In the industrial precincts of the East and West sides, the metropolitan labor movement had revived along with the quickened economy. The world of German socialism, in particular, had been newly reinvigorated by the arrival of thousands of immigrants fleeing Bismarck’s repression. Newcomers slipped comfortably into various of the German-speaking craft unions leagued together in the United German Trades. Many also joined the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), as the old Workingmen’s Party was now called, and indeed political and labor organizations overlapped substantially—with the Brewery Workers, a pioneering industrial union, making significant gains under socialist leadership. German socialism, with its labor lyceums and schools for children, was deeply rooted in, though largely limited to, Kleindeutschland.
A second constellation of unionists, known as the “pure and simple” variety, concentrated on mustering skilled workers into disciplined craft-based organizations. Cigarmakers, led by Samuel Gompers, were the strongest advocates of this approach. Gompers, born in 1850 in London’s East End to Dutch-Jewish parents, was brought to New York in 1863. He spent his teens and twenties helping his father make cigars in their East Side tenement apartment. He attended lectures and classes at Cooper Union, joined debating clubs and the Odd Fellows, and developed a fierce attachment to the fledgling Cigarmakers Union. In the early days, he and his intimate associates—men like Adolph Strasser and Peter J. McGuire—shared the socialists’ conviction that unions should struggle for the ultimate transformation of society at the same time as they fought to improve working conditions in the present.
The depression years changed his thinking. Watching (and dodging) rampaging policemen at Tompkins Square in 1874 convinced Gompers that those in power would not shrink from violently repressing radical challenges to the existing order. His conviction was deepened by the hysterical response of police, press, and pulpit to the Great Strike of 1877 and by the failure of the Cigarmakers’ own walkout that year.
If capitalism were here to stay, then working people, Gompers believed, and particularly skilled craftsmen, should prepare themselves for a long-haul struggle. Following the example of British trade unions, he and Strasser (in 1879) revamped the Cigar Makers’ International Union’s structure on “businesslike” lines. Charging high dues, they built up a tough and self-sufficient organization, with ample reserves for strike funds and sick benefits.
The new model union bade farewell to what it now saw as the socialists’ Utopian fantasies. It would fight only for carefully delimited targets: better wages, hours, working conditions. Gompers made clear to capitalists that they had nothing fundamental to fear from unions such as his. At a Senate investigation in 1883, Strasser was asked what the Cigar Makers’ ultimate ends were. “We have no ultimate ends,” he replied. “We fight only for immediate objects—objects that can be realized in a few years.”
The Cigar Makers’ new policy set them on a collision course with the Knights of Labor, the largest working-class organization in the city. The Knights, formerly a clandestine operation, had flowered with the economy: national enrollment had shot from under ten thousand in 1878 to over seven hundred thousand by 1886. American workers were attracted by the Knights’ hybrid attention to the immediate and the Utopian. Despite Grand Master Terrence V. Powderly’s disapproval of strikes—he thought them too easily crushed—the Knights walked out repeatedly in the mid-1880s in pursuit of very specific goals, often with considerable success. But the Knights were also convinced that capitalism—and its associated evils of degraded crafts, fevered competition, rapacious individualism, and urban squalor—threatened the artisan-yeoman republic. They believed that an alliance of the “producing classes” could regenerate America and transform it into a cooperative commonwealth.
The Knights regarded exclusionary craft unions like the Cigar Makers as shortsighted. Labor had to organize not just skilled craftsmen but semiskilled industrial workers and unskilled day laborers as well. The Knights were ecumenical on other fronts too, embracing Protestants and Catholics, whites and blacks, natives and immigrants, men and women. When Knights of Labor telegraphers struck Western Union in 1883, they demanded equal pay for equal work, well aware that females made up a quarter of the Morse operators at 195 Broadway. The Knights’ definition of the “producing classes” was so all-encompassing that it included manufacturing employers as well. Indeed the only people not entitled to sup at labor’s table were bankers, brokers, speculators, gamblers, and liquor dealers.
Most New York workers adopted one or another of these positions, and sometimes more than one. Many individual Socialist Labor Party members joined the New York Knights, even though they felt culturally and politically ill at ease there. In socialist eyes, the Knights failed miserably to grasp the inevitability of class struggle, and its temperance schemes dismayed lager-loving Germans. Gompers’ Cigar Makers opposed the Knights altogether, resenting their embrace of semiskilled working men and women who, in the cigar trade, were replacing skilled craftsmen like themselves. They also thought it foolish to treat bankers rather than industrialists as labor’s chief enemy.
THE FIRST LABOR DAY
In January 1882 Robert Blissert, an activist in the Knights of Labor and the Tailors Union, led a rally at Cooper Union that led to formation of a citywide trades’ assembly. Within weeks, a core group of a dozen unions had constituted the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York, Brooklyn, and Jersey City. The CLU grew as rapidly and spectacularly as had the Knights (who composed roughly half the CLU’s members). By 1884 thirty-six unions were affiliated. By 1886, spurred by the mid 1880s panic and recession, over two hundred organizations, representing perhaps fifty thousand workers, had joined New York’s “parliament of Labor.”
The Central Labor Union, like the Knights, was ecumenical. Its ranks included craft-based printers and builders, industrialized brewers and machinists, and unskilled (and unorganized) salesclerks and day laborers. Its aims were equally variegated. The CLU demanded the eight-hour day, an end to child labor, equal pay for equal work, government- (not bank-) issued currency, the abolition of tramp laws, and, quite grandly, an end to “all class privileges.”
To make its new voice heard in the wider city, the CLU revived the tradition of artisanal festivals and parades, which had once been integral to New York’s working-class world. The CLU proposed that one day each year be set aside as a holiday dedicated to and celebrated by working people, and under its aegis the United States’ first Labor Day parade was held on September 5, 1882. Wearing their regalia and hoisting transparencies, the contingents formed up in Park Place near City Hall. The Jewelers Union of Newark led off smartly behind their own band. Then came the bricklayers in their white aprons, the jewelers in derby hats and dark suits, and a group seven hundred strong from Big Six (the typographical union). The marchers were festive but sober; no drinking was allowed. They carried mottos proclaiming: LABOR BUILT THIS REPUBLIC AND LABOR SHALL RULE IT, NO MONEY MONOPOLY, and (most shocking to next day’s dailies), PAY NO RENT. Twenty thousand strong they strode north past Broome and Canal streets to Union Square, as hundreds of seamstresses at windows along the route waved handkerchiefs and blew kisses. Finally, after passing by a reviewing stand filled with labor dignitaries, the participants adjourned, via the elevated, to an uptown picnic at Elm Park. There they danced to jigs played by Irish fiddlers and pipers and were serenaded by the Bavarian Mountain Singers while the flags of Ireland, Germany, France, and the USA flapped in the autumn air.
Union Square Demonstration, September 5, 1882—the first Labor Day parade in the United States. As the head of the column passes the reviewing stand on the north side of the park (17th Street), thousands more can be seen marching up Broadway in the distance. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 16, 1882. (Library of Congress)
The following year, in an effort to broaden its constituency, the CLU reached out in two directions. On March 20, 1883, it sponsored an enormous gathering at Cooper Union to commemorate the recent death of Karl Marx. Most speakers were socialists, but the packed crowd was composed of workers of many ideologies, nationalities, and trades, who joined in raising funds to publish an English-language edition of the Communist Manifesto. Their second initiative was to induct Henry George into the Knights of Labor.
PROGRESS AND POVERTY
A few weeks after the bloody finale of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, with New York and the country still mired in depression, Henry George, a young San Francisco newspaperman, sat down to write a book. He was determined to make sense of the awful economic storms that periodically wracked the republic and to grapple as well with the terrible paradox of misery amidst plenty.
