We are reposting a series of articles on the history of Labor Parties in the United States, originally written by our comrade Stan Phipps. This is Chapter One.
Robert Dale Owen, secretary of the New York Working Men’s Party, photographed in the 1840s (picture from the Wikimedia Commons) By Unknown author; Additional digital editing by Tim Davenport (“Carrite”) for Wikipedia, no copyright claimed for the work, file released to the public domain without restriction.
The idea of a Labor Party based on the existing trade union movement to defend working class interests is far from new. The origins of the concept can be traced to even before the much celebrated nineteenth century efforts of workers and farmers to create the “grassroots” Peoples’ Party of the 1890s. The Working Men’s Parties of the late 1820s and early 1830s, which were supported by the existing trade union federations, were, in fact, the world’s first labor parties. A class-specific issue, the ten-hour day, provided the initial impetus for working class political action. The labor party activists in the era came to be known as “workies,” and their, short, rather volatile history came to foreshadow what would become a rather persistent pattern for subsequent U.S. Labor parties. The Working Men’s Parties “emerged through the cracks in the party system, only to be beset by invasion, deflection, co-optation, and eventual ruin at the hands of outsiders and their radical political pawns” (Wilentz, 213).
From the perspective of the 1990s, the most striking aspect of the Working Men’s Parties was their ubiquitousness. They seemed to spring up everywhere: not only in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Newark, and St. Louis, but in decidedly less urban communities such as Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Glens Falls, New York; Caldwell, New Jersey; Zanesville, Ohio; Dedham, Massachusetts; Lyme, Connecticut; and Calais, Maine. In all, some 60 Labor parties appeared in 15 states and had the editorial support of more than 50 newspapers. In addition to Working Men’s Party, names adopted by the political bodies included “Working Men’s Republican Association,” “Peoples’ Party,” “Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Society,” “Mechanics and Other Working Men,” and just plain “Working Men” (Pessen, 1969: 193, 194). Their detractors attached less than flattering labels including, “mob rabble,” “Tag, Rag, and Bobtail,” and “Levelers” (Pessen, 1978: 270). Simply Working Men or “workies,” as the labor activists called themselves, became the most widely accepted designation.
The first such labor party was founded in Philadelphia by the Mechanics Union of Trade Associations in May, 1828, just a few months after the city-wide labor federation itself was organized. The by-laws were quickly amended to stipulate that three months prior to general elections the union of bricklayers, painters, glaziers, typographers, and house carpenters “should nominate as candidates such individuals as shall pledge themselves … to support and advance … the interests and enlightenment of the working class” (Pessen, 1967: 14, 15; 1969: 196, 197).
New York City’s Working Men’s Party origin can be traced to the 1829 recession and the attempts by large employers to lengthen the workday from 10 to 11 hours in order to recoup their recent losses. Workers appropriately seized upon the idea of a labor party to counter the threatened attack on their working conditions. The Committee of Fifty called a public protest meeting which took up concerns that went beyond the questions of hours and wages and emphasized the question of emerging class divisions. The meeting concluded with a call to elect “men who, from their own sufferings, know how to feel for ours, and who, from consanguinity of feeling, will be disposed to do all they can to afford a remedy.” Those “who live by their own labor, AND NONE OTHER” (Wilentz: 194, 195) were invited to meet later to select candidates for the New York state senate and assembly.
In contrast to their New York City counterpart, Boston’s New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Working Men (the nation’s first industrial union) launched a labor party to win, rather than to defend the ten hour day. Described as a “new type of labor organization, in part economic and in part political,” Boston’s union federation was said to be preoccupied with the ten-hour day (Pessen, 1978: 271). Journalists critical of the Working Men’s Party acknowledged the proletarian nature of New England labor party supporters. Boston’s “workies” were described as men who “were warm from their workshops and from other places of daily toil, but who wore on their countenances convictions of their wrongs, and a determination to use every proper means to have them redressed” (Pessen, 1978: 271).
The Democratic Party, which was dominant in the era of “Jacksonian Democracy,” filled the air with political rhetoric extolling the virtues of the “Common Man.” Yet when the Democrats won the 1828 election, common men did not come to power, rather, “well-connected attorneys, merchants, financiers, leading master craftsmen, or allies of local banking interests” (Wilentz, 174). Universal white male suffrage and the demise of Jackson’s opponents – the Adamsites – created a political vacancy into which some new movement, as it would turn out a discontented working class one could enter. New York’s Working Men’s movement, it has now been clearly established, was “organized planned and led by militant journeymen, then by a committee of wage earners … men whose ultimate objective was nothing less than a “Radical Revolution” (Wilentz, 212, 213).
