Co-op City

On May 7, 1849, William Charles Macready, the famous British actor, opened in Macbeth at the Astor Opera House. Macready did not go over well with many in the audience, who greeted him with wild hissing and a hail of rotten eggs. He did, to be sure, have his supporters, who cried, “Shame, shame!” cheered, and waved handkerchiefs. But Macready’s opponents responded relentlessly with loud groans, cries of “Down with the codfish aristocracy!” and a barrage of potatoes, apples, lemons, and copper coins. The remainder of the first act and all of the second proceeded in “dumb show,” the actors pantomiming their lines rather than trying to make themselves heard over the din. But then the crowd escalated. They howled and stomped on the newly installed red plush chairs, then hurled one from the second tier into the orchestra, whose occupants promptly fled. That did it for Macready. Escaping out the back door, he promptly and indignantly announced his intention to take the next steamship back to England and civilization.

Theater riots were commonplace in New York, and Bennett’s Herald was not alone in dismissing the affair as innocent and customary; an attorney would later note that “the right of hissing an actor has been exercised from time immemorial.” In the theater, consumers were sovereigns, their riotous displeasure attended to instantly. The May 7 affair was unusual, and about to get a good deal more so.

The objections to Macready went far beyond his acting style, though that was part of it. Macready had adopted a subdued, scholarly, genteel approach to his art, particularly in Shakespearean performances. He disdained vulgarity and wanted to elevate acting to the status of refined profession. Edwin Forrest, the great American tragedian worshiped by New York’s working-class theatergoers, had a very different method. His was a muscular, histrionic style that matched the demands of Bowery melodrama. Forrest specialized, moreover, in playing superpatriotic yeoman heroes who fought tyrants (domestic and foreign) and rescued helpless women. Like Mose, he incarnated b’hoydom’s self-image.

These contesting styles soon blossomed into personal animosity. Macready had let it be known that he thought Forrest lacked “taste.” Forrest, during a tour of Britain in 1846, had loudly hissed Macready in midperformance. The ensuing feud had been eagerly followed by the penny press, which showcased the combatants as it did pugilists and politicians. When Macready came to the states again, Forrest inflamed the rivalry by playing in competing productions during his tour, which culminated in New York City.

The contest had more serious overtones. The actors, in the popular imagination, were stand-ins for larger and more explosive issues. Macready was strongly identified with England and its aristocracy, at just the moment when New York’s Irish were at the height of their rage over the famine and Britain’s suppression of Young Ireland’s rebellion. When Forrest, at his own May 7 performance of Macbeth at the Broadway Theater, spoke Macbeth’s line “What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug will scour these English hence?” the entire audience rose and cheered for many minutes.

Boweryites were even more furious about the theater chosen for Macready’s performance, the recently erected Astor Opera House. Its founders’ intention of creating an exclusive atmosphere—the dress code stipulated “freshly shaven faces, evening dress, fresh waistcoats, and kid gloves”—were well known and vehemently objected to by Boweryites. As a minstrel songwriter put it in 1849: “De Astor Opera is anoder nice place; / If you go thar, jest wash your face! / put on your ‘kids,’ and fix up neat, / For dis am de spot of de eliteet!”

“De spot” itself was provocative. During the recent metropolitan expansion, two parallel avenues had been driving north, constituting the cultural spines of two different class worlds. On the west: Broadway, with its retail shops, department stores, monster hotels, and porpoise-parade of the fashionable. On the east: the Bowery, the thoroughfare of sportsmen, dandies, gangsters, and fire laddies. The thoroughfares, however, were not exactly parallel. At one point—Astor Place, just south of Union Square—the two avenues, and worlds, collided. And at just that point of convergence, capping it and in a sense claiming it, entrepreneurs had erected a splendid opera house for the exclusive enjoyment of the Broadway world’s most self-proclaimedly aristocratic segment.

It was the combination of the “English” Macready and the “aristocratic” opera house that had so aroused the ire of native American and Irish immigrant alike, but it was not these animosities that made the May 7 affair (and its explosive aftermath) remarkable. What made this fracas different was the response of the city’s upper classes.

They were not amused. Against the frightening backdrop of the 1848 European revolutions and the alarmingly autonomous politics and culture of New York’s working-class quarters, the theater riot no longer seemed innocent. It appeared to signal a new aggressiveness, a willingness to break out of the Bowery world and invade Broadway’s. The elite had built an institution behind whose august portals they could take refuge from the vulgarity of the streets. Now a senseless mob had violated their inner sanctum. The barbarians were at—indeed well past—the gates. It was too much. It was time to act. It was time to draw a line and say thus far and no farther.