The short and scrappy redhead—friends called him the bantam cock—had been battered by economic depressions for most of his life. His father had published Episcopalian books until hard times drove him out of business and thrust the family into poverty. He himself had taken up the printer’s trade, only to be pitched into unemployment by the depression of 1857. After the war he founded a penny paper with reformist principles; his sheet decried the way America’s bountiful riches flowed into the pockets of a few. In 1869 George made a trip to New York City, in a failed attempt to get a franchise from the Associated Press. The metropolitan experience underscored for him just how profound the contrast could be between “monstrous wealth” and “debasing want.” Then came the crash of ‘73, which sank his theretofore successful paper. Thus galvanized, and with shoestring support from a job inspecting gas meters, he wrote Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth.
George blamed crises on the “principle of competition upon which society is now based.” Under conditions of competition, American individualism, which he valued highly, too easily degenerated into “cruel selfishness and monstrous greed.” The republic had to reject cutthroat competition and become “a family, in which the weaker brethren shall not be remorselessly pushed to the wall.”
George also blamed hard times on the growth of monopolies, and the worst monopolists were landlords—parasites who cornered an irreplaceable resource and exacted outrageous charges for its use. When an increase in population and productive resources made land more valuable, landlords creamed off most of the benefit. Worst of all were speculators who deliberately held property off the market until its price reached unconscionable levels.
It was landlords’ gouging, George asserted, that forced factory owners to cut workers’ wages, in order to offset the high cost of land. The solution was straightforward: tax the landlords and confiscate all their unearned profits. This one single tax would generate such phenomenal revenues that the country could eliminate all other taxes. Unfettered entrepreneurs would then be able to pay fair wages. Capital and labor would be reconciled; strikes and poverty would become things of the past. The single tax would also “lessen crime, elevate morals, and carry civilization to yet nobler heights.”
George mailed off his manuscript to publishers in New York City. Harpers and Scribner’s turned it down, but D. Appleton and Company agreed to print some copies if George supplied the plates. The book received little attention in the press, however, so in August 1880 the forty-one-year-old author moved to New York City to promote it, as well as to look for work. He soon made modest headway on both fronts. The book received a series of notices that, while hardly all favorable—the Times and Nation damned it—attracted enough attention to land him several journalistic assignments. George brought his family east and relocated to a porter’s lodge on the outlying Kingsbridge Road.
The one really enthusiastic review for Progress and Poverty came from Patrick Ford’s Irish World. Ford liked George’s analysis of American conditions, and even more its relevance to Ireland’s current dilemmas. In the late 1870s crop failures, rack-renting, and mass evictions had revived fears of famine. Two hundred thousand angry tenants organized the Irish Land League, which demanded a halt to evictions and the transfer of property from aristocratic landlords to working farmers. The league was led by Michael Davitt, a militant Fenian and son of an evicted tenant farmer, and Charles Stuart Parnell, a wealthy Protestant landlord who had been fighting for home rule.
In 1880 Parnell came to New York City to raise funds and organize American branches. He was spectacularly successful. Catholic Irish Americans and mainstream Protestants alike gave him a jubilant reception and bountiful patronage, and by September 1881 the new American Land League had over fifteen hundred branches. In New York City the Catholic hierarchy, Tammany Hall, and the Irish-American middle class—many of whom had condemned Fenianism—rallied to the Land League, reassured by Parnell’s brand of constitutional and parliamentary nationalism. At the same time, the day laborers and servant maids for whom Ford was the leading spokesman were fired with enthusiasm for Davitt’s radical antilandlordism. It was this wing of Irish-American nationalism that found Henry George’s work compelling. Ford printed up a cheap edition of Progress and Poverty, and soon working-class chapters of the Land League were studying it avidly.
In October 1881 Ford dispatched George to Ireland as a special correspondent. Soon he was wiring back articles castigating English despotism and landlord oppression. He also lectured around the Irish countryside, blossomed into a commanding orator, was arrested by the authorities, and returned to New York an Irish-American working-class hero.
Many in the Knights of Labor now took George’s teachings to heart. Grand Master Powderly, himself of Irish descent and prominent in the Land League, promoted Progress and Poverty vigorously, sponsoring lectures by George around New York and out west. Though not convinced the single tax was the answer to all labor’s problems, Powderly applauded George’s raising of the land issue.
For his part, George was cautious about linking up with the union movement, given his convictions about the harmony of interest between capital and labor. But the Knights’ old republican belief in the essential unity of the producing classes mirrored his own, and the tangible injustices he had witnessed on his travels moved him emotionally, so George joined the ranks of the workingmen.
“CHRIST HIMSELF WAS BUT AN EVICTED PEASANT”
Among George’s new admirers was Father Edward McGlynn, the Soggarth Aroon (Gaelic for “Priest of the People”). McGlynn, a New Yorker born and bred of Irish immigrant parents, had begun his ministry in a Civil War military hospital. He worked his way up from a floating ministry to Irish squatters, assigned him by Archbishop Hughes, to pastorship of the beautifully frescoed St. Stephen’s on East 28th Street, between Lexington and Third avenues, spiritual center of the largest and one of the poorest parishes in the city. McGlynn had long sought to promote the material as well as spiritual needs of his parishioners, and when he read Progress and Poverty, it explained to him why all his efforts on behalf of poor parishioners had come to nought. A magnetic speaker, the enormously popular McGlynn teamed up with George in speaking out against Irish and American landlordism, from secular as well as sacred pulpits. “Christ himself was but an evicted peasant,” McGlynn asserted, fashioning an Irish Catholic counterpart to Protestant workingmen’s veneration of “Jesus the brother carpenter who banned money changers from the temple.”
McGlynn was also a venturesome theologian, and he headed a remarkable group of New York City clerics who were urging democratization on a local hierarchy that was traveling rapidly in the opposite direction.
New York’s Catholic Church was thriving. Over 40 percent of Manhattan’s population (and a somewhat smaller percentage of Brooklyn’s) was now Catholic, and Catholics accounted for perhaps three-quarters of the city’s active churchgoers. With nearly four hundred priests and perhaps two hundred churches and chapels, the archdiocese was unquestionably the largest in the United States. In 1875 the Vatican had recognized New York’s importance, when Pius IX sent a red hat across the Atlantic to John McCloskey, Archbishop Hughes’s successor. And on May 25, 1879, the cardinal, with forty-five archbishops and bishops in attendance, had sung a dedication Mass, before an immense crowd of dignitaries, at the high altar of the finally completed St. Patrick’s Cathedral—now the most imposing ecclesiastical edifice in New York City.
Cardinal McCloskey died in 1885. Power passed to New York’s third archbishop, Michael Corrigan. Corrigan was the son of a Dublin cabinetmaker who had emigrated to Newark in 1829 and become, by the 1850s, a prosperous wholesale grocer, liquor dealer, and real estate investor, one of the wealthiest Catholics in the city. Michael, born in 1839, had grown up in the comfortable world of the emerging Irish middle class. In 1859 Corrigan studied for the priesthood at the new American College in Rome, where his prefect was the strappingly masculine Edward McGlynn, who apparently looked down on the bookish Corrigan, a slight that would be remembered. Ordained in Rome, Corrigan returned to America and rose to become bishop of Newark in 1873, where he stayed until summoned in 1880 by McCloskey to help administer the huge and rapidly growing archdiocese of New York.
In 1885, now himself archbishop, Corrigan found himself pitted against his old nemesis McGlynn, on matters both sacred and secular. Corrigan had moved swiftly to centralize ecclesiastical authority, but McGlynn, like many priests in New York, thought the American Church should adopt a more democratic style, one better suited to the American people. Corrigan also believed that New York’s Catholics should band together socially, and he launched a massive parochial-school building program, with Democratic Party backing. McGlynn, however, decried Corrigan’s goal of withdrawing into a Catholic ghetto, publicly opposed state aid to parochial schools, and decried the Church’s alliance with Tammany. The pastor of St. Stephen’s urged Catholics to break down differences with their fellow citizens rather than erect new barriers between them.
