The Armies of Labor
Samuel P. Orth

Part 1 out of 3









Three momentous things symbolize the era that begins its cycle
with the memorable year of 1776: the Declaration of Independence,
the steam engine, and Adam Smith's book, "The Wealth of Nations."
The Declaration gave birth to a new nation, whose millions of
acres of free land were to shift the economic equilibrium of the
world; the engine multiplied man's productivity a thousandfold
and uprooted in a generation the customs of centuries; the book
gave to statesmen a new view of economic affairs and profoundly
influenced the course of international trade relations.

The American people, as they faced the approaching age with the
experiences of the race behind them, fashioned many of their
institutions and laws on British models. This is true to such an
extent that the subject of this book, the rise of labor in
America, cannot be understood without a preliminary survey of the
British industrial system nor even without some reference to the
feudal system, of which English society for many centuries bore
the marks and to which many relics of tenure and of class and
governmental responsibility may be traced. Feudalism was a
society in which the status of an individual was fixed: he was
underman or overman in a rigid social scale according as he
considered his relation to his superiors or to his inferiors.
Whatever movement there was took place horizontally, in the same
class or on the same social level. The movement was not vertical,
as it so frequently is today, and men did not ordinarily rise
above the social level of their birth, never by design, and only
perhaps by rare accident or genius. It was a little world of
lords and serfs; of knights who graced court and castle, jousted
at tournaments, or fought upon the field of battle; and of serfs
who toiled in the fields, served in the castle, or, as the
retainers of the knight, formed the crude soldiery of medieval
days. For their labor and allegiance they were clothed and housed
and fed. Yet though there were feast days gay with the color of
pageantry and procession, the worker was always in a servile
state, an underman dependent upon his master, and sometimes
looking upon his condition as little better than slavery.

With the break-up of this rigid system came in England the
emancipation of the serf, the rise of the artisan class, and the
beginnings of peasant agriculture. That personal gravitation
which always draws together men of similar ambitions and tasks
now began to work significant changes in the economic order. The
peasantry, more or less scattered in the country, found it
difficult to unite their powers for redressing their grievances,
although there were some peasant revolts of no mean proportions.
But the artisans of the towns were soon grouped into powerful
organizations, called guilds, so carefully managed and so well
disciplined that they dominated every craft and controlled every
detail in every trade. The relation of master to journeyman and
apprentice, the wages, hours, quantity, and quality of the
output, were all minutely regulated. Merchant guilds, similarly
constituted, also prospered. The magnificent guild halls that
remain in our day are monuments of the power and splendor of
these organizations that made the towns of the later Middle Ages
flourishing centers of trade, of handicrafts, and of art. As
towns developed, they dealt the final blow to an agricultural
system based on feudalism; they became cities of refuge for the
runaway serfs, and their charters, insuring political and
economic freedom, gave them superior advantages for trading.

The guild system of manufacture was gradually replaced by the
domestic system. The workman's cottage, standing in its garden,
housed the loom and the spinning wheel, and the entire family was
engaged in labor at home. But the workman, thus apparently
independent, was not the owner of either the raw material or the
finished product. A middleman or agent brought him the wool,
carried away the cloth, and paid him his hire. Daniel Defoe, who
made a tour of Britain in 1794-6, left a picture of rural
England in this period, often called the golden age of labor. The
land, he says, "was divided into small inclosures from two acres
to six or seven each, seldom more; every three or four pieces of
land had an house belonging to them, ...hardly an house
standing out of a speaking distance from another .... We could
see at every house a tenter, and on almost every tenter a piece
of cloth or kersie or shalloon .... At every considerable
house was a manufactory .... Every clothier keeps one horse,
at least, to carry his manufactures to the market and every one
generally keeps a cow or two or more for his family. By this
means the small pieces of inclosed land about each house are
occupied, for they scarce sow corn enough to feed their poultry
The houses are full of lusty fellows, some at the dye vat,
some at the looms, others dressing the clothes; the women or
children carding or spinning, being all employed, from the
youngest to the oldest."

But more significant than these changes was the rise of the
so-called mercantile system, in which the state took under its
care industrial details that were formerly regulated by the town
or guild. This system, beginning in the sixteenth century and
lasting through the eighteenth, had for its prime object the
upbuilding of national trade. The state, in order to insure the
homogeneous development of trade and industry, dictated the
prices of commodities. It prescribed the laws of apprenticeship
and the rules of master and servant. It provided inspectors for
passing on the quality of goods offered for sale. It weighed the
loaves, measured the cloth, and tested the silverware. It
prescribed wages, rural and urban, and bade the local justice act
as a sort of guardian over the laborers in his district. To
relieve poverty poor laws were passed; to prevent the decline of
productivity corn laws were passed fixing arbitrary prices for
grain. For a time monopolies creating artificial prosperity were
granted to individuals and to corporations for the manufacture,
sale, or exploitation of certain articles, such as matches,
gunpowder, and playing-cards.

This highly artificial and paternalistic state was not content
with regulating all these internal matters but spread its
protection over foreign commerce. Navigation acts attempted to
monopolize the trade of the colonies and especially the trade in
the products needed by the mother country. England encouraged
shipping and during this period achieved that dominance of the
sea which has been the mainstay of her vast empire. She fostered
plantations and colonies not for their own sake but that they
might be tributaries to the wealth of the nation. An absurd
importance was attached to the possession of gold and silver, and
the ingenuity of statesmen was exhausted in designing lures to
entice these metals to London. Banking and insurance began to
assume prime importance. By 1750 England had sent ships into
every sea and had planted colonies around the globe.

But while the mechanism of trade and of government made
surprising progress during the mercantile period, the mechanism
of production remained in the slow handicraft stage. This was now
to change. In 1738 Kay invented the flying shuttle, multiplying
the capacity of the loom. In 1767 Hargreaves completed the
spinning-jenny, and in 1771 Arkwright perfected his roller
spinning machine. A few years later Crompton combined the roller
and the jenny, and after the application of steam to spinning in
1785 the power loom replaced the hand loom. The manufacture of
woolen cloth being the principal industry of England, it was
natural that machinery should first be invented for the spinning
and weaving of wool. New processes in the manufacture of iron and
steel and the development of steam transportation soon followed.

Within the course of a few decades the whole economic order was
changed. Whereas many centuries had been required for the slow
development of the medieval system of feudalism, the guild
system, and the handicrafts, now, like a series of earthquake
shocks, came changes so sudden and profound that even today
society has not yet learned to adjust itself to the myriads of
needs and possibilities which the union of man's mind with
nature's forces has produced. The industrial revolution took the
workman from the land and crowded him into the towns. It took the
loom from his cottage and placed it in the factory. It took the
tool from his hand and harnessed it to a shaft. It robbed him of
his personal skill and joined his arm of flesh to an arm of iron.
It reduced him from a craftsman to a specialist, from a maker of
shoes to a mere stitcher of soles. It took from him, at a single
blow, his interest in the workmanship of his task, his ownership
of the tools, his garden, his wholesome environment, and even his
family. All were swallowed by the black maw of the ugly new mill
town. The hardships of the old days were soon forgotten in the
horrors of the new. For the transition was rapid enough to make
the contrast striking. Indeed it was so rapid that the new class
of employers, the capitalists, found little time to think of
anything but increasing their profits, and the new class of
employees, now merely wage-earners, found that their long hours
of monotonous toil gave them little leisure and no interest.

The transition from the age of handicrafts to the era of machines
presents a picture of greed that tempts one to bitter invective.
Its details are dispassionately catalogued by the Royal
Commissions that finally towards the middle of the nineteenth
century inquired into industrial conditions. From these reports
Karl Marx drew inspiration for his social philosophy, and in them
his friend Engles found the facts that he retold so vividly, for
the purpose of arousing his fellow workmen. And Carlyle and
Ruskin, reading this official record of selfishness, and knowing
its truth, drew their powerful indictments against a society
which would permit its eight-year-old daughters, its mothers, and
its grandmothers, to be locked up for fourteen hours a day in
dirty, ill-smelling factories, to release them at night only to
find more misery in the hovels they pitifully called home.

The introduction of machinery into manufacturing wrought vast
changes also in the organization of business. The unit of
industry greatly increased in size. The economies of organized
wholesale production were soon made apparent; and the tendency to
increase the size of the factory and to amalgamate the various
branches of industry under corporate control has continued to the
present. The complexity of business operations also increased
with the development of transportation and the expansion of the
empire of trade. A world market took the place of the old town
market, and the world market necessitated credit on a new and
infinitely larger scale.

No less important than the revolution in industry was the
revolution in economic theory which accompanied it. Unlimited
competition replaced the state paternalism of the mercantilists.
Adam Smith in 1776 espoused the cause of economic liberty,
believing that if business and industry were unhampered by
artificial restrictions they would work out their own salvation.
His pronouncement was scarcely uttered before it became the
shibboleth of statesmen and business men. The revolt of the
American colonies hastened the general acceptance of this
doctrine, and England soon found herself committed to the
practice of every man looking after his own interests. Freedom of
contract, freedom of trade, and freedom of thought were vigorous
and inspiring but often misleading phrases. The processes of
specialization and centralization that were at work portended the
growing power of those who possessed the means to build factories
and ships and railways but not necessarily the freedom of the
many. The doctrine of laissez faire assumed that power would
bring with it a sense of responsibility. For centuries, the
old-country gentry and governing class of England had shown an
appreciation of their duties, as a class, to those dependent upon
them. But now another class with no benevolent traditions of
responsibility came into power--the capitalist, a parvenu whose
ambition was profit, not equity, and whose dealings with other
men were not tempered by the amenities of the gentleman but were
sharpened by the necessities of gain. It was upon such a class,
new in the economic world and endowed with astounding power, that
Adam Smith's new formularies of freedom were let loose.

During all these changes in the economic order, the interest of
the laborer centered in one question: What return would he
receive for his toil? With the increasing complexity of society,
many other problems presented themselves to the worker, but for
the most part they were subsidiary to the main question of wages.
As long as man's place was fixed by law or custom, a customary
wage left small margin for controversy. But when fixed status
gave way to voluntary contract, when payment was made in money,
when workmen were free to journey from town to town, labor became
both free and fluid, bargaining took the place of custom, and the
wage controversy began to assume definite proportions. As early
as 1348 the great plague became a landmark in the field of wage
disputes. So scarce had laborers become through the ravages of
the Black Death, that wages rose rapidly, to the alarm of the
employers, who prevailed upon King Edward III to issue the
historic proclamation of 1349, directing that no laborer should
demand and no employer should pay greater wages than those
customary before the plague. This early attempt to outmaneuver an
economic law by a legal device was only the prelude to a long
series of labor laws which may be said to have culminated in the
great Statute of Laborers of 1562, regulating the relations of
wage-earner and employer and empowering justices of the peace to
fix the wages in their districts. Wages steadily decreased during
the two hundred years in which this statute remained in force,
and poor laws were passed to bring the succor which artificial
wages made necessary. Thus two rules of arbitrary government were
meant to neutralize each other. It is the usual verdict of
historians that the estate of labor in England declined from a
flourishing condition in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
to one of great distress by the time of the Industrial
Revolution. This unhappy decline was probably due to several
causes, among which the most important were the arbitrary and
artificial attempts of the Government to keep down wages, the
heavy taxation caused by wars of expansion, and the want of
coercive power on the part of labor.