The Working Men everywhere symbolized the rejection of the Jacksonian Democrats; “workies” stood for programs and called for changes in society not dreamed of by the pragmatists of the existing parties. The Working Men’s Party made a determined effort to be a class-oriented party and to resist the temptation of being all things to all men, a mere grab bag of ideas designed primarily to win office for those who professed to support it. (Pessen, 1967: 31; 1978: 271; 1969: 213). To preserve their class nature, New York’s Working Men’s Party initially confined the leadership to genuine workers and saw to it that they were journeymen, rather than masters. Of the 11 candidates for the 1829 New York Assembly election, 10 were journeymen laborers (Pessen, 1969: 201).
The “workies” class basis meant that “Substantially the same measures were advocated by the working men … in the western and southern cities, as were advocated by their comrades in Philadelphia and New York” (Pessen, 1967: 20, 21). Economic issues were prominently featured in their platforms. They consistently proposed legislation that would recognize labor’s right to organize unions, shorten the hours of labor, improve factory working conditions, ban prison labor, enforce sanitation standards in working class neighborhoods, abolish imprisonment for debt, end the practice of licensing monopolies, and assure workers that the honoring of payroll obligations to workers had first claim on bankrupt employers’ assets (a lien law). Non-material concerns also received attention from the Working Men’s Parties in the form of demands for: the abolition of capital punishment and numerous prison reform measures, an end to the burdensome militia system, simplification of the laws and the legal system in general, and end to legislation on religion.
Of all the “workies'” proposals designed to enhance the status and opportunity for the nation’s working people, the centerpiece was the demand for a free, tax-supported school system of high quality to replace the stigmatized “pauper” schools. “Workies” advocated rather sophisticated qualitative improvements that were nothing less than remarkable for the time. They recommended alterations in the curriculum to de-emphasize rote memorization and what was referred to as “superannuated histories.” To improve the learning conditions the labor party supporters suggested that less attention be given strict discipline and more attention be given to an improved physical environment for children. “Workies” proposed that teachers be better trained and better paid, and that they work in better equipped schools, which would be totally free of clerical influences (Pessen, 1969: 214).
For a party, which defined itself as the champion of social justice, truer democracy, and the critic of every kind of social abuse (Pessen, 1969: 204, 205), the Working Men were guilty of two rather glaring oversights. The questions of gender and race had not been “sorted out” by them. Laboring women and African-Americans were important components of the working class, yet their special problems went unaddressed by the “workies” (Wilentz, 388).
New York City’s Working Men’s Party nominated candidates for the 1829 Assembly elections only two weeks prior to the voting. With $75 left over from the previous year’s strike fund and the support of George Henry Evans’s Working Man’s Advocate, a general meeting of the Committee of Fifty named 11 candidates. In the campaign, “workies” called upon the poorer citizens to “rise to the crisis” and vigorously denounced “men who fatten on the fruits of your industry” (Wilentz, 198, 199). While the Working Men’s Party advocated reform, it claimed to do so, not merely to repair a flawed status quo, rather to hasten revolutionary change. To symbolize their ticket, New York’s labor party affixed the sign of the hammer and hand. The emblem was old, but it proclaimed a “mechanics’ interest” with very new and, to some, dangerous class struggle ideas (Wilentz, 196, 197).
The impact of the Working Men on the political community has been aptly described as meteoric. They either elected candidates on the first try, as in New York City and several other cities, or achieved a balance of power on the second try, as in Philadelphia (Pessen, 1969: 210). Ebenezer Ford, a journeyman carpenter, was elected to the New York Assembly; two other candidates missed by only 23 and 26 votes respectively. The party’s constituency lived in the poorer or working class wards. Working Men’s Party candidates garnered 50 percent of the vote from the city’s five poorest wards, as opposed to only 20 percent in the wealthiest wards (Wilentz, 272). In an impressive first campaign, New York City’s labor party garnered a total of 6,000 of the 21,000 votes cast.