The two men did not see eye to eye on labor issues either. McGlynn wanted the Church to actively support working-class organizations like the Knights and CLU. The archbishop, like others of the affluent Irish upper middle class, was a strong supporter of the status quo and gratified that upper-class Protestants had come to see the Church as a source of stability. It was appropriate, Corrigan thought, for workers to want improved conditions, but they should wait patiently for such improvements to come their way, rather than engage in militant and clerically unsupervised self-help. Corrigan even urged a ban on the Knights of Labor but was thwarted by more liberal bishops in other cities.
Finally, Corrigan opposed political radicalism of any stripe. He was at one with the Council of Trent in condemning the “false doctrines or negations which flourish in our time and eat like a cancer into society.” These included agnosticism, materialism, naturalism, rationalism, any doctrine proposing that civil power issued from the people and not from God, and—most emphatically—“socialism and communism, the twin monsters threatening the social order of mankind.” When McGlynn took up with Henry George—a close-enough socialist to Corrigan’s way of thinking—it was the last straw. McGlynn, for the moment, was muzzled.
The confluence of Catholic radicalism, Irish nationalism, and labor militancy greatly strengthened the ability of working-class organizations—and working-class neighborhoods—to bring pressure to bear on obdurate employers. When relatively powerless workers like bakers, store clerks, freight handlers, cloakmakers, or unskilled cigarmakers struck for shorter hours or union recognition, they were now backed both by the Central Labor Union and by newly energized communities.
Sometimes this support reached riotous dimensions. In March 1886 the miserably exploited horsecar drivers and conductors of the Dry Dock line along Grand Street went on strike to lower their sixteen-to-seventeen-hour workday (with no time off for dinner) to twelve. Organized labor raised funds to back the drivers’ efforts, and when on March 4 the city sent policemen to escort scab operators, sympathetic neighborhood crowds blockaded the tracks with barricades of wagons and rubbish. The superintendent of police now dispatched 750 men (25 percent of the force) to aid the company, posting five hundred along Grand Street and a phalanx of 250 around a car as it edged out of the stables. Now (as Harper’s Weekly noted) thousands of neighborhood residents and factory girls “groaned, hissed, and jeered from the sidewalks, while from every window there were angry jabbering and shaking of fists.” Crowds heaped coal, lumber, cobblestones, and bricks on the tracks while throwing rocks, eggs, and rotten vegetables at the police. When three hundred officers charged and clubbed protestors at Forsyth Street, rioters overturned and fired cars, but police bulled the car through from river to river.
In response the CLU that evening voted a citywide “tie-up” of every streetcar line, and the next day over sixteen thousand drivers, conductors, and stablemen refused to show up for work. Surface transit was utterly paralyzed, and though the elevateds kept running they couldn’t handle the overload. When the Dry Dock Company gave in, it touched off wild celebratory parades, cheered by thousands of men, women, and children waving blankets, sheets, flags, and brooms. The horsecar corporations had the last word, however, when the Third Avenue line beat back a strike, aided by indictments against union leaders and a mammoth police presence provided by the city, despite the recent revelations that Jacob Sharp, the company’s owner, had won special privileges via massive bribery of the Board of Aldermen and that his company had cheated the city out of a million dollars in back taxes.
March 4, 1886: club-wielding policemen attempt to clear Grand Street of striking streetcar workers and their supporters. Harper’s Weekly, March 13, 1886. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)
Since the depression of the 1870s, violence had been an ever-increasing fact of life for New York’s laboring classes. Year after year platoons of police cracked skulls, broke up meetings, and smashed picket lines while press and politicians acquiesced or applauded wildly. Nationally, too, employers employed squads of Pinkertons to combat strikers: Jay Gould was thought to have boasted he could “hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” Some New York German socialists responded by forming Lehr-und-Wehr Verein (education and defense societies). Resolved to never again be beaten or shot without resisting, they trained, drilled, and, on special occasions, marched in the streets. Such activities proved particularly appealing to newly arrived German immigrants, who had experienced at first hand Bismarck’s antisocialist laws, which disbanded unions, suppressed newspapers, and arrested radicals. They too were determined to draw the line.
In Lower East Side cafes and saloons where intellectuals, writers, workers, and students hung out, there was talk of going farther, of taking the offensive, of launching an armed struggle to rip up the old order “root and branch.” When the Socialist Labor Party denounced such notions, dissidents formed the Social Revolutionary Club. Derided as “anarchists,” they adopted the name as a badge of pride. Their headquarters was First on First—Justus Schwab’s saloon at First Avenue and ist Street, a tiny beer hall with a bas-relief of Marat behind the bar. Schwab, the Social Revolutionary Club’s president, was a tall, powerfully built man who had raced through Tompkins Square in 1874 waving the Commune’s red flag, and when he sang the “Marseillaise” at First on First, his deep voice rattled the glasses on their shelves.
The anarchists remained a tiny, unknown sect devoted to drill and discussion until December 18, 1882. Then, after a terrible crossing, a steamship out of Liverpool limped into Pier 38 at the foot of King Street and unleashed Johann Most on the American scene. Schwab and his associates had invited the famous European comrade. They hastened him to a mass meeting at Cooper Union, where Most delivered a flaming speech that electrified his listeners, then set off on a national speaking tour that within six months transformed the anarchist movement into a national presence. Back in New York City, Most set up his newspaper Die Freiheit on William Street and issued pamphlets filled with apocalyptic appeals to violence.
The quickest route to the Cooperative Commonwealth, Most explained, lay through a field of capitalist corpses. “The best thing one can do with such fellows as Jay Gould and Vanderbilt is to hang them on the nearest lamp-post.” Dynamite was his favorite panacea. Dynamite would enable ordinary workmen to stand up to police, Pinkertons, and militias, even armies. As gunpowder had brought down feudalism, so dynamite would blow up capitalism.
In 1884 Most took a job in a Jersey City dynamite factory to explore its mysteries, and in July 1885 he issued a seventy-four-page booklet, Revolutionary War Science: A Little Handbook of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, etc., etc. In this manual of urban guerrilla warfare, Most explained how to destroy bridges, capture arsenals, and sabotage telegraph and railroad lines. He also offered helpful tips on exterminating the bourgeoisie (the whole “reptile brood”), recommending that charges be placed at “an opulent banquet” or “a ball where monopolists are assembled.”
Some anarchists were excited by this verbal ferocity, despite, or perhaps because of, its being all talk: Most had never thrown a bomb, placed a charge, or hanged a single capitalist. During the miserable mid-eighties, years of recession and repression, Revolutionary War Science sold like lager at picnics and meetings around town, at ten cents a copy. Serialized in the anarchist press, it roused readers across the country. Young Emma Goldman, a seamstress up in Rochester, decided to move to New York City and ask Most to help her become an anarchist.
Overwhelmingly, however, New York workers were repelled by Most’s posturing. Schwab and the local anarchists broke with him, branding his fulminations dangerous and immoral. The socialists and the Knights would have nothing to do with him. But by matching the levels of rhetorical violence that middle- and upper-class spokesmen had employed routinely since the depression of the 1870s, Most provided an all too convenient symbol for those intent on portraying all challenges to the status quo as lethal menaces.
The press made Most into an archetypal terrorist. Cartoonists like Nast (of anti Tweed fame) pilloried him constantly. Joseph Keppler of Puck used him as model for a bewhiskered foreign-looking anarchist, bomb in one hand, pistol in the other, though Most usually dressed in a business suit and had neatly trimmed hair. These images, along with characterizations of anarchists as “reptiles” and “leeches” worthy of extermination, raised the rhetorical stakes. General Sherman, now a resident of West 71st Street, foresaw an imminent and “armed contest between Capital and Labor” as the “better classes are tired of the insane howlings of the lower strata, and they mean to stop them.”