Forty-seven of the city’s most prominent citizens sent Macready a joint letter urging him to return to the opera house stage. They assured him “that the good sense and respect for order prevailing in this community will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performance.” Macready agreed. Then they published the letter in the papers. Their gauntlet thus thrown down, they set about assembling the firepower necessary to sustain their challenge. They turned to the newly elected Whig mayor, Caleb S. Woodhull, and insisted he protect the lawful rights and personal liberty of actor Macready.

At a City Hall meeting on the morning of Thursday, May 10, with Macready scheduled to reappear that evening, Police Chief Matsell informed Mayor Woodhull that he lacked the force to quell a serious riot. Terrified of chaos on his second day in office, the mayor ordered General Charles Sandford, commander of the military forces in New York City, to have his men ready in Washington Square Park. Sandford called out two hundred of the elite’s crack militia, the Twenty-seventh Regiment—since 1847 renumbered and renamed as the Seventh Regiment—along with two troops of horse, one troop of light artillery, and two companies of hussars, 350 men altogether. In addition, 150 police were placed inside the theater and another hundred on its perimeter; still more were dispatched to guard nearby homes of the wealthy.

The Bowery responded to the challenge. Captain Isaiah Rynders swung into action. Forrest’s most ardent backer, the man who had distributed tickets to barroom habitues and mobilized hundreds more for the initial May 7 affair, and the Tammany stalwart who had made a career out of exploiting resentment against the social and cultural elite, Rynders now salivated at the chance to embarrass the new Whig administration. Devising a handbill, he had copies printed, delivered to a Park Row tavern, and then distributed to runners, who on Wednesday, May 9, posted them at saloons and eateries throughout the city. “SHALL AMERICANS or ENGLISH RULE IN THIS CITY?” it demanded to know, and it called on all workingmen to “express their opinions this night at the ENGLISH ARISTOCRATIC OPERA HOUSE!” It was signed by the “American Committee,” a group headed by Rynders’s chief assistant, Ned Buntline, author the previous year of Myster-ies and Miseries of New York, saga of a city riven along class lines.

Tickets to the performance, along with marching orders, were handed out to assorted b’hoys at Jim McNulty’s saloon, on the corner of Chatham Square and Dover Street. By show(down) time, Rynders’s activists were in place, under Judson’s field management, and thousands more had turned out to watch or participate; the majority were native born, but there was a considerable minority of Irish immigrants—butchers and laborers united in mutual Anglo-aristophobia.

Tight security screened out many of Rynders’s ticket holders, and their yells about discrimination against those who didn’t have “kid gloves and a white vest, damn ‘em!” merged with the general roar. The play commenced promptly at 7:30. Anti-Macready forces as promptly disrupted it. The actors went into dumb-show mode while police made their way through the audience, seizing and arresting protestors.

Outside, the crowd, now grown to ten thousand, began hurling paving stones, which smashed through the windows and sailed into the audience. Massing their ranks, the crowd rammed at the doors, intent on breaking in. The police, way out of their depth, called on the militia for support, which arrived at 9:15 P.M. and took up positions. The crowd pressed forward, wrestling with the militia. Matsell warned the crowd that force would be used, a notification drowned out by enraged voices crying, “Burn the damned den of the aristocracy!” One fellow in a red flannel shirt bared his breast, screaming, “Fire, fire you damned sons of bitches; you durs’n’t fire, you durs’n’t fire.” But they did, first in the air, then directly into the bodies massed in front of them. Moving up Astor Place, they discharged several more volleys, working relentlessly now to clear the area.


Soldiers fire on rioters outside the Astor Place Theater, May 10, 1849. Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

When it was over, eighteen of the crowd lay dead, none of them Rynders’s men, most bystanders. Four more would die within the week. Over 150 were wounded or injured, and 117 were arrested, mostly workingmen: coopers, printers, butchers, carpenters, servants, sailmakers, machinists, clerks, masons, bakers, plumbers, and laborers. Of the twenty-two killed, seven were Irish laborers.

