first continuous organization of wage earners was that of the Philadelphia shoemakers, organized in 1792. This society, however, existed for less than a year and did not even leave us its name. The shoemakers of Philadelphia again organized in 1794 under the name of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers and maintained their existence as such at least until 1806. In 1799 the society conducted the first organized strike, which lasted nine or ten weeks. Prior to 1799, the only recorded strikes of any workmen were "unorganized" and, indeed, such were the majority of the strikes that occurred prior to the decade of the thirties in the nineteenth century.

The printers organized their first society in 1794 in New York under the name of The Typographical Society and it continued in existence for ten years and six months. The printers of Philadelphia, who had struck in 1786, neglected to keep up an organization after winning their demands. Between the years 1800 and 1805, the shoemakers and the printers had continuous organizations in Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore. In 1809 the shoemakers of Pittsburgh and the Boston printers were added to the list, and somewhat later the Albany and Washington printers. In 1810 the printers organized in New Orleans.

The separation of the journeymen from the masters, first shown in the formation of these organizations, was emphasized in the attitude toward employer members. The question arose over the continuation in membership of those who became employers. The shoemakers excluded such members from the organization. The printers, on the other hand, were more liberal. But in 1817 the New York society put them out on the ground that "the interests of the journeymen are separate and in some respects opposite to those of the employers."

The strike was the chief weapon of these early societies. Generally a committee was chosen by the society to present a price list or scale of wages to the masters individually. The first complete wage scale presented in this country was drawn up by the organized printers of New York in 1800. The strikes were mainly over wages and were generally conducted in an orderly and comparatively peaceful manner. In only one instance, that of the Philadelphia shoemakers of 1806, is there evidence of violence and intimidation. In that case "scabs" were beaten and employers intimidated by demonstrations in front of the shop or by breaking shop windows. During a strike the duties of "picketing" were discharged by tramping committees. The Philadelphia shoemakers, however, as early as 1799, employed for this purpose a paid officer. This strike was for higher wages for workers on boots. Although those who worked on shoes made no demands of their own, they were obliged to strike, much against their will. We thus meet with the first sympathetic strike on record. In 1809 the New York shoemakers, starting with a strike against one firm, ordered a general strike when they discovered that that firm was getting its work done in other shops. The payment of strike benefits dates from the first authenticated strike, namely in 1786. The method of payment varied from society to society, but the constitution of the New York shoemakers, as early as 1805, provided for a permanent strike fund.

The aggressive trade unionism of these early trade societies forced the masters to combine against them. Associations of masters in their capacity as merchants had usually preceded the journeymen's societies. Their function was to counteract destructive competition from "advertisers" and sellers in the "public market" at low prices. As soon, however, as the wage question became serious, the masters' associations proceeded to take on the function of dealing with labor—mostly aiming to break up the trade societies. Generally they sought to create an available force of non-union labor by means of advertising, but often they turned to the courts and brought action against the journeymen's societies on the ground of conspiracy.

The bitterness of the masters' associations against the the journeymen's societies perhaps was caused not so much by their resistance to reductions in wages as by their imposition of working rules, such as the limitation of the number of apprentices, the minimum wage, and what we would now call the "closed shop." The conspiracy trials largely turned upon the "closed shop" and in these the shoemakers figured exclusively.[2]

Altogether six criminal conspiracy cases are recorded against the shoemakers from 1806 to 1815. One occurred in Philadelphia in 1806; one in New York in 1809; two in Baltimore in 1809; and two in Pittsburgh, the first in 1814 and the other in 1815. Each case was tried before a jury which was judge both of law and fact. Four of the cases were decided against the journeymen. In one of the Baltimore cases judgment was rendered in favor of the journeymen. The Pittsburgh case of 1815 was compromised, the shoemakers paying the costs and returning to work at the old wages. The outcome in the other cases is not definitely known. It was brought out in the testimony that the masters financed, in part at least, the New York and Pittsburgh prosecutions.

Effective as the convictions in court for conspiracy may have been in checking the early trade societies, of much greater consequence was the industrial depression which set in after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. The lifting of the Embargo enabled the foreign traders and manufacturers to dump their products upon the American market. The incipient American industries were in no position to withstand this destructive competition. Conditions were made worse by past over investment and by the collapse of currency inflation.

Trade unionism for the time being had to come to an end. The effect on the journeymen's societies was paralyzing. Only those survived which turned to mutual insurance. Several of the printers' societies had already instituted benefit features, and these now helped them considerably to maintain their organization. The shoe-makers' societies on the other hand had remained to the end purely trade-regulating organizations and went to the wall.

Depression reached its ebb in 1820. Thereafter conditions improved, giving rise to aggressive organizations of wage earners in several industries. We find strikes and permanent organizations among hatters, tailors, weavers, nailers, and cabinet makers. And for the first time we meet with organizations of factory workers—female workers.

Beginning with 1824 and running through 1825, the year which saw the culmination of a period of high prices, a number of strikes occurred in the important industrial centers. The majority were called to enforce higher wages. In Philadelphia, 2900 weavers out of about 4500 in the city were on strike. But the strike that attracted the most public attention was that of the Boston house carpenters for the ten-hour day in 1825.

The Boston journeymen carpenters chose the most strategic time for their strike. They called it in the spring of the year when there was a great demand for carpenters owing to a recent fire. Close to six hundred journeymen were involved in this struggle. The journeymen's demand for the ten-hour day drew a characteristic reply from the "gentlemen engaged in building," the customers of the master builders. They condemned the journeymen on the moral ground that an agitation for a shorter day would open "a wide door for idleness and vice"; hinted broadly at the foreign origin of the agitation; declared that all combinations intending to regulate the value of labor by abridging the working day were in a high degree unjust and injurious to the other classes in the community; announced their resolution to support the masters at the sacrifice of suspending building altogether; and bound themselves not to employ any journeyman or master who might enforce the ten-hour day. The strike failed.

The renewed trade-union activities brought forth a fresh crop of trials for conspiracy.[3] One case involved Philadelphia master shoemakers who combined to reduce wages, two were against journeymen tailors in Philadelphia and Buffalo and the fourth was a hatters' case in New York. The masters were acquitted and the hatters were found guilty of combining to deprive a non-union man of his livelihood. In the Philadelphia tailors' case, the journeymen were convicted on the charge of intimidation. Of the Buffalo tailors' case it is only known that it ended in the conviction of the journeymen.

(2) Equal Citizenship, 1827-1832

So far we have dealt only with trade societies but not yet with a labor movement. A labor movement presupposes a feeling of solidarity which goes beyond the boundaries of a single trade and extends to other wage earners. The American labor movement began in 1827, when the several trades in Philadelphia organized the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations, which was, so far as now known, the first city central organization of trades in the world. This Union, originally intended as an economic organization, changed to a political one the following year and initiated what was probably the most interesting and most typically American labor movement—a struggle for "equality of citizenship." It was brought to a head by the severe industrial depression of the time. But the decisive impulse came from the nation-wide democratic upheaval led by Andrew Jackson, for which the poorer classes in the cities displayed no less enthusiasm than the agricultural West. To the wage earner this outburst of democratic fervor offered an opportunity to try out his recently acquired franchise. Of the then industrial States, Massachusetts granted suffrage to the workingmen in 1820 and New York in 1822. In Pennsylvania the constitution of 1790 had extended the right of suffrage to those who paid any kind of a state or county tax, however small.

The wage earners' Jacksonianism struck a note all its own. If the farmer and country merchant, who had passed through the abstract stage of political aspiration with the Jeffersonian democratic movement, were now, with Jackson, reaching out for the material advantages which political power might yield, the wage earners, being as yet novices in politics, naturally were more strongly impressed with that aspect of the democratic upheaval which emphasized the rights of man in general and social equality in particular. If the middle class Jacksonian was probably thinking first of reducing the debt on his farm or perchance of getting a political office, and only as an after-thought proceeding to look for a justification in the Declaration of Independence, as yet the wage earner was starting with the abstract notion of equal citizenship as contained in the Declaration, and only then proceeding to search for the remedies which would square reality with the idea. Hence it was that the aspiration toward equal citizenship became the keynote of labor's earliest political movement. The issue was drawn primarily between the rich and the poor, not between the functional classes, employers and employes. While the workmen took good care to exclude from their ranks "persons not living by some useful occupation, such as bankers, brokers, rich men, etc.," they did not draw the line on employers as such, master workmen and independent "producers."