>From the decline of the guild system, which had placed labor and
its products so completely in the hands of the master craftsman,
the workman had assumed no controlling part in the labor bargain.
Such guilds and such journeyman's fraternities as may have
survived were practically helpless against parliamentary rigor
and state benevolence. In the domestic stage of production,
cohesion among workers was not so necessary. But when the factory
system was substituted for the handicraft system and workers with
common interests were thrown together in the towns, they had
every impulsion towards organization. They not only felt the need
of sociability after long hours spent in spiritless toil but they
were impelled by a new consciousness--the realization that an
inevitable and profound change had come over their condition.
They had ceased to be journeymen controlling in some measure
their activities; they were now merely wage-earners. As the
realization of this adverse change came over them, they began to
resent the unsanitary and burdensome conditions under which they
were compelled to live and to work. So actual grievances were
added to fear of what might happen, and in their common cause
experience soon taught them unity of action. Parliament was
petitioned, agitations were organized, sick-benefits were
inaugurated, and when these methods failed, machinery was
destroyed, factories were burned, and the strike became a common
weapon of self-defense.

Though a few labor organizations can be traced as far back as
1700, their growth during the eighteenth century was slow and
irregular. There was no unity in their methods, and they were
known by many names, such as associations, unions, union
societies, trade clubs, and trade societies. These societies had
no legal status and their meetings were usually held in secret.
And the Webbs in their "History of Trade Unionism" allude to the
traditions of "the midnight meeting of patriots in the corner of
the field, the buried box of records, the secret oath, the long
terms of imprisonment of the leading officials." Some of these
tales were unquestionably apocryphal, others were exaggerated by
feverish repetition. But they indicate the aversion with which
the authorities looked upon these combinations.

There were two legal doctrines long invoked by the English courts
against combined action--doctrines that became a heritage of the
United States and have had a profound effect upon the labor
movements in America. The first of these was the doctrine of
conspiracy, a doctrine so ancient that its sources are obscure.
It was the natural product of a government and of a time that
looked askance at all combined action, fearing sedition,
intrigue, and revolution. As far back as 1305 there was enacted a
statute defining conspiracy and outlining the offense. It did not
aim at any definite social class but embraced all persons who
combined for a "malicious enterprise." Such an enterprise was the
breaking of a law. So when Parliament passed acts regulating
wages, conditions of employment, or prices of commodities, those
who combined secretly or openly to circumvent the act, to raise
wages or lower them, or to raise prices and curtail markets, at
once fell under the ban of conspiracy. The law operated alike on
conspiring employers and conniving employees.

The new class of employers during the early years of the machine
age eagerly embraced the doctrine of conspiracy. They readily
brought under the legal definition the secret connivings of the
wage-earners. Political conditions now also worked against the
laboring class. The unrest in the colonies that culminated in
the independence of America and the fury of the French Revolution
combined to make kings and aristocracies wary of all
organizations and associations of plain folk. And when we add to
this the favor which the new employing class, the industrial
masters, were able to extort from the governing class, because of
their power over foreign trade and domestic finance, we can
understand the compulsory laws at length declaring against all
combinations of working men.

The second legal doctrine which Americans have inherited from
England and which has played a leading role in labor
controversies is the doctrine that declares unlawful all
combinations in restraint of trade. Like its twin doctrine of
conspiracy, it is of remote historical origin. One of the
earliest uses, perhaps the first use, of the term by Parliament
was in the statute of 1436 forbidding guilds and trading
companies from adopting by-laws "in restraint of trade," and
forbidding practices in price manipulations "for their own profit
and to the common hurt of the people." This doctrine thus early
invoked, and repeatedly reasserted against combinations of
traders and masters, was incorporated in the general statute of
1800 which declared all combinations of journeymen illegal. But
in spite of legal doctrines, of innumerable laws and court
decisions, strikes and combinations multiplied, and devices were
found for evading statutory wages.

In 1824 an act of Parliament removed the general prohibition of
combinations and accorded to workingmen the right to bargain
collectively. Three men were responsible for this noteworthy
reform, each one a new type in British politics. The first was
Francis Place, a tailor who had taken active part in various
strikes. He was secretary of the London Corresponding Society, a
powerful labor union, which in 1795 had twenty branches in
London. Most of the officers of this organization were at one
time or another arrested, and some were kept in prison three
years without a trial. Place, schooled in such experience, became
a radical politician of great influence, a friend of Bentham,
Owen, and the elder Mill. The second type of new reformer was
represented by Joseph Hume, a physician who had accumulated
wealth in the India Service, who had returned home to enter
public life, and who was converted from Toryism to Radicalism by
a careful study of financial, political, and industrial problems.
A great number of reform laws can be traced directly to his
incredible activity during his thirty years in Parliament. The
third leader was John R. McCulloch, an orthodox economist, a
disciple of Adam Smith, for some years editor of The Scotsman,
which was then a violently radical journal cooperating with the
newly established Edinburgh Review in advocating sociological and
political reforms.

Thus Great Britain, the mother country from which Americans have
inherited so many institutions, laws, and traditions, passed in
turn through the periods of extreme paternalism, glorified
competition, and governmental antagonism to labor combinations,
into what may be called the age of conciliation. And today the
Labour Party in the House of Commons has shown itself strong
enough to impose its programme upon the Liberals and, through
this radical coalition, has achieved a power for the working man
greater than even Francis Place or Thomas Carlyle ever hoped for.


America did not become a cisatlantic Britain, as some of the
colonial adventurers had hoped. A wider destiny awaited her. Here
were economic conditions which upset all notions of the fixity of
class distinctions. Here was a continent of free land, luring the
disaffected or disappointed artisan and enabling him to achieve
economic independence. Hither streamed ceaselessly hordes of
immigrants from Europe, constantly shifting the social
equilibrium. Here the demand for labor was constant, except
during the rare intervals of financial stagnation, and here the
door of opportunity swung wide to the energetic and able artisan.
The records of American industry are replete with names of
prominent leaders who began at the apprentice's bench.

The old class distinctions brought from the home country,
however, had survived for many years in the primeval forests of
Virginia and Maryland and even among the hills of New England.
Indeed, until the Revolution and for some time thereafter, a
man's clothes were the badge of his calling. The gentleman wore
powdered queue and ruffled shirt; the workman, coarse buckskin
breeches, ponderous shoes with brass buckles, and usually a
leather apron, well greased to keep it pliable. Just before the
Revolution the lot of the common laborer was not an enviable one.
His house was rude and barren of comforts; his fare was coarse
and without variety. His wage was two shillings a day, and prison
--usually an indescribably filthy hole awaited him the moment he
ran into debt. The artisan fared somewhat better. He had spent,
as a rule, seven years learning his trade, and his skill and
energy demanded and generally received a reasonable return. The
account books that have come down to us from colonial days show
that his handiwork earned him a fair living. This, however, was
before machinery had made inroads upon the product of
cabinetmaker, tailor, shoemaker, locksmith, and silversmith, and
when the main street of every village was picturesque with the
signs of the crafts that maintained the decent independence of
the community.

Such labor organizations as existed before the Revolution were
limited to the skilled trades. In 1648 the coopers and the
shoemakers of Boston were granted permission to organize guilds,
which embraced both master and journeyman, and there were a few
similar organizations in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
But these were not unions like those of today. "There are," says
Richard T. Ely, "no traces of anything like a modern trades'
union in the colonial period of American history, and it is
evident on reflection that there was little need, if any, of
organization on the part of labor, at that time."*

* "The Labor Movement in America," by Richard T. Ely (1905), p.

A new epoch for labor came in with the Revolution. Within a
decade wages rose fifty per cent, and John Jay in 1784 writes of
the "wages of mechanics and laborers" as "very extravagant."
Though the industries were small and depended on a local market
within a circumscribed area of communication, they grew rapidly.
The period following the Revolution is marked by considerable
industrial restiveness and by the formation of many labor
organizations, which were, however, benevolent or friendly
societies rather than unions and were often incorporated by an
act of the legislature. In New York, between 1800 and 1810,
twenty-four such societies were incorporated. Only in the
larger cities were they composed of artisans of one trade, such
as the New York Masons Society (1807) or the New York Society of
Journeymen Shipwrights (1807). Elsewhere they included artisans
of many trades, such as the Albany Mechanical Society (1801). In
Philadelphia the cordwainers, printers, and hatters had
societies. In Baltimore the tailors were the first to organize,
and they conducted in 1795 one of the first strikes in America.
Ten years later they struck again, and succeeded in raising their
pay from seven shillings sixpence the job to eight shillings
ninepence and "extras." At the same time the pay of unskilled
labor was rising rapidly, for workers were scarce owing to the
call of the merchant marine in those years of the rising splendor
of the American sailing ship, and the lure of western lands. The
wages of common laborers rose to a dollar and more a day.

There occurred in 1805 an important strike of the Philadelphia
cordwainers. Theirs was one of the oldest labor organizations in
the country, and it had conducted several successful strikes.
This particular occasion, however, is significant, because the
strikers were tried for conspiracy in the mayor's court, with the
result that they were found guilty and fined eight dollars each,
with costs. As the court permitted both sides to tell their story
in detail, a full report of the proceedings survives to give us,
as it were, a photograph of the labor conditions of that time.
The trial kindled a great deal of local animosity. A newspaper
called the Aurora contained inflammatory accounts of the
proceedings, and a pamphlet giving the records of the court was
widely circulated. This pamphlet bore the significant legend, "It
is better that the law be known and certain, than that it be
right," and was dedicated to the Governor and General Assembly
"with the hope of attracting their particular attention, at the
next meeting of the legislature."

Another early instance of a strike occurred in New York City in
1809, when the cordwainers struck for higher wages and were
hauled before the mayor's court on the charge of conspiracy. The
trial was postponed by Mayor DeWitt Clinton until after the
pending municipal elections to avoid the risk of offending either
side. When at length the strikers were brought to trial, the
court-house was crowded with spectators, showing how keen was the
public interest in the case. The jury's verdict of "guilty," and
the imposition of a fine of one dollar each and costs upon the
defendants served but as a stimulus to the friends of the
strikers to gather in a great mass meeting and protest against
the verdict and the law that made it possible.

