News of the printers’ proposal rippled through working-class Philadelphia, breaking the lethargic chill of the late fall. Workers preparing for the rigors of the cold months suddenly brimmed with anticipation over the prospect of a collective effort in the name of radicalism. Unionized artisans called emergency meetings to elect representatives, and activists in unorganized trades initiated unions and choose delegates. Representatives of both groups met in November and December, and coincident with the new year, launched the Assembly of Associated Mechanics and Workingmen.1 The Assembly consisted of thirty trades at its acme in early 1851, a decided improvement over the Mechanics’ Union’s eighteen affiliates but far below the fifty-one societies that comprised the mighty General Trades’ Union. It represented everyone from the relatively privileged printers to the humble shoemakers, but reached no deeper into the ranks of manual labor. Textile operatives, hand loom weavers, and unskilled workers fell outside the Assembly’s compass, which left it to the artisans alone.2
This constellation makes sense. The Assembly crystallized the class and cultural currents within the better and the sweated trades during the forties. Revivalists and traditionalists inside and outside such crafts shunned the Assembly just as they had eschewed unionism or had organized largely on the spur of the moment to redress immediate grievances. Old and new radicals on the other hand, allied within several occupations, and they coalesced under the broad aegis of the Assembly. Thus, the revivalist radicals, George W. Heilig (printer), A. H. Russell (house carpenter), and John Bottsford (bricklayer) were in league with Solomon Demars and James McShane (ladies’ shoemakers), John Shedden and Peter McIlroy (tailors), and Adolph Zabiensky (litographic printer)—to name just a few of the more visible representatives of each subculture.3
A brief review of the past dramatizes the extraordinary cultural thaw of the early fifties. A scant three years before most revivalist radicals spurned the rationalist (and immigrant) inspired Trades’ Convention and ostentaciously denounced cooperation with the foreign-born at a huge nativist rally. John Bottsford was one of immigration’s detractors on that hot summer afternoon. Now he joined hands with foreign-born workingmen, not out of love or in a sudden fit of compassion, but in recognition of their mutual commitment to radicalism.
New radicals also remained wary of middle-class radicals. In the fall of 1850, for example, radical revivalist house carpenters held a strike meeting during their standout against contractors. Their conclaves were restricted to tradesmen, but they unwillingly agreed to hear out John Campbell and Edward Power who persistently sought out working-class audiences in order to peddle a blueprint for utopian socialism. They had exaggerated views of their persuasive powers and despite the topic on the floor, ridiculed strikes as a waste of time and resources which could be better spent furthering utopianism. Their untimely and condescending lecture so disturbed union secretary A. H. Russell that he railed against nonproducers and insisted upon expelling the two in attendance. Campbell barked back that he in fact was a producer, as was anyone who turned out “thought for the good of society.”4 But he convinced no one and the carpenters had the last word. Russell moved that they be shown the door and the interlopers were ordered out. The same actors rehearsed this scene at the opening session of the Assembly a few months later. Undaunted, Campbell and Power showed up prepared to make yet another pitch for their panacea, but their chances of speaking were remote since their nemesis, Russell, was in attendance and his comrades were no more enamored of middle-class reformers, nativist or not, than he. One of them resolved to bar all but “journeymen mechanics” and the motion passed without a dissenting vote.5
Radical revivalist workingmen not only kept reformers at arm’s length, they also rejected the current petty-bourgeois, nativistic prescription for the attainment of a competency. They did not necessarily sour on the new morality or suspend their repugnance of financiers, but they did refrain from airing these in the forum of the Assembly. None of them spoke of temperance or the Protestant work ethic, nor did they lapse into the customary assault on merchants and bankers or obligatory adoration of entrepreneurs. Such matters were the forte of American Republican politicians and they faded away without the advocacy of their promoters.