The workingmen's bill of complaints, as set forth in the Philadelphia Mechanic's Free Press and other labor papers, clearly marks off the movement as a rebellion by the class of newly enfranchised wage earners against conditions which made them feel degraded in their own eyes as full fledged citizens of the commonwealth.

The complaints were of different sorts but revolved around the charge of the usurpation of government by an "aristocracy." Incontrovertible proof of this charge was found in special legislation chartering banks and other corporations. The banks were indicted upon two counts. First, the unstable bank paper money defrauded the wage earner of a considerable portion of the purchasing power of his wages. Second, banks restricted competition and shut off avenues for the "man on the make." The latter accusation may be understood only if we keep in mind that this was a period when bank credits began to play an essential part in the conduct of industry; that with the extension of the market into the States and territories South and West, with the resulting delay in collections, business could be carried on only by those who enjoyed credit facilities at the banks. Now, as credit generally follows access to the market, it was inevitable that the beneficiary of the banking system should not be the master or journeyman but the merchant for whom both worked.[4] To the uninitiated, however, this arrangement could only appear in the light of a huge conspiracy entered into by the chartered monopolies, the banks, and the unchartered monopolist, the merchant, to shut out the possible competition by the master and journeyman. The grievance appeared all the more serious since all banks were chartered by special enactments of the legislature, which thus appeared as an accomplice in the conspiracy.

In addition to giving active help to the rich, the workingmen argued, the government was too callous to the suffering of the poor and pointed to the practice of imprisonment for debt. The Boston Prison Discipline Society, a philanthropic organization, estimated in 1829 that about 75,000 persons were annually imprisoned for debt in the United States. Many of these were imprisoned for very small debts. In one Massachusetts prison, for example, out of 37 cases, 20 were for less than $20. The Philadelphia printer and philanthropist, Mathew Carey, father of the economist Henry C. Carey, cited a contemporary Boston case of a blind man with a family dependent on him imprisoned for a debt of six dollars. A labor paper reported an astounding case of a widow in Providence, Rhode Island, whose husband had lost his life in a fire while attempting to save the property of the man who later caused her imprisonment for a debt of 68 cents. The physical conditions in debtors' jails were appalling, according to unimpeachable contemporary reports. Little did such treatment of the poor accord with their newly acquired dignity as citizens.

Another grievance, particularly exasperating because the government was responsible, grew in Pennsylvania out of the administration of the compulsory militia system. Service was obligatory upon all male citizens and non-attendance was punished by fine or imprisonment. The rich delinquent did not mind, but the poor delinquent when unable to pay was given a jail sentence.

Other complaints by workingmen went back to the failure of government to protect the poorer citizen's right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The lack of a mechanic's lien law, which would protect his wages in the case of his employer's bankruptcy, was keenly felt by the workingmen. A labor paper estimated in 1829 that, owing to the lack of a lien law on buildings, not less than three or four hundred thousand dollars in wages were annually lost.

But the most distinctive demands of the workingmen went much further. This was an age of egalitarianism. The Western frontiersmen demanded equality with the wealthy Eastern merchant and banker, and found in Andrew Jackson an ideal spokesman. For a brief moment it seemed that by equality the workingmen meant an equal division of all property. That was the program which received temporary endorsement at the first workingmen's meeting in New York in April 1829. "Equal division" was advocated by a self-taught mechanic by the name of Thomas Skidmore, who elaborated his ideas in a book bearing the self-revealing title of "The Rights of Man to Property: being a Proposition to make it Equal among the Adults of the Present Generation: and to Provide for its Equal Transmission to Every Individual of Each Succeeding Generation, on Arriving at the Age of Maturity," published in 1829. This Skidmorian program was better known as "agrarianism," probably from the title of a book by Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, as Opposed to Agrarian Law and to Agrarian Monopoly, published in 1797 in London, which advocated equal division by means of an inheritance tax. Its adoption by the New York workingmen was little more than a stratagem, for their intention was to forestall any attempts by employers to lengthen the working day to eleven hours by raising the question of "the nature of the tenure by which all men hold title to their property." Apparently the stratagem worked, for the employers immediately dropped the eleven-hour issue. But, although the workingmen quickly thereafter repudiated agrarianism, they succeeded only too well in affixing to their movement the mark of the beast in the eyes of their opponents and the general public.

Except during the brief but damaging "agrarian" episode, the demand for free public education or "Republican" education occupied the foreground. We, who live in an age when free education at the expense of the community is considered practically an inalienable right of every child, find it extremely difficult to understand the vehemence of the opposition which the demand aroused on the part of the press and the "conservative" classes, when first brought up by the workingmen. The explanation lies partly in the political situation, partly in the moral character of the "intellectual" spokesmen for the workingmen, and partly in the inborn conservatism of the tax-paying classes upon whom the financial burden would fall. That the educational situation was deplorable much proof is unnecessary. Pennsylvania had some public schools, but parents had to declare themselves too poor to send their children to a private school before they were allowed the privilege of sending them there. In fact so much odium attached to these schools that they were practically useless and the State became distinguished for the number of children not attending school. As late as 1837 a labor paper estimated that 250,000 out of 400,000 children in Pennsylvania of school age were not in any school. The Public School Society of New York estimated in a report for 1829 that in New York City alone there were 24,200 children between the ages of five and fifteen years not attending any school whatever.

To meet these conditions the workingmen outlined a comprehensive educational program. It was not merely a literary education that the workingmen desired. The idea of industrial education, or training for a vocation, which is even now young in this country, was undoubtedly first introduced by the leaders of this early labor movement. They demanded a system of public education which would "combine a knowledge of the practical arts with that of the useful sciences." The idea of industrial education appears to have originated in a group of which two "intellectuals," Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright, were the leading spirits.

Robert Dale Owen was the eldest son of Robert Owen, the famous English manufacturer-philanthropist, who originated the system of socialism known as "Owenism." Born in Scotland, he was educated at Hofwyl, Switzerland, in a school conducted by Emmanuel von Fellenberg, the associate of the famous Pestalozzi, as a self-governing children's republic on the manner of the present "Julior Republics." Owen himself said that he owed his abiding faith in human virtue and social progress to his years at Hofwyl. In 1825 Robert Dale left England to join his father in a communistic experiment at New Harmony, Indiana, and together they lived through the vicissitudes which attended that experiment. There he met Frances Wright, America's first suffragist, with whom he formed an intimate friendship lasting through many years. The failure at New Harmony convinced him that his father had overlooked the importance of the anti-social habits which the members had formed before they joined; and he concluded that those could be prevented only by applying a rational system of education to the young. These conclusions, together with the recollections of his experience at Hofwyl, led him to advocate a new system of education, which came to be called "state guardianship."

State guardianship was a demand for the establishment by the state of boarding schools where children should receive, not only equal instruction, general as well as industrial, but equal food and equal clothing at the public expense. Under this system, it was asserted, public schools would become "not schools of charity, but schools of the nation, to the support of which all would contribute; and instead of being almost a disgrace, it would become an honor to have been educated there." It was urged as an especial advantage that, as children would be clothed and cared for at all times, the fact that poor parents could not afford to dress their children "as decently as their neighbors" would not prevent their attendance.

State guardianship became the battle cry of an important faction in the Workingmen's party in New York. Elsewhere a less radical program was advocated. In Philadelphia the workingmen demanded only that high schools be on the Hofwyl model, whereas in the smaller cities and towns in both Pennsylvania and New York the demand was for "literary" day schools. Yet the underlying principle was the same everywhere. A labor candidate for Congress in the First Congressional District of Philadelphia in 1830 expressed it succinctly during his campaign. He made his plea on the ground that "he is the friend and indefatigable defender of a system of general education, which will place the citizens of this extensive Republic on an equality; a system that will fit the children of the poor, as well as the rich, to become our future legislators; a system that will bring the children of the poor and the rich to mix together as a band of Republican brethren."