In 1821 the New York Typographical Society, which had been
organized four years earlier by Peter Force, a labor leader of
unusual energy, set a precedent for the vigorous and fearless
career of its modern successor by calling a strike in the
printing office of Thurlow Weed, the powerful politician, himself
a member of the society, because he employed a "rat," as a
nonunion worker was called. It should be noted, however, that the
organizations of this early period were of a loose structure and
scarcely comparable to the labor unions of today.

Sidney Smith, the brilliant contributor to the "Edinburgh
Review," propounded in 1820 certain questions which sum up the
general conditions of American industry and art after nearly a
half century of independence: "In the four quarters of the
globe," he asked, "who reads an American book? or goes to an
American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What
does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What
new substances have their chemists discovered? or what old ones
have they analyzed? What new constellations have been discovered
by the telescopes of Americans? What have they done in
mathematics? Who drinks out of American glasses? or eats from
American plates? or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in
American blankets?"

These questions, which were quite pertinent, though conceived in
an impertinent spirit, were being answered in America even while
the witty Englishman was framing them. The water power of New
England was being harnessed to cotton mills, woolen mills, and
tanneries. Massachusetts in 1820 reported one hundred and
sixty-one factories. New York had begun that marvelous growth
which made the city, in the course of a few decades, the
financial capital of a hemisphere. So rapidly were people
flocking to New York, that houses had tenants long before they
had windows and doors, and streets were lined with buildings
before they had sewers, sidewalks, or pavements. New Jersey had
well under way those manufactories of glassware, porcelains,
carpets, and textiles which have since brought her great
prosperity. Philadelphia was the country's greatest weaving
center, boasting four thousand craftsmen engaged in that
industry. Even on the frontier, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were
emerging from "settlements" into manufacturing towns of
importance. McMaster concludes his graphic summary of these years
as follows: "In 1820 it was estimated that 200,000 persons and a
capital of $75,000,000 were employed in manufacturing. In 1825
the capital used had been expanded to $160,000,000 and the number
of workers to 2,000,000."*

* History of the People of the United States (1901), vol. V, p.

The Industrial Revolution had set in. These new millions who
hastened to answer the call of industry in the new land were
largely composed of the poor of other lands. Thousands of them
were paupers when they landed in America, their passage having
been paid by those at home who wanted to get rid of them. Vast
numbers settled down in the cities, in spite of the lure of the
land. It was at this period that universal manhood suffrage was
written into the constitutions of the older States, and a new
electorate assumed the reins of power. Now the first labor
representatives were sent to the legislatures and to Congress,
and the older parties began eagerly bidding for the votes of the
humble. The decision of great questions fell to this new
electorate. With the rise of industry came the demand for a
protective tariff and for better transportation. State
governments vied with each other, in thoughtless haste, in
lending their credit to new turnpike and canal construction. And
above all political issues loomed the Bank, the monopoly that
became the laborer's bugaboo and Andrew Jackson's opportunity to
rally to his side the newly enfranchised mechanics.

So the old days of semi-colonial composure were succeeded by the
thrilling experiences that a new industrial prosperity thrusts
upon a really democratic electorate. Little wonder that the labor
union movement took the political by-path, seeking salvation in
the promise of the politician and in the panacea of fatuous laws.
Now there were to be discerned the beginnings of class solidarity
among the working people. But the individual's chances to improve
his situation were still very great and opportunity was still a
golden word.

The harsh facts of the hour, however, soon began to call for
united action. The cities were expanding with such eager haste
that proper housing conditions were overlooked. Workingmen were
obliged to live in wretched structures. Moreover, human beings
were still levied on for debt and imprisoned for default of
payment. Children of less than sixteen years of age were working
twelve or more hours a day, and if they received any education at
all, it was usually in schools charitably called "ragged schools"
or "poor schools," or "pauper schools." There was no adequate
redress for the mechanic if his wages were in default, for lien
laws had not yet found their way into the statute books. Militia
service was oppressive, permitting only the rich to buy
exemption. It was still considered an unlawful conspiracy to act
in unison for an increase in pay or a lessening of working hours.
By 1840 the pay of unskilled labor had dropped to about
seventy-five cents a day in the overcrowded cities, and in the
winter, in either city or country, many unskilled workers were
glad to work for merely their board. The lot of women workers was
especially pitiful. A seamstress by hard toil, working fifteen
hours a day might stitch enough shirts to earn from seventy-two
cents to a dollar and twelve cents a week. Skilled labor, while
faring better in wages, shared with the unskilled in the
universal working day which lasted from sun to sun. Such in brief
were the conditions that brought home to the laboring masses that
homogeneous consciousness which alone makes a group powerful in a

The movement can most clearly be discerned in the cities.
Philadelphia claims precedence as the home of the first Trades'
Union. The master cordwainers had organized a society in 1792,
and their journeymen had followed suit two years later. The
experiences and vicissitudes of these shoemakers furnished a
useful lesson to other tradesmen, many of whom were organized
into unions. But they were isolated organizations, each one
fighting its own battles. In 1897 the Mechanics' Union of Trade
Associations was formed. Of its significance John R. Commons

England is considered the home of trade-unionism, but the
distinction belongs to Philadelphia.... The first trades' union
in England was that of Manchester, organized in 1829, although
there seems to have been an attempt to organize one in 1824. But
the first one in America was the "Mechanics' Union of Trade
Associations," organized in Philadelphia in 1827, two years
earlier. The name came from Manchester, but the thing from
Philadelphia. Neither union lasted long. The Manchester union
lived two years, and the Philadelphia union one year. But the
Manchester union died and the Philadelphia union metamorphosed
into politics. Here again Philadelphia was the pioneer, for it
called into being the first labor party. Not only this, but
through the Mechanics' Union Philadelphia started probably the
first wage-earners' paper ever published--the 'Mechanics Free
Press'--antedating, in January, 1828, the first similar journal
in England by two years.*

* "Labor Organization and Labor Politics," 1827-37; in the
"Quarterly Journal of Economics," February, 1907.

The union had its inception in the first general building strike
called in America. In the summer of 1827 the carpenters struck
for a ten-hour day. They were soon joined by the bricklayers,
painters, and glaziers, and members of other trades. But the
strike failed of its immediate object. A second effort to combine
the various trades into one organization was made in 1833, when
the Trades' Union of the City and County of Philadelphia, was
formed. Three years later this union embraced some fifty
societies with over ten thousand members. In June, 1835, this
organization undertook what was probably the first successful
general strike in America. It began among the cordwainers, spread
to the workers in the building trades, and was presently joined
in by cigarmakers, carters, saddlers and harness makers, smiths,
plumbers, bakers, printers, and even by the unskilled workers on
the docks. The strikers' demand for a ten-hour day received a
great deal of support from the influential men in the community.
After a mass meeting of citizens had adopted resolutions
endorsing the demands of the union, the city council agreed to a
ten-hour day for all municipal employees.

In 1833 the carpenters of New York City struck for an increase in
wages. They were receiving a dollar thirty-seven and a half cents
a day; they asked for a dollar and a half. They obtained the
support of other workers, notably the tailors, printers,
brushmakers, tobacconists, and masons, and succeeded in winning
their strike in one month. The printers, who have always been
alert and active in New York City, elated by the success of this
coordinate effort, sent out a circular calling for a general
convention of all the trades societies of the city. After a
preliminary meeting in July, a mass meeting was held in December,
at which there were present about four thousand persons
representing twenty-one societies. The outcome of the meeting was
the organization of the General Trades' Union of New York City.

It happened in the following year that Ely Moore of the
Typographical Association and the first president of the new
union, a powerful orator and a sagacious organizer, was elected
to Congress on the Jackson ticket. He was backed by Tammany Hall,
always on the alert for winners, and was supported by the
mechanics, artisans, and workingmen. He was the first man to take
his seat in Washington as the avowed representative of labor.

The movement for a ten-hour day was now in full swing, and the
years 1834-7 were full of strikes. The most spectacular of these
struggles was the strike of the tailors of New York in 1836, in
the course of which twenty strikers were arrested for conspiracy.
After a spirited trial attended by throngs of spectators, the men
were found guilty by a jury which took only thirty minutes for
deliberation. The strikers were fined $50 each, except the
president of the society, who was fined $150. After the trial
there was held a mass meeting which was attended, according to
the "Evening Post," by twenty-seven thousand persons. Resolutions
were passed declaring that "to all acts of tyranny and injustice,
resistance is just and therefore necessary," and "that the
construction given to the law in the case of the journeymen
tailors is not only ridiculous and weak in practice but unjust in
principle and subversive of the rights and liberties of American
citizens." The town was placarded with "coffin" handbills, a
practice not uncommon in those days.

Enclosed in a device representing a coffin were these words:


"Twenty of your brethren have been found guilty for presuming to
resist a reduction in their wages!.... Judge Edwards has
charged...the Rich are the only judges of the wants of the
poor. On Monday, June 6, 1836, the Freemen are to receive their
sentence, to gratify the hellish appetites of aristocracy!....
Go! Go! Go! Every Freeman, every Workingman, and hear the
melancholy sound of the earth on the Coffin of Equality. Let the
Court Room, the City-hall--yea, the whole Park, be filled with
mourners! But remember, offer no violence to Judge Edwards! Bend
meekly and receive the chains wherewith you are to be bound! Keep
the peace! Above all things, keep the peace!"

The "Evening Post" concludes a long account of the affair by
calling attention to the fact that the Trades' Union was not
composed of "only foreigners." "It is a low calculation when we
estimate that two-thirds of the workingmen of the city, numbering
several thousand persons, belong to it," and that "it is
controlled and supported by the great majority of our native

The Boston Trades' Union was organized in 1834 and started out
with a great labor parade on the Fourth of July, followed by a
dinner served to a thousand persons in Faneuil Hall. This union
was formed primarily to fight for the ten-hour day, and the
leading crusaders were the house carpenters, the ship carpenters,
and the masons. Similar unions presently sprang up in other
cities, including Baltimore, Albany, Troy, Washington, Newark,
Schenectady, New Brunswick, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St.
Louis. By 1835 all the larger centers of industry were familiar
with the idea, and most of them with the practice, of the trades
organizations of a community uniting for action.

The local unions were not unmindful of the need for wider action,
either through a national union of all the organizations of a
single trade, or through a union of all the different trades'
unions. Both courses of action were attempted. In 1834 the
National Trades' Union came into being and from that date held
annual national conventions of all the trades until the panic of
1837 obliterated the movement. When the first convention was
called, it was estimated that there were some 26,250 members of
trades' unions then in the United States. Of these 11,500 were in
New York and its vicinity, 6000 in Philadelphia, 4000 in Boston,
and 3500 in Baltimore. Meanwhile a movement was under way to
federate the unions of a single trade. In 1835 the cordwainers
attending the National Trades Union' formed a preliminary
organization and called a national cordwainers' convention. This
met in New York in March, 1836, and included forty-five delegates
from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut. In the fall
of 1836 the comb-makers, the carpenters, the hand-loom weavers,
and the printers likewise organized separate national unions or
alliances, and several other trades made tentative efforts by
correspondence to organize themselves in the same manner.