Friday, May 11, the day after the riot, the streets bristled with a display of civilian and military power: a thousand special deputies, two thousand infantry, a squadron of cavalry, four troops of horse artillery. Handbills went up around town calling for a mass rally at City Hall Park that evening, and at six P.M. an enraged crowd cheered speakers who condemned the mayor, police, and military. Rynders declared that mass murder had been perpetrated “to please the aristocracy of the city at the expense of the lives of inoffensive citizens—to please an aristocratic Englishman backed by a few sycophantic Americans. (Loud cries of indignation.)” Mike Walsh called for a murder prosecution, told the crowd to arm itself in future frays and said that only his high respect for the law restrained him from urging the crowd to emulate their European counterparts and mount the barricades. Several thousand auditors boiled out of the park, roaring for vengeance, and marched up to Astor Place to confront the troops again. They hurled stones from behind hastily erected barricades, but the militia leveled their muskets, fixed bayonets, and charged, and the crowd dispersed. The June Days were not to be replayed in Manhattan. Not yet.

The danger passed, the gentry rejoiced. The old Whig warhorse James Watson Webb applauded the troops in his Courier and Enquirer and underscored a larger message the bloody affair had delivered: “The promptness of authorities in calling out the armed forces and the unwavering steadiness with which the citizens obeyed the order to fire upon the assembled mob, was,” Webb declared, “an excellent advertisement to the Capitalists of the old world, that they might send their property to New York and rely upon the certainty that it would be safe from the clutches of red republicanism, or chartists, or communionists [sic] of any description.”

Some tender-hearted souls looked askance at the use of force—surely republics didn’t do this sort of thing! The Democratic Review noted that more lives had been lost than in many of the Mexican War battles in which b’hoys had served as volunteers. Nathaniel Parker Willis, of all people, noted in his upperten Home Journal that the riot was a protest “from Mose and the soap-lock-ery” against “aristocratizing the pit” and suggested the rich “be mindful where its luxuries offend.”

Future entertainment entrepreneurs would follow Willis’s advice, especially once the opera house itself proved a casualty of the affair. Burlesque shows were soon calling it the “Massacre Opera House” at “DisAster Place”; when it reopened in September, attendance was dismal, and it was eventually sold off. The upper classes relocated their sanctum a bit farther north, to the more defensible precincts of Union Square. In 1853 Moses H. Grinnell (a staunch Macready supporter) and others formed a corporation to build the Academy of Music at 14th Street and Irving Place. Embodying the grandest metropolitan ambitions, it was the largest opera hall in the world when it opened in 1854. Like the ill-fated Astor, it boasted a plush interior and a small number of private boxes. But in a manifest bit of caution, enhanced by the need to fill the space, many of the four thousand seats were priced inexpensively, and management forswore all claims to aristocratic exclusiveness, insisting rather that its mission now was to cultivate taste and knowledge among the citizenry at large.

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, however, Judge Charles Patrick Daly, who presided over the trial of those arrested, pushed hard for their conviction, to serve notice that the old republican acceptance of crowd actions as inevitable, even legitimate, even functional, had come to a definitive end. Judson, convicted, got a year in jail and was treated as a hero on his release. Rynders got off with the help of attorney John Van Buren, the former president’s son, a sign from Tammany that the party would look after its own.

What was clear to all concerned was that the Astor Place affair signaled (in the Herald’s words) a “collision between those who have been styled the ‘exclusives,’ or ‘upper ten,’ and the great popular masses.” It was left to a reporter from Philadelphia to sum up the newly hardened positions. The riot, he wrote, “leaves behind it a feeling to which this community has hitherto been a stranger—an opposition of classes—the rich and the poor—white kids and no kids at all; in fact, to speak right out, a feeling that there is now, in our country, in New York City, what every good patriot has hitherto felt it his duty to deny—a high class and a low class.”

The riot at Astor Place, a frenzied challenge to the cultural authority of New York’s nascent bourgeoisie, was swiftly followed by a far more disciplined attack on its right to set the city’s economic agenda. Since at least the 1820s—the heyday of Thomas Skidmore, Fanny Wright, and the Workingmen’s Party—plebeian New Yorkers had been fashioning analyses and programs to contest the degradation of their working and living conditions. Now another upheaval got underway, rooted in prior protests but boosted by thousands of feisty immigrant agitators who contributed their own radical traditions and energies. Laissez-faire polemics, it turned out, were not the only ideas capable of crossing the Atlantic.


