Workers at Bay*
The years after 1845 were a mixed blessing for working-class Philadelphians. Their despair born of unemployment abated with economic recovery and they could once again look forward to steadier work. Artisans who moved into unskilled work in the dislocation of the depression returned to their trades. Some craftsmen benefited from the showdowns of 1835–1836 over the length of the workday and left their jobs before sundown in observance of that memorable slogan, “6 to 6.” But this was one of the few residual dividends of the thirties.
Prosperity may have restored jobs but did not lighten the worker’s travail. Making ends meet was more demanding than ever according to “A Reflecting Operative.” This embittered worker of 1849 calculated that labor had lost one-third to one-half “its former gain” in the last fifteen years, and he erred only on exaggerating the magnitude of the decline. Most journeymen, he accurately observed, failed to recover the wage reductions imposed by employers during the depression, and those in the sweated trades sustained additional cuts in the late forties.1 They paid more for necessities, owing primarily to rising prices on the open market and partly to the store-order system, which further increased costs.2 The price of pork, corn, and fuel fell gradually during the depression, before beginning an incremental rise after 1845, which returned prices to 1835 levels by the late 1840s.3 Workers who were unable to push up earnings during the inflation spiral were worse off in 1850 than in 1835. Most, in fact, lived at or below subsistence levels.
Many tradesmen and operatives toiled longer and harder in order to survive. Textile bosses stretched out the workday to twelve and thirteen hours, and shoe and clothing manufacturers accomplished the same result by holding down piece rates. Journeymen shoemakers and tailors worked late into the night during the busy season of the late forties in compensation for continual rate cuts.4 With the shift of production from homes and shops to manufactories and garrets, a growing number also faced stricter work routines and closer supervision. Printers and building tradesmen were among the privileged craftsmen who maintained the ten-hour day, but even they experienced erosions of their skills and laboring traditions. Boss printers demoted the all-around journeyman into a specialized worker relegated to setting type when they divided up the craft and staffed press rooms with young women and teenage boys commonly known as “half-trained” apprentices. Publishers on the frontiers of innovation installed power-driven presses, which subjected the women and youths to the regimen of machinery and placed additional pressure on the male compositors.5 Speculators in the building trades began a radical transformation of housing construction at the expense of the skills of journeymen and the independence of masters. Such entrepreneurs performed no manual labor, nor did they hire their own workers in the manner of the traditional builder. Instead, they let contracts to masters and awarded jobs to the lowest bidder within each calling, which converted masters into intensely competitive subcontractors forced to hire the cheapest labor available. This system spelled the demise of independent masters and the displacement of skilled construction workers by “green hands.”6
Journeymen with ambitions to establish themselves on their own could not have chosen a more inauspicious time. The conventional avenue of mobility from journeyman to master narrowed appreciably during the forties.7 Opportunity dried up and failures mounted, which sent even more masters and journeymen into the advanced work environments. The few that did rise to master status did not necessarily achieve independence. Most were more likely to be subcontractors and garret bosses beholden to merchants and manufacturers.
The decline in living standards and deterioration of working conditions did not go uncontested. Skilled and unskilled workers reconstituted their unions or mobilized in make-shift strike committees, but these agencies of struggle paled in contrast to earlier models. Artisan combinations regressed to their pre-thirties form and rarely drafted the semiskilled or expressed solidarity with one another, with industrial workers, or with the unskilled. And they were emphatically less combatative than in the 1830s. Newspapers recorded only eighty strikes in the decade following recovery, compared with thirty standouts in 1836 alone, and such work stoppages usually collapsed within a month.8 This perceptible falling off of worker militancy derived in part from the want of a central labor union capable of coordinating strike activity and of funding union efforts. Fragmented and disorganized, strikers received no quarter from fellow unionists and more often than not went down to defeat.