Before the dire year of 1837, there are, then, to be found the
beginnings of most of the elements of modern labor organizations
--benevolent societies and militant orders; political activities
and trades activities; amalgamations of local societies of the
same trades and of all trades; attempts at national organization
on the part of both the local trades' unions and of the local
trade unions; a labor press to keep alive the interest of the
workman; mass meetings, circulars, conventions, and appeals to
arouse the interest of the public in the issues of the hour. The
persistent demand of the workingmen was for a ten-hour day.
Harriet Martineau, who traveled extensively through the United
States, remarked that all the strikes she heard of were on the
question of hours, not wages. But there were nevertheless
abundant strikes either to raise wages or to maintain them. There
were, also, other fundamental questions in controversy which
could not be settled by strikes, such as imprisonment for debt,
lien and exemption and homestead laws, convict labor and slave
labor, and universal education. Most of these issues have since
that time been decided in favor of labor, and a new series of
demands takes their place today. Yet as one reads the records of
the early conspiracy cases or thumbs through the files of old
periodicals, he learns that there is indeed nothing new under the
sun and that, while perhaps the particular issues have changed,
the general methods and the spirit of the contest remain the

The laborer believed then, as he does now, that his organization
must be all-embracing. In those days also there were "scabs,"
often called "rats" or "dung." Places under ban were
systematically picketed, and warnings like the following were
sent out: "We would caution all strangers and others who profess
the art of horseshoeing, that if they go to work for any employer
under the above prices, they must abide by the consequences."
Usually the consequences were a fine imposed by the union, but
sometimes they were more severe. Coercion by the union did not
cease with the strike. Journeymen who were not members were
pursued with assiduity and energy as soon as they entered a town
and found work. The boycott was a method early used against
prison labor. New York stonecutters agreed that they would not
"either collectively or individually purchase any goods
manufactured" by convicts and that they would not "countenance"
any merchants who dealt in them; and employers who incurred the
displeasure of organized labor were "nullified."

The use of the militia during strikes presented the same
difficulties then as now. During the general strike in
Philadelphia in 1835 there was considerable rowdyism, and Michel
Chevalier, a keen observer of American life, wrote that "the
militia looks on; the sheriff stands with folded hands." Nor was
there any difference in the attitude of the laboring man towards
unfavorable court decisions. In the tailors' strike in New York
in 1836, for instance, twenty-seven thousand sympathizers
assembled with bands and banners to protest against the jury's
verdict, and after sentence had been imposed upon the defendants,
the lusty throng burned the judge in effigy.

Sabotage is a new word, but the practice itself is old. In 1835
the striking cabinet-makers in New York smashed thousands of
dollars' worth of chairs, tables, and sofas that had been
imported from France, and the newspapers observed the significant
fact that the destroyers boasted in a foreign language that only
American-made furniture should be sold in America. Houses were
burned in Philadelphia because the contractors erecting them
refused to grant the wages that were demanded. Vengeance was
sometimes sought against new machinery that displaced hand labor.
In June, 1835, a New York paper remarked that "it is well known
that many of the most obstinate turn-outs among workingmen and
many of the most violent and lawless proceedings have been
excited for the purpose of destroying newly invented machinery."
Such acts of wantonness, however, were few, even in those first
tumultuous days of the thirties. Striking became in those days a
sort of mania, and not a town that had a mill or shop was exempt.
Men struck for "grog or death," for "Liberty, Equality, and the
Rights of Man," and even for the right to smoke their pipes at

Strike benefits, too, were known in this early period. Strikers
in New York received assistance from Philadelphia, and Boston
strikers were similarly aided by both New York and Philadelphia.
When the high cost of living threatened to deprive the
wage-earner of half his income, bread riots occurred in the
cities, and handbills circulated in New York bore the legend:



With the panic of 1837 the mills were closed, thousands of
unemployed workers were thrown upon private charity, and, in the
long years of depression which followed, trade unionism suffered
a temporary eclipse. It was a period of social unrest in which
all sorts of philanthropic reforms were suggested and tried out.
Measured by later events, it was a period of transition, of
social awakening, of aspiration tempered by the bitter experience
of failure.

In the previous decade Robert Owen, the distinguished English
social reformer and philanthropist, had visited America, and had
begun in 1826 his famous colony at New Harmony, Indiana. His
experiments at New Lanark, in England, had already made him known
to working people the world over. Whatever may be said of his
quaint attempts to reduce society to a common denominator, it is
certain that his arrival in America, at a time when people's
minds were open to all sorts of economic suggestions, had a
stimulating effect upon labor reforms and led, in the course of
time, to the founding of some forty communistic colonies, most of
them in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. "We are all a little
wild here with numberless projects of social reform," wrote
Emerson to Thomas Carlyle; "not a reading man but has the draft
of a new community in his waistcoat pocket." One of these
experiments, at Red Bank, New Jersey, lasted for thirteen years,
and another, in Wisconsin, for six years. But most of them after
a year or two gave up the struggle.

Of these failures, the best known is Brook Farm, an intellectual
community founded in 1841 by George Ripley at West Roxbury,
Massachusetts. Six years later the project was abandoned and is
now remembered as an example of the futility of trying to leaven
a world of realism by means of an atom of transcendental
idealism. In a sense, however, Brook Farm typifies this period of
transition. It was a time of vagaries and longings. People seemed
to be conscious of the fact that a new social solidarity was
dawning. It is not strange, therefore, that--while the railroads
were feeling their way from town to town and across the prairies,
while water-power and steam-power were multiplying man's
productivity, indicating that the old days were gone forever--
many curious dreams of a new order of things should be dreamed,
nor that among them some should be ridiculous, some fantastic,
and some unworthy, nor that, as the futility of a universal
social reform forced itself upon the dreamers, they merged the
greater in the lesser, the general in the particular, and sought
an outlet in espousing some specific cause or attacking some
particular evil.

Those movements which had their inspiration in a genuine
humanitarianism achieved great good. Now for the first time the
blind, the deaf, the dumb, and the insane were made the object of
social solicitude and communal care. The criminal, too, and the
jail in which he was confined remained no longer utterly
neglected. Men of the debtor class were freed from that medieval
barbarism which gave the creditor the right to levy on the person
of his debtor. Even the public schools were dragged out of their
lethargy. When Horace Mann was appointed secretary of the newly
created Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, a new day
dawned for American public schools.

While these and other substantial improvements were under way,
the charlatan and the faddist were not without their
opportunities or their votaries. Spirit rappings beguiled or awed
the villagers; thousands of religious zealots in 1844 abandoned
their vocations and, drawing on white robes, awaited expectantly
the second coming of Christ; every cult from free love to
celibate austerity found zealous followers; the "new woman"
declared her independence in short hair and bloomers; people
sought social salvation in new health codes, in vegetarian
boarding-houses, and in physical culture clubs; and some pursued
the way to perfection through sensual religious exercises.

In this seething milieu, this medley of practical humanitarianism
and social fantasies, the labor movement was revived. In the
forties, Thomas Mooney, an observant Irish traveler who had spent
several years in the United States wrote as follows*:

"The average value of a common uneducated labourer is eighty
cents a day. Of educated or mechanical labour, one hundred
twenty-five and two hundred cents a day; of female labour forty
cents a day. Against meat, flour, vegetables, and groceries at
one-third less than they rate in Great Britain and Ireland;
against clothing, house rent and fuel at about equal; against
public taxes at about three-fourths less; and a certainty of
employment, and a facility of acquiring homes and lands, and
education for children, a hundred to one greater. The further you
penetrate into the country, Patrick, the higher in general will
you find the value of labour, and the cheaper the price of all
kinds of living.... The food of the American farmer, mechanic or
labourer is the best I believe enjoyed by any similar classes in
the whole world. At every meal there is meat or fish or both;
indeed I think the women, children, and sedentary classes eat too
much meat for their own good health."

* "Nine Years in America" (1850). p. 22.

This highly optimistic picture, written by a sanguine observer
from the land of greatest agrarian oppression, must be shaded by
contrasting details. The truck system of payment, prevalent in
mining regions and many factory towns, reduced the actual wage by
almost one-half. In the cities, unskilled immigrants had so
overcrowded the common labor market that competition had reduced
them to a pitiable state. Hours of labor were generally long in
the factories. As a rule only the skilled artisan had achieved
the ten-hour day, and then only in isolated instances. Woman's
labor was the poorest paid, and her condition was the most
neglected. A visitor to Lowell in 1846 thus describes the
conditions in an average factory of that town:

"In Lowell live between seven and eight thousand young women, who
are generally daughters of farmers of the different States of New
England. Some of them are members of families that were rich the
generation before.... The operatives work thirteen hours a
day in the summer time, and from daylight to dark in the winter.
At half-past four in the morning the factory bell rings and at
five the girls must be in the mills. A clerk, placed as a watch,
observes those who are a few minutes behind the time, and
effectual means are taken to stimulate punctuality.... At
seven the girls are allowed thirty minutes for breakfast, and at
noon thirty minutes more for dinner, except during the first
quarter of the year, when the time is extended to forty-five
minutes. But within this time they must hurry to their
boarding-houses and return to the factory.... At seven
o'clock in the evening the factory bell sounds the close of the
day's work."

It was under these conditions that the cooperative movement had
its brief day of experiment. As early as 1828 the workmen of
Philadelphia and Cincinnati had begun cooperative stores. The
Philadelphia group were "fully persuaded," according to their
constitution, "that nothing short of an entire change in the
present regulation of trade and commerce will ever be permanently
beneficial to the productive part of the community." But their
little shop survived competition for only a few months. The
Cincinnati "Cooperative Magazine" was a sort of combination of
store and shop, where various trades were taught, but it also
soon disappeared.

In 1845 the New England Workingmen's Association organized a
protective union for the purpose of obtaining for its members
"steady and profitable employment" and of saving the retailer's
profit for the purchaser. This movement had a high moral flavor.
"The dollar was to us of minor importance; humanitary and not
mercenary were our motives," reported their committee on
organization of industry. "We must proceed from combined stores
to combined shops, from combined shops to combined homes, to
joint ownership in God's earth, the foundation that our edifice
must stand upon." In this ambitious spirit "they commenced
business with a box of soap and half a chest of tea." In 1852
they had 167 branches, a capital of $241,7191.66, and a business
of nearly $91,000,000 a year.

In the meantime similar cooperative movements began elsewhere.
The tailors of Boston struck for higher wages in 1850 and, after
fourteen weeks of futile struggle, decided that their salvation
lay in cooperation rather than in trade unionism, which at best
afforded only temporary relief. About seventy of them raised $700
as a cooperative nest egg and netted a profit of $510.60 the
first year. In the same year the Philadelphia printers,
disappointed at their failure to force a higher wage, organized a
cooperative printing press.