It was in this venomous atmosphere, on May 1, 1886, that organized labor launched a nationwide offensive. The tremendous growth of the Knights of Labor, and a run of successful strikes in 1884 and 1885, had given unionists the idea that perhaps a general strike would win the eight-hour day.
Across the country over three hundred thousand turned out. In New York City forty-five thousand walked off work, including streetcar conductors, cigarmakers, building tradesmen, pianomakers, and machinists. Many of the strikes were swiftly successful. Others were ferociously resisted, particularly after May 3, when in Chicago’s Haymarket Square someone exploded a bomb amid policemen who were attacking an anarchist demonstration. The New York Times blamed the police deaths on the “doctrine of Herr Johann Most”—who was promptly arrested—and called for the application of “hemp, in judicious doses.” The Knights of Labor scrambled to distance itself from the affair, denouncing the anarchists accused of inciting the crime as “wild beasts.” It did them no good; public sympathy was abruptly alienated by the Haymarket bombing, and the eight-hour movement went down to defeat.
More alarming, Central Labor Union organizers were convicted and jailed for using a boycott. The tactic had its roots in the Irish practice—developed during the land wars of 1879-83—of cutting off social intercourse with rack-renting and evicting landlords. New York City’s workers used it against employers, targeting their products rather than their persons. With so many consumer goods locally produced for local sale, working-class boycotts that disciplined businessmen through the marketplace were often more effective than strikes. By the mid-1880s, the CLU had mounted scores of them successfully against recalcitrant employers who made or sold beer, bread, cigars, shoes, hats, clothing, and house furnishings. An alarmed press and pulpit denounced the tactic as (in Harper’s words) a “new form of terrorism.” Businessmen brought criminal prosecutions, and by 1886 over a hundred tailors, bakers, musicians, and waiters had been arrested and indicted.
In the latest instance, Knights of Labor musicians had called for, and the CLU had sanctioned, a boycott against George Theiss, proprietor of a beer garden on East 14th Street. Workers also boycotted beer produced by George Ehret’s brewery, because Theiss’s hall served it, and canceled picnics at Jones’ Wood, because it sold Ehret’s beer. Ehret, feeling the pressure, arranged a sit-down that ended in mutual concessions and a deal. Despite this a grand jury charged the five CLU negotiators with conspiracy and extortion, and they were sentenced, on July 2, 1886, to terms ranging up to four years in Sing Sing prison.
“HONEST LABOR AGAINST THIEVING LANDLORDS AND POLITICIANS”
Within two weeks the CLU decided to enter politics, something labor had not done effectively since the 1830s, when the Workingmen’s Party, similarly infuriated by court decisions, had taken to the hustings. Badly burned then, and in minor forays since, organized workingmen had shunned the electoral arena. The CLU itself banned politicians, lawyers, and public officials from membership. It refused to elect a permanent president lest he sell out the organization to a political party. But employers’ ease of access to police and courts convinced union men that control of city government was an indispensable prerequisite to workplace organizing.
In August the CLU called all city labor organizations to a meeting, and on the appointed day 402 delegates, representing 165 groups and over fifty thousand wageearners, formed a United Labor Party (ULP). Over the next two months it hammered out a platform and considered candidates. Finally, on September 23, after a mighty speech by Father McGlynn, it nominated Henry George as its candidate for mayor of New York City.
George had been chary of making the race. When a CLU committee first visited him at his new home up in Harlem, he declined the honor, dubious about a third party’s chances in a city where even Republicans were perennial runners-up. A nervous Tammany inadvertently decided George by sending secret emissaries to offer him a safe congressional seat if he declined the nomination. He couldn’t be elected, the delegation explained, but “his running will raise hell.” That settled it for the truculent George: “You have relieved me of an embarrassment,” he responded. “I do not want the responsibility and the work of the office of Mayor of New York, but I do want to raise hell!” He would run, but only if the new party demonstrated its potential strength by getting thirty thousand backers to pledge their support in writing.
On October 5, 1886, George worked his way through the mammoth crowds outside Cooper Union and in the jam-packed interior, finally reaching the Great Hall. There he mounted a stage decorated with sheaves of petitions, arranged like floral offerings, that contained over thirty-four thousand signatures. Formally accepting the ULP nomination for mayor, George addressed the party’s three major concerns: labor, politics, and land.
He ratified the platform’s call for higher pay, shorter hours, better working conditions, government ownership of railroads and telegraph, and an end to “officious intermeddling of the police with peaceful assemblages,” adding his own denunciation of “industrial slavery.”
He declared that “this government of New York City—our whole political system—is rotten to the core.” Politicians had made a trade out of assembling votes and selling them to powerful interests; revelations about horsecar magnate Jacob Sharp’s scandalous bribery of boodle aldermen back in 1884 were front-page news just then, with twenty-two aldermen (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike) having been arrested. What business got in return was police protection, lax enforcement of housing and health codes, friendly judges, and fat franchises. To purify the political order, working-class voters had to sever ties to all the established parties and choose candidates from their own ranks, not what John Swinton called the “fleecing classes.”
Finally, George applied Progress and Poverty’s analysis to metropolitan landlordism. “Why,” he asked, “should there be such abject poverty in this city?” What is it that “forces girls upon the streets and our boys into the grog shops and then into the penitentiaries”? The answer was insanely high levels of rent. New Yorkers sweated for landlords because Manhattan real estate had long since been monopolized: “We are toiling, perhaps, for Mrs. Astor” or “the heirs of some dead Dutchman.” The majority of those piled in tenement barracks, as Peter McGuire had noted, had “paid by way of rent enough to purchase for themselves, not only one house but several,” yet they remained at the mercy of landlords who could and did get an eviction order from a district court judge if rent was three days late.
Worse, while New Yorkers were penned up in the tenement districts—“nowhere else in the civilized world are men and women and children packed together so closely”—there was plenty of empty land available, “miles and miles and miles of land all around this nucleus. Why cannot we take that and build houses upon it for our accommodation?” Because land monopolists were warehousing it, waiting for its price to rise. Taxing their properties would force landlords to disgorge vacant but valuable land and make it available to working people. “There is no good reason whatever why every citizen of New York should not have his own separate house and home; and the aim of this movement is to secure it.”
Taxing away the unearned profits of the idle rich would also generate enormous revenues, which could be used to improve city services, particularly in education and transit. George was grateful to Peter Cooper for providing the hall in which they now met, but education for working people should be a matter of right, not charity. The people of New York should establish twenty Cooper Institutes, and pay for them out of “our own estate.” Streetcars and elevateds should be taken out of the hands of men like Jay Gould and Jacob Sharp and be operated as a public service. “We could take those railroads and run them free, let everybody ride who would, and we could pay for it out of the increased value of the people’s property.”
THE “TAILBOARD” CAMPAIGN
George had proposed an alternative way to run the city and urged formation of a new governing coalition to run it. Now United Labor Party troops poured into the streets to do electoral battle. The German socialists came on board. So did Sam Gompers and the Cigarmakers, albeit reluctantly. Quite apart from the prominence of so many Knights and socialists in the movement, Gompers and his colleagues believed all politicians were crooks and would sell out labor’s interests to the highest bidder. Even if the ULP did elect candidates pledged to prolabor measures, executives would refuse to enforce such laws, or the courts would quickly reverse them. Nevertheless, the “pure and simple” men were as enraged as other workers by the blatant police and judicial support for capital. Given the phenomenal support building up in the working-class districts for George, it seemed that perhaps this crusade would be able to make some fundamental changes in New York City.