In New England the workingmen's movement for equal citizenship was simultaneously a reaction against the factory system. To the cry for a Republican system of education was added an anti-child labor crusade. One who did more than any other to call attention to the evils of the factory system of that day was a lawyer by the name of Seth Luther, who, according to his own account, had "for years lived among cotton mills, worked in them, travelled among them." His "Address to the Working Men of New England on the State of Education, and on the Condition of the Producing Classes in Europe and America, with Particular Reference to the Effect of Manufacturing (as now conducted) on the Health and Happiness of the Poor, and on the Safety of our Republic" was delivered widely and undoubtedly had considerable influence over the labor movement of the period. The average working day in the best factories at that time was nearly thirteen hours. For the children who were sent into the factories at an early age these hours precluded, of course, any possibility of obtaining even the most rudimentary education.

The New England movement was an effort to unite producers of all kinds, including not only farmers but factory workers with mechanics and city workingmen. In many parts of the State of New York the workingmen's parties included the three classes—"farmers, mechanics, and working men,"—but New England added a fourth class, the factory operatives. It was early found, however, that the movement could expect little or no help from the factory operatives, who were for the most part women and children.

The years 1828, 1829, and 1830 were years of political labor movements and labor parties. Philadelphia originated the first workingmen's party, then came New York and Boston, and finally state-wide movements and political organizations in each of the three States. In New York the workingmen scored their most striking single success, when in 1829 they cast 6000 votes out of a total of 21,000. In Philadelphia the labor ticket polled 2400 in 1828 and the labor party gained the balance of power in the city. But the inexperience of the labor politicians coupled with machinations on the part of "designing men" of both older parties soon lost the labor parties their advantage. In New York Tammany made the demand for a mechanics' lien law its own and later saw that it became enacted into law. In New York, also, the situation became complicated by factional strife between the Skidmorian "agrarians," the Owenite state guardianship faction, and a third faction which eschewed either "panacea." Then, too, the opposition parties and press seized upon agrarianism and Owen's alleged atheism to brand the whole labor movement. The labor party was decidedly unfortunate in its choice of intellectuals and "ideologists."

It would be, however, a mistake to conclude that the Philadelphia, New York, or New England political movements were totally without results. Though unsuccessful in electing their candidates to office, they did succeed in placing their demands to advantage before the public. Humanitarians, like Horace Mann, took up independently the fight for free public education and carried it to success. In Pennsylvania, public schools, free from the taint of charity, date since 1836. In New York City the public school system was established in 1832. The same is true of the demand for a mechanics' lien law, of the abolition of imprisonment for debt, and of others.

(3) The Period of the "Wild-cat" Prosperity, 1833-1837

With the break-up of the workingmen's parties, labor's newly acquired sense of solidarity was temporarily lost, leaving only the restricted solidarity of the isolated trade society. Within that limit, however, important progress began to be made. In 1833, there were in New York twenty-nine organized trades; in Philadelphia, twenty-one; and in Baltimore, seventeen. Among those organized in Philadelphia were hand-loom weavers, plasterers, bricklayers, black and white smiths, cigar makers, plumbers, and women workers including tailoresses, seamstresses, binders, folders, milliners, corset makers, and mantua workers. Several trades, such as the printers and tailors in New York and the Philadelphia carpenters, which formerly were organized upon the benevolent basis, were now reorganized as trade societies. The benevolent New York Typographical Society was reduced to secondary importance by the appearance in 1831 of the New York Typographical Association.

But the factor that compelled labor to organize on a much larger scale was the remarkable rise in prices from 1835 to 1837. This rise in prices was coincident with the "wild-cat" prosperity, which followed a rapid multiplication of state banks with the right of issue of paper currency—largely irredeemable "wild-cat" currency. Cost of living having doubled, the subject of wages became a burning issue. At the same time the general business prosperity rendered demands for higher wages easily attainable. The outcome was a luxuriant growth of trade unionism.

In 1836 there were in Philadelphia fifty-eight trade unions; in Newark, New Jersey, sixteen; in New York, fifty-two; in Pittsburgh, thirteen; in Cincinnati, fourteen; and in Louisville, seven. In Buffalo the journeymen builders' association included all the building trades. The tailors of Louisville, Cincinnati, and St. Louis made a concentrated effort against their employers in these three cities.

The wave of organization reached at last the women workers. In 1830 the well-known Philadelphia philanthropist, Mathew Carey, asserted that there were in the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore about 20,000 women who could not by constant employment for sixteen hours out of twenty-four earn more than $1.25 a week. These were mostly seamstresses and tailoresses, umbrella makers, shoe binders, cigar makers, and book binders. In New York there was in 1835 a Female Union Association, in Baltimore a United Seamstresses' Society, and in Philadelphia probably the first federation of women workers in this country. In Lynn, Massachusetts, a "Female Society of Lynn and Vicinity for the Protection and Promotion of Female Industry" operated during 1833 and 1834 among the shoe binders and had at one time 1000 members, who, like the seamstresses, were home workers and earned scanty wages.

Where nearly every trade was in motion, it did not take long to discover a common direction and a common purpose. This was expressed in city "trades' unions," or federations of all organized trades in a city, and in its ascendency over the individual trade societies.

The first trades' union was organized August 14, 1833, in New York. Baltimore followed in September, Philadelphia in November, and Boston in March 1834. New York after 1820 was the metropolis of the country and also the largest industrial and commercial center. There the house carpenters had struck for higher wages in the latter part of May 1833, and fifteen other trades met and pledged their support. Out of this grew the New York Trades' Union. It had an official organ in a weekly, the National Trades' Union, published from 1834 to 1836, and a daily, The Union, issued in 1836. Ely Moore, a printer, was made president. Moore was elected a few months later as the first representative of labor in Congress.

In addition, trades' unions were organized in Washington; in New Brunswick and Newark, New Jersey; in Albany, Troy, and Schenectady, New York; and in the "Far West"—Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Louisville.

Except in Boston, the trades' unions felt anxious to draw the line between themselves and the political labor organizations of the preceding years. In Philadelphia, where as we have seen, the formation of an analogous organization, the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations of 1828, had served as a preliminary for a political movement, the General Trades' Union took especial precaution and provided in the constitution that "no party, political or religious questions shall at any time be agitated in or acted upon in the Union." Its official organ, the National Laborer, declared that "the Trades' Union never will be political because its members have learned from experience that the introduction of politics into their societies has thwarted every effort to ameliorate their conditions."

The repudiation of active politics did not carry with it a condemnation of legislative action or "lobbying." On the contrary, these years witnessed the first sustained legislative campaign that was ever conducted by a labor organization, namely the campaign by the New York Trades' Union for the suppression of the competition from prison-made goods. Under the pressure of the New York Union the State Legislature created in 1834 a special commission on prison labor with its president, Ely Moore, as one of the three commissioners. On this question of prison labor the trade unionists clashed with the humanitarian prison reformers, who regarded productive labor by prisoners as a necessary means of their reform to an honest mode of living; and the humanitarian won. After several months' work the commission submitted what was to the Union an entirely unsatisfactory report. It approved the prison-labor system as a whole and recommended only minor changes. Ely Moore signed the report, but a public meeting of workingmen condemned it.

The rediscovered solidarity between the several trades now embodied in the city trades' unions found its first expression on a large scale in a ten-hour movement.

The first concerted demand for the ten-hour day was made by the workingmen of Baltimore in August 1833, and extended over seventeen trades. But the mechanics' aspiration for a ten-hour day—perhaps the strongest spiritual inheritance from the preceding movement for equal citizenship,[5] had to await a change in the general condition of industry to render trade union effort effective before it could turn into a well sustained movement. That change finally came with the prosperous year of 1835.