The movement spread to New York, where a strike of the tailors
was in progress. The strikers were addressed at a great mass
meeting by Albert Brisbane, an ardent disciple of Fourier, the
French social economist, and were told that they must do away
with servitude to capital. "What we want to know," said Brisbane,
"is how to change, peacefully, the system of today. The first
great principle is combination." Another meeting was addressed by
a German, a follower of Karl Marx, who uttered in his native
tongue these words that sound like a modern I.W.W. prophet: "Many
of us have fought for liberty in the fatherland. We came here
because we were opposed, and what have we gained? Nothing but
misery, hunger, and treading down. But we are in a free country
and it is our fault if we do not get our rights.... Let those
who strike eat; the rest starve. Butchers and bakers must
withhold supplies. Yes, they must all strike, and then the
aristocrat will starve. We must have a revolution. We cannot
submit any longer." The cry of "Revolution! Revolution!" was
taken up by the throng.

In the midst of this agitation a New York branch of the New
England Protective Union was organized as an attempt at peaceful
revolution by cooperation. The New York Protective Union went a
step farther than the New England Union. Its members established
their own shops and so became their own employers. And in many
other cities striking workmen and eager reformers joined hands in
modest endeavors to change the face of things. The revolutionary
movements of Europe at this period were having a seismic effect
upon American labor. But all these attempts of the workingmen to
tourney a rough world with a needle were foredoomed to failure.
Lacking the essential business experience and the ability to
cooperate, they were soon undone, and after a few years little
more was heard of cooperation.

In the meantime another economic movement gained momentum under
the leadership of George Henry Evans, who was a land reformer and
may be called a precursor of Henry George. Evans inaugurated a
campaign for free farms to entice to the land the unprosperous
toilers of the city. In spite of the vast areas of the public
domain still unoccupied, the cities were growing denser and
larger and filthier by reason of the multitudes from Ireland and
other countries who preferred to cast themselves into the eager
maw of factory towns rather than go out as agrarian pioneers. To
such Evans and other agrarian reformers made their appeal. For
example, a handbill distributed everywhere in 1846 asked:

"Are you an American citizen? Then you are a joint owner of the
public lands. Why not take enough of your property to provide
yourself a home? Why not vote yourself a farm?

"Are you a party follower? Then you have long enough employed
your vote to benefit scheming office seekers. Use it for once to
benefit yourself; Vote yourself a farm.

"Are you tired of slavery--of drudging for others--of poverty and
its attendant miseries? Then, vote yourself a farm.

"Would you free your country and the sons of toil everywhere from
the heartless, irresponsible mastery of the aristocracy of
avarice? .... Then join with your neighbors to form a true
American party...whose chief measures will be first to limit
the quantity of land that any one may henceforth monopolize or
inherit; and second to make the public lands free to actual
settlers only, each having the right to sell his improvements to
any man not possessed of other lands."

"Vote yourself a farm" became a popular shibboleth and a part of
the standard programme of organized labor. The donation of public
lands to heads of families, on condition of occupancy and
cultivation for a term of years, was proposed in bills repeatedly
introduced in Congress. But the cry of opposition went up from
the older States that they would be bled for the sake of the
newer, that giving land to the landless was encouraging idleness
and wantonness and spreading demoralization, and that Congress
had no more power to give away land than it had to give away
money. These arguments had their effect at the Capitol, and it
was not until the new Republican party came into power pledged to
"a complete and satisfactory homestead measure" that the
Homestead Act of 1862 was placed on the statute books.

A characteristic manifestation of the humanitarian impulse of the
forties was the support given to labor in its renewed demand for
a ten-hour day. It has already been indicated how this movement
started in the thirties, how its object was achieved by a few
highly organized trades, and how it was interrupted in its
progress by the panic of 1837. The agitation, however, to make
the ten-hour day customary throughout the country was not long in
coming back to life. In March, 1840, an executive order of
President Van Buren declaring ten hours to be the working day for
laborers and mechanics in government employ forced the issue upon
private employers. The earliest concerted action, it would seem,
arose in New England, where the New England Workingmen's
Association, later called the Labor Reform League, carried on the
crusade. In 1845 a committee appointed by the Massachusetts
Legislature to investigate labor conditions affords the first
instance on record of an American legislature concerning itself
with the affairs of the labor world to the extent of ordering an
official investigation. The committee examined a number of
factory operatives, both men and women, visited a few of the
mills, gathered some statistics, and made certain neutral and
specious suggestions. They believed the remedy for such evils as
they discovered lay not in legislation but "in the progressive
improvement in art and science, in a higher appreciation of man's
destiny, in a less love for money, and a more ardent love for
social happiness and intellectual superiority."

The first ten-hour law was passed in 1847 by the New Hampshire
Legislature. It provided that "ten hours of actual labor shall be
taken to be a day's work, unless otherwise agreed to by the
parties," and that no minor under fifteen years of age should be
employed more than ten hours a day without the consent of parent
or guardian. This was the unassuming beginning of a movement to
have the hours of toil fixed by society rather than by contract.
This law of New Hampshire, which was destined to have a
widespread influence, was hailed by the workmen everywhere with
delight; mass meetings and processions proclaimed it as a great
victory; and only the conservatives prophesied the worthlessness
of such legislation. Horace Greeley sympathetically dissected the
bill. He had little faith, it is true, in legislative
interference with private contracts. "But," he asks, "who can
seriously doubt that it is the duty of the Commonwealth to see
that the tender frames of its youth are not shattered by
excessively protracted toil? .... Will any one pretend that ten
hours per day, especially at confining and monotonous avocations
which tax at once the brain and the sinews are not quite enough
for any child to labor statedly and steadily?" The consent of
guardian or parent he thought a fraud against the child that
could be averted only by the positive command of the State
specifically limiting the hours of child labor.

In the following year Pennsylvania enacted a law declaring ten
hours a legal day in certain industries and forbidding children
under twelve from working in cotton, woolen, silk, or flax mills.
Children over fourteen, however, could, by special arrangement
with parents or guardians, be compelled to work more than ten
hours a day. "This act is very much of a humbug," commented
Greeley, "but it will serve a good end. Those whom it was
intended to put asleep will come back again before long, and,
like Oliver Twist, 'want some more.'"

The ten-hour movement had thus achieved social recognition. It
had the staunch support of such men as Wendell Phillips, Edward
Everett, Horace Greeley, and other distinguished publicists and
philanthropists. Public opinion was becoming so strong that both
the Whigs and Democrats in their party platforms declared
themselves in favor of the ten-hour day. When, in the summer of
1847, the British Parliament passed a ten-hour law, American
unions sent congratulatory messages to the British workmen.
Gradually the various States followed the example of New
Hampshire and Pennsylvania--New Jersey in 1851, Ohio in 1852, and
Rhode Island in 1853--and the "ten-hour system" was legally

But it was one thing to write a statute and another to enforce
it. American laws were, after all, based upon the ancient
Anglo-Saxon principle of private contract. A man could agree to
work for as many hours as he chose, and each employer could drive
his own bargain. The cotton mill owners of Allegheny City, for
example, declared that they would be compelled to run their mills
twelve hours a day. They would not, of course, employ children
under twelve, although they felt deeply concerned for the widows
who would thereby lose the wages of their children. But they must
run on a twelve-hour schedule to meet competition from other
States. So they attempted to make special contracts with each
employee. The workmen objected to this and struck. Finally they
compromised on a ten-hour day and a sixteen per cent reduction in
wages. Such an arrangement became a common occurrence in the
industrial world of the middle of the century.

In the meantime the factory system was rapidly recruiting women
workers, especially in the New England textile mills. Indeed, as
early as 1825 "tailoresses" of New York and other cities had
formed protective societies. In 1829 the mill girls of Dover, New
Hampshire, caused a sensation by striking. Several hundred of
them paraded the streets and, according to accounts, "fired off a
lot of gunpowder." In 1836 the women workers in the Lowell
factories struck for higher wages and later organized a Factory
Girls' Association which included more than 2,500 members. It was
aimed against the strict regimen of the boarding houses, which
were owned and managed by the mills. "As our fathers resisted
unto blood the lordly avarice of the British Ministry," cried the
strikers, "so we, their daughters, never will wear the yoke which
has been prepared for us."

In this vibrant atmosphere was born the powerful woman's labor
union, the Female Labor Reform Association, later called the
Lowell Female Industrial Reform and Mutual Aid Society. Lowell
became the center of a far-reaching propaganda characterized by
energy and a definite conception of what was wanted. The women
joined in strikes, carried banners, sent delegates to the labor
conventions, and were zealous in propaganda. It was the women
workers of Massachusetts who first forced the legislature to
investigate labor conditions and who aroused public sentiment to
a pitch that finally compelled the enactment of laws for the
bettering of their conditions. When the mill owners in
Massachusetts demanded in 1846 that their weavers tend four looms
instead of three, the women promptly resolved that "we will not
tend a fourth loom unless we receive the same pay per piece as on
three .... This we most solemnly pledge ourselves to obtain."

In New York, in 1845, the Female Industry Association was
organized at a large meeting held in the court house. It included
"tailoresses, plain and coarse sewing, shirt makers, book-folders
and stickers, capmakers, straw-workers, dressmakers, crimpers,
fringe and lacemakers," and other trades open to women "who were
like oppressed." The New York Herald reported "about 700 females
generally of the most interesting age and appearance" in
attendance. The president of the meeting unfolded a pitiable
condition of affairs. She mentioned several employers by name who
paid only from ten to eighteen cents a day, and she stated that,
after acquiring skill in some of the trades and by working twelve
to fourteen hours a day, a woman might earn twenty-five cents a
day! "How is it possible," she exclaimed, "that at such an income
we can support ourselves decently and honestly?"

So we come to the fifties, when the rapid rise in the cost of
living due to the influx of gold from the newly discovered
California mines created new economic conditions. By 1853, the
cost of living had risen so high that the length of the working
day was quite forgotten because of the utter inadequacy of the
wage to meet the new altitude of prices. Hotels issued statements
that they were compelled to raise their rates for board from a
dollar and a half to two dollars a day. Newspapers raised their
advertising rates. Drinks went up from six cents to ten and
twelve and a half cents. In Baltimore, the men in the Baltimore
and Ohio Railway shops struck. They were followed by all the
conductors, brakemen, and locomotive engineers. Machinists
employed in other shops soon joined them, and the city's
industries were virtually paralyzed. In New York nearly every
industry was stopped by strikes. In Philadelphia, Boston,
Pittsburgh, in cities large and small, the striking workmen made
their demands known.