The George campaign set up headquarters in the Colonnade Hotel on Broadway (near 8th Street) and translated the enormous amateur enthusiasm into a formidable electoral army. To finance the challenge, union members across the city were assessed twenty-five cents a head. Heaps of pennies poured in, and the candidate could often be seen at headquarters helping roll coins for distribution to campaign managers around town.
Since Tammany ward heelers held sway in saloons, the new organization took to the streets, shop floors, and union halls. Drawing on the CLU’s logistical experience with organizing boycotts, parades, and mass demonstrations, the ULP created an apparatus of neighborhood meetings, streetcorner rallies, campaign clubs, Assembly District organizations, and trade legions—an entire political counterculture.
With the exception of John Swinton’s Paper, Ford’s Irish World, and the socialists’ New Yorker Volkszeitung, every paper in the city opposed George. One of the campaign’s major complaints was that “the same centers of power that have seized the reins of government. . . have also grasped the press by the throat.” The campaign accordingly launched its own daily, the Leader, staffed by eager volunteers from the other papers; by mid-October it circulated to forty thousand readers.
Using the elevateds, the candidate whirled around the city addressing labor unions, Irish nationalists, Catholic parish fairs, German Turnverein, and middle-class social reformers. On one typical day, George talked at the opening of a church fair at St. Cecilia’s (106th Street between Third and Lexington), spoke at Waiters Union No. 3 at 40th Street and Third Avenue, addressed a mass meeting of eight thousand at Third and 42nd, marched with the Henry George Bohemian Club, and hopped the el downtown to a tumultuous meeting in Chickering Hall.
Even more striking was the “tailboard” campaign in which speakers rumbled by horsecart from one street throng to another, talking from a makeshift backseat podium. From breakfast to midnight, campaign orators hit the docks, factory yards, elevated stations, churches, and tenement districts. They addressed shoppers by day and, with the aid of torches, carousers at night. Speakers drew on a host of notables, including Father McGlynn, Knights leader Terrence Powderly, editor Patrick Ford, liberal Protestant minister Walter Rauschenbusch, and Columbia professor Daniel DeLeon, but the tailboarders also included men of purely local renown. Some were shop-floor and neighborhood activists addressing mass audiences for the first time. Others were merchants, lawyers, doctors, or teachers, drawn into unprecedented coalition with organized labor by George’s synthesis of piety and political economy.
As the campaign rolled on, and volunteer poll workers began training to counter the ward bosses’ election day “hirelings,” it was clear to the entire city—and to the nation, and to Europe, where the campaign was covered via cable—that something extraordinary was happening in the streets of New York. There had not been such a challenge to the established order since the Sons of Liberty contested merchant control of the city in colonial days. The Workingmen’s Party of the 1830s had flamed out quickly; the draft riots of 1863 had been terrifying but undisciplined and ultimately repressible. Now the possibility that had always lurked in a democratic polity seemed finally to have materialized: working people would use the polls to advance their class interest.
THE COLLEGE-BRED TRIBUNE
The prospect caused consternation among the propertied classes. The “present revolt of the working men of this city,” the Union League Club declared, had “become a matter of the first importance.” To battle George, Fifth Avenue sent into the ring another scrappy young bantamweight, named Theodore Roosevelt. The very name Roosevelt was reassuringly redolent of old New York, indeed old New Amsterdam. After the family’s plate glass business had boomed with Manhattan’s postwar expansion, it shifted much of its capital into banking, investment, and city real estate. When Cornelius died in 1871, he left Theodore Senior over a million dollars and a mansion on 57th Street off Fifth Avenue.
In 1876 Theodore Junior, aged seventeen, had gone off to Harvard, not Columbia as had innumerable Roosevelts before him. Despite his unprepossessing appearance—five feet eight inches, 125 pounds, a thin and piping voice, thick spectacles, and a laugh described by his mother as an “ungreased squeak”—his impeccable upper-class credentials and deep pockets got him into the best clubs. He worked hard too, immersing himself in laissez-faire political economy. After graduating in 1880 Teddy married, entered Columbia Law School, and joined the social whirl of New York’s ultrafashionables, dining at Mrs. Astor’s and dancing at Ward McCallister’s Patriarch’s Balls.
On October 10, 1882, Roosevelt invited a score of “respectable, well educated men” to his home at 55 West 45th Street to launch a City Reform Club. He told the press that the club intended that “the respectable, educated, refined young men of this city should have more weight in public matters.” Membership would “be restricted to that class in the community from which its members have hitherto been chosen,” that is, wealthy, native-stock, Protestant businessmen or professionals. In this the club certainly succeeded: a newsman at one meeting noted that the chairman officiated in full evening dress with white butterfly tie, and of the thirty-eight men present, thirty-six carried canes, thirteen wore kid gloves, and twenty-two parted their hair in the middle.
The City Reform Club planned to elect “honest and capable men” who, once installed, would “administer their offices on business principles as opposed to party methods.” In October 1882 Roosevelt himself ran for the state assembly, in a campaign during which, he prided himself, he never pandered to the populace or “paid for a drink or entered a saloon”—admittedly easier to do in a district where one did not have to deal with “the vast majority of the vicious and illiterate population.” Roosevelt later depicted his run as a daring departure from the ideals and practices of his class, but his own social set hailed him as a “college-bred tribune,” and he received strong backing from such clubmen and business leaders as Joseph H. Choate, J. P. Morgan, Elihu Root, and Morris K. Jessup.
Once elected—at twenty-three he was the youngest member of the legislature—TR set about making his mark. “He came in,” one Albany politico recalled, “as if he had been ejected by a catapult.” The assemblymen chortled at the foppish, bespectacled dandy who sought attention by calling, “Mr. Spee-kar!” in falsetto. Teddy, for his part, considered his new colleagues to be “vicious, stupid-looking scoundrels,” though he soon got on well with (and was indeed fascinated by) the machine politicians.
Placed on the powerful City Affairs Committee, Roosevelt worked hard for his wealthy constituents. He opposed salary increases for New York police and firemen, opposed establishing a minimum wage of two dollars a day for municipal workers, and opposed Knights of Labor attempts to improve working conditions for railroad men. Hailed in city clubs as a watchdog, denounced in labor circles as a silk-stocking tool, he announced grandly that “I represent neither capital nor labor,” and at times he did prove hard to type, as when he bitterly denounced Jay Gould as a member “of that most dangerous of all dangerous classes, the wealthy criminal class.”
On another occasion, Samuel Gompers of the Cigarmakers Union proposed a bill to outlaw tenement house cigar work, and it was referred to a subcommittee where Roosevelt was expected to make short work it. Gompers, however, presented evidence of horrifying conditions that he had gleaned from a house-to-house survey of the bohemian tenements, disguised as a book agent selling a set of Dickens. The union leader offered to take Roosevelt around to see for himself, and the dapper young legislator agreed. The tour shocked Roosevelt profoundly. To the amazement of his colleagues and constituents, and to Gompers’s delight, he supported the bill despite its being “in a certain sense a socialistic one” and got it signed into law. It was soon overturned by the courts, however, partly on the grounds it endangered the cigarmaker’s “morals by forcing him from his home and its hallowed associations.”
Mainly, however, Roosevelt concentrated on Good Government. His first success was a law reorganizing Brooklyn’s government that stripped the appointment power from the aldermen, Boss McGlaughlin’s creatures, and gave it to the mayor, along with authority to sack his appointees. He chaired a committee that investigated Manhattan’s governance, found it “absolutely appalling,” and in 1884 won passage of civil service reform.
With this triumph, his legislative career came to a sudden and tragic end. After his wife Alice died of Bright’s disease, almost simultaneously with the death of his mother from typhoid fever, Roosevelt resigned, sold his house, and spent much of the next two years in the Dakota Territory. But in 1886, when his old constituents needed a candidate to take on Henry George, Teddy rode out of retirement. Nominated by Chauncey Depew at a convention presided over by corporation lawyer Elihu Root, Roosevelt promised an end to municipal corruption and the beginning of businesslike administration. The New York Times endorsed him and predicted the “uptown vote” would rally “to effectually squelch communism and socialism.”