Unfettered by the moral and ideological fixations of middle-class nativists, radical revivalists aligned themselves with old radicals in articulating the pristine form of the producer ideology. They reaffirmed the worker’s right to the “full product” of his toil and reviled both “wage slavery” and competition on the floor of the Assembly, and this antiwage sentiment found its way into policy. Early meetings established a fund “for the accomplishment of such ends as may be determined upon” by a majority vote.6 The precise course of the deliberations is somewhat unclear, but there appears to have been minimal if any friction between the proponents of strikes, or class-conscious workers, and supporters of cooperation, or labor reformists. Recent historians have laid the myth of this polarity to rest. No such distinction existed in contemporary Lynn, Massachusetts or in Philadelphia.7 The same workers who endorsed strikes pressed for cooperation and even land reform, a scheme that had been on the radical agenda since the 1820s but assumed new urgency with the advancing capitalism’s ominous threat to worker autonomy. It was a forgone conclusion that the Assembly would reach concensus on cooperation and land reform and both causes won a ringing endorsement by the spring 1851.8
Having settled their ideological direction, Assembly spokesmen addressed the unorganized of the suburban districts at open-air meetings that recalled the agitation of the thirties. A typical demonstration heard speeches by John Shedden (tailor) and Eugene Ahearn (bookbinder) who ably demonstrated how labor reformism, or cooperation, suited both the immediate and long range interests of workers. They “earnestly recommend[ed]” cooperative production for “the purpose of securing to ourselves shorter hours of labor, and more of the products of our own industry,” as well as equalizing the distribution of wealth. These fiery orators also declared the worker’s right to “labor for himself,” and with this in mind, proposed that the government hold the public domain in trust and then parcel it out in 160-acre homesteads to “each actual settler.”9
By the spring 1851, then, new and old radicals concurred on two fundamental points. They tacitly agreed to avoid the divisive cultural issues of immigration, moral reform, and the like, which had kept them at odds throughout the forties. They coalesced, too, around economic matters. They rejected the rampant acquisitiveness and individualism of emergent capitalism for the mutualism of cooperative production.
Yet radicals never did advance their program beyond the stage of fleeting agitation. Instead of tending to their brittle cooperatives and proselytizing noncompetitive labor, they chose the treacherous path of independent politics. Just why they elected such a course at this juncture, and with such haste, is difficult to fathom. Perhaps it was another indication of labor’s mounting dissatisfaction with the conventional parties, which were headed for self-destruction and realignment. For whatever reason, the Assembly sponsored a political convention in August 1851 that gave birth to the Workingmen’s Republican party, the second independent workers’ party to vie for office in twenty years. Workers themselves initiated this political expedition, but typical of such organizations, it proved a beacon for master craftsmen, entrepreneurs, petty professionals, and adventurers alienated from mainstream parties and in search of an alternative.10 It put forth a platform encompassing municipal reform and labor reform with such planks as consolidation of the city and suburban districts into a single jurisdiction and strengthened ten-hour legislation.11 There was virtual unanimity on these issues, or at least no significant dissent. The workingmen took their lead from the Assembly, and steered clear of the troubled waters of culture and ethnicity—but not for long.
The first indication of dissidence actually predated the founding of the party. Many Assembly delegates were loyal Democrats and American Republicans and they sat out the Workingmen’s nominating convention or declined positions on its ticket. Such partisans stumped for their chosen parties or ran on rival tickets. Solomon Demars, for one, captured the Democratic nomination for the state Assembly and wound up challenging both American Republicans and Workingmen.12 The loss of such leaders stripped the Workingmen of their most articulate and popular figures.
They sustained an even more devastating setback during the campaign. Ethnic dissonance still punctuated local politics and in entering the 1851 race, the Workingmen unwittingly but inexorably walked into a maddening political imbroglio that even the most judicious voices could not contain. The occasion was a new statute that changed local judgships from appointive to elective offices.13 There was a surfeit of aspirants to the bench and all parties, including the Workingmen, planned to enter slates. Judge William D. Kelley, favorite of radical Democrats, would have secured one of the Democracy’s slots, but he had recently affronted the party’s Irish wing by ruling against it in a case involving election fraud in Moyamensing.14 Irish blood was still boiling at convention time, and the Irish not only blocked Kelley’s nomination, but embarrassed him by throwing the vote to his arch enemy, Vincent Bradford.15