Waning worker militancy was not simply the result of weak organization. Instead, both were symptomatic of the impact of immigration, revivalism, and nativism on worker cultures. These forces further balkanized wage earners into hostile camps and solidified the affiliations between native-born journeymen and small producers that had been prefigured in the shifting political alliances of the depression and had fueled American Republicanism. Such factors also spawned new cultural types. Evangelicalism, for example, gave rise to a variant of radicalism—or what we shall call radical revivalism—and immigration reshaped the texture of traditionalism and the old radicalism. Thus, the cultural mosaic of the past assumed a new complexity; it consisted of revivalists, two groups of traditionalists, and two of radicals. The radicals are the subject of the following chapter. Here we explore the revivalists and traditionalists.
The depression’s evangelical upsurge swelled the revivalist minority into a sizable subculture. Revivalists constituted an even larger faction of the American Republican party, traditionalists and radicals being the others. They shared the nationalistic and anti-Catholic sentiments of fellow nativists, but had a unique point of view and a different organizational nexus outside the party itself. Their institutional base was the evangelical church of the suburbs—those congregations that vegetated in the revivals and temperance rallies of the late thirties, under the cultivation of Ramsey, Coombe, and others. Such ministers brought their own perspective to bear on the key issues of the day. They were adept at fomenting strong antialien feeling with dark forecasts of the consequences of unchecked immigration. They depicted the foreign-born as competitors in the labor market, and singled out Catholics as a force that would arrest progress and reduce prosperous America to the backwardness of Spain, Ireland, and other lands under papal rule.9 Some even rebuked bankers, lawyers, and merchants in the language of the producer ideology. Methodist minister John Hersey, for one, was fond of dispensing advice on child rearing and domestic economy. He once counseled parents against preparing children “for the bar, if you wish them to live in heaven. Neither can we recommend but utterly condemn merchandising.” He continued with a choice quotation from Oliver Goldsmith: “Honor sinks where commerce long prevails.”10 The most “honorable and independent employment on earth,” he insisted, “is the cultivation of the ground: next to this stands plain, useful mechanism [artisanship].”11 In a similar vein William Ramsey and other suburban ministers with working-class congregations sermonized against “speculation” and nonproductive labor.12 But reprobations of this sort were rare and should not be confused with the radical version of the producer ideology.
Evangelical leaders looked at such matters through the lens of the new morality. Moral considerations, not radical economics, underpinned their distrust of accumulators and immigrants alike. Hersey thus demeaned merchandising and the professions not because they were unproductive or exploitative but because they could “dissipate and distract the mind” and, if followed, would lead to vice and moral languor.13 By the same token, immigrants aroused revivalist enmity not so much because they threatened the jobs of Americans, but because they were perceived as degenerates.
This moral critique of accumulators and immigrants was only one aspect of revivalism. For ministers were not only interested in the conduct of nonevangelicals; their own behavior and that of their communicants also concerned them. Attacking the foreign-born and warning of the perils of nonmanual vocations, after all, allowed for the ventilation of frustration and anger, but left unresolved the issue of individual salvation. It involved a dilemma that weighed on the conscience of every Arminian divine and one they invited by rejecting the absolutism of orthodoxy. The orthodox synthesis made no pretense of uncertainty over free will or man’s ability to shape his own destiny, which could be a source of comfort to the believer: if salvation were predetermined and man innately depraved, there was no point in striving for perfection in order to please God. Arminians, however, had opened up a gray area by maintaining that men and women were free agents with the capacity for salvation, but were ultimately accountable to God himself and finally uncertain of their fate. And the doubt and irresolution inherent in Arminianism deeply troubled evangelical divines. Their diaries and writings betray continual inner turmoil over one’s adequacy as a Christian and servant to God.14