Soon, indeed, Wall Street businessmen organized a Roosevelt Club, and the Stock Exchange, Produce Exchange, Real Estate Exchange, and Iron and Metal Exchange promised their support. The Union League Club endorsed him. Dry-goods men held rallies. With the setting up of Roosevelt campaign headquarters at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Fifth Avenue’s white knight, now known familiarly as the “Cowboy Candidate,” was well launched.
BOSSES, BISHOPS, AND THE MAN OF IRON
The roster of mayoral candidates was not yet complete, however. The organized working class and the organized bourgeoisie had sent in contenders. But the Irish-American middle class, whose nascent power was manifested through the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church, two warily interlaced institutions, had at least as much riding on the outcome.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, John Kelly had centralized and disciplined Tammany beyond Tweed’s fondest imaginings. He also continued the business community’s program of cutbacks, thus enhancing the Democracy’s standing and making it a more respectable outlet for middle-class Irish ambitions. Kelly did not, however, command sufficient financial resources to do without the well-heeled Swallowtail Democrats. From their Manhattan Club headquarters, now housed in A. T. Stewart’s old marble mansion on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, men such as iron and steel manufacturers Abram Hewitt and Edward Cooper, corporate attorney Samuel Tilden, and bankerrailroad investor August Belmont still wielded great power. These Protestant businessmen and professionals had access to campaign funds, a social standing that reassured the city’s creditors, an avenue to newspapers, a capacity to dispense patronage in their own enterprises, and powerful connections to the national Democratic Party.
Indeed it was national politics that motivated the Swallowtails to contest Tammany for power in the city. As importers and exporters, manufacturers who relied on imported raw materials, bankers, and railroad investors, they were vitally interested in lower tariffs, hard money, and federal aid to commerce through improved harbors, harbor defenses, coastal surveys, and foreign consulates. Given the equilibrium between Democrats and Republicans at the federal level, New York State was often the most important swing state in a presidential election, and with New York City casting a larger proportion of its state’s vote than any other American city, it had provided the margin of national victory in 1880 and 1884, had come close to doing so in 1876, and would again in 1888 and 1892. It was no surprise that the major parties repeatedly nominated candidates for president and vice-president who might attract metropolitan voters.
Tammany had strengthened itself vis-à-vis the Swallowtails by expanding its political base in the burgeoning Irish middle class—appealing to its fraternal organizations and actively cultivating an ethno-religious identity. Under Kelly, who married Cardinal McCloskey’s niece, the Democratic Party arranged for public funding of parish activities, particularly parochial schools. In 1880 Kelly’s forces elected Swallowtail William R. Grace, perhaps America’s most successful Irish immigrant. Grace had left his family’s prosperous County Cork estate, went to sea, roved the world, and ended up in Peru, working for a ship chandler’s firm, of which he and his brother eventually took control. He moved to New York City in 1865 and founded his own firm, W. R. Grace and Company, to cooperate with his brother’s operation and made a vast fortune supplying the Peruvian military and in the South American trade. His election as the city’s first Irish Catholic mayor, over the vocally expressed concerns of Protestants that he would help Archbishop Corrigan build a parochial school empire, helped cement Tammany Church relations.
Kelly died in June 1886, just before the mayoral race got underway, and was replaced at the party’s helm by Richard Croker, his right-hand man and former Tammany bruiser. Croker, born in 1843 in Clonakilty, Ireland, was brought to New York at the age of three. The family had lived in Seneca Village until his father got a veterinarian job with an East Side horsecar line. After a year’s schooling, young Croker worked in the Harlem Railroad’s machine shop and later as engineer on a steamboat. A formidable fighter, Croker also led the Fourth Avenue Tunnel Gang, whose members served as Tammany musclemen and repeaters. He cast his first ballot in 1864, in fact seventeen of them, and in 1868 he became an alderman at age twenty-five. In 1873, thanks to his new patron Kelly, he was elected coroner of New York; ten years later he was made fire commissioner, and in 1886 Croker stepped into the leadership—and into a full-blown crisis.
The United Labor Party presented a potentially mortal threat to the nexus of Catholics, Democrats, and the Irish-American middle class, if it succeeded in reorganizing New York City politics along class rather than ethnic lines. George was backed by Land League nationalists like Patrick Ford and Michael Davitt and by radical priests like Father McGlynn. If the Irish working class followed their lead and abandoned Tammany, it would leave the bosses high and dry. In addition, many an Irish alderman, grocer, and saloonkeeper was deeply invested in uptown real estate, and such men, perhaps even more than upper-class landlords, were banking on precisely the kind of speculative profits that George threatened to tax away.
Croker understood that solid Swallowtail backing was essential to defeating George, so he insisted on nominating ironmaster Abram Hewitt, the impeccably respectable leader of that opposing faction. The Democratic candidate proceeded to attack the very notion of a labor party as an attempt “to organize one class of our citizens against all other classes.” Between capitalists and laborers “there never is and never can be any antagonism,” but if the working classes “as they are called” ever did need special representation, they had their trade unions to speak for them.
Unions were perfectly legitimate bodies, Hewitt admitted, though he himself thought “self-help is the remedy for all the evils of which men complain.” Certainly Hewitt had a deeper sympathy for workingmen than many of his peers, certainly more than did Theodore Roosevelt. A paternalistic employer, he had kept mills open and men employed during recessions. As congressman during the Great Strike of 1877, he hadn’t howled for blood but held congressional hearings, which demonstrated that industrial interests had cheated and abused labor.
Being the son-in-law of the revered Peter Cooper won him additional support among the city’s laboring classes, and Hewitt held up his family’s support for Cooper Union as an example of responsible charity. He went so far as to criticize the Astors for failing to devote their “unearned increment” to public purposes. He even agreed with George that the city ought to provide education and recreational facilities out of its own coffers. The way to obtain the needed funds, however, was not by taxing land, which Hewitt noted shrewdly would put the burden on modest property holders as well as millionaires. Instead the city should tax the mansions of the wealthy, a levy he was sure the rich wouldn’t mind paying once Tammany was vanquished.
To working-class constituents Hewitt insisted that despite his considerable wealth, he wasn’t the millionaire’s candidate: “These rich Republicans and these rich millionaires—nay, have they not at the Union League Club indorsed Mr. Roosevelt?” At the same time he crudely appealed to the fears of the propertied classes, indicting the United Labor Party as “anarchists, nihilists, communists, socialists” who were “enemies of civilization and social order.” George’s theories, if put into practice, would recall “the horrors of the French Revolution and the atrocities of the Commune.” These accusations, though false, proved effective.
Stung by such charges, and with three days left in the campaign, the United Labor Party arranged a grand parade to demonstrate its responsibility. On Saturday, October 30, tens of thousands converged on the Bowery and formed into disciplined ranks. As the Printers Legion led off toward Cooper Union, a light mist gave way to heavy rain. Undeterred, hoisting their bedraggled banners and transparencies, unionists fed into the line of march, forming a human river, two miles long, of tailors, plumbers, painters, brass workers, framers, street railway workers, Cuban cigarmakers, Italian fruit handlers, Bohemian single taxers, and German cooperationists (pushing a huge broom, with which to sweep the election).
As they strode into Union Square, in a cold and drenching downpour, their signs—illuminated by sputtering torches, calcium lights, and colored fires—were clearly visible: THE WORKERS OF THE CITY ARE NOT ANARCHISTS! THE SPIRIT OF ‘76 STILL LIVES! and George’s own campaign slogan: HONEST LABOR AGAINST THIEVING LANDLORDS AND POLITICIANS— THE LAND BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE! As they swung into the last leg heading toward Tompkins Square, their chants rang out over the driving storm: “Hi! Ho! The leeches must go!” and “George! George! Hen-ry George!”