One way to improve the quality of life in New York Gty, said the “land reformers,” was to get a lot of New Yorkers to leave town. Given the vast numbers surging into what was still an overwhelmingly rural continent, this approach had many advocates, but the leading tribune was George Henry Evans. The old workingmen’s spokesman of the 1830s had retreated to a New Jersey farm during the depression era, where he pondered the work of Tom Paine and Thomas Skidmore. Evans became convinced that labor’s problems, at home and work, were chiefly due to its swollen ranks. A surplus of workers allowed bosses to dictate low wages; a surplus of people seeking shelter allowed landlords to extract high rents. It followed that moving substantial numbers from city to country would improve the lot of those who stayed behind as well as those who departed. The chief obstacle, as Evans saw it, was that landlords—often large speculative companies based in New York City—were hogging the public domain out west.

The solution was to use labor’s political power to break the grip of land monopolists as President Jackson had broken the reign of bank monopolists. In 1844 Evans organized the National Reform Association, whose slogan was “Vote Yourself a Farm.” The idea was to give publicly owned land to actual settlers, free of charge, while barring speculators and absentee landlords. The government—crucially—would also subsidize construction of republican villages and build government-owned railroads to get settlers to them.

Immigrant radicals also liked land reform. In 1840 Thomas Ainge Devyr, who had been a leader of the Chartist movement in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, escaped to Brooklyn, where he began agitating for free public land grants, government-owned railroads, and laws restricting wealth and landownership, and in 1844 linked up with Evans’s National Reformers.

Evans and Devyr were soon joined by Hermann Kriege, a Westphalian journalist and member of the outlawed Communist Bund der Gerechten (which later would publish the Communist Manifesto). Kriege arrived in New York in 1845 and formed the Sozialreformassoziatin (Social Reform Association), which drew nearly a thousand members, making it the city’s leading verein. The SRA soon had its own newspaper, the Volks-Tribun, and a Social Reform Halle on Grand Street that would remain one of Kleindeutschland’s most important public meeting places for decades to come. Kriege backed Evans’s free-land-for-settlers campaign, and soon land reform societies had germinated in New York and cities across the country. This popular demand for access to western lands partly accounts for the enthusiasm with which many New York workers greeted imperial expansion into Mexico and Oregon.1

For most city workers, however, garnering western lands at gunpoint, while perhaps symbolically satisfying, remained basically irrelevant. Without government support—as yet nowhere in sight—escape to the West was utterly impractical. Indeed some critics, who believed emigration schemes sidestepped rather than confronted New York’s housing problems, proposed tackling the land issue in the city itself. Mike Walsh, the Irish Protestant editor of the Subterranean (and Evans’s sometimes ally), believed that urban crowding was “the cause of more vice and misery, more suffering in every way, sickness, debauchery, seduction, assaults, and even murder, than all other causes put together.” But rather than blasting western monopolists, Walsh took aim at the most powerful landlords in New York City: Trinity Church and John Jacob Astor. Walsh declared Astor a “worthless wealthy drone” whose rent extortions amounted to a “legalized system of plunder,” and Trinity’s property, Walsh wrote in 1845, should be confiscated for public use, beginning with St. John’s Park. To encourage the Common Council to action, he blazed a direct action trail by climbing over the park’s fence and tramping on forbidden ground.

Astor’s death in 1848 at the age of eighty-five provoked others to pointed commentary. Bennett reprinted Astor’s will on the Herald’s front page and charged that at least half the estate’s enormous value was unearned. It was, rather, a by-product of the general rise in the value of New York City real estate, which in turn was due primarily to improvements effected by the city’s working people. Yet the millionaire’s legacy—apart from a bequest of four hundred thousand dollars for an Astor Library—passed not to New Yorkers in general but to Astor’s family, creating in the process a most unrepublican dynasty. Greeley took the occasion to propose limiting individual ownership of city land to a thousand acres. He also urged passage of an income tax law, on the grounds that it had been unjust for city government “to protect Mr. Astor’s houses, lands, ships, stocks, etc.,” without having exacted recompense from him commensurate to his income.

Such demands, which already transgressed the bounds of the politically possible, paled next to those promulgated by the Tenant League. In February 1848, with landlords cashing in on economic recovery and immigrant desperation, Irish radicals and native land reformers established what they hoped would become a citywide organization of wage-earning tenants. Its goal, they declared, was to attack the “system of landlordism” as “one of the most blighting curses that ever was inflicted on the human race.” Specifically, the Tenant League called on the legislature to limit landlord profit from rents to 7 percent of the property’s assessed valuation, guarantee security of possession to tenants who paid their “legal rents,” impose a city tax of 3 percent on all unimproved lots (to discourage owners from keeping them off the market for speculative purposes), and halt the incorporation of building companies, which allowed combinations of capitalists to oppress the poor.