This left one of Philadelphia’s most colorful and promising politicians without a party, and there was no dearth of suitors. The most persistent of these were the Whigs, who were on the verge of collapse and desperate for a good showing at the polls, as well as most American Republicans, who nervously watched their majorities decline and relished the thought of fusion with the Whigs. The flagging fortunes of both parties produced a marriage of convenience in which the Whigs agreed to endorse American Republican nominees. But Kelley’s availability was too much to resist. The Whigs drafted him without consulting the nativists—a rash maneuver that disturbed but did not estrange American Republican fusionists. Such nativists valued victory above protocol and they went with Kelley, salvaging the alliance.16
This unexpected turn of events ripped apart the American Republicans and evoked a torrent of anti-immigrant hysteria as virulent as that of the mid-forties. A minority of American Republicans, styled Independents, condemned fusion on the grounds that the Whigs were inadequately nativistic and too elitist. They were even more critical of their party’s nominating Kelley, an outspoken American Republican detractor who had reviled nativist “fanaticism” and had stigmatized the party faithful as “church burners,” and they barraged the press with letters of invective against the fusionists and Kelley himself.17 They delighted in reminding nativists of his Irish origins, his prominence in the hated Repeal movement, and his unkindly characterizations of their party. The most ambitious slanderers researched Kelley’s past, sniffing for scandal, and their labors were rewarded. They learned that he had once been seen drinking at a social gathering while holding a key position in the Sons of Temperance and they took great relish in recounting the incident. Kelley’s defenders retorted that the Sons had looked into the matter and their investigation had cleared him of any wrongdoing.18 Their rejoinder helped correct the public record and may have humiliated Independents, but it failed to still the purple pens. It might have encouraged Independents to shift ground and raise even more heated issues—issues designed to stir popular fears and apprehensions. They first depicted Kelley as an abolitionist plotting to usher hordes of freed Blacks into northern labor markets and then fell back on the standby of nativism—anti-immigrant hysteria. They correctly identified Kelley’s most avid working-class supporters as English and German immigrants, and made the most of this connection. “Red, White, and Blue, U.S.A.,” writing in the Public Ledger, observed that John Shedden and other “unnaturalized foreigners” electioneered for the judge and admonished “American Mechanics” not to “suffer yourselves to be lead blindfolded into the toils of your worst enemies.”19
In the midst of such political tumult the Workingmen met to choose candidates for the judgships. Three positions were to be filled, two of which went to Joel Jones and Vincent Bradford. Immigrant radicals believed that the third position was reserved for Kelley, but the mere mention of his name produced such acrimony that it was kept in nomination by virtue of convention chairman William J. Mullen’s casting a vote that created a tie between him and an unknown candidate. Mullen then averted a bolt of one of the sides by adjourning the meeting and rescheduling it in two weeks, ample time for emotions to cool, or so he believed.20 He inadvertently gave Kelley loyalists the space to regroup and plan a counterattack that included nominating their hero and punishing his enemies by dumping Bradford. They accomplished both objectives by means that remain unclear, though one observer was probably close to the mark in charging that they stacked the convention with pro-Kelley Democrats and American Republicans.21 Their heavy-handed politics also caused an irreparable rift within the party. Anti-Kelley men stormed out in disgust, formed a separate ticket headed by Bradford, and ran a bitterly nativistic campaign.22
That Kelley won handily on election day was no consolation. Republican Workingmen stumped vigorously on his behalf, so vigorously that their radical spirit got lost in the flurry of ethnic and personalistic politics.23 Voters went to the polls ignorant of their program and unaware that their ticket included candidates for the state Senate and Assembly. Kelley’s candidacy and nativism overshadowed all else, and the Workingmen’s State House hopefuls ran poorly, collecting an average of 220 votes each.24
And what of the Assembly, parent of the ill-fated Workingmen’s party? Much like the Mechanics’ Union of the late 1820s, it was forgotten in the commotion of the campaign and died a quiet death amid the chaotic infighting. With its demise went the last hope of harmonizing secular and religious radicalism. Those with visions of uniting them had cause for optimism as the American Republican party, font of divisiveness, faded away in 1852–1853. But just as it expired, Know Nothingism burst on the scene—an arresting reminder of nativist resilience.
Mobility, Ethnicity, Ideology
Another political pilgrimage, another dead end. The pattern has a familiar ring to historians of the nineteenth-century American working class. This pattern recurred throughout the century in the port cities with diversified economies and in the single-industry towns of the interior. Time and again radicals broke with mainstream parties and agitated their politics free from fetters of party orthodoxy only to go down to defeat with frustrating regularity.25 Such lost opportunities raise two questions that have long preoccupied labor historians: why American workers resisted acting as a collective entity, or a class, and why they were not more receptive to capitalist alternatives. The two are causally related and while there are several schools of thought, we shall explore those which are most germane to the Philadelphia case, the “mobility thesis” and the “ethnic thesis.”