The movement was precipitated in Boston. There, as we saw, the carpenters had been defeated in an effort to establish a ten-hour day in 1825,[6] but made another attempt in the spring of 1835. This time, however, they did not stand alone but were joined by the masons and stone-cutters. As before, the principal attack was directed against the "capitalists," that is, the owners of the buildings and the real estate speculators. The employer or small contractor was viewed sympathetically. "We would not be too severe on our employers," said the strikers' circular, which was sent out broadcast over the country, "they are slaves to the capitalists, as we are to them."

The strike was protracted. The details of it are not known, but we know that it won sympathy throughout the country. A committee visited in July the different cities on the Atlantic coast to solicit aid for the strikers. In Philadelphia, when the committee arrived in company with delegates from New York, Newark, and Paterson, the Trades' Union held a special meeting and resolved to stand by the "Boston House Wrights" who, "in imitation of the noble and decided stand taken by their Revolutionary Fathers, have determined to throw off the shackles of more mercenary tyrants than theirs." Many societies voted varying sums of money in aid of the strikers.

The Boston strike was lost, but the sympathy which it evoked among mechanics in various cities was quickly turned to account. Wherever the Boston circular reached, it acted like a spark upon powder. In Philadelphia the ten-hour movement took on the aspect of a crusade. Not only the building trades, as in Boston, but most of the mechanical branches were involved. Street parades and mass meetings were held. The public press, both friendly and hostile, discussed it at length. Work was suspended and after but a brief "standout" the whole ended in a complete victory for the workingmen. Unskilled laborers, too, struck for the ten-hour day and, in the attempt to prevent others from taking their jobs, riotous scenes occurred which attracted considerable attention. The movement proved so irresistible that the Common Council announced a ten-hour day for public servants. Lawyers, physicians, merchants, and politicians took up the cause of the workingmen. On June 8 the master carpenters granted the ten-hour day and by June 22 the victory was complete.

The victory in Philadelphia was so overwhelming and was given so much publicity that its influence extended to many smaller towns. In fact, the ten-hour system, which remained in vogue in this country in the skilled trades until the nineties, dates largely from this movement in the middle of the thirties.

The great advance in the cost of living during 1835 and 1836 compelled an extensive movement for higher wages. Prices had in some instances more than doubled. Most of these strikes were hastily undertaken. Prices, of course, were rising rapidly but the societies were new and lacked balance. A strike in one trade was an example to others to strike. In a few instances, however, there was considerable planning and reserve.

The strike epidemic affected even the girls who worked in the textile factories. The first strike of factory girls on record had occurred in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1828. A factory strike in Paterson, New Jersey, which occurred in the same year, occasioned the first recorded calling out of militia to quell labor disturbances. There the strikers were, however, for the most part men. But the factory strike which attracted the greatest public attention was the Lowell strike in February, 1834, against a 15 percent reduction in wages. The strike was short and unsuccessful, notwithstanding that 800 striking girls at first exhibited a determination to carry their struggle to the end. It appears that public opinion in New England was disagreeably impressed by this early manifestation of feminism. Another notable factory strike was one in Paterson in July 1835. Unlike similar strikes, it had been preceded by an organization. The chief demand was the eleven-hour day. The strike involved twenty mills and 2000 persons. Two weeks later the employers reduced hours from thirteen and a half to twelve hours for five days and to nine hours on Saturday. This broke the strike. The character of the agitation among the factory workers stamps it as ephemeral. Even more ephemeral was the agitation among immigrant laborers, mostly Irish, on canals and roads, which usually took the form of riots.

As in the preceding period, the aggressiveness of the trade societies eventually gave rise to combative masters' associations. These, goaded by restrictive union practices, notably the closed shop, appealed to the courts for relief. By 1836 employers' associations appeared in nearly every trade in which labor was aggressive; in New York there were at least eight and in Philadelphia seven. In Philadelphia, at the initiative of the master carpenters and cordwainers, there came to exist an informal federation of the masters' associations in the several trades.

From 1829 to 1842 there were eight recorded prosecutions of labor organizations for conspiracy. The workingmen were convicted in two cases; in two other cases the courts sustained demurrers to the indictments; in three cases the defendants were acquitted after jury trials; and the outcome of one case is unknown. Finally, in 1842, long after the offending societies had gone out of existence under the stress of unemployment and depressions, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts handed down a decision, which for forty years laid to rest the doctrine of conspiracy as applied to labor unions.[7]

The unity of action of the several trades displayed in the city trades' unions engendered before long a still wider solidarity in the form of a National Trades' Union. It came together in August 1834, in New York City upon the invitation of the General Trades' Union of New York. The delegates were from the trades' unions of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn, Poughkeepsie, and Newark. Ely Moore, then labor candidate for Congress, was elected president. An attempt by the only "intellectual" present, a Doctor Charles Douglass, representing the Boston Trades' Union, to strike a political note was immediately squelched. A second convention was held in 1835 and a third one in 1837.

The National Trades' Union played a conspicuous part in securing the ten-hour day for government employes. The victory of the ten-hour principle in private employment in 1835 generally led to its adoption by states and municipalities. However, the Federal government was slow to follow the example, since Federal officials were immune from the direct political pressure which the workingmen were able to use with advantage upon locally elected office holders.

In October 1835, the mechanics employed in the New York and Brooklyn Navy Yards petitioned the Secretary of the Navy for a reduction of the hours of labor to ten. The latter referred the petition to the Board of Navy Commissioners, who returned the petition with the opinion that it would be detrimental to the government to accede to their request. This forced the matter into the attention of the National Trades' Union. At its second convention in 1835 it decided to petition Congress for a ten-hour day for employes on government works. The petition was introduced by the labor Congressman from New York, Ely Moore. Congress curtly replied, however, that it was not a matter for legislation but "that the persons employed should redress their own grievances." With Congress in such a mood, the hopes of the workingmen turned to the President.

A first step was made in the summer of 1836, when the workers in the Navy Yard at Philadelphia struck for a ten-hour day and appealed to President Jackson for relief. They would have nothing further to do with Congress. They had supported President Jackson in his fight against the United States Bank and now sought a return favor. At a town meeting of "citizens, mechanics, and working men," a committee was appointed to lay the issue before him. He proved indeed more responsive than Congress and ordered the ten-hour system established.

But the order applied only to the localities where the strike occurred. The agitation had been chiefly local. Besides Philadelphia and New York the mechanics secured the ten-hour day in Baltimore and Annapolis, but in the District of Columbia and elsewhere they were still working twelve or fourteen hours. In other words, the ten-hour day was secured only where trade societies existed.

But the organized labor movement did not rest with a partial success. The campaign of pressure on the President went on. Finally, although somewhat belatedly, President Van Buren issued on March 31, 1840, the famous executive order establishing the ten-hour day on government work without a reduction in wages.

The victory came after the National Trades' Union had gone out of existence and should be, more correctly, correlated with a labor political movement. Early in 1837 came a financial panic. The industrial depression wiped out in a short time every form of labor organization from the trade societies to the National Trades' Union. Labor stood defenseless against the economic storm. In this emergency it turned to politics as a measure of despair.

The political dissatisfaction assumed the form of hostility towards banks and corporations in general. The workingmen held the banks responsible for the existing anarchy in currency, from which they suffered both as consumers and producers. Moreover, they felt that there was something uncanny and threatening about corporations with their continuous existence and limited liability. Even while their attention had been engrossed by trade unionism, the workingmen were awake to the issue of monopoly. Together with their employers they had therefore supported Jackson in his assault upon the largest "monster" of them all—the Bank of the United States. The local organizations of the Democratic party, however, did not always remain true to faith. In such circumstances the workingmen, again acting in conjunction with their masters, frequently extended their support to the "insurgent" anti-monopoly candidates in the Democratic party conventions. Such a revolt took place in Philadelphia in 1835; and in New York, although Tammany had elected Ely Moore, the President of the General Trades' Union of New York, to Congress in 1834, a similar revolt occurred. The upshot was a triumphant return of the rebels into the fold of Tammany in 1837. During the next twenty years, Tammany came nearer to being a workingmen's organization than at any other time in its career.