The next day, Sunday, an alarmed Tammany Hall turned to the Church for assistance. Archbishop Corrigan was loathe to appear in cahoots with Boss Croker, but the situation was critical. Only the hierarchy could possibly counter McGlynn’s enormous influence. On September 29 Corrigan had forbidden McGlynn from speaking at a scheduled George rally at Chickering Hall. McGlynn insisted on fulfilling his commitment, telling the archbishop that “I, in view of my rights and duties as a citizen, which were not surrendered when I became a priest, am determined to do what I can to support Mr. George.” Two days later, Corrigan suspended McGlynn. The pastor of St. Stephen’s made no more speeches for the rest of the campaign but continued to make highly visible appearances at United Labor Party rallies.
The vicar-general, the Right Rev. Monsignor Thomas S. Preston, was authorized to make a forceful preelection statement of Church policy. “The great majority of the Catholic clergy of this city,” Preston asserted, “are opposed to the candidacy of Mr. George.” Gleeful Tammanyites reproduced Preston’s statement and handed it out on Sunday morning in front of Catholic churches.
On Tuesday, November 2, voters trooped to the polls while a mute McGlynn rode through the streets with George, and United Labor Party volunteers oversaw the election process as well as they were able. Hewitt won with 90,552 votes. George came second with 68,110. Roosevelt finished last with 60,435.
George ran best among the second-generation German-and Irish-American working classes of the Lower East Side and Hell’s Kitchen. He did especially well with Catholics, who provided perhaps five-sixths of his support. But the poorest, most recent immigrants in the gashouse and slum districts along the East River—motivated by the carrot of Tammany patronage and the stick of Church denunciation—went with Hewitt. George talked well, but these were practical people, and it was the Democratic Party, and its associated network of tenement-world notables like saloonkeepers, grocers, builders, and contractors, that responded most effectively to their day-to-day needs with jobs, credit, legal help, and holiday handouts.
Roosevelt’s vote was down by as much as twenty thousand from the usual Republican level. Apparently many wealthy Republican voters, terrified at the prospect of a George victory, switched to Hewitt, who did well in the silk-stocking districts and middle-income wards.
Despite the loss, George and his supporters were ecstatic. Labor editor John S winton pointed out that they had “struck a blow truly astounding under the circumstances.” The World agreed that it was “an extraordinary thing for a man without political backing, without a machine, without money or newspaper support” to have polled so many votes. The defeated candidate was convinced that the future was his. “This is the Bunker hill,” George crowed. “We have lit a fire that will never go out.”
In fact the flame flickered for a year or two, sputtered, and died. The United Labor Party ran George in 1887 for statewide office, but during the campaign the 1886 coalition fragmented into its constituent parts.
First to go were the socialists. George and his single-tax followers, never comfortable with their militant class politics, soon read the Germans out of the party. The socialists retreated to their base in Kleindeutschland, where, amid the post-Haymarket wave of nativist hysteria, they languished, isolated, demoralized, riven by factional brawls. Within a few years, German hegemony in the Socialist Party and socialist press was finished, but not before they passed the torch to a new generation of New Yorkers—chiefly Jewish immigrants—who would carry the red banner into a new century.
The Knights of Labor never recovered from being tagged with the anarchist label. In the red scare that followed Haymarket, the organization disintegrated almost as rapidly as it had grown. Gompers and the business unionists went their own way, now totallypersuaded that workers should shun politics. Gompers threw all his energies into building up the new American Federation of Labor. In the 1890s he would accept the free market economy, viciously attack former socialist comrades, and, despite his earlier inclination for a multiethnic, multiracial organization, preside over the growth of an exclusionary bastion for craft workers. The cigarmakers would fail to overcome the structural problems in their industry—tenement shops remained and flourished—but they would win the eight-hour day and a steady increase in pay.
The year 1887 also witnessed the collapse of Catholic support for class-based politics. Archbishop Corrigan saw to that. After the election he issued a pastoral letter counseling parishioners to adopt “the loving docility that becomes dutiful children” and “give no ear to those, whoever they may be, who preach a different Gospel.” Father McGlynn responded by giving weekly orations to crowds of two to three thousand people in which he insisted that bishops, even the pope, shouldn’t interfere with American Catholics’ exercise of their political rights. After some priests gave McGlynn guarded support, Corrigan and the Vatican decided to heed an adviser who said, “Dr. McGlynn must be put down or the Archbishop of New York might as well not be Archbishop of New York.”
McGlynn was summoned to Rome, refused to go, and in January 1887 was removed from his post at St. Stephen’s. Thousands paraded in his support. He told the throng he would not obey the pope. On July 3 he was excommunicated. The archbishop circulated a pledge of loyalty for the priesthood to sign. Some refused and found themselves exiled to upstate parishes. So effectively did Corrigan assert the hierarchy’s power that no Catholic clergyman in New York would ever again repeat McGlynn’s defiance.
Corrigan went after the rebel priest’s lay supporters too. He told Catholics that George’s writings were “false and pernicious”—he tried to get them placed on the Index—and forbade attendance at meetings of the Anti-Poverty Society, McGlynn’s secular reform vehicle. Corrigan ousted supporters of George from the thousandmember Catholic Club, making it a bulwark of lay support for archdiocesan officials. The pressure was so fierce that even Patrick Ford took the Irish World back into the fold. As Corrigan warred on liberalism in theology and social practice, he also emerged as a major backer of the Vatican. The archbishop strongly pushed Peter’s Pence collections among his wealthier parishioners, an important source of income now that the Papal States had been lost. He also agreed to manage Vatican investments, yet another manifestation of New York’s importance as a financial center. By the time Corrigan was finished, the metropolis had been solidly established as the bastion of conservatism in the American Church.
As to the candidates themselves: George, after his disappointing 1887 loss, and an abortive attempt to build a national labor party, formed local clubs to promote the single-tax movement and worked for free trade within the Democratic Party. One of his most ardent followers, Philip G. Hubert, founded the cooperative apartment movement, thus making the Chelsea Hotel an indirect Georgian legacy.
Roosevelt went back to reform work and served as a federal civil service commissioner between 1889 and 1895. He would be heard from again.
Hewitt, the victor, began his mayoralty by pushing a program of harbor, street, and rapid transit improvements designed to aid commerce and provide public works jobs. But his administration soon ran aground. When balked in his reforms, Hewitt, a notoriously obstinate and ill-tempered man given to fits of pique and bursts of anger, vituperatively turned on his 1886 constituents. Having at first channeled Croker some patronage, he cut off the supply. Having made bows to working people, he denounced the Knights of Labor.
Most dramatic, Hewitt reverted to his nativist roots. He pushed for a literacy test and a twenty-one-year naturalization period for immigrants and decreed the closing of small saloons on Sundays. He flatly refused to review the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, something every mayor had done for thirty-seven years. He even refused to fly the shamrock flag at City Hall that day and starchily told his largely Irish Board of Aldermen that “America should be governed by Americans” and that those who preferred another flag should go back where they came from. In the end, it was Hewitt who was sent back where he came from. Croker refused to renominate him, and when the Swallowtails ran him as an independent, he was trounced at the polls.
THE NEW TAMMANY HALL
The biggest winner of the Henry George election was Tammany Hall, which learned a great deal from its near-loss. What impressed Democrats most about the United Labor Party was not its principles but its organization—the network of union locals, Knights of Labor assemblies, and labor clubs the upstart party fielded. They noticed that one Tammany ward that held its own in 1886 had done so by adopting elements of the ULP approach. Henry Purroy, boss of the Twenty-fourth Ward up in the Annexed District, had established a clubhouse in place of the usual saloon. Purroy had also involved the voters’ wives and children on excursions, clambakes, and the like, making the party as much a cultural organization as a political one.