The mobility thesis speaks to geographical and social movement. The geographic dimension is the extraordinarily high rate of population turnover that characterized nineteenth-century cities. Few workers stayed in one town or even in a single neighborhood very long and their volatility is proffered as an impediment to solidarities and bonds of trust which are presumed to be essential ingredients in the making of class consciousness and maintenance of worker organizations.26 Philadelphia’s manual laborers were rather footloose, but as other writers have observed, we should not make too much of this.27 Population volatility and class consciousness were not necessarily incompatable and might even have been quite consonant.28 The ebb and flow of population, on the other hand, could have upset the process of building confidence among workers and undermined their social organizations. Logic would endorse this proposition, but logic does not always make good history. Every imaginable kind of institution and association took root and flourished in spite of population fluidity and this renaissance led a historian of the Jackson period to dub it, “par excellence the era of the urban parish church, the lodge, the benefit association, the social and political club, the fire company, and the gang.”29 He might have added trade unions and worker lyceums to this roster. Both survived in Philadelphia and elsewhere for the same reason as other organizations. Small groups of activists remained in their communities amid the population flow and these pillars of stability provided leadership and continuity.30 If unions and debating clubs showed less resiliency than, say, churches and fire companies it was less the result of population turnover than of the resources of the membership and sponsors. Unions, after all, were not accorded the financial support of the middle class or the wealthy. Workers and workers alone foot the bill of unions and radical lyceums; meager resources and hard times, not unstable memberships, seem to have been the bane of such working-class associations.
Social mobility consists of both occupational improvement and / or property ownership. The argument is that success in either or both of these and the promise of self-improvement give workers a stake in the status quo, dampening radicalism’s attraction.31 As we have seen, some Philadelphia workers did rise out of their class and accumulate modest holdings. More than this, they accepted the growing national faith in social advancement and its corollaries—that diligence yielded success and that individuals rose or fell on their own merits. Such workers, however, were exceptional in an age of receding opportunities for men of humble origins and it is doubtful that their less fortunate brothers subscribed to the mobility ethic. Traditionalists and rationalists expressed no interest in occupational improvement; Catholic traditionalists of the forties valued survival above all else and were a decade or two away from endorsing the idea of accumulating the income for a house—the goal that they achieved with such frequency in the post-Civil War period. Radical revivalists felt themselves entitled to a house equipped with indoor plumbing and furnished with modern fixtures, such as an organ or piano, and other comforts and symbols of status, but they recoiled from the thought of sacrificing manual labor to this standard of living. They hoped to achieve these badges of respectability on the wages of a journeyman instead of rising up the social ladder beyond the rung of their class. Revivalists were alone in paying homage to the mobility ethic and they were but a single cultural group in a larger aggregate. The mobility thesis thus has limited explanatory power.
The ethnic thesis stresses class fragmentation rather than loyalty to the established order. It posits that the steady arrival of European immigrants converted the manual labor force into a patchwork quilt of different and often hostile groups whose national loyalties and suspicions of one another doomed the working class to internal discord.32 There is something to this argument. Gilded Age and Progressive period historians focusing on the so-called “new immigrants” have marshalled an impressive corpus of evidence in its support, but it is wanting in two respects. It does not give one insights into predepression Philadelphia or into any other locale whose working class consisted largely of native-born Americans. Its view of national consciousness, moreover, is simple-minded and profoundly ahistorical, for it envisions national identity or ethnic consciousness as a given that assumes cultural and political salience at all points in time. It may well apply to immigrants with homogeneous values and experiences. The famine Irish, uniformly peasant in origin and overwhelmingly Catholic, immediately come to mind. The commonality of their experiences and the political context that greeted them in Philadelphia enforced both group cohesion and a strong sense of ethnicity. But one hesitates to lump the Irish immigrants who had artisan backgrounds and radical politics with the famine generation, or to regard English and German newcomers as homogeneous groupings bonded together around an awareness of nationality to the exclusion of other sources of identity. The English and the German populations contained subgroups of nonsectarian radicals, revivalists, and perhaps even Catholic and non-Catholic traditionalists who had more in common with one another than with their fellow countrymen.33 Thus the ethnic thesis has its limitations as well.
Divisiveness there was, but it did not derive strictly from nationalistic particularisms. Working-class Philadelphians were balkanized long before immigration made much of an impact. Prior to the panic of 1837 they sorted themselves out along cultural lines and such groupings subsumed the small nationality groups in the city. This cultural fragmentation itself had less to do with immigration than with the uneven development of capitalism and the prior experiences of the workforce in rural and urban America and Europe. Not until the forties, with its nativist effusions and massive influx of Irish immigrants, did nationalistic divisions count for much. Even then, ethnicity did not always confound cross-cultural alliances against capital. Deteriorating working conditions or the arbitrary exercise of employer authority sometimes dissolved cultural animosities and encouraged unity between rival groups. Catholic traditionalists and revivalist millhands buried their differences during the ten–hour movement of 1848–1849, just as they had done in 1835, and old and new radicals gradually constructed a promising, if fleeting, union as the 1840s drew to a close.