(4) The Long Depression, 1837-1862

The twenty-five years which elapsed from 1837 to 1862 form a period of business depression and industrial disorganization only briefly interrupted during 1850-1853 by the gold discoveries in California. The aggressive unions of the thirties practically disappeared. With industry disorganized, trade unionism, or the effort to protect the standard of living by means of strikes, was out of question. As the prospect for immediate amelioration became dimmed by circumstances, an opportunity arrived for theories and philosophies of radical social reform. Once the sun with its life-giving heat has set, one begins to see the cold and distant stars.

The uniqueness of the period of the forties in the labor movement proceeds not only from the large volume of star-gazing, but also from the accompanying fact that, for the first and only time in American history, the labor movement was dominated by men and women from the educated class, the "intellectuals," who thus served in the capacity of expert astrologers.

And there was no lack of stars in the heaven of social reform to occupy both intellectual and wage earner. First, there was the efficiency scheme of the followers of Charles Fourier, the French socialist, or, as they preferred to call themselves, the Associationists. Theirs was a proposal aiming directly to meet the issue of the prevailing industrial disorganization and wasteful competition. Albert Brisbane, Horace Greeley, and the Brook Farm enthusiasts and "Associationists" of the forties, made famous by their intimate association with Ralph Waldo Emerson, had much in common with the present-day efficiency engineers. This "old" efficiency of theirs, like the new one, was chiefly concerned with increasing the production of wealth through the application of the "natural" laws of human nature. With the enormous increase in production to be brought about by "Fourierism" and "Association," the question of justice in distribution was relegated to a secondary place. Where they differed from the new efficiency was in method, for they believed efficiency would be attained if only the human instincts or "passions" were given free play, while the efficiency engineers of today trust less to unguided instinct and more to "scientific management" of human "passions."

Midway between trade unionism and the simon-pure, idealistic reform philosophies stood producers' and consumers' cooperation. It had the merit of being a practical program most suitable to a time of depression, while on its spiritual side it did not fail to satisfy the loftiest intellectual. It was the resultant of the two most potent forces which acted upon the movement of the forties, the pressure of an inadequate income of the wage earner and the influence of the intellectuals. During no other period has there been, relatively speaking, so much effort along that line.

Although, as we shall see, the eighties were properly the era of producers' cooperation on a large scale, the self-governing workshop had always been familiar to the American labor movement. The earliest attempt, as far as we have knowledge, occurred in Philadelphia in 1791, when the house carpenters out on strike offered by way of retaliation against their employers to undertake contracts at 25 percent less than the price charged by the masters. Fourteen years later, in 1806, the journeymen cordwainers of the same city, following their conviction in court on the charge of conspiracy brought in by their masters, opened up a cooperative shoe warehouse and store. As a rule the workingmen took up productive cooperation when they had failed in strikes.

In 1836 many of the trade societies began to lose their strikes and turned to cooperation. The cordwainers working on ladies' shoes entered upon a strike for higher wages in March 1836, and opened three months later a "manufactory" or a warehouse of their own. The handloom weavers in two of the suburbs of Philadelphia started cooperative associations at the same time. At the end of 1836 the hand-loom weavers of Philadelphia proper had two cooperative shops and were planning to open a third. In New Brunswick, New Jersey, the journeymen cordwainers opened a shop after an unsuccessful strike early in 1836; likewise the tailors of Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Louisville. In New York the carpenters had done so already in 1833, and the painters of New York and Brooklyn opened their shops in 1837.

Before long the spirit became so contagious that the Trades' Union of Philadelphia, the city federation of trade societies, was obliged to take notice. Early in 1837 a conference of about 200 delegates requested each trade society to submit estimates for a shop to employ ten members. However, further steps were prevented by the financial panic and business depression.

The forties witnessed several similar attempts. When the iron molders of Cincinnati failed to win a strike in the autumn of 1847, a few of their number collected what funds they could and organized a sort of joint-stock company which they called "The Journeymen Molders' Union Foundry." Two local philanthropists erected their buildings. In Pittsburgh a group of puddlers tried to raise money by selling stock to anyone who wished to take an interest in their cooperative venture.

The cooperative ventures multiplied in 1850 and 1851, following a widespread failure of strikes and were entered upon with particular readiness by the German immigrants. Among the Germans was an attitude towards producers' cooperation, based more nearly on general principles than the practical exigencies of a strike. Fresh from the scenes of revolutions in Europe, they were more given to dreams about reconstructing society and more trustful in the honesty and integrity of their leaders. The cooperative movement among the Germans was identified with the name of Wilhelm Weitling, the well-known German communist, who settled in America about 1850. This movement centered in and around New York. The cooperative principle met with success among the English-speaking people only outside the larger cities. In Buffalo, after an unsuccessful strike, the tailors formed an association with a membership of 108 and in October 1850, were able to give employment to 80 of that number.

Again, following an unsuccessful Pittsburgh strike of iron founders in 1849, about a dozen of the strikers went to Wheeling, Virginia, each investing $3000, and opened a cooperative foundry shop. Two other foundries were opened on a similar basis in Stetsonville, Ohio, and Sharon, Pennsylvania. These associations of iron founders, however, might better be called association of small capitalists or master-workmen.

During the forties, consumers' or distributive cooperation was also given a trial. The early history of consumers' cooperation is but fragmentary and, so far as we know, the first cooperative attempt which had for its exclusive aim "competence to purchaser" was made in Philadelphia early in 1829. A store was established on North Fifth Street, which sold goods at wholesale prices to members, who paid twenty cents a month for its privileges.

In 1831 distributive cooperation was much discussed in Boston by a "New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Working Men." A half dozen cooperative attempts are mentioned in the Cooperator, published in Utica in 1832, but only in the case of the journeymen cordwainers of Lynn do we discover an undertaking which can with certainty be considered as an effort to achieve distributive cooperation. Several germs of cooperative effort are found between 1833 and 1845, but all that is known about them is that their promoters sought to effect a saving by the purchase of goods in large quantities which were then broken up and distributed at a slight advance above original cost in order to meet expenses. The managers were unpaid, the members' interest in the business was not maintained, and the stores soon failed, or passed into the possession of private owners.

It was the depression of 1846-1849 which supplied the movement for distributive cooperation with the needed stimulus, especially in New England. Although the matter was discussed in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and even as far west as Ohio and Illinois, yet in none of the industrial centers of these States, except perhaps in New York, was it put into successful operation.

In New England, however, the conditions were exceptionally favorable. A strike movement for higher wages during a partial industrial revival of 1843-1844 had failed completely. This failure, added to the fact that women and girls were employed under very unsatisfactory conditions, strengthened the interest of humanitarians in the laboring people and especially in cooperation as a possible means of alleviating their distress.

Under the stimulus of these agitations, the New England Protective Union was formed in 1845. Until 1849, however, it bore the name of the Working Men's Protective Union. As often happens, prosperity brought disunion and, in 1853, a schism occurred in the organization due to personal differences. The seceders formed a separate organization known as the American Protective Union.

The Working Men's Protective Union embodied a larger conception of the cooperative idea than had been expressed before. The important thought was that an economy of a few dollars a year in the purchase of commodities was a poor way out of labor difficulties, but was valuable only as a preparation for something better.

Though the resources of these laborers were small, they began the work with great hopes. This business, starting so unpretentiously, assumed larger and increasing proportions until in October, 1852, the Union embraced 403 divisions of which 167 reported a capital of $241,712 and 165 of these announced annual sales amounting to $1,696,825. Though the schism of 1853, mentioned above, weakened the body, the agent of the American Protective Union claimed for the divisions comprising it sales aggregating in value over nine and one-fourth millions dollars in the seven years ending in 1859.

It is not possible to tell what might have been the outcome of this cooperative movement had the peaceful development of the country remained uninterrupted. As it happened, the disturbed era of the Civil War witnessed the near annihilation of all workingmen's cooperation.