Despite the auspicious beginning, most Working Mens’ Parties disappeared within about five years. Numerous, sometimes conflicting, explanations have been offered for their demise. One of the most frequently cited was the openly hostile attitude of the establishment press and the inevitable frequent denunciation of the Working Men. The working class based criticisms of the problems besetting American society were found offensive by those accustomed to a more cheerful class neutral assessment. The labor party was subjected to unrelenting attack by men, newspapers and political parties possessing far more money, experience, and influence. The Boston Courier protested that, “The very pretension of such a party is a libel on the community” (Pessen, 1978: 275). Edward Everett further fulminated, “rich and poor alike, all are workmen, what need was there for a separate working men’s party?” (Pessen, 1978: 275).
Less frequently mentioned, but in all likelihood equally as influential was the economic depression of the 1830s. Economic hard times threatened to strangle the young trade union movement while still in its infancy. The surviving labor bodies devoted the bulk of their resources and energies into strikes and boycotts in order to achieve immediate material benefits for the membership (Karson, 4, 5). Political action suffered as a result.
Democratic Party co-optation of some of the issues initially popularized by the “workies” was also instrumental in the demise of the Working Men. The Jacksonian Democrats fundamentally were not pro-labor; they were a pro-business party. Democrats differed from the Whigs most notably in their devotion to a freer, more competitive capitalism (Pessen, 1967: 26, 27). Nonetheless, Democrats in New York, and elsewhere, hastily showed greater concern than ever before for the various reform proposals of the Working Men’s program. Especially co-optable was the “workies” antimonopoly position.
After the remarkable 1829 showing by the New York City labor party, the Democrats promised both to pass the lien law, for which the “workies” had been agitating, and to create a public school system. The Robert Dale Owen and George Henry Evans wing of the New York City Working Men’s Party, as a result, after 1830, was simply absorbed or assimilated into the Jacksonian coalition (Pessen, 1967: 24, 32, 33). Politically shrewd and adaptable, Tammany Hall Democrats made the milder of the “workies'” issues their own. The predominantly Democratic Party press in New York City promoted Jacksonian Democrats as “true friends” to the workers, and the only party strong enough to defeat the pro-monopoly opposition (Wilentz, 205, 206).
Lack of internal coherence also undermined the stability of the Working Men’s Parties. “Special pleaders,” the advocates of various Utopian-Socialist or agrarian panaceas promoted by the “free thinkers” of the era infiltrated the party after its dramatic electoral successes. While paying lip service to the party program, these elements had little sympathy with working class aspirations. The methods employed were the methods of party wreckers – the liberal use of money, intraparty intrigue, extra legal tactics, and newspaper excoriation (Pessen, 1967: 29; 1978: 275).
Though the formal existence of New York City’s Working Men’s Party continued into the decade of the 1830s, the labor party was destroyed on December 29, 1829, in a little less than an hour. The special pleaders packed the meeting hall with their middle class followers. The Committee of Fifty and their supporters, at first, were shouted down and then forcibly prevented from speaking. Only the mildest of the “workies” proposals from the previous October platform survived and those were stripped of all radical connotations. The revised Working Men’s Party, for example, vowed “not to propose to interfere with a man’s sacred right to … property” (Wilentz, 203, 204). In a single evening, the party of class conscious “workies” had been transformed into an entrepreneurial oriented middle class reformist party.
As the world’s first labor party, the Working Men’s Parties relative popularity provides indirect evidence that, even in an age dominated by “optimism, speculation and major party demagogy” (Pessen, 1978: 276) a significant number of workers were disenchanted with their society and its institutions and would respond to the “workies” class struggle appeal. The systemic criticism of the Working Men identified the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism as the problem. The wealth created by labor was being stolen by “financiers and employers” and given to an increasingly pampered property owning “aristocracy” (Wilentz, 207, 208). Defenders of the economic status quo in the Democratic Party found it politic to defer to this mood. Their basic tactic was to deflect the anger and resentment of the working class from these systemic criticisms and focus instead on the personal failings of “selfish” politicians.
Karson, Marc. American Labor Unions and Politics: 1900 -1918. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.
Pessen, Edward. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics. Homewood, IL: The Dorsey Press, 1978.
Pessen, Edward. Most Uncommon Jacksonians: The Radical Leaders of the Early Labor Movement. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1967.
Pessen, Edward, “The Working Men’s Party Revisited,” a chapter in Pessen, Edward, Editor. New Perspectives on Jacksonian Parties and Politics. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1969.
Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class,
1788-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.