This stress on individualism, or “free agency,” carried over into revivalist notions of economic justice. Ministers averred that worldly success or failure, like salvation itself, was a matter of individual choice and that those who lived in poverty or failed to improve their station had only themselves to blame. They clung tenaciously to this view, their impoverished parishioners notwithstanding. Confronted by scenes of privation and misery among their communicants, they advised perseverance and held out the possibility of a comfortable afterlife as reward for earthly tribulation. One poor outworker complained to her Methodist class leader, “You don’t get abused or knocked about as we do; your temptations are not like ours. What would you think if, after working hard for three days, and living on trust for that time with the expectation of receiving a proper compensation for your labor, you were to receive only 31 cents for the whole?” But her leader replied: “Fannie, I know you have had a hard lot of it; but pray, it will not last for always. This is your trial, and if you endure to the end you will have the promise of a crown of life.”15 Ramsey had a similar reaction to the hardship of the poor. He once visited a family of indigent cottagers who had “to work often till late at night . . . to 12, 1 o’clock” and still could not afford “clothes fit . . . for church.”16 But such deprivation evoked nothing more than private confessions of pity to his diary and lectures to the poor laced with the familiar aphorism “What shall it profit a man if he gain the world.”17
Ministers passed on this preoccupation with self, morality, and salvation to their lay followers. These proselytes, the experience of Alexander Fulton discloses, were stricken with the same internal torment that troubled their clergy. They were at constant war with themselves in striving to honor the moral regimen dictated by their faith and they struggled mightily to be good Christians.18 They saw evangelicalism as the best hope for a better life on earth as well as in heaven, and entranced by its promise, they rarely strayed beyond churchly moorings. In times of doubt and personal crisis, they sought the counsel of their clergyman.19 If they joined a teetotal club, which was often the case, they were likely to enroll in church-sponsored societies or temperance-beneficial clubs initiated by activist ministers rather than trade-based groups led by artisans with an explicit sense of craft or class identity. Those who joined fraternal groups outside the orbit of the church preferred the Odd Fellows and Sons of Temperance to beneficial societies of artisans.20
Above all, then, the revivalist worker thought of himself as a Protestant. He could be and often was a militant defender of his faith and culture, but on the shop floor he was the most tractable of employees, a firm believer in self-denial, diligence, and individualism. Only infrequently did he question the will of his employer and opposed him only with the greatest reluctance. Poverty to him was literally the “wages of sin,” the result of a flawed character.
The deference of the revivalist worker is understandable. He was usually a former traditionalist whose preconversion experiences left him without a critical perspective or that spirit of independence capable of mediating clerical conservatism. When driven to despair by the economic downturn, he rushed to embrace revivalistic morality as well as the ideology of accommodation.
Old radicals were also vulnerable to the paralysis of revivalism. As Benjamin Sewell’s religious odyssey reveals, conversion could in fact eradicate political commitments. A journeyman tanner by trade, Sewell was a leader of the militant Journeyman Saddlers’ and Harnessmakers’ Union in the thirties. He rose to vice president of the Trades’ Union and appears to have been a prominent figure in the G.T.U.’s cooperationist faction. But Sewell succumbed to the evangelical tide of the depression, joined the Methodist church, and, in the late forties, exchanged his saddler’s apron for a minister’s broadcloth. He signed a portrait of himself on the frontpiece of his memoirs, “Yours in Jesus Christ.” His duties took him to the Bedford Street Mission, Philadelphia’s answer to the Five Points of New York, where he ministered to the needs of the poor without a trace of his radical heritage. Sewell blamed “demon rum” and “hard living” for the poverty of his constituents. And as befits an enthusiastic evangelical, he wrote, “God pity the suffering poor, and help them to resist temptation, overcome the world, and secure for themselves a place in heaven where poverty will never come.”21 To Sewell and his coreligionists, intemperance was the cause of indigence and not a symptom of it.
Yet evangelicalism fell short of completely depriving workers of critical faculties or totally subjecting them to the behest of employers as Anthony Wallace would have us believe.22 In the 1840s, as in the past, evangelical injunctions to self-improvement and dutiful parenthood induced worker deference, but at the same time they heightened vigilance against exhaustive toil and the abuse of children. Revivalists employed at home as cottagers had a higher threshold for both since they hired family members and regulated the pace of their labor. But conditions in the textile mills were different and were perceived as such. Operatives could not mistake the fact that employers compelled an extended workday and preferred to hire parents willing to send their children into the grimy mills. When their bosses extended the workday from 11 to 13 hours in the business upturn of the late forties, they stepped beyond the bounds of working-class evangelical propriety and set the stage for another ten-hour movement.