It is not difficult to see the causes which led to the destruction of the still tender plant. Men left their homes for the battle field, foreigners poured into New England towns and replaced the Americans in the shops, while share-holders frequently became frightened at the state of trade and gladly saw the entire cooperative enterprise pass into the hands of the storekeeper.

This first American cooperative movement on a large scale resembled the British movement in many respects, namely open membership, equal voting by members irrespective of number of shares, cash sales and federation of societies for wholesale purchases, but differed in that goods were sold to members nearly at cost rather than at the market price. Dr. James Ford in his Cooperation in New England, Urban and Rural,[8] describes two survivals from this period, the Central Union Association of New Bedford, Massachusetts, founded in 1848, and the Acushnet Cooperative Association, also of New Bedford, which began business in 1849.

But the most characteristic labor movement of the forties was a resurgence of the old Agrarianism of the twenties.

Skidmore's "equal division" of all property appealed to the workingmen of New York because it seemed to be based on equality of opportunity. One of Skidmore's temporary associates, a Welshman by the name of George Henry Evans, drew from him an inspiration for a new kind of agrarianism to which few could object. This new doctrine was a true Agrarianism, since it followed in the steps of the original "Agrarians," the brothers Gracchi in ancient Rome. Like the Gracchi, Evans centered his plan around the "ager publicum"—the vast American public domain. Evans began his agitation about 1844.

Man's right to life, according to Evans, logically implied his right to use the materials of nature necessary for being. For practical reasons he would not interfere with natural resources which have already passed under private ownership. Evans proposed instead that Congress give each would-be settler land for a homestead free of charge.

As late as 1852 debaters in Congress pointed out that in the preceding sixty years only 100,000,000 acres of the public lands had been sold and that 1,400,000,000 acres still remained at the disposal of the government. Estimates of the required time to dispose of this residuum at the same rate of sale varied from 400 or 500 to 900 years. With the exaggerated views prevalent, it is no wonder that Evans believed that the right of the individual to as much land as his right to live calls for would remain a living right for as long a period in the future as a practical statesman may be required to take into account.

The consequences of free homesteads were not hard to picture. The landless wage earners could be furnished transportation and an outfit, for the money spent for poor relief would be more profitably expended in sending the poor to the land. Private societies and trade unions, when laborers were too numerous, could aid in transporting the surplus to the waiting homesteads and towns that would grow up. With the immobility of labor thus offering no serious obstacle to the execution of the plan, the wage earners of the East would have the option of continuing to work for wages or of taking up their share of the vacant lands. Moreover, mechanics could set up as independent producers in the new settlements. Enough at least would go West to force employers to offer better wages and shorter hours. Those unable to meet the expenses of moving would profit by higher wages at home. An equal opportunity to go on land would benefit both pioneer and stay-at-home.

But Evans would go still further in assuring equality of opportunity. He would make the individual's right to the resources of nature safe against the creditors through a law exempting homesteads from attachment for debts and even against himself by making the homestead inalienable. Moreover to assure that right to the American people in perpetuo he would prohibit future disposal of the public land in large blocks to moneyed purchasers as practiced by the government heretofore. Thus the program of the new agrarianism: free homesteads, homestead exemption, and land limitation.

Evans had a plan of political action, which was as unique as his economic program. His previous political experiences with the New York Workingmen's party had taught him that a minority party could not hope to win by its own votes and that the politicians cared more for offices than for measures. They would endorse any measure which was supported by voters who held the balance of power. His plan of action was, therefore, to ask all candidates to pledge their support to his measures. In exchange for such a pledge, the candidates would receive the votes of the workingmen. In case neither candidate would sign the pledge, it might be necessary to nominate an independent as a warning to future candidates; but not as an indication of a new party organization.

Evans' ideas quickly won the adherence of the few labor papers then existing. Horace Greeley's New York Tribune endorsed the homestead movement as early as 1845. The next five years witnessed a remarkable spread of the ideas of the free homestead movement in the press of the country. It was estimated in 1845 that 2000 papers were published in the United States and that in 1850, 600 of these supported land reform.

Petitions and memorials having proved of little avail, the land reformers tried Evans' pet plan of bargaining votes for the support of their principles. Tammany was quick to start the bidding. In May, 1851, a mass-meeting was held at Tammany Hall "of all those in favor of land and other industrial reform, to be made elements in the Presidential contest of 1852." A platform was adopted which proclaimed man's right to the soil and urged that freedom of the public lands be endorsed by the Democratic party. Senator Isaac A. Walker of Wisconsin was nominated as the candidate of the party for President.

For a while the professional politician triumphed over the too trusting workingman reformer. But the cause found strong allies in the other classes of the American community. From the poor whites of the upland region of the South came a similar demand formulated by the Tennessee tailor, Andrew Johnson, later President of the United States, who introduced his first homestead bill in 1845. From the Western pioneers and settlers came the demand for increased population and development of resources, leading both to homesteads for settlers and land grants for railways. The opposition came from manufacturers and landowners of the East and from the Southern slave owners. The West and East finally combined and the policy of the West prevailed, but not before the South had seceded from the Union.

Not the entire reform was accepted. The Western spirit dominated. The homestead law, as finally adopted in 1862, granted one hundred and sixty acres as a free gift to every settler. But the same Congress launched upon a policy of extensive land grants to railways. The homestead legislation doubtless prevented great estates similar to those which sprang of a different policy of the Australian colonies, but did not carry out the broad principles of inalienability and land limitation of the original Agrarians.

Their principle of homestead exemption, however, is now almost universally adopted. Thus the homestead agitation begun by Evans and a group of wage earners and farmers in 1844 was carried to victory, though to an incomplete victory. It contained a fruitful lesson to labor in politics. The vested interests in the East were seen ultimately to capitulate before a popular movement which at no time aspired toward political power and office, but, concentrating on one issue, endeavored instead to permeate with its ideas the public opinion of the country at large.

Of all the "isms" so prevalent during the forties, "Agrarianism" alone came close to modern socialism, as it alone advocated class struggle and carried it into the political field, although, owing to the peculiarity of the American party structure, it urged a policy of "reward your friends, and punish your enemies" rather than an out and out labor party. It is noteworthy that of all social reform movements of the forties Agrarianism alone was not initiated by the intellectuals. On the other hand, another movement for legislative reform, namely the shorter-hour movement for women and children working in the mills and factories, was entirely managed by humanitarians. Its philosophy was the furthest removed from the class struggle idea.

For only a short year or two did prosperity show itself from behind the clouds to cause a mushroom growth of trade unions, once in 1850-1851 and again in 1853-1854, following the gold discoveries in California. During these few years unionism disentangled itself from humanitarianism and cooperationism and came out in its wholly modern form of restrictive craft unionism, only to be again suppressed by the business depressions that preceded and followed the panic of 1857. Considered as a whole, however, the period of the forties and fifties was the zenith in American history of theories of social reform, of "panaceas," of humanitarianism.

The trade union wave of the fifties was so short lived and the trade unionists were so preoccupied with the pressing need of advancing their wages to keep pace with the soaring prices caused by the influx of California gold, that we miss the tendency which was so strong in the thirties to reach out for a wider basis of labor organization in city trades' unions, and ultimately in a National Trades' Union. On the other hand, the fifties foreshadowed a new form of expansion of labor organization—the joining together in a nation-wide organization of all local unions of one trade. The printers[9] organized nationally in 1850, the locomotive engineers and the hat-finishers in 1854; and the iron molders, and the machinists and blacksmiths in 1859; in addition there were at least a half dozen less successful attempts in other trades.


[2] See below, 147-148.

[3] See below, 148-149.

[4] See below, 270-272.

[5] The workingmen felt that they required leisure to be able to exercise their rights of citizens.

[6] The ship carpenters had been similarly defeated in 1832.

[7] For a detailed discussion of these trials see below, 149-152.

[8] Published in 1916 by the Russell Sage Foundation, pp. 16-18.

[9] The printers had organized nationally for the first time in 1836, but the organization lasted less than two years; likewise the cordwainers or shoemakers. But we must keep in mind that what constituted national organization in the thirties would pass only for regional or sectional organization in later years.