Picking up on Evans’s ideas but applying them locally, the Tenant League urged New York City to sell its public “common lands” only to those who did not already own other lots; this would allow urban “homesteaders” to build their own houses on city soil. The league also asked the legislature to forbid the renting of cellar apartments and the building of rear houses that left no part of the lot uncovered. It called for repeal of the northward extension of the fire limits, calling it a “scheme of speculators” to push Irish shanty dwellers off leased land. It denounced Moving Day—still going strong—as a landlord trick to raise rents each May. It formed lodgers’ leagues and kept track of land­lords who evicted tenants and charged high rents, creating a counterpart to the landlords’ blacklist of delinquent tenants. Finally, it demanded the city establish a housing code and oversee landlord compliance.

The Tenant League proposals, which flew in the face of laissez-faire ideology and the interests of the wealthy, proved beyond the ability of the radicals to organize. There would be no direct collective confrontation by tenants of landlord power in this era. Poor people unable to keep up with burgeoning rents settled for individual but achievable tactics—fleeing without paying, or searching out ever more squalid quarters. But ideas like rent control and taxation of speculative profits had been placed on the metropolitan agenda. They’d be back.


In the meantime, the working-class quarters were afire with even more startling challenges to the metropolitan status quo. For decades Europe had been buzzing with a variety of “socialist” notions, nowhere more so than in Paris, where Charles Fourier’s sweeping indictment of capitalist civilization as one based on fraud, waste, and exploitation resonated widely. So did his proposal that dissenters should withdraw into cooperative communities—“phalanxes,” he called them—that would be the seeds of an alternative society.

Fourierism had reached New York during the panic years, courtesy of Albert Brisbane. The idealistic son of a wealthy upstate merchant and landowner, Brisbane was no intellectual; he always looked, said Whitman, “as if he were attempting to think out some problem a little too hard for him.” But if his versions of Fourier’s teachings were glib, he promulgated them with tremendous energy and swiftly won a crucial convert in Horace Greeley. During 1842 and 1843, the editor gave Brisbane regular access to the Tribune’s front page and added his own explanations and plaudits for Fourierism.

Horace Greeley was no socialist. A staunch Whig, he was convinced that capitalist growth would eventually benefit the working-class, that the interests of employers and employees were ultimately hi harmony, and that strikes raised the specter of class conflict and should be vigorously opposed. But Greeley was not prepared to dismiss depression-spawned misery as an inevitable by-product of the free market, and he refused to root the plight of wage-earners in their own moral deficiencies. Greeley reported so regularly on foul conditions in the capitalizing trades that his archrival, Bennett, took him to task in the Herald for “eternally harping on the misery, destitution and terrible sufferings of the poor of this city.”

It was, however, primarily from the middling classes that Greeley and Brisbane won most support—from people who concurred with their analysis of the negative impact of the “system of Free Competition” on life in the city. Charles Dana, Greeley’s assistant, deplored its economic fallout (“periodical crises and bankruptcies”), its psychological repercussions (“killing cares, harassing anxieties, hopes blasted, and unforeseen reverses and ruin”), and its ethical iniquity (fostering selfishness and duplicity). Most alarming was its tendency to concentrate economic and political power in fewer and fewer hands. Fourier had predicted that capitalism would lead to “Commercial and Industrial Feudalism,” with producers in bondage to large corporations and banking houses. His American disciples pointed to New York City, with its “ascendancy of a monied oligarchy and a commercial feudality” and attendant “degradation of the laboring classes,” as clear vindication of the master’s theories.

Greeley didn’t buy Fourier’s solutions, but he did believe that a moderate version, dubbed Associationalism, would sort out the problems of capitalist society without impinging on property rights or fueling class resentments. If artisans simply pooled their talents and money and established cooperative workshops, they could control their working conditions, retain the profits of their labor, preserve republican traditions of mutuality, and still survive in the larger free market economy.

As promulgated by middle-class activists, Associationalism drew some modest support from urban mechanics—a band of Brooklyn artisans organized the first American phalanx—and the city’s most effective cooperative was established by professional musicians. In 1842 the men who played in local theaters created the New York Philharmonic, a self-governing and profit-sharing orchestra. The Philharmonic, significantly, was 42 percent German at its inception, a percentage that leapt to nearly three-quarters with the arrival of revolutionary exiles, who brought with them not only a proclivity for cooperatives but considerable experience in their formation.