The revitalized ten-hour movement reached into textile hamlets across the state. In the east it centered in Manayunk and in the mill districts of adjoining Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Both areas had heterogeneous populations of English and native-born male Methodists, or revivalists, and male Irish and German Catholics, or traditionalists, as well as large concentrations of women of both religions and all nationalities. Traditionalists entered the struggle on the side of the revivalists, but the latter provided the leadership and directed the movement. Manayunk ten-hour stalwarts were class leaders in the Methodist churches and members of the local lodge of the Sons of Temperance.23 They transferred their prestige and leadership skills from these institutions to the ten-hour movement and it gave off a revivalist glow from its inception. Manayunk evangelicals, for example, had recently circulated petitions requesting a legislative ban on the manufacture and sale of liquor and they adapted this tactic to the ten-hour movement.24 They petitioned state lawmakers for a legal limitation on the hours of work, and, as events and their own rhetoric would show, they perceived the issue as a moral struggle between right and wrong and not a battle between classes. Fellow operatives in neighboring Delaware County endorsed this view. “In the contest,” read an address penned by their ten-hour committee at a mass demonstration, “we enlist ourselves against no interests or class—assail no one with . . . invective abuse. Detraction and calumny form no part of our proceedings in [the] prosecution of the great question we have in mind.”25 They closed their gathering with the following invocation:
Press on then, and though you may not share
The toil or glory of the fight—
May ask at least in earnest prayer,
God’s blessing on the right.26
The petitioners received a hearing at the legislative sessions of 1848 and 1849. In the spring of 1848 lawmakers deliberated a bill authored by state Representative and radical Democrat William F. Small of Philadelphia County. It prescribed a ten-hour day for textile mills and kindred factories with the notable exception of furnaces and foundries. The debate divulged, however, that legislators did not agree with the operatives’ conception of a legal day’s work. The workers demanded a general reduction of hours, but the Whigs and conservative Democrats preferred to ban child labor, grant a ten-hour day to children, and give adults the option of contracting to work as long as they wished. The law which emerged embodied these reserved views. It prohibited the employment of children under twelve years of age in cotton, woolen, silk, paper, flax, and bagging mills and proclaimed ten hours to be a legal day’s work, but vitiated this clause with a provision empowering parents and guardians of children over the age of fourteen to make their own arrangements through “special contracts.”27 This loophole presumably applied to adults, as well, and consequently, the struggle was transferred back to the operatives and to their middle-class sympathizers who formed the “Friends of Ten Hours.”
Manayunk millhands and their “Friends” held jointly-sponsored rallies at which they formulated long and short-term tactics. Expressing disappointment with the law, they announced still another petition insisting upon deletion of the contract provision at the upcoming legislative session. Both groups, in effect, looked forward to a legal resolution. Neither of them, least of all the “Friends,” relished the thought of a strike.28 Class conflict was precisely what they wished to avert, but there was no escaping the reality of the present law and the prospect of being forced to sign contracts. The operatives braced for this possibility by resolving en masse to refuse to sign away their rights.29 When the measure became law on July 4, they were pleasantly surprised. Smaller manufacturers thought better of testing the operatives’ will and announced they would comply with the ten-hour standard. But Joseph Ripka, the largest Manayunk manufacturer, employing about two-thirds of the hands, informed his workers that those who chose to work less than thirteen hours a day would be assessed proportionate wage reductions, ranging from 10 to 22 percent.30 Ripka’s response put revivalists on notice that this was not a moral struggle at all, but a conflict between classes whose resolution transcended moral persuading. Faced with Ripka’s decision, the operatives rallied their forces and grudgingly vowed to resist with a strike. The standout, however, was confined to the cotton spinners, who, buoyed by their own sense of moral right and revivalist discipline, held out for three weeks, but then relented and returned to work on Ripka’s terms.31