The few national trade unions which were formed at the close of the fifties did not constitute by themselves a labor movement. It needed the industrial prosperity caused by the price inflation of the Civil War time to bring forth again a mass movement of labor.

We shall say little of labor's attitude towards the question of war and peace before the War had started. Like many other citizens of the North and the Border States the handful of organized workers favored a compromise. They held a labor convention in Philadelphia, in which a great labor leader of the sixties, William H. Sylvis, President of the International Molders' Union, took a prominent part and pronounced in favor of the compromise solution advanced by Congressman Crittenden of Kentucky. But no sooner had Fort Sumter been fired upon by the secessionists than labor rallied to the support of the Federal Union. Entire local unions enlisted at the call of President Lincoln, and Sylvis himself assisted in recruiting a company composed of molders.

The first effect of the War was a paralysis of business and an increase of unemployment. The existing labor organizations nearly all went to the wall. The period of industrial stagnation, however, lasted only until the middle of 1862.

The legal tender acts of 1862 and 1863 authorized the issue of paper currency of "greenbacks" to the amount of $1,050,000,000, and immediately prices began to soar. For the next sixteen years, namely until 1879, when the government resumed the redemption of greenbacks in gold, prices of commodities and labor expressed in terms of paper money showed varying degrees of inflation; hence the term "greenback" period. During the War the advance in prices was due in part to the extraordinary demand by the government for the supply of the army and, of course, to speculation.

In July 1863, retail prices were 43 percent above those of 1860 and wages only 12 percent above; in July 1864, retail prices rose to 70 percent and wages to 30 percent above 1860; and in July 1865, prices rose to 76 percent and wages only to 50 percent above the level of 1860. The unequal pace of the price movement drove labor to organize along trade-union lines.

The order observed in the thirties was again followed out. First came a flock of local trade unions; these soon combined in city centrals—or as they came to be called, trades' assemblies—paralleling the trades' union of the thirties; and lastly, came an attempt to federate the several trades' assemblies into an International Industrial Assembly of North America. Local trade unions were organized literally in every trade beginning in the second half of 1862. The first trades' assembly was formed in Rochester, New York, in March 1863; and before long there was one in every town of importance. The International Industrial Assembly was attempted in 1864, but failed to live up to the expectations: The time had passed for a national federation of city centrals. As in the thirties the spread of unionism over the breadth of the land called out as a counterpart a widespread movement of employers' associations. The latter differed, however, from their predecessors in the thirties in that they made little use of the courts in their fight against the unions.

The growth of the national trade unions was a true index of the condition of business. Four were organized in 1864 as compared to two organized in 1863, none in 1862, and one in 1861. During 1865, which marked the height of the intense business activity, six more national unions were organized. In 1866 industry entered upon a period of depression, which reached its lowest depth in 1867 and continued until 1869. Accordingly, not a single national union was organized in 1866 and only one in 1867. In 1868 two new national labor unions were organized. In 1869 two more unions were formed—a total of seven for the four depressed years, compared with ten in the preceding two prosperous years. In the summer of 1870 business became good and remained good for approximately three years. Nine new national unions appeared in these three years. These same years are marked also by a growth of the unions previously organized. For instance, the machinists and blacksmiths, with only 1500 members in 1870, had 18,000 in 1873. Other unions showed similar gains.

An estimate of the total trade union membership at any one time (in view of the total lack of reliable statistics) would be extremely hazardous. The New York Herald estimated it in August 1869, to be about 170,000. A labor leader claimed at the same time that the total was as high as 600,000. Probably 300,000 would be a conservative estimate for the time immediately preceding the panic of 1873.

Although the strength of labor was really the strength of the national trade unions, especially during the depression of the later sixties, far greater attention was attracted outside as well as inside the labor movement by the National Labor Union, a loosely built federation of national trade unions, city trades' assemblies, local trade unions, and reform organizations of various descriptions, from philosophical anarchists to socialists and woman suffragists. The National Labor Union did not excel in practical activity, but it formed an accurate mirror of the aspirations and ideals of the American mechanics of the time of the Civil War and after. During its six years' existence it ran the gamut of all important issues which agitated the labor movement of the time.

The National Labor Union came together in its first convention in 1866. The most pressing problem of the day was unemployment due to the return of the demobilized soldiers and the shutting down of war industries. The convention centered on the demand to reduce the working day to eight hours. But eight hours had by that time come to signify more than a means to increase employment. The eight-hour movement drew its inspiration from an economic theory advanced by a self-taught Boston machinist, Ira Steward. And so naturally did this theory flow from the usual premises in the thinking of the American workman that once formulated by Steward it may be said to have become an official theory of the labor movement.

Steward's doctrine is well expressed by a couplet which was very popular with the eight-hour speakers of that period: "Whether you work by the piece or work by the day, decreasing the hours increases the pay." Steward believed that the amount of wages is determined by no other factor than the worker's standard of living. He held that wages cannot fall below the standard of living not because, as the classical economists said, it would cause late marriages and a reduction in the supply of labor, but solely because the wage earner will refuse to work for less than enough to maintain his standard of living. Steward possessed such abundant faith in this purely psychological check on the employer that he made it the cornerstone of his theory of social progress. Raise the worker's standard of living, he said, and the employer will be immediately forced to raise wages; no more can wages fall below the level of the worker's standard of living than New England can be ruled against her will. The lever for raising the standard of living was the eight-hour day. Increase the worker's leisure and you will increase his wants; increase his wants and you will immediately raise his wages. Although he occasionally tried to soften his doctrine by the argument that a shorter work-day not only does not decrease but may actually increase output, his was a distinctly revolutionary doctrine; he aimed at the total abolition of profits through their absorption into wages. But the instrument was nothing more radical than a progressive universal shortening the hours.

So much for the general policy. To bring it to pass two alternatives were possible: trade unionism or legislation. Steward chose the latter as the more hopeful and speedy one. Steward knew that appeals to the humanity of the employers had largely failed; efforts to secure the reform by cooperation had failed; the early trade unions had failed; and there seemed to be no recourse left now but to accomplish the reduction of hours by legislative enactment.

In 1866 Steward organized the Grand Eight-Hour League of Massachusetts as a special propagandist organization of the eight-hour philosophy. The League was a secret organization with pass words and obligations, intended as the central organization of a chain of subordinate leagues in the State, afterwards to be created. Of a total of about eighty local leagues in existence from 1865 to 1877, about twenty were in Massachusetts, eight elsewhere in New England, at least twenty-five in Michigan, four or five in Pennsylvania, about seven in Illinois, as many in Wisconsin, and smaller numbers in Missouri, Iowa, Indiana, and California. Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Pennsylvania had each a Grand Eight-Hour League. Practically all of these organizations disappeared soon after the panic of 1873.

The National Labor Union centered on the passage of an eight-hour law for employes of the Federal government. It was believed, perhaps not without some justice, that the effect of such law would eventually lead to the introduction of the same standard in private employment—not indeed through the operation of the law of supply and demand, for it was realized that this would be practically negligible, but rather through its contagious effect on the minds of employes and even employers. It will be recalled that, at the time of the ten-hour agitation of the thirties, the Federal government had lagged about five years behind private employers in granting the demanded concession. That in the sixties the workingmen chose government employment as the entering wedge shows a measure of political self-confidence which the preceding generation of workingmen lacked.

The first bill in Congress was introduced by Senator Gratz Brown of Missouri in March 1866. In the summer a delegation from the National Labor Union was received by President Andrew Johnson. The President pointed to his past record favorable to the workingmen but refrained from any definite promises. Finally, an eight-hour bill for government employes was passed by the House in March 1867, and by the Senate in June 1868. On June 29, 1868, President Johnson signed it and it went into effect immediately.

