William Sylvis: Advocate for a Labor Party and a Workers’ International

Part 3 of Comrade Stan Phipps’ series on labor parties in the United States

William Sylvis, like Sam Gompers and John L. Lewis, is widely recognized as the personification of the trade union federation of his era which was national in scope.  Some refer to Sylvis as the nation’s first “real labor leader” (Symes: 116) and the National Labor Union (NLU) as the first viable nation-wide labor federation.  However, unlike Gompers and Lewis, Sylvis sought to improve the status of the worker through the formation of a labor party and to increase labor’s power and strength through ties of international solidarity (Todes: 8).  He is distinctive, then, for his commitment to independent political action, international cooperation, and even an occasional reference to the possibility of violent revolution.  At other times, Sylvis advised seemingly opposite policies, lobbying the old parties, ‘pure and simple’ trade unionism, compulsory arbitration, and even the abolition of strikes (Grossman: 8).   The point is that Sylvis sought methods and tactics that would benefit the working class.  It was his experiences in the labor movement that led him to endorse a labor party and to  seek cooperation with the First International.

Born in southwestern Pennsylvania, Sylvis had known extreme poverty as a child.  He went to work at the tender age of 11 and in the 1840s found employment in the rapidly developing iron industry.  In 1857 he joined the Iron Molders’ Union, in which his dedication, energy, and imagination eventually carried him to the position of national president.  Economic change associated with the Civil War was a ‘bitter-sweet’ experience for labor.  Those trade unions which survived the depression of 1857, at first, were further demoralized by the first two years of the war.  By 1863, with the unemployed largely absorbed into the Union army and industry “humming” with war orders, the labor movement revived (Symes: 115).  Though jobs were plentiful, real wages fell sharply.  Prices increased by an estimated 100 per cent; the increment in wages lagged behind at only about 50 per cent (Todes: 52).  In the words of one labor editor of the time,  “An abundance of work and increased wages” were “sadly neutralized by the unprecedented high price of all the necessities of life” (Unger: 100).


William H. Sylvis. By unknown photographer. From book edited by James C. Sylvis. – Frontis illustration from James C. Sylvis (ed.), The life, speeches, labors and essays of William H. Sylvis. (Philadelphia: 1872)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30854751

‘Pure and simple’ trade unionism seemed plausible enough during war time.  Employers, unable to hire scabs and determined to avoid even a temporary work stoppage of  the highly profitable war time production, acceded to union demands for higher wages, shorter hours, union recognition and even collective bargaining agreements.  But easy victories for organized labor ceased with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.  Employer resistance hardened with the demobilization of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, the end of war orders, falling prices, and the recession of 1866-1868.  Labor militancy produced a wave of strikes and lockouts that ended disastrously for workers (Unger: 102).

Prosperity continued in the iron industry until 1867, when the general business downturn closed foundries and machine shops and stiffened the attitude of industrialists toward workers.  The next two years brought Sylvis’s Iron Molders’ Union a series of bitter defeats.  “Wages were cut, then cut again; strikes were smashed one after another; locals disbanded.”  Sylvis fought back and the union survived, though it never fully recovered (Unger: 104).

Despite his posture as a proponent of ‘pure and simple’ trade unionism during the war, Sylvis never fully accepted collective bargaining as the method which would achieve labor’s salvation.  He came to recognize that labor’s future rested on its ability to act as a decisive political force in national affairs, an ability which could not be achieved without first organizing labor nationally in virtually every branch of industry (Todes: 56).  Sylvis was neither original nor alone in these views.  Two other of the “leading spirits” behind the founding of the National Labor Union, Andrew  Cameron and Richard Trevillick, shared his views (Fine: 23, 24).

Cameron was especially influential in this regard.  A former printer, Cameron in 1864 founded the Workingman’s Advocate as the official organ of the Chicago Trades Assembly.  The first issue of the Advocate, which Cameron rather immodestly referred to as “the oldest and best newspaper devoted to the Interests of the People” (Grossman: 236), appeared in the middle of a lockout of typographers which ended in defeat for the union (Unger: 102).

In March 1865 Cameron wrote an editorial which pointed out the fallacy of accepting capitalism and attempting to soften it by trade union activities.  His solution was political organization in order to force both government and capital to recognize labor’s rights to protection and especially to shorter hours.   The next step in his thinking about labor politics was elicited in early 1866 when the Ohio legislature defeated a bill to establish an eight-hour work day.  In response, Cameron pledged that “from this day henceforth, the policy of the Advocate will be to aid in the formation of a Workingman’s Party, independent of either political faction” (Unger: 103).