When Louis Philippe abdicated in February of 1848, the Parisian working class, so instrumental in his overthrow, won establishment of a Second Republic with adult male suffrage. But socialist (or “red”) republicans like Louis Blanc had pressed for more profound changes, including a guaranteed “right to work” in government-backed “cooperative” workshops. Blanc’s message had wide appeal in 1848. The provisional government emptied Clichy prison of debtors and converted it to a cooperative association in which some two thousand tailors made uniforms for the new national guard. Soon saddlers, spinners, cabinetmakers, masons—eventually more than 120 Parisian trades—had formed nearly three hundred production cooperatives, which collectively enrolled some fifty thousand members. Some were brilliantly successful, others failed miserably, but all alarmed the moderate republican leadership and horrified the bourgeoisie. Few co-ops long survived the terrible “June Days” when barricades went up and workers battled the army until being crushed in fighting that killed or injured over ten thousand.

When the refugees from this and other upheavals poured into New York City, among then- ranks was Wilhelm Weitling, a German tailor. Like thousands of his mobile countrymen, Weitling had spent time in Paris learning the skills of his trade and the language of socialism and had fought on the barricades in forty-eight. Now, in Manhattan, he proposed that New York workers create producer cooperatives, which would in turn sell their goods to a worker-run Trade-Exchange Bank. Co-op workers would be paid in paper money, valid in worker-run stores and warehouses, which would sell both finished products and raw materials. The profits gained from cutting out capitalists and middlemen would be plowed back into expanding the cooperative sector until, eventually, competitive capitalism would be superseded by a cooperative commonwealth. As vehicles for this transformation, Weitling launched the Arbeiterbund (Workers League) in 1849 and a newspaper called Die Republik der Arbeiter (Worker’s Republic) the following year.

Weitling’s initiatives resonated in New York’s German community, where most people, whatever their politics, were culturally predisposed toward organizations. British radicals, too, were familiar with producers’ cooperatives, which had been established in the north of England, and natives had already been inspired by the associationist and Fourierist movement of the mid-1840s.

Among the most powerful and militant groups to get behind the idea was the Turnverein—the gymnastics society—which combined a passion for physical culture with socialist activism. Thousands of Turners had fought in the 1848 uprisings. Now, as refugees, they formed the New Yorker Socialistischen Turnverein, whose newspaper, the Turn-Zeitung, promoted a wide range of radical programs, including Weitling’s. Together with English Chartists, Irish nationalists, and American Associationalists, the Germans set to work establishing cooperatives, and soon Manhattan blossomed with associations of tailors, cabinetmakers, upholsterers, cigarmakers, confectioners, shipwrights, bakers, shoemakers, and grocers.

In addition, the activists combined cooperative formation with labor organizing. In 1850, inspired by the ongoing degradation of the trades and by an inflationary spiral touched off by an influx of California gold that sent prices and rents climbing, newcomers and old-timers alike resurrected New York City’s union movement, all but demolished by the 1837-43 depression. (The Turn-Zeitung ran a series of historical articles informing readers about the 1830s labor movement in their adopted city.) This combination of resurgent unionism and militant cooperationism touched off an “uprising”—replete with mass rallies, marches on City Hall, and some bloody confrontation with the forces of order—that in a very modest way echoed the stormy June Days of Paris.


In March 1850 German cabinetmakers fanned out through the working-class wards, posting handbills in immigrant boardinghouses calling for a union and a strike. In short order two thousand had walked off work, marched around the laboring districts in grand parades, and forced many masters to increase wages and change work rules. By April unions had blossomed in almost every trade. Greeley reported on their meetings—the just-minted New-York Printers Union elected him its president—and promoted the new cooperatives as well. Weitling too was everywhere, giving speeches, penning exhortations in the Republik der Arbeiter. By month’s end he had brokered formation of a Central Commission of the United German Trades, comprised of seventeen unions representing forty-five hundred members.

The Irish community’s dander was up too. Irish tailors and hatters flocked to labor organizations or organized them where they didn’t exist. Irishmen were prominent in initiatives by blacksmiths, boilermakers, porters, shoemakers, and construction workers. The Irish-American came out for co-ops, declaring that “the principles of Association, can, alone” better the conditions of labor. Unskilled workers took the biggest steps forward. Back in 1843 Irish builders had helped establish the Laborers Union Benevolent Association, New York’s first mutual aid society by and for the unskilled. By 1850 it had enlisted over six thousand workers—many of them famine refugees, many with organizational skills honed in battling landlords. By far the largest organization of wage earners in the city, it supported the striking craft workers and called its own men out on behalf of higher wages and an end to the sweating system in the building trades.