Manayunk operatives had achieved their goal of a ten-hour day with minimal employer resistance. But the contract clause was still intact, and the millhands, fearing it would be invoked at a more opportune time, once again turned to the legislature. They were to be sorely disappointed. Their allies among the lawmakers and in the “Friends of Ten Hours,” convinced that a stronger law stood no chance of getting through the State House, lowered their sights and pressed for a statute limiting the ten-hour day to women and children.32 But conservative legislators rejected even this concession. The 1849 law, which superseded that of 1848, merely regulated the labor of minors. It raised the minimum age—in cotton, woolen, paper, silk, bagging, and flax mills—from twelve to thirteen, and restricted the employment of those between thirteen and sixteen to nine months a year and ten hours a day. Employers and their agents who “knowingly or willfully” violated the law were subject to civil suits and fines of $50 for each offense. The contract clause did not reappear and adult operatives received nothing in return for its deletion. They were probably better off under the old law, for the new one held them liable to the same punishment as the owners for violating the provisions for child labor.33
The operatives, once again, were responsible for enforcing the law. They organized still another round of demonstrations, and these bore the unmistakable hand of revivalist culture and politics. There was music by the Sons of Temperance band and speeches by leaders who beseeched followers to honor their ten-hour pledge without disrupting class harmony. Not one of them mentioned a strike in the likely event of employer opposition. Their refusal to entertain the idea of withholding their labor exposes the differences between the ten-hour movements of 1835 and 1849. In the past, working-class radicals broke down revivalist inhibitions with pealing republican oratory and marched them out on strike.34 But such radicals were as rare as cornfields in Manayunk by the late 1840s, and their absence left local revivalists to conduct the struggle in the only way they knew how. To admit the necessity of a strike was tantamount to acknowledging class polarities and to denying the social fluidity that was the ideological keystone of revivalism. It was a step they had taken with the greatest reluctance in 1848 and one they could not bring themselves to repeat. Left to their own devices, revivalist operatives drafted a resolution addressing their bosses not as employers but as fellow Christians and citizens and describing observance of the ten-hour law as the “imperative and religious duty, of every employer as a citizen and a philanthropist.”35 Their last line of defense was the hope that the lords of the loom would heed their Christian consciences and lawabiding instincts.
As it turned out, the operatives came away with a victory partly by default and partly by virtue of their own solidarity. Their collective resolve to work ten hours only deterred some employers from reverting to the thirteen-hour day and the downturn of 1849 did the rest. No textile boss seriously considered extending the workday in slack times.36
Quite apart from moral and ideological perspectives, revivalists were distinguished from other working-class cultures by their national homogeneity. They were, to be sure, English, German, and even Irish, but most were native-born Americans. This had been true of traditionalists as well, though it is probable that immigrants were more widely represented among them in the past. Such a configuration was the result of demographic trends. Immigrants were such a small fraction of the population in the 1830s (about 10 percent) that they could not dominate any subculture.
The massive influx of immigrants during the forties changed the ethnic base of traditionalism. Tens of thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine inundated Philadelphia in the second half of the decade, and by 1850 reached 70,000, or just about one-fifth of the population.37 They displaced native-born Americans as the chief group of traditionalists.
The Irish differed from their predecessors in several respects. Previous waves of Irish newcomers included radical republicans and artisans who had practiced trades in the Auld Sod or had learned rudimentary skills as migrants in England. A minority of the famine generation were of the tradition of artisan radicalism, but the vast majority were unschooled in political dissent, though rabidly anti-British, and unacquainted with artisan skills or even wage labor. A diverse group of renters and laborers without fixed employment, they were a downtrodden peasantry whose brooding fatalism was equaled only by the depth of their misery. For them, life hinged on potato cultivation, and when the blight of the forties struck, those who managed to stay alive made their way to the nearest port and passage to the New World.38 They came in the hundreds of thousands and no nineteenth-century immigrants were as ill-prepared for the industrializing