The call to the August 1866 First Convention of the National Labor Union in Baltimore emphasized “agitation on the question of eight hours as a day’s labor,”  but was not limited to that.  The task of the convention was said to be to formulate “concerted and harmonious action upon all matters appertaining to the inauguration of labor reforms ” (Todes: 59).  The fundamental premise behind the founding of the NLU, then, was that labor’s salvation lay in political action.  Labor unity was a prerequisite for successful political action.  Undergirding the attempt at establishing a national federation of workers were some fundamental political assumptions such as:  bad laws could be changed, the ballot box was potentially stronger than an army, and education and agitation could translate to labor reforms (Grossman: 232).

Political action then was conceded to be a high priority for the NLU.  The immediate question at hand could be summed up as:  Which way forward for labor?  Those in favor of the “balance of power” theory proposed that workers’ votes tip the scales toward pro-labor candidates from the existing  political parties.  Others suggested that labor organize its own party and work independently for the men and measures in which labor believed.  For his part, William Sylvis grew ever more suspicious of both existing parties during the war.  In the 1864 mayoralty race in Philadelphia, he vowed, “I will vote against any man of any party who opposes the labor movement; and I consider it the duty of every working man to do the same” (Todes: 65).

Labor paper editors had traditionally questioned candidates of the old parties about labor issues and published their  replies.  Sylvis came to believe that the policy of throwing votes to support supposedly pro-labor men from the business parties was a mistake.  Crucial in this regard was labor’s recent experience in regard to legislation on the eight-hour day.  The lobbying efforts by labor and numerous “eight hour leagues” around the country resulted in the passage of  eight-hour laws by six state legislatures.  In the words of one labor editor, “[T]hey might as well have never been placed on the statute books, and can only be described as frauds on the laboring classes.”  The end result of the behind the scenes “wheeling and dealing”  by the “wily” politicians of the business parties was that the eight-hour provision would be enforced only “where there is no special contract or agreement to the contrary” (Fine: 27).   This “loophole” in the law allowed corporations to force workers to contract to work longer than eight hours as a condition of employment, thus nullifying labor’s intended purpose for the eight-hour legislation.

The demand for labor to repudiate the two old parties for their failure to deliver on the eight-hour day question was raised in the NLU’s inaugural convention by Edward Schlegel, a delegate representing Chicago’s German Workingman’s Association, and a protege of Joseph Wedemeyer (Todes: 60, 61; Grossman: 235).  One of the convention’s chief decisions was to form a national labor party, “the object of which shall be to secure the enactment of laws making eight hours a legal day’s work by the national congress and the state legislatures” (Fine: 26; Karson: 10).  To the objection that a labor party would be in the minority for the foreseeable future and thus unable to win elections, Schlegel responded, “A new party of the people must be in the minority when it first comes into action.  But what of that?  Time and perseverance will give us victory; and if we are not willing to sacrifice time and employ perseverance, we are not deserving of victory …. A new labor party must be formed” (Todes: 60,  61; Grossman 235).

Though Sylvis was ill and thus unable to attend NLU’s first convention, he was on record in opposition to  the “balance of power” politics strategy of labor.  In his view this expedient had proven to be a “vain and futile” strategy.  By 1866 Sylvis had concluded that labor’s attempts at forging a coalition with either the Democratic or Republican Party constituted a “history of broken promises and violated pledges” (Todes: 65, 66; Grossman: 234).  Cameron, for his part, had reached the identical conclusion.  In reviewing the recent legislative record at a Chicago mass meeting of 6,000 at a rally for the eight-hour day, the labor editor observed that “the legislation of the past had been the work of the capitalist and the legislation of the future, in order to accomplish the desired result, must be the product of representative men from the labor ranks” (Todes: 65).

Following his recuperation in 1867, William Sylvis toured the nation speaking for class-based political action on the part of labor.  He first warned workers in terms familiar to them that the working class must “keep clear of entangling alliances” in the world of politics.  Among the benefits ascribed to the labor party sought by the NLU would be the “fact that workingmen can vote for men of them and with them.”  In the “grand struggle for victory” outlined by Sylvis,  labor-based politics would permit workers to “know for whom and for what we voted.”  Genuine democracy, then, could flower as, “Every toiler would feel that he held his destiny in his own hands” (Todes: 66; Grossman: 234).