When workers heeled to the will of the boss, it was not simply because they despised one another. Nor was it because they reflected the political behaviorists’ “negative reference group theory” in which one group expresses its animus for another by siding with its enemy—in this instance revivalists currying favor with capital as a way of thumbing their nose either at radicals or traditionalists.34 Instead, worker deference is better understood as the result of their conceptions of class and their attitudes toward work. Revivalists resisted confronting their employers not because of their suspicion of those who did but because of the respect for individualism and reverence for employers and entrepreneurs emitted by evangelical Protestantism. Such workers blamed themselves for their travail. Traditionalist views, quite frankly, are more difficult to pin down. We know that they did not tolerate individualism and that they had modest expectations, but traditionalists may have been far more sophisticated than appears at first. The traditionalist bailiwick of hand loom weaving, for example, persisted partly because of low labor costs, which enabled employers to withstand the competition of modern mills fitted with power looms.35 Traditionalist frame tenders may have understood this, as well, and may have concluded that to demand excessively high rates was to doom their industry and force themselves into the factories they did so much to avoid. Holding down wages below a certain threshold might have been a calculated strategy, a means of preserving the casual style of life that was so much a part of outwork. But this is conjecture. The point is that culture and nationality were not simply sources of dissension and should not been seen solely as such. Historians would do better to probe the social and economic understandings conveyed by such constructs.
This matter gets us closer to the reasons behind radicalism’s failure. It was not for lack of effort on the part of radicals themselves. Unlike the urban socialists of the Progressive period, they did not assume that capitalism would collapse under its own weight or that economic deterioration would swell the socialist throng. These socialists set the table in anticipation of celebrating capitalism’s demise, but did very little to bring out the guests in the belief that the economy would send out its own invitations. Rationalist radicals had no use for such vulgar economism. They had a true feeling for the political limitations of nonradicals and well understood the imperative to cultivate dissident consciousness. They made some headway among traditionalists (and perhaps among a fraction of revivalists) during the thirties, by means of the educative apparatus of the Trades’ Union and informal agitation. They were deterred, however, by the antiradical fulminations of revivalist leaders, and were stopped in their tracks by the depression of 1837, which wrecked their organizations and stimulated the penultimate events of the Second Great Awakening. (The last would come in the panic of 1857.)
The revivalist upsurge of the depression gave radicalism an entirely different cast. Revivalism gave birth to the new radicalism that became the ruling expression of worker insurgency. The nativistic strain of the new radicalism distinguished it from its rationalist predecessor and made its partisans less willing to proselytize among the uninitiated, especially if they were Catholic or foreign born. As it turned out, many nonradicals were in fact immigrants, and the Catholics among them were being incorporated into their church for the first time and barraged with antiradical prejudice. The convergence of these developments produced a cultural standoff, an ebb in radical agitation, on the one hand, and a new resistance to radicalism, on the other. But again, one should be wary of accenting intergroup discord. New radicals, after all, were still of the radical camp, and their rejection of Catholic immigrants stemmed not only from nativism but also from the producer ideology. They simply refused to believe that Catholic workers, many of whom were unskilled, qualified as producers.
Radicalism’s grounding in the producer ideology and the labor theory of value holds the final key to its unhappy fate. This ideology proved both a blessing and a curse to a forceful critique of capitalism for old and new radicals. In affirming the worker’s right to the full proceeds of his labor, it propelled him against employers and provided the most important ideological impetus for reorganizing production along cooperative lines. At the same time, its fuzzy conception of class and exploitation left the worker vulnerable to the appeals of middle-class radicals, whose translation of the producer ideology deflected attention from employers to financiers, and lured him into fighting rear-guard battles against the money changers.
The producer ideology also prescribed political action against accumulators. This was not in itself a liability, but in the context of American politics it shackled radicals with the labors of Sisyphus. As Alan Dawley has argued, the establishment of white universal suffrage in the United States before workers felt “the worst effects of the industrial revolution” tied them closer to the political system than their European comrades, who had to struggle as a class for the ballot.36 This took some of the punch out of the class struggle in the United States and all but guaranteed that parties would not be firmly rooted in class differences, as they were on the Continent. Workers gave their votes to all parties, as noted above, and partisanships were fairly resilient. Parties were also remarkably accessible to articulate pleabians who routinely ran for office and served as functionaries at the local level—and often for different standards. Thus radicals had it difficult whichever way they turned. They were either drawn off into existing parties, their voices muted amid the moderate majorities, or when fielding independent tickets, could not easily entice workers from the parties of their choice.