By this time thoughtful laborers had learned the futility of
programmes that attempted to reform society. They had watched the
birth and death of many experiments. They had participated in
short-lived cooperative stores and shops; they had listened to
Owen's alluring words and had seen his World Convention meet and
adjourn; had witnessed national reform associations, leagues, and
industrial congresses issue their high-pitched resolutions; and
had united on legislative candidates. And yet the old world
wagged on in the old way. Wages and hours and working conditions
could be changed, they had learned, only by coercion. This
coercion could be applied, in general reforms, only by society,
by stress of public opinion. But in concrete cases, in their own
personal environment, the coercion had to be first applied by
themselves. They had learned the lesson of letting the world in
general go its way while they attended to their own business.

In the early fifties, then, a new species of union appears. It
discards lofty phraseology and the attempt at world-reform and it
becomes simply a trade union. It restricts its house-cleaning to
its own shop, limits its demands to its trade, asks for a minimum
wage and minimum hours, and lays out with considerable detail the
conditions under which its members will work. The weapons in its
arsenal are not new--the strike and the boycott. Now that he has
learned to distinguish essentials, the new trade unionist can
bargain with his employer, and as a result trade agreements
stipulating hours, wages, and conditions, take the place of the
desultory and ineffective settlements which had hitherto issued
from labor disputes. But it was not without foreboding that this
development was witnessed by the adherents of the status quo.
According to a magazine writer of 1853:

"After prescribing the rate of remuneration many of the Trades'
Unions go to enact laws for the government of the respective
departments, to all of which the employer must assent .... The
result even thus far is that there is found no limit to this
species of encroachment. If workmen may dictate the hours and
mode of service, and the number and description of hands to be
employed, they may also regulate other items of the business with
which their labor is connected. Thus we find that within a few
days, in the city of New York, the longshoremen have taken by
force from their several stations the horses and labor-saving
gear used for delivering cargoes, it being part of their
regulations not to allow of such competition."

The gravitation towards common action was felt over a wide area
during this period. Some trades met in national convention to lay
down rules for their craft. One of the earliest national meetings
was that of the carpet-weavers (1846) in New York City, when
thirty-four delegates, representing over a thousand operatives,
adopted rules and took steps to prevent a reduction in wages. The
National Convention of Journeymen Printers met in 1850, and out
of this emerged two years later an organization called the
National Typographical Union, which ten years later still, on the
admission of some Canadian unions, became the International
Typographical Union of North America; and as such it flourishes
today. In 1855 the Journeymen Stone Cutters' Association of North
America was organized and in the following year the National
Trade Association of Hat Finishers, the forerunner of the United
Hatters of North America. In 1859 the Iron Molders' Union of
North America began its aggressive career.

The conception of a national trade unity was now well formed;
compactly organized national and local trade unions with very
definite industrial aims were soon to take the place of
ephemeral, loose-jointed associations with vast and vague
ambitions. Early in this period a new impetus was given to
organized labor by the historic decision of Chief Justice Shaw of
Massachusetts in a case* brought against seven bootmakers charged
with conspiracy. Their offense consisted in attempting to induce
all the workmen of a given shop to join the union and compel the
master to employ only union men. The trial court found them
guilty; but the Chief Justice decided that he did not "perceive
that it is criminal for men to agree together to exercise their
own acknowledged rights in such a manner as best to subserve
their own interests." In order to show criminal conspiracy,
therefore, on the part of a labor union, it was necessary to
prove that either the intent or the method was criminal, for it
was not a criminal offense to combine for the purpose of raising
wages or bettering conditions or seeking to have all laborers
join the union. The liberalizing influence of this decision upon
labor law can hardly be over-estimated.

* Commonwealth vs. Hunt.

The period closed amidst general disturbances and forebodings,
political and economic. In 1857 occurred a panic which thrust the
problem of unemployment, on a vast scale, before the American
consciousness. Instead of demanding higher wages, multitudes now
cried for work. The marching masses, in New York, carried banners
asking for bread, while soldiers from Governor's Island and
marines from the Navy Yard guarded the Custom House and the
Sub-Treasury. From Philadelphia to New Orleans, from Boston to
Chicago, came the same story of banks failing, railroads in
bankruptcy, factories closing, idle and hungry throngs moving
restlessly through the streets. In New York 40,000, in Lawrence
3500, in Philadelphia 20,000, were estimated to be out of work.
Labor learned anew that its prosperity was inalienably identified
with the well-being of industry and commerce; and society learned
that hunger and idleness are the golden opportunity of the
demagogue and agitator. The word "socialism" now appears more and
more frequently in the daily press and always a synonym of
destruction or of something to be feared. No sooner had business
revived than the great shadow of internal strife was cast over
the land, and for the duration of the Civil War the peril of the
nation absorbed all the energies of the people.


After Appomattox, every one seemed bent on finding a short cut to
opulence. To foreign observers, the United States was then simply
a scrambling mass of selfish units, for there seemed to be among
the American people no disinterested group to balance accounts
between the competing elements--no leisure class, living on
secured incomes, mellowed by generations of travel, education,
and reflection; no bureaucracy arbitrarily guiding the details of
governmental routine; no aristocracy, born umpires of the doings
of their underlings. All the manifold currents of life seemed
swallowed up in the commercial maelstrom. By the standards of
what happened in this season of exuberance and intense
materialism, the American people were hastily judged by critics
who failed to see that the period was but the prelude to a
maturer national life.

It was a period of a remarkable industrial expansion. Then
"plant" became a new word in the phraseology of the market place,
denoting the enlarged factory or mill and suggesting the hardy
perennial, each succeeding year putting forth new shoots from its
side. The products of this seedtime are seen in the colossal
industrial growths of today. Then it was that short railway lines
began to be welded into "systems," that the railway builders
began to strike out into the prairies and mountains of the West,
and that partnerships began to be merged into corporations and
corporations into trusts, ever reaching out for the greater
markets. Meanwhile the inventive genius of America was responding
to the call of the time. In 1877 Bell telephoned from Boston to
Salem; two years later, Brush lighted by electricity the streets
of San Francisco. In 1882 Edison was making incandescent electric
lights for New York and operating his first electric car in Menlo
Park, New Jersey.

All these developments created a new demand for capital. Where
formerly a manufacturer had made products to order or for a small
number of known customers, now he made on speculation, for a
great number of unknown customers, taking his risks in distant
markets. Where formerly the banker had lent money on local
security, now he gave credit to vast enterprises far away. New
inventions or industrial processes brought on new speculations.
This new demand for capital made necessary a new system of
credits, which was erected at first, as the recurring panics
disclosed, on sand, but gradually, through costly experience, on
a more stable foundation.

The economic and industrial development of the time demanded not
only new money and credit but new men. A new type of executive
was wanted, and he soon appeared to satisfy the need. Neither a
capitalist nor a merchant, he combined in some degree the
functions of both, added to them the greater function of
industrial manager, and received from great business concerns a
high premium for his talent and foresight. This Captain of
Industry, as he has been called, is the foremost figure of the
period, the hero of the industrial drama.

But much of what is admirable in that generation of nation
builders is obscured by the industrial anarchy which prevailed.
Everybody was for himself--and the devil was busy harvesting the
hindmost. There were "rate-wars," "cut-rate sales," secret
intrigues, and rebates; and there were subterranean passages--
some, indeed, scarcely under the surface--to council chambers,
executive mansions, and Congress. There were extreme fluctuations
of industry; prosperity was either at a very high level or
depression at a very low one. Prosperity would bring on an
expansion of credits, a rise in prices, higher cost of living,
strikes and boycotts for higher wages; then depression would
follow with the shutdown and that most distressing of social
diseases, unemployment. During the panic of 1873-74 many
thousands of men marched the streets crying earnestly for work.

Between the panics, strikes became a part of the economic routine
of the country. They were expected, just as pay days and legal
holidays are expected. Now for the first time came strikes that
can only be characterized as stupendous. They were not mere
slight economic disturbances; they were veritable industrial
earthquakes. In 1873 the coal miners of Pennsylvania, resenting
the truck system and the miserable housing which the mine owners
forced upon them, struck by the tens of thousands. In Illinois,
Indiana, Missouri, Maryland, Ohio, and New York strikes occurred
in all sorts of industries. There were the usual parades and
banners, some appealing, some insulting, and all the while the
militia guarded property. In July, 1877, the men of the Baltimore
and Ohio Railroad refused to submit to a fourth reduction in
wages in seven years and struck. From Baltimore the resentment
spread to Pennsylvania and culminated with riots in Pittsburgh.
All the anthracite coal miners struck, followed by most of the
bituminous miners of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The militia
were impotent to subdue the mobs; Federal troops had to be sent
by President Hayes into many of the States; and a proclamation by
the President commanded all citizens to keep the peace. Thus was
Federal authority introduced to bolster up the administrative
weakness of the States, and the first step was taken on the road
to industrial nationalization.

The turmoil had hardly subsided when, in 1880, new strikes broke
out. In the long catalogue of the strikers of that year are found
the ribbon weavers of Philadelphia, Paterson, and New York, the
stablemen of New York, New Jersey, and San Francisco, the cotton
yard workers of New Orleans, the cotton weavers of New England
and New York, the stockyard employees of Chicago and Omaha, the
potters of Green Point, Long Island, the puddlers of Johnstown
and Columbia, Pennsylvania, the machinists of Buffalo, the
tailors of New York, and the shoemakers of Indiana. The year 1881
was scarcely less restive. But 1886 is marked in labor annals as
"the year of the great uprising," when twice as many strikes as
in any previous year were reported by the United States
Commissioner of Labor, and when these strikes reached a tragic
climax in the Chicago Haymarket riots.

It was during this feverish epoch that organized labor first
entered the arena of national politics. When the policy as to the
national currency became an issue, the lure of cheap money drew
labor into an alliance in 1880 with the Greenbackers, whose mad
cry added to the general unrest. In this, as in other fatuous
pursuits, labor was only responding to the forces and the spirit
of the hour. These have been called the years of amalgamation,
but they were also the years of tumult, for, while amalgamation
was achieved, discipline was not. Authority imposed from within
was not sufficient to overcome the decentralizing forces, and
just as big business had yet to learn by self-imposed discipline
how to overcome the extremely individualistic tendencies which
resulted in trade anarchy, so labor had yet to learn through
discipline the lessons of self-restraint. Moreover, in the sudden
expansion and great enterprises of these days, labor even more
than capital lost in stability. One great steadying influence,
the old personal relation between master and servant, which
prevailed during the days of handicraft and even of the small
factory, had disappeared almost completely. Now labor was put up
on the market--a heartless term descriptive of a condition from
which human beings might be expected to react violently--and they
did, for human nature refused to be an inert, marketable thing.

The labor market must expand with the trader's market. In 1860
there were about one and a third million wage-earners in the
United States; in 1870 well over two million; in 1880 nearly two
and three-quarters million; and in 1890 over four and a quarter
million. The city sucked them in from the country; but by far the
larger augmentation came from Europe; and the immigrant, normally
optimistic, often untaught, sometimes sullen and filled with a
destructive resentment, and always accustomed to low standards of
living, added to the armies of labor his vast and complex bulk.