One of the chief impediments to the class-based political action desired by Sylvis and the NLU was the hold that traditional political loyalties had on the perceptions of  the workers.  Sylvis subjected old voting habits to ridicule and scorn in his addresses to working class audiences.   He began with a challenge to the partisan political traditions with the remark that “it too often happens that we lack the moral courage to sever our political associations.”  The Iron Molders’ Union president then pointed out how the old parties exploited the political loyalties of the workers as “hobbies upon whose shoulders aspiring demagogues ride themselves into power and place.”  The lack of  utility in the old voting habits was then directly pointed out with the query, “Let me ask you today to point out a single benefit that you have derived from your years of devotion any  particular party.  Not one of them ever put a loaf on your table, a pair of boots upon your feet, or a coat upon your back.” To the contrary, the political habits of the nation led to rule by “agents that never fail to close the door of promotion to us all.  The rich are promoted; the poor are excluded” (Todes: 68, 69; Grossman 235).

The political system which put workers last was then denounced in clear terms with the assertion  “our system of conducting elections has become so corrupt that none but the rich possess the means to purchase power and position.”  A class-based political response was pointed to as the solution to the political morass: “We are slaves not because we must be, but because we will be.”  Independent political action by labor was the method to once and for all end the dispiriting practice of “workingmen [being] wheedled and cajoled into supporting partisan favorites who dare not hazard a nomination by an act of political heterodoxy which might ‘injure the party.'”  This would all end when workers as a class “resolve to rule instead of being ruled; assert our rights instead of begging for them, and occupy that proud position which a republican form of government secures to majorities” (Todes: 58, 69; Grossman: 235).

Sylvis, clearly, was enthusiastic about the political perspective of the National Labor Union.  His primary difference with the national union was over the failure of the inaugural convention to authorize the grassroots work necessary to actually begin a labor party.  With the use of his favorite analogy, Sylvis compared the convention’s failure to the man who built “a splendid railroad track, placed upon it a locomotive complete in all its parts; provided an engineer and numerous assistants, placed them on the foot board, told them to go ahead and then suddenly adjourned without providing wood and water to get up steam” (Todes: 64).

On the other hand, an era marked by depression, strikes, and bankrupt unions meant that very little financial support was available to the National Labor Union.  Still the very depression that “emptied pocket books sharpened social perceptions” (Grossman: 225).  Sylvis represented the Iron Molders’ Union in 1867 at the Second Convention of the National Labor Union which agreed upon a list of demands entitled the “Second Declaration of Independence.” In addition to the eight-hour day and independent political action, monetary reform was added to the NLU’s program.

The concept of class-based political action by labor provoked a  response from the ruling elite.  Among the terms employed to discredit  the very idea of a labor party were “farcical,”  “demagogic,” “windy,” and “frothy.”  The editor of the New York Tribune  darkly warned that should workers succeed in constituting a new political party “they are likely to have more strength than they can possibly use” (Todes: 107).  Further, that the new labor party would likely bring into the political arena questions hitherto excluded, questions which were more vital, even, than eight-hour laws.  The corporate press apparently feared that a labor party would activate workers to demand legislation which would benefit labor and result in “ruinous agitation” (Todes: 107).

At the NLU’s third convention in 1868, Sylvis was the most conspicuous of the more than one hundred delegates, and he dominated the proceedings.  The National Labor Union had seemingly come of age as membership soared to new record levels.  William Sylvis was chosen as national president, and in the eyes of his contemporaries, the National Labor Union appeared to be crossing a threshold to a new era (Grossman: 226).  Sylvis, now  president of both the NLU and the Iron Molders, was convinced that labor’s advancement was dependent upon a government friendly to the needs of the worker.  But to enlist government aid labor would have to attain far greater unity than had up to that point been achieved.  From the beginning of his trade union career the “one-ness” of labor had been a cardinal principle with Sylvis (Grossman: 220).  A new organizing campaign was undertaken with the twin goals of promoting both the collective bargaining process and building a strong  membership base for political action.

In the process of union building, William Sylvis and the National Labor Union were compelled to confront the complications of gender and race and class in the United States.  Like most of his contemporaries, Sylvis carried a heavy burden of prejudice against both women and African-Americans.  He apparently accepted the patriarchal values of his age, which led him to conclude that women ought not to work outside of the home.  The best possible solution to the problem of women at work, in his view, would be to pay their fathers and husbands enough so that their wives and daughters could stay at home (Grossman: 227).