Bosses and businessmen were convinced this upheaval was the work of outside agitators—Bennett’s Herald blamed the “vast importations of foreign socialists”—and indeed the overseas influence was decisive. But these “alien” ideas had local analogues. It was, after all, the “American” Brotherhood of the Union that in 1850 denounced the competition fostered by “capitalists, monopolists and tyrants” as tending to “divide, distract, and degrade Labor, and render the laborer and the mechanic a mere tool of those whose only God is Gold.”

During the upheaval, workers strove with considerable success to overcome national divisions. Many remembered 1846, when five hundred Irish laborers at the new Atlantic Docks had struck for an eighty-seven-cent hour and a ten-hour day, only to be replaced by greenhorn Germans provided to boss stevedores by the elite German Society, to the fury of German workers. Cabinetmakers issued their constitution in German, French, and English versions (“for the accommodation of all nations”) and conducted proceedings in several languages. German shoemakers forbade members to scab on their English brethren and adopted parallel wage demands. In virtually none of these cases, however, did labor ecumenicism stretch far enough to embrace African Americans or women.

New York’s white male workers of the world united more formally on June 5, 1850, when eighty-three delegates, representing seventy unions and twenty-eight reform groups, formed the Industrial Congress. The new organization sought an eight-hour day, a minimum wage on public works projects, and direct city hiring of workers rather than the use of private contractors. It also backed the land reformers’ initiatives, favoring a homestead law to open the West and a housing law at home to oversee construction and inspection of tenements to ensure they met appropriate standards of public health. Industrial Congress delegates also urged the municipal government to foster cooperatives, establish a labor exchange, and build reading rooms and public baths throughout the city. Such demands would remain at the core of New York’s labor movement for the remainder of the century.

The Industrial Congress also supported embattled strikers. On July 10, 1850, a mass meeting of German, Irish, and American tailors proposed a scale of prices, and on the fifteenth some nine hundred tailors turned out to enforce it. On July 22 three hundred strikers, most Germans, marched to the Nassau Street offices of Longstreet and Company, one of New York’s largest clothing manufacturers, a firm notorious for low wages and antiunionism. A brawl ensued. Police waded in with nightsticks and arrested the strikers. Organized labor swung into action. On the twenty-seventh thousands swarmed to City Hall Park for a rally. Radicals and unionists denounced the police (“We did not expect to find in this free country a Russian police,” declared the Central Committee), and the Industrial Congress started a campaign to boycott any clothing firm that rejected the tailors’ bill of prices. At another City Hall rally, on August 3, some went farther and called for a general strike. If butchers and bakers were to cut off supplies, “then the aristocrats will all starve,” one militant argued, for “they are the drones and the idlers.”

On August 4 three hundred German tailors marched to 38th Street and Ninth Avenue, where strikebreaking subcontractors were at work. There, according to the Staats-Zeitung, police attacked the tailors; according to English papers, tailors ransacked the nonunion outfit. All agreed that a melee ensued, in which two tailors were killed and dozens severely wounded. Thirty-nine unionists were convicted of rioting and dispatched to prison. For the first time in U.S. history, urban American workers had died at the hands of the forces of order in a trade dispute. The event only outraged and strengthened the strikers. By month’s end almost every employer had come to terms with the union, and three thousand German and Irish tailors had formed a Cooperative Union Tailoring Establishment.

But this would be cooperation’s high-water mark. Marx and Engels—Weitling’s opponents in the European radical wars—had derided such efforts as Utopian wishful thinking, and in New York, certainly, their tough-minded analysis proved correct. Businessmen attacked cooperative shops as the opening wedge of socialism. Wholesalers refused to buy their goods. Banks denied them capital or credit. The legislature wouldn’t grant co-ops the legal protections it afforded corporations, leaving individual members liable for collective losses. And with artisan-run shops unwilling to slash their own pay to subsistence levels, they were unable to compete with capitalists willing and able to exploit cheap immigrant outworkers.