There were two paramount issues--wages and the hours of labor--
to which all other issues were and always have been secondary.
Wages tend constantly to become inadequate when the standard of
living is steadily rising, and they consequently require
periodical readjustment. Hours of labor, of course, are not
subject in the same degree to external conditions. But the
tendency has always been toward a shorter day. In a previous
chapter, the inception of the ten-hour movement was outlined.
Presently there began the eight-hour movement. As early as 1842
the carpenters and caulkers of the Charleston Navy Yard achieved
an eight-hour day; but 1863 may more properly be taken as the
beginning of the movement. In this year societies were organized
in Boston and its vicinity for the precise purpose of winning the
eight-hour day, and soon afterwards a national Eight-Hour League
was established with local leagues extending from New England to
San Francisco and New Orleans.

This movement received an intelligible philosophy, and so a new
vitality, from Ira Steward, a member of the Boston Machinists'
and Blacksmiths' Union. Writing as a workingman for workingmen,
Steward found in the standard of living the true reason for a
shorter workday. With beautiful simplicity he pointed out to the
laboring man that the shorter period of labor would not mean
smaller pay, and to the employer that it would not mean a
diminished output. On the contrary, it would be mutually
beneficial, for the unwearied workman could produce as much in
the shorter day as the wearied workman in the longer. "As long,"
Steward wrote, "as tired human hands do most of the world's hard
work, the sentimental pretense of honoring and respecting the
horny-handed toiler is as false and absurd as the idea that a
solid foundation for a house can be made out of soap bubbles."

In 1865 Steward's pamphlet, "A Reduction of Hours and Increase of
Wages," was widely circulated by the Boston Labor Reform
Association. It emphasized the value of leisure and its
beneficial reflex effect upon both production and consumption.
Gradually these well reasoned and conservatively expressed
doctrines found champions such as Wendell Phillips, Henry Ward
Beecher, and Horace Greeley to give them wider publicity and to
impress them upon the public consciousness. In 1867 Illinois,
Missouri, and New York passed eight-hour laws and Wisconsin
declared eight hours a day's work for women and children. In 1868
Congress established an eight-hour day for public work. These
were promising signs, though the battle was still far from being
won. The eight-hour day has at last received "the sanction of
society"--to use the words of President Wilson in his message to
Congress in 1916, when he called for action to avert a great
railway strike. But to win that sanction required over half a
century of popular agitation, discussion, and economic and
political evolution.

Such, in brief, were the general business conditions of the
country and the issues which engaged the energies of labor
reformers during the period following the Civil War. Meanwhile
great changes were made in labor organizations. Many of the old
unions were reorganized, and numerous local amalgamations took
place. Most of the organizations now took the form of secret
societies whose initiations were marked with naive formalism and
whose routines were directed by a group of officers with royal
titles and fortified by signs, passwords, and ritual. Some of
these orders decorated the faithful with high-sounding degrees.
The societies adopted fantastic names such as "The Supreme
Mechanical Order of the Sun," "The Knights of St. Crispin," and
"The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor," of which more

Meanwhile, too, there was a growing desire to unify the workers
of the country by some sort of national organization. The outcome
was a notable Labor Congress held at Baltimore in August, 1866,
which included all kinds of labor organizations and was attended
by seventy-seven delegates from thirteen States. In the light of
subsequent events its resolutions now seem conservative and
constructive. This Congress believed that "all reforms in the
labor movement can only be effected by an intelligent, systematic
effort of the industrial classes . . . through the trades
organizations." Of strikes it declared that "they have been
injudicious and ill-advised, the result of impulse rather than
principle,...and we would therefore discountenance them
except as a dernier ressort, and when all means for an amicable
and honorable adjustment has been abandoned." It issued a
cautious and carefully phrased Address to the Workmen throughout
the Country, urging them to organize and assuring them that "the
first thing to be accomplished before we can hope for any great
results is the thorough organization of all the departments of

The National Labor Union which resulted from this convention held
seven Annual Congresses, and its proceedings show a statesmanlike
conservatism and avoid extreme radicalism. This organization,
which at its high tide represented a membership of 640,000, in
its brief existence was influential in three important matters:
first, it pointed the way to national amalgamation and was thus a
forerunner of more lasting efforts in this direction; secondly,
it had a powerful influence in the eight-hour movement; and,
thirdly, it was largely instrumental in establishing labor
bureaus and in gathering statistics for the scientific study of
labor questions. But the National Labor Union unfortunately went
into politics; and politics proved its undoing. Upon affiliating
with the Labor Reform party it dwindled rapidly, and after 1871
it disappeared entirely.

One of the typical organizations of the time was the Order of the
Knights of St. Crispin, so named after the patron saint of the
shoemakers, and accessible only to members of that craft. It was
first conceived in 1864 by Newell Daniels, a shoemaker in
Milford, Massachusetts, but no organization was effected until
1867, when the founder had moved to Milwaukee. The ritual and
constitution he had prepared was accepted then by a group of
seven shoemakers, and in four years this insignificant mustard
seed had grown into a great tree. The story is told by Frank K.
Foster,* who says, speaking of the order in 1868: "It made and
unmade politicians; it established a monthly journal; it started
cooperative stores; it fought, often successfully, against
threatened reductions of wages...; it became the undoubted
foremost trade organization of the world." But within five years
the order was rent by factionalism and in 1878 was acknowledged
to be dead. It perished from various causes--partly because it
failed to assimilate or imbue with its doctrines the thousands of
workmen who subscribed to its rules and ritual, partly because of
the jealousy and treachery which is the fruitage of sudden
prosperity, partly because of failure to fulfill the fervent
hopes of thousands who joined it as a prelude to the industrial
millennium; but especially it failed to endure because it was
founded on an economic principle which could not be imposed upon
society. The rule which embraced this principle reads as follows:
"No member of this Order shall teach, or aid in teaching, any
fact or facts of boot or shoemaking, unless the lodge shall give
permission by a three-fourths vote...provided that this
article shall not be so construed as to prevent a father from
teaching his own son. Provided also, that this article shall not
be so construed as to hinder any member of this organization from
learning any or all parts of the trade." The medieval craft guild
could not so easily be revived in these days of rapid changes,
when a new stitching machine replaced in a day a hundred workmen.
And so the Knights of St. Crispin fell a victim to their own

* "The Labor Movement, the Problem of Today," edited by George E.
McNeill, Chapter VIII.

The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, another of those
societies of workingmen, was organized in November, 1869, by
Uriah S. Stephens, a Philadelphia garment cutter, with the
assistance of six fellow craftsmen. It has been said of Stephens
that he was "a man of great force of character, a skilled
mechanic, with the love of books which enabled him to pursue his
studies during his apprenticeship, and feeling withal a strong
affection for secret organizations, having been for many years
connected with the Masonic Order." He was to have been educated
for the ministry but, owing to financial reverses in his family,
was obliged instead to learn a trade. Later he taught school for
a few years, traveled extensively in the West Indies, South
America, and California, and became an accomplished public
speaker and a diligent observer of social conditions.

Stephens and his six associates had witnessed the dissolution of
the local garment cutters' union. They resolved that the new
society should not be limited by the lines of their own trade but
should embrace "all branches of honorable toil." Subsequently a
rule was adopted stipulating that at least three-fourths of the
membership of lodges must be wage-earners eighteen years of age.
Moreover, "no one who either sells or makes a living, or any part
of it, by the sale of intoxicating drinks either as manufacturer,
dealer, or agent, or through any member of his family, can be
admitted to membership in this order; and no lawyer, banker,
professional gambler, or stock broker can be admitted." They
chose their motto from Solon, the wisest of lawgivers: "That is
the most perfect government in which an injury to one is the
concern of all"; and they took their preamble from Burke, the
most philosophical of statesmen: "When bad men combine, the good
must associate, else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied
sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

The order was a secret society and for years kept its name from
the public. It was generally known as the "Five Stars," because
of the five asterisks that represented its name in all public
notices. While mysterious initials and secret ceremonies
gratified the members, they aroused a corresponding antagonism,
even fear, among the public, especially as the order grew to
giant size. What were the potencies of a secret organization that
had only to post a few mysterious words and symbols to gather
hundreds of workingmen in their halls? And what plottings went on
behind those locked and guarded doors? To allay public hostility
secrecy was gradually removed and in 1881 was entirely abolished
--not, however, without serious opposition from the older

The atmosphere of high idealism in which the order had been
conceived continued to be fostered by Stephens, its founder and
its first Grand Master Workman. He extolled justice,
discountenanced violence, and pleaded for "the mutual development
and moral elevation of mankind." His exhortations were free from
that narrow class antagonism which frequently characterizes the
utterances of labor. One of his associates, too, invoked the
spirit of chivalry, of true knighthood, when he said that the old
trade union had failed because "it had failed to recognize the
rights of man and looked only to the rights of tradesmen," that
the labor movement needed "something that will develop more of
charity, less of selfishness, more of generosity, less of
stinginess and nearness, than the average society has yet
disclosed to its members." Nor were these ideas and principles
betrayed by Stephens's successor, Terence V. Powderly, who became
Grand Master in 1879 and served during the years when the order
attained its greatest power. Powderly, also, was a conservative
idealist. His career may be regarded as a good example of the
rise of many an American labor leader. He had been a poor boy. At
thirteen he began work as a switch-tender; at seventeen he was
apprenticed as machinist; at nineteen he was active in a
machinists' and blacksmiths' union. After working at his trade in
various places, he at length settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania,
and became one of the organizers of the Greenback Labor party. He
was twice elected mayor of Scranton, and might have been elected
for a third term had he not declined to serve, preferring to
devote all his time to the society of which he was Grand Master.
The obligations laid upon every member of the Knights of Labor
were impressive: Labor is noble and holy. To defend it from
degradation; to divest it of the evils to body, mind and estate
which ignorance and greed have imposed; to rescue the toiler from
the grasp of the selfish--is a work worthy of the noblest and
best of our race. In all the multifarious branches of trade
capital has its combinations; and, whether intended or not, it
crushes the manly hopes of labor and tramples poor humanity in
the dust. We mean no conflict with legitimate enterprise, no
antagonism to necessary capital; but men in their haste and
greed, blinded by self-interests, overlook the interests of
others and sometimes violate the rights of those they deem
helpless. We mean to uphold the dignity of labor, to affirm the
nobility of all who earn their bread by the sweat of their brows.
We mean to create a healthy public opinion on the subject of
labor (the only creator of values or capital) and the justice of
its receiving a full, just share of the values or capital it has
created. We shall, with all our strength, support laws made to
harmonize the interests of labor and capital, for labor alone
gives life and value to capital, and also those laws which tend
to lighten the exhaustiveness of toil. To pause in his toil, to
devote himself to his own interests, to gather a knowledge of the
world's commerce, to unite, combine and cooperate in the great
army of peace and industry, to nourish and cherish, build and
develop the temple he lives in is the highest and noblest duty of
man to himself, to his fellow men and to his Creator.