Sylvis later recognized that economic necessity compelled women to work, which led him to advocate the formation of women’s trade unions as vehicles for women to carry on the fight for improved status .   In time Sylvis moved the NLU to a rather advanced position on women’s rights.  The union advocated equal pay for equal work and the organization of women to achieve that goal and even championed the causes of both equal educational opportunities for women and equal suffrage (Todes: 79).  The woman question demonstrated Sylvis’s pragmatic  approach and his willingness to learn from his experiences in the labor movement.  He reasoned that unless women were organized there was a danger of a general depression of the wage scale to the level of the low wages generally paid to women.

In terms of political rights for women, Sylvis at first favored only a severely limited suffrage restricted to elections concerned with “moral” issues- Sunday labor, rum licenses, tobacco, and working hours.  But by 1867 he advocated universal suffrage for women.  He even prevailed in a fight against opponents of the suffrage movement in the NLU to seat Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a delegate in a union convention, not as the representative of a woman’s union, but as a women’s suffrage delegate.  Perhaps Sylvis’s crowning achievement for women’s equality within the union, however, was his appointment of Kate Mullaney as an officer and organizer of the National Labor Union (Grossman: 228, 229).

The blind spot in William Sylvis’s sense of the absolute necessity for complete labor solidarity was his lingering prejudice against the African-American worker.  Even as president of the National Labor Union, Sylvis took every opportunity to denigrate the intelligence and character of Black men.  Whatever his personal feelings, however, he understood that “the Negro working with labor was a source of strength and, conversely, the Negro working against labor a source of weakness.”  Sylvis’s greatest fear was that “if workmen of the white race do not conciliate the blacks, the blacks will vote against them” and serve as strike breakers.   He warned that “the negro will take possession of the shops, if we don’t take possession of the negro” (Grossman: 230, 231).  At first, he favored a separate Jim Crow Union for Blacks, a “colored” branch of the National Labor Union.  While he did not completely overcome his race-bias, Sylvis was consistent in demanding the white and Black workers unite in the same trade unions, and that the principle of equal pay for equal work prevail (Todes: 74, 75).

The  solidarity of labor on the international scale was also pursued by the NLU under the leadership of William Sylvis.  Karl Marx in 1864 established the International Workingmen’s Association (First International)  in London.  At about the same time that the NLU met in Baltimore for the American labor federation’s first convention, the inaugural World Congress of the First International was held in Geneva, Switzerland.  The issue linking the two meetings was advocacy of the eight-hour day.

Though the NLU did not send a delegate to the Workers’ International’s  First World Congress, the Baltimore convention did send fraternal greetings to the gathering in Geneva, which was identified as “the Central Organization of Labor in Europe” (Todes: 88).   Sylvis believed labor’s objective  interests to be the same everywhere and saw the potential for “beneficial results” accruing to labor in an alliance of trade union organizations throughout the world (Todes: 86).  One of the most basic benefits of establishing regular communication with the First International would be to undercut the ability of American capitalists to import increased numbers of European immigrant-laborers during periods of labor unrest and strikes in the U.S.  (Todes: 86).

Beyond short term pragmatic goals for a Workers’ International, Sylvis envisioned a world-wide labor alliance which would create a sense of unity and fraternalism among labor and ultimately bring about the world equalization of wages and economic opportunity.  A membership card in the First International, in Sylvis’s view,  would someday become the only passport a worker would need to be accepted in every trade of every nation on earth.  With such an alliance representing eight-tenths of the industrialized world, labor could “laugh” at the assumptions of the “avaricious” capitalists and successfully resist oppression (Grossman: 258; Todes: 87).

Sylvis proposed at the Second Convention NLU  in 1867 that the union send an agent to Europe to participate in the next scheduled meeting of the First International.  Richard Trevillick of Detroit, one of the leading organizers of the NLU, was elected as the official delegate to the Lausanne Congress of the First International.  However, because of the chronic money problems besetting the NLU, no funds were available to pay for the expenses involved in the trip (Todes: 89).  The vote by the union convention delegates, nonetheless, indicated a growing commitment to the importance of internationalism on the part of Sylvis and the labor federation.

What was perhaps Sylvis’s most coherent statement in regard to internationalism, though,  came in May of 1869 when war clouds threatened peace between the U.S. and Britain and the executive committee of the First International requested Sylvis to write a formal statement against the capitalists’ nationalistic war propaganda.  It is appropriate that it  be quoted extensively.