The result of the eight-hour law was not all that the friends of the bill hoped. The various officials in charge of government work put their own interpretations upon it and there resulted much diversity in its observance, and consequently great dissatisfaction. There seemed to be no clear understanding as to the intent of Congress in enacting the law. Some held that the reduction in working hours must of necessity bring with it a corresponding reduction in wages. The officials' view of the situation was given by Secretary Gideon Wells. He pointed out that Congress, by reducing the hours of labor in government work, had forced upon the department of the Navy the employment of a larger number of men in order to accomplish the necessary work; and that at the same time Congress had reduced the appropriation for that department. This had rendered unavoidable a twenty percent reduction in wages paid employes in the Navy Yard. Such a state of uncertainty continued four years longer. At last on May 13, 1872, President Grant prohibited by proclamation any wage reductions in the execution of the law. On May 18, 1872, Congress passed a law for the restitution of back pay.

The expectations of the workingmen that the Federal law would blaze the way for the eight-hour system in private employment failed to materialize. The depression during the seventies took up all the impetus in that direction which the law may have generated. Even as far as government work is concerned forty years had to elapse before its application could be rounded out by extending it to contract work done for the government by private employers.

We have dealt at length with this subject because it marked an important landmark. It demonstrated to the wage earners that, provided they concentrated on a modest object and kept up a steady pressure, their prospects for success were not entirely hopeless, hard as the road may seem to travel. The other and far more ambitious object of the workingman of the sixties, that of enacting general eight-hour laws in the several States, at first appeared to be within easy reach—so yielding political parties and State legislatures seemed to be to the demands of the organized workmen. Yet before long these successes proved to be entirely illusory.

The year 1867 was the banner year for such State legislation. Eight-hour laws were passed in Illinois, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Missouri, and New York. California passed such a law in 1868. In Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, and Minnesota bills were introduced but were defeated. Two common features characterized these laws, whether enacted or merely proposed to the legislatures. There were none which did not permit of longer hours than those named in the law, provided they were so specified in the contract. A contract requiring ten or more hours a day was perfectly legal. The eight-hour day was the legal day only "when the contract was silent on the subject or where there is no express contract to the contrary," as stated in the Wisconsin law. But the greatest weakness was a lack of a provision for enforcement. New York's experience is typical and characteristic. When the workingmen appealed to Governor Fenton to enforce the law, he replied that the act had received his official signature and he felt that it "would be an unwarrantable assumption" on his part to take any step requiring its enforcement. "Every law," he said, "was obligatory by its own nature, and could derive no additional force from any further act of his."

In Massachusetts, however, the workingmen succeeded after hard and protracted labor in obtaining an enforceable ten-hour law for women—the first effective law of its kind passed in any American State. This law, which was passed in 1874, provides that "no minor under the age of eighteen years, and no woman over that age" shall be employed more than ten hours in one day or sixty hours in any one week in any manufacturing establishment in the State. The penalty for each violation was fixed at fifty dollars.

The repeated disappointments with politics and legislation led in the early seventies to a revival of faith in trade unionism. Even in the early sixties we find not a few unions, national and local, limiting their hours by agreement with employers. The national unions, however, for the most part left the matter to the local unions for settlement as their strength or local conditions might dictate. In some cases the local unions were advised to accept a reduction of wages in order to secure the system, showing faith in Steward's theory that such reduction could not be permanent.

The movement to establish the eight-hour day through trade unionism reached its climax in the summer of 1872, when business prosperity was at its height. This year witnessed in New York City a general eight-hour strike. However, it succeeded in only a few trades, and even there the gain was only temporary, since it was lost during the years of depression which followed the financial panic of 1873.

To come back to the National Labor Union. At the second convention in 1867 the enthusiasm was transferred from eight-hour laws to the bizarre social reform philosophy known as "greenbackism."

"Greenbackism" was, in substance, a plan to give the man without capital an equal opportunity in business with his rich competitor. It meant taking away from bankers and middlemen their control over credit and thereby furnishing credit and capital through the aid of the government to the producers of physical products. On its face greenbackism was a program of currency reform and derived its name from the so-called "greenback," the paper money issued during the Civil War. But it was more than currency reform—it was industrial democracy.

"Greenbackism" was the American counterpart of the contemporary radicalism of Europe. Its program had much in common with that of Lassalle in Germany who would have the state lend its credit to cooperative associations of workingmen in the confident expectation that with such backing they would drive private capitalism out of existence by the competitive route. But greenbackism differed from the scheme of Lassalle in that it would utilize the government's enormous Civil War debt, instead of its taxing power, as a means of furnishing capital to labor. This was to be done by reducing the rate of interest on the government bonds to three percent and by making them convertible into legal tender currency and convertible back into bonds, at the will of the holder of either. In other words, the greenback currency, instead of being, as it was at the time, an irredeemable promise to pay in specie, would be redeemable in government bonds. On the other hand, if a government bondholder could secure slightly more than three percent by lending to a private borrower, he would return his bonds to the government, take out the corresponding amount in greenbacks and lend it to the producer on his private note or mortgage. This would involve, of course, the possible inflation of legal tender currency to the amount of outstanding bonds. But inflation was immaterial, since all prices would be affected alike and meanwhile the farmers, the workingmen, and their cooperative establishments would be able to secure capital at slightly more than three percent instead of the nine or twelve percent which they were compelled to pay at the bank. Thereby they would be placed on a competitive level with the middleman, and the wage earner would be assisted to escape the wage system into self-employment.

Such was the curious doctrine which captured the leaders of the organized wage earners in 1867. The way had indeed been prepared for it in 1866, when the wage earners espoused producers' cooperation as the only solution. But, in the following year, 1867, they concluded that no system of combination or cooperation could secure to labor its natural rights as long as the credit system enabled non-producers to accumulate wealth faster than labor was able to add to the national wealth. Cooperation would follow "as a natural consequence," if producers could secure through legislation credit at a low rate of interest. The government was to extend to the producer "free capital" in addition to free land which he received with the Homestead Act.

The producers' cooperation, which offered the occasion for the espousal of greenbackism, was itself preceded by a movement for consumers' cooperation. Following the upward sweep of prices, workmen had begun toward the end of 1862 to make definite preparations for distributive cooperation. They endeavored to cut off the profits of the middleman by establishing cooperative grocery stores, meat markets, and coal yards. The first substantial effort of this kind to attract wide attention was the formation in December 1862, of the Union Cooperative Association of Philadelphia, which opened a store. The prime mover and the financial secretary of this organization was Thomas Phillips, a shoemaker who came from England in 1852, fired with the principles of the Rochdale pioneers, that is, cash sales, dividends on purchases rather than on stock, and "one man, one vote." By 1866 the movement had extended until practically every important industrial town between Boston and San Francisco had some form of distributive cooperation. This was the high tide of the movement. Unfortunately, the condition of the country was unfavorable to these enterprises and they were destined to early collapse. The year 1865 witnessed disastrous business failures. The country was in an uncertain condition and at the end of the sixties the entire movement had died out.

From 1866 to 1869 experiments in productive cooperation were made by practically all leading trades including the bakers, coach makers, collar makers, coal miners, shipwrights, machinists and blacksmiths, foundry workers, nailers, ship carpenters, and calkers, glass blowers, hatters, boiler makers, plumbers, iron rollers, tailors, printers, needle women, and molders. A large proportion of these attempts grew out of unsuccessful strikes. The most important undertakings were among the workers in iron, undoubtedly due in large measure to the indefatigable efforts of William H. Sylvis, the founder of the Iron Molders' International Union.

At the close of 1869 members of the Iron Molders' International Union owned and operated many cooperative foundries chiefly in New York and Pennsylvania. The first of the foundries established at Troy in the early summer of 1866 was followed quickly by one in Albany and then during the next eighteen months by ten more—one each in Rochester, Chicago, Quincy, Louisville, Somerset, Pittsburgh, and two each in Troy and Cleveland. The original foundry at Troy was an immediate financial success and was hailed with joy by those who believed that under the name of cooperationists the baffled trade unionists might yet conquer. The New York Sun congratulated the iron molders of Troy and declared that Sylvis had checkmated the association of stove manufacturers and, by the establishment of this cooperative foundry, had made the greatest contribution of the year to the labor cause.

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