After 1886 Tammany extended this approach throughout the city. By 1893 there was a clubhouse in every Assembly District, all of them linked in the Associated Tammany Societies, with a Tammany Times to report on their activities. The clubs replaced the personal and perishable followings of saloonkeepers and gang leaders and gave a bureaucratic underpinning to the machine. They also gave the party an air of respectability, making it more like the American Legion or the Elks than a bunch of brawlers. Clubs also strengthened the leadership, by making it difficult for insurgents without club endorsements to break into politics. Those who wanted construction and carting work or clerical and professional jobs with the city were well advised to join their local party association, as patronage rewards were now reserved for those who labored long and hard in clubhouse vineyards.
There was patronage aplenty under the dispensation of Croker’s protégé Hugh J. Grant, the man who rebuffed Hewitt’s try for a second term in 1888. Grant, the first New York-born, Irish-American mayor, came from solid middle-class stock. His immigrant father had accumulated a string of successful saloons and left him a substantial inheritance. Grant graduated from St. Francis Xavier and Columbia Law, invested in Upper West Side real estate, built a base of support among Irish-American fraternal organizations, and became a Tammany District Leader and loyal Crokerite—a whole new route to municipal power.
Croker renominated Grant, got him reelected in 1890, then passed the baton to Thomas Francis Gilroy in 1892. Gilroy’s rise was even more heavily dependent on the machine, as his background was more plebeian than his predecessor’s. The Irish-born Gilroy, brought to New York as a child, attended public school, worked as a printer’s apprentice, then worked his way up through the political ranks, serving as a Tweed messenger boy, holding a series of county and court clerkships, becoming district leader on the Upper East Side, then, in 1886, rising to undersheriff of New York County, before being elevated to the mayoralty.
Grant gave virtual control of all city offices and contracts to Croker, who started by making himself city chamberlain at twenty-five thousand dollars a year. With patronage resources beyond anything Kelly or Tweed ever dreamed of, Croker strengthened his control over political officials. No longer would Tammany leaders have to bribe Democratic aldermen into doing their bidding; from 1888 on the complaisant board took its orders from Croker.
Command over twelve thousand city workers also gave the machine a source of campaign funds (via mandatory assessments) and a vast reservoir of election day labor power. This electoral army was supplemented with the aid of a quarter-million dollars of public money allotted to “poll watching.” Technically controlled by police captains in each precinct, it was doled out to voters at the direction of District Leaders, with perhaps 20 percent of the Democratic electorate on the receiving end. City government had, to a significant degree, become an affair of patrons and clients.
This process of consolidation—like the one taking place in the corporate world—was never complete. Croker could not rule absolutely because District Leaders retained power in their own domain. He would have to deal with proconsuls like Big Tim Sullivan, baron of the Bowery, and George Washington Plunkitt, boss of Hell’s Kitchen. Archbishop Corrigan, who carried out a parallel consolidation in the ecclesiastical realm, did far better than either Croker or Morgan.
Tammany’s new strength did allow its Irish-American leaders to crush their longtime partner-opponents, the Swallowtail Democrats, and their stronghold, the County Democracy, expired in 1892. Independence required Irish-American politicians to develop alternate sources of income. One solution was the establishment of an informal “vice tax,” with the machine offering police protection to gamblers and prostitutes in exchange for cash. Payoffs helped fill Tammany coffers from the late 1880s on, but as the politicians would soon discover, such revenue came with risks of its own.
The other source of working capital was the business community. The rise of powerful corporate entities was aided by, and in turn encouraged, the parallel centralization of political power. In the past, businessmen in search of favors had bribed individual aldermen or state legislators, not Tammany bosses. When Jacob Sharp went after his Broadway franchise, almost all the boodle board lined up for a cut, which was annoying, expensive, and problematic, as one could never be sure the bribed would stay bought. Now men like William Whitney could go straight to the top and achieve in a day what had taken Sharp years.
The utilities became Tammany’s greatest source of income. Whitney and Ryan of the Manhattan Elevated Railroad provided top politicos with hefty lawyer’s fees, stock market tips, contracts for their construction companies, and pieces of the action in Metropolitan’s financial deals. They were amply repaid with valuable franchises, maintenance of high fares, and blockage of utilities reform. Upstate too, after Tammany solidified control of both houses in 1892, corporations seeking favors paid “campaign contributions” to him, not legislators, and Croker then distributed the largesse. Republican boss Thomas Platt adopted the same system and indeed worked closely with Croker.
The old shanty dweller did quite well in the new order. He joined the elite and adopted its favorite hobby of raising thoroughbred horses. By the end of 1893 Croker had a $250,000 stock farm, $103,000 worth of race horses, and an eighty-thousanddollar mansion on Fifth Avenue. Like other monopolists, he justified his personal gains by pointing to larger social benefits. As he explained the merits of his new system to Lincoln Steffens, a young reporter: “A business man wants to do business with one man, and one who is always there to remember and carry on the business.” The Bankers Magazine agreed: bosses were mercenaries, no doubt, but they offered “financial corporations” the protection of “a Rob Roy who could control the legislative marauders.”
Croker made peace with the city’s working class as well. Tammany arranged some legislative overtures that redressed some of labor’s grievances, and between 1887 and 1894 laws improved working conditions for streetcar workers and provided for arbitration of some labor disputes. But Democratic interventions tended more toward the rhetorical than the substantive. Tammany became the Friend of the Working Man, but not of workingmen. Democratic Party energies—over and under the table—concentrated on maintaining a pro-business climate, particularly low taxes and freedom from regulation. Thomas Byrnes’s police continued to deal ferociously with labor unrest and break up radical meetings while tolerating grafters and boodlers. Armories proliferated, like the Twenty-second Regiment’s fortified new home at 67th and Broadway (1890), which had slits for cannons and a main entrance that afforded easy passage for cavalry troops. By the mid-1890s New York had 12,800 National Guardsmen, specially trained in riot suppression, and available too as a strikebreaking force, as its mostly middle-class members had been carefully screened. “Are you connected in any way with any labor organization?” each applicant to Brooklyn’s Forty-seventh Regiment was asked, and anyone who responded positively was rejected.
The new Democratic Party would be of but not for labor. The failure of Henry George’s campaign meant there would be no Labor Party in New York City of the sort taking shape in Britain and Germany. Nevertheless, as Teddy Roosevelt observed dolefully after the 1886 election, while the large vote for George did “not mean a new party,” it did constitute, “unfortunately, a new element to be bid for by the old parties.”
The alliance of Irish-, German-, and Anglo-American workers forged in the labor and political wars of the mid-1880s had laid out an agenda for transforming the city. It had sought changes in work, transportation, communication, housing, taxation, health care, sanitation, charity, education, policing, and the organization of politics—stressing the need for government provision of social services by using tax revenues or undertaking full-scale “municipalization” of private businesses.
In 1886 the labor radicals failed to force Tammany, much less Albany, to significantly address their concerns. But reinforcements were arriving. Ships in the harbor had begun disembarking tens of thousands of Germans, Irish, and Britons, along with hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians. Once again, as in the 1840s and 1850s, a vast second city was rising alongside the existing one.
At first this would hamper radical initiatives, as the newcomers had no shared history with New York’s established workforce, had not forged links in the course of common struggle, and often had but limited command of English. But many brought militant traditions of their own and quickly discovered interests in common. When working-class New Yorkers succeeded in overcoming the latest set of barriers to cooperation, the pressures on Tammany would mount once again, until, in the new century, the machine would find itself forced into adopting policies advanced by the radicals of ‘86.