I am very happy to receive such kind words from our fellow-workingmen across the water; our cause is a common one.  It is a war between poverty and wealth.   In all parts of the word, labor occupies the same lowly position, capital is everywhere the same tyrant.  I, in behalf of the working people of the United States, extend to you, and through you to all those whom you represent and to all the downtrodden and oppressed sons and daughters of toiling Europe, the right hand of fellowship.  Go ahead in the good work you have undertaken until the most glorious success crowns your efforts!  That is our determination.  Our recent war has led to the foundation of the most infamous money aristocracy on the face of the earth.  This money power saps the very life of the people.  We have declared war upon it and we mean to win.  If we can, we will win through the ballot box; if not, we shall resort to sterner measures.  A little blood-letting is necessary in desperate cases (Symes: 116, 117; Todes: 92, 93; Grossman: 259).

Under Sylvis’s leadership of the NLU, the dream of international cooperation very nearly became a reality.  Andrew Cameron, Sylvis’s close friend and co-editor of the NLU’s official paper, the Workingman’s Advocate, was sent as a delegate to the 1869 Basle Congress of the First International.  He received a warm reception.  “Cameron was introduced to the convention in three languages, embraced by the president and cheered again and again by the delegates” (Grossman: 259).  Despite Sylvis’s obvious intent, there was no formal affiliation of the National Labor Union with the First International.  The closest the American unionists came to formal affiliation was an 1870 resolution which expressed the intent of affiliation “at no distant date” (Todes:  90).

Sylvis’s untimely death on July 27, 1869, not only eliminated the likelihood of formal affiliation with the existing Workers’ International, but led to a dearth of working class leadership for the NLU.  Not yet 41 years old, Sylvis had an international reputation as an excellent organizer, a champion of independent political action, and as the most effective president in the short history of the National Labor Union.  He had many jobs and did them all well, but at the price of undermining his health.  Sylvis had often broken under the strain.  At the heighth of his success as a labor leader, he was nearing physical collapse.  On July 22, 1869, William Sylvis complained of feeling sick and went home to rest.  The diagnosis was severe inflammation of the bowels, but his physician anticipated recovery.  By the third day of his illness, it was clear that Sylvis was near death (Grossman: 262, 263).

His death “cast a veil of despondency upon the entire working class.”  Union halls around the nation were draped in black.  The Workingman’s Advocate was published with black borders.  Labor paper editors called Sylvis’s death  a “National Calamity.”  Cameron paid tribute to Sylvis from  Basle, “He was of all leaders the most qualified to organize and consolidate labor …. Cut off in the very zenith of his fame … his loss is almost irreparable” (Grossman: 264).  Karl Marx wrote to the National Labor Union executive board, “The sad tidings that death has so unexpectedly and prematurely removed your honored and able president, William H. Sylvis … from among  you … have filled us with indefatigable grief and sorrow” (Grossman: 265).

Under the leadership of Richard Trevillick, Sylvis’s successor as president of the NLU,  in 1871 the Labor Reform Party was founded.  To a degree, this was the labor party  which Sylvis had advocated since 1866.  Yet with the death of Sylvis, Trevillick was the lone voice on the party’s executive board with a working-class, as opposed to a middle-class background.   This Labor Party would nominate a candidate and write a platform in the 1872 election, but would face the problem that every labor and farmer party must face – the selection of a suitable candidate to head the ticket and an issue capable of winning the support of the uncommitted voters.  The Labor Reform Party would attempt to unify farmers and workers by emphasizing monetary reform proposals which were known by the evocative name – “Greenbacker.”  Labor’s political action, when it began, was in a coalition with agrarian radicals united in the cause of monetary and fiscal reform.  In addition to the eight-hour day this was the most appropriate issue for the NLU supporters to advocate, as Sylvis had added the demand for a “just monetary system” to  the NLU’s platform in 1867.  William Sylvis had positioned the National Labor Union as one of the most articulate proponents for a “people’s currency.”

Works Cited

Fine, Nathan.  Labor and Farmer Parties in the United States, 1828-1928.  New York: Russel & Russel, 1961.
Goodwyn, Richard.  The Populist Moment:  A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America.
New York:  Oxford University Press, 1978.
Grossman, John Philip.  William Sylvis:  Pioneer of American Labor.  New York: Octagon
Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.
Karson, Marc.  American Labor Unions and Politics, 1900-1918.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1958.
Nash, Howard P.  Third Parties in American Politics.  Washington, D.C.:  Public Affairs Press,  1959.
Rochester, Anna.  The Populist Movement in the United States.  New York: International
Publishers, 1943.
Unger, Irwin.  The Greenback Era:  A Social and Political History of American         Finance, 1865-1879.  Princeton, N.J.:  Princeton University Press, 1964.

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