By 1852 such obstacles had become evident to all, and mass defections produced a general collapse. Those co-ops that survived did so by accepting individualistic approaches. The one thousand members of Industrial Home Owners Society Number One (1849), determined to escape the orbit of Manhattan land monopolists, bought a 367-acre tract in Westchester County along the New Haven Railroad line, divided up the land into a gridwork of quarter-acre parcels, then distributed plots by lot. As of 1854 these suburban pioneers had built over three hundred homes, planted shade trees, built a commercial section around the railroad station, and incorporated their community as Mount Vernon. This was the kind of land reform that bankers and builders could live with, and legislators had no hesitation in authorizing such associations to incorporate; by 1852 there were nearly seventy. In 1859, similarly, Germans set up the Deutsche Sparbank, and within a year ten thousand depositors—the majority of them tailors, shoemakers, cabinetmakers, and grocers—had put in $2.5 million. For now, the most “cooperative” enterprises would be the corporations themselves, but the vision of a cooperative municipality survived and would be resuscitated repeatedly.

The unions proved far more durable. Some, on winning their immediate goals, did lapse into dormancy or continue on as mutual benefit societies only. But with employers constantly reneging on recent agreements, and inflation biting deeply into wages (the cost of necessities rose 30 percent between 1853 and 1854), unions old and new continued to launch strikes. The mid-1850s witnessed initiatives by omnibus drivers, horsecar drivers on the Third Avenue Railroad, pilots of the Union Ferry Company, Erie Railroad workers, hatmakers, cigarmakers, coopers, printers (now part of a nationwide organization, their local known as Typographical Union No. 6), hotel waiters, drygoods clerks, housepainters, machinists, carpenters, gilders, typesetters, and the German Pianomakers Union of New York City, proud possessors of the flag carried by journeyman pianomakers of Paris “upon the barricades during the stormy days of the French Revolution.”

Good interethnic relations remained an important goal. The Longshoremen’s United Benevolent Society, formed in 1852, had fourteen hundred members by 1854. Though overwhelmingly Irish, the Longshoremen’s Union boasted a banner decorated with the flags of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark, Hungary, and Italy, all bound together under an American flag and the word “Unity.” African Americans, again, were conspicuously excepted.

Many, though by no means all, of these strikes were successful. Influential bourgeois opinion tolerated nonviolent protests; there was so much money floating around that union demands seemed both legitimate and affordable. As Harper’s put it in the summer of 1853: “It is reasonable and natural, that in view of the splendid trappings of our growing houses, and our metropolitan hotels, that the gas-fitters, and cordwainers and ladies’ shoemakers, and saloon-servants should hold out their hands for their share of the excess.”

Many unionists accordingly stuck to fighting for wages and work rules and avoided larger political initiatives: this was the guiding philosophy of a new central labor congress established in 1853, the Amalgamated Trades Convention. However, others continued to believe that only broad-based pressure on city and state authorities would effect fundamental change.

Joseph Weydemeyer was among the leaders of those calling for creation of a fullfledged labor party. Newly arrived in 1851, Weydemeyer was a former Prussian army officer who had been converted to socialism and was now a close colleague of Marx and Engels. In New York, Weydemeyer first wrote for the Turn-Zeitung, then (by January 1852) established Die Revolution, which that spring published Marx’s masterly postmortem of the 1848 Revolution, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

In March 1853 Weydemeyer put out a call “To the Workers of All Trades!” for a March meeting at Mechanics Hall, to which eight hundred German-American house-painters, tailors, shoemakers, cabinetmakers, cigarmakers, Turners, and members of Weitling’s Workers League responded. Those assembled endorsed formation of the Amerikanische Arbeiterbund (American Workers League). It issued a call for what by now had become the standard set of working-class cultural, political, and economic demands. These included the ten-hour day, abolition of child labor, free higher education and day care, opposition to temperance, enactment of a mechanic’s lien law, unification of workers across national lines, and establishment of political clubs in working-class wards in order to “strive for the organization of the working class into a cohesive and independent political party.” The organization established a base of support in Kleindeutschland and German communities in Brooklyn, Williamsburgh, and Staten Island but failed to reach much beyond them, although an Irish Societies Convention also emerged in 1853 to push for some of the same reforms.

Though nothing like the scenarios envisioned by enthusiastic immigrant revolutionaries would come to pass, their campaigns, coupled with the Astor riot and patently appalling slum conditions, would have a tremendous impact on reform-minded members of the city’s upper classes, the men and women who though reaping the benefits of the boom were increasingly alarmed by some of its consequences.

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