The phenomenal growth and collapse of the Knights of Labor is one
of the outstanding events in American economic history. The
membership in 1869 consisted of eleven tailors. This small
beginning grew into the famous Assembly No. 1. Soon the ship
carpenters wanted to join, and Assembly No. 2 was organized. The
shawl-weavers formed another assembly, the carpet-weavers
another, and so on, until over twenty assemblies, covering almost
every trade, had been organized in Philadelphia alone. By 1875
there were eighty assemblies in the city and its vicinity. As the
number of lodges multiplied, it became necessary to establish a
common agency or authority, and a Committee on the Good of the
Order was constituted to represent all the local units, but this
committee was soon superseded by a delegate body known as the
District Assembly. As the movement spread from city to city and
from State to State, a General Assembly was created in 1878 to
hold annual conventions and to be the supreme authority of the
order. In 1883 the membership of the order was 591,000; within
three years, it had mounted to over 700,000; and at the climax of
its career the society boasted over 1,000,000 workmen in the
United States and Canada who had vowed fealty to its knighthood.
It is not to be imagined that every member of this vast horde so
suddenly brought together understood the obligations of the
workman's chivalry. The selfish and the lawless rushed in with
the prudent and sincere. But a resolution of the executive board
to stop the initiation of new members came too late. The
undesirable and radical element in many communities gained
control of local assemblies, and the conservatism and
intelligence of the national leaders became merely a shield for
the rowdy and the ignorant who brought the entire order into
popular disfavor.

The crisis came in 1886. In the early months of this turbulent
year there were nearly five hundred labor disputes, most of them
involving an advance in wages. An epidemic of strikes then spread
over the country, many of them actually conducted by the Knights
of Labor and all of them associated in the public mind with that
order. One of the most important of these occurred on the
Southwestern Railroad. In the preceding year, the Knights had
increased their lodges in St. Louis from five to thirty, and
these were under the domination of a coarse and ruthless district
leader. When in February, 1886, a mechanic, working in the shops
of the Texas and Pacific Railroad at Marshall, Texas, was
discharged for cause and the road refused to reinstate him, a
strike ensued which spread over the entire six thousand miles of
the Gould system; and St. Louis became the center of the tumult.
After nearly two months of violence, the outbreak ended in the
complete collapse of the strikers. This result was doubly
damaging to the Knights of Labor, for they had officially taken
charge of the strike and were censured on the one hand for their
conduct of the struggle and on the other for the defeat which
they had sustained.

In the same year, against the earnest advice of the national
leaders of the Knights of Labor, the employees of the Third
Avenue Railway in New York began a strike which lasted many
months and which was characterized by such violence that
policemen were detailed to guard every car leaving the barns. In
Chicago the freight handlers struck, and some 60,000 workmen
stopped work in sympathy. On the 3d of May, at the McCormick
Harvester Works, several strikers were wounded in a tussle with
the police. On the following day a mass meeting held in Haymarket
Square, Chicago, was harangued by a number of anarchists. When
the police attempted to disperse the mob, guns were fired at the
officers of the law and a bomb was hurled into their throng,
killing seven and wounding sixty. For this crime seven anarchists
were indicted, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. The
Knights of Labor passed resolutions asking clemency for these
murderers and thereby grossly offended public opinion, and that
at a time when public opinion was frightened by these outrages,
angered by the disclosures of brazen plotting, and upset by the
sudden consciousness that the immunity of the United States from
the red terror of Europe was at an end.

Powderly and the more conservative national officers who were
opposed to these radical machinations were strong enough in the
Grand Lodge in the following year to suppress a vote of sympathy
for the condemned anarchists. The radicals thereupon seceded from
the organization. This outcome, however, did not restore the
order to the confidence of the public, and its strength now
rapidly declined. A loss of 300,000 members for the year 1888 was
reported. Early in the nineties, financial troubles compelled the
sale of the Philadelphia headquarters of the Knights of Labor and
the removal to more modest quarters in Washington. A remnant of
members still retain an organization, but it is barely a shadow
of the vast army of Knights who at one time so hopefully carried
on a crusade in every center of industry. It was not merely the
excesses of the lawless but the multiplicity of strikes which
alienated public sympathy. Powderly's repeated warnings that
strikes, in and of themselves, were destructive of the stable
position of labor were shown to be prophetic.

These excesses, however, were forcing upon the public the idea
that it too had not only an interest but a right and a duty in
labor disputes. Methods of arbitration and conciliation were now
discussed in every legislature. In 1883 the House of
Representatives established a standing committee on labor. In
1884 a national Bureau of Labor was created to gather statistical
information. In 1886 President Cleveland sent to Congress a
message which has become historic as the first presidential
message devoted to labor. In this he proposed the creation of a
board of labor commissioners who should act as official arbiters
in labor disputes, but Congress was unwilling at that time to
take so advanced a step. In 1888, however, it enacted a law
providing for the settlement of railway labor disputes by
arbitration, upon agreement of both parties.

Arbitration signifies a judicial attitude of mind, a judgment
based on facts. These facts are derived from specific conditions
and do not grow out of broad generalizations. Arbitral tribunals
are created to decide points in dispute, not philosophies of
human action. The businesslike organization of the new trade
union could as readily adapt itself to arbitration as it had
already adapted itself, in isolated instances, to collective
bargaining. A new stage had therefore been reached in the labor


Experience and events had now paved the way for that vast
centralization of industry which characterizes the business world
of the present era. The terms sugar, coffee, steel, tobacco, oil,
acquire on the stock exchange a new and precise meaning.
Seventy-five per cent of steel, eighty-three per cent of
petroleum, ninety per cent of sugar production are brought under
the control of industrial combinations. Nearly one-fourth of the
wage-earners of America are employed by great corporations. But
while financiers are talking only in terms of millions, while
super-organization is reaching its eager fingers into every
industry, and while the units of business are becoming national
in scope, the workingman himself is being taught at last to rely
more and more upon group action in his endeavor to obtain better
wages and working conditions. He is taught also to widen the area
of his organization and to intensify its efforts. So, while the
public reads in the daily and periodical press about the oil
trust and the coffee trust, it is also being admonished against a
labor trust and against two personages, both symbols of colossal
economic unrest--the promoter, or the stalking horse of financial
enterprise, and the walking delegate, or the labor union
representative and only too frequently the advance agent of
bitterness and revenge.

In response to the call of the hour there appeared the American
Federation of Labor, frequently called in these later days the
labor trust. The Federation was first suggested at Terre Haute,
Indiana, on August 2, 1881, at a convention called by the Knights
of Industry and the Amalgamated Labor Union, two secret societies
patterned after the model common at that period. The Amalgamated
Union was composed largely of disaffected Knights of Labor, and
the avowed purpose of the Convention was to organize a new secret
society to supplant the Knights. But the trades union element
predominated and held up the British Trades Union and its
powerful annual congress as a model. At this meeting the needs of
intensive local organization, of trades autonomy, and of
comprehensive team work were foreseen, and from the discussion
there grew a plan for a second convention. With this meeting,
which was held at Pittsburgh in November, 1881, the actual work
of the new association began under the name, "The Federation of
Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States of America
and Canada."

When this Federation learned that a convention representing
independent trade unions was called to meet in Columbus, Ohio, in
December, 1886, it promptly altered its arrangements for its own
annual session so that it, too, met at the same time and place.
Thereupon the Federation effected a union with this independent
body, which represented twenty-five organizations. The new
organization was called the American Federation of Labor. Until
1889, this was considered as the first annual meeting of the new
organization, but in that year the Federation resolved that its
" recognized and dated from the year 1881."

For some years the membership increased slowly; but in 1889 over
70,000 new members were reported, in 1900 over 200,000, and from
that time the Federation has given evidence of such growth and
prosperity that it easily is the most powerful labor organization
America has known, and it takes its place by the side of the
British Trades Union Congress as "the sovereign organization in
the trade union world." In 1917 its membership reached
91,371,434, with 110 affiliated national unions, representing
virtually every element of American industry excepting the
railway brotherhoods and a dissenting group of electrical

The foundation of this vast organization was the interest of
particular trades rather than the interests of labor in general.
Its membership is made up "of such Trade and Labor Unions as
shall conform to its rules and regulations." The preamble of the
Constitution states: "We therefore declare ourselves in favor of
the formation of a thorough federation, embracing every trade and
labor organization in America under the Trade Union System of
organization." The Knights of Labor had endeavored to subordinate
the parts to the whole; the American Federation is willing to
bend the whole to the needs of the unit. It zealously sends out
its organizers to form local unions and has made provision that
"any seven wage workers of good character following any trade or
calling" can establish a local union with federal affiliations.

This vast and potent organization is based upon the principle of
trade homogeneity--namely, that each trade is primarily
interested in its own particular affairs but that all trades are
interested in those general matters which affect all laboring men
as a class. To combine effectually these dual interests, the
Federation espouses the principle of home rule in purely local
matters and of federal supervision in all general matters. It
combines, with a great singleness of purpose, so diverse a
variety of details that it touches the minutiae of every trade
and places at the disposal of the humblest craftsman or laborer
the tremendous powers of its national influence. While highly
centralized in organization, it is nevertheless democratic in
operation, depending generally upon the referendum for its
sanctions. It is flexible in its parts and can mobilize both its
heavy artillery and its cavalry with equal readiness. It has from
the first been managed with skill, energy, and great adroitness.

The supreme authority of the American Federation is its Annual
Convention composed of delegates chosen from national and
international unions, from state, central, and local trade
unions, and from fraternal organizations. Experience has evolved
a few simple rules by which the convention is safeguarded against
political and factional debate and against the interruptions of
"soreheads." Besides attending to the necessary routine, the
Convention elects the eleven national officers who form the
executive council which guides the administrative details of the
organization. The funds of the Federation are derived from a per
capita tax on the membership. The official organ is the American
Federationist. It is interesting to note in passing that over two
hundred and forty labor periodicals together with a continual
stream of circulars and pamphlets issue from the trades union

The Federation is divided into five departments, representing the
most important groups of labor: the Building Trades, the Metal
Trades, Mining, Railroad Employees, and the Union Label Trades.*
Each of these departments has its own autonomous sphere of
action, its own set of officers, its own financial arrangements,
its own administrative details. Each holds an annual convention,
in the same place and week, as the Federation. Each is made up of
affiliated unions only and confines itself solely to the interest
of its own trades. This suborganization serves as an admirable
clearing house and shock-absorber and succeeds in eliminating
much of the friction which occurs between the several unions.

* There is in the Federation, however, a group of unions not
affiliated with any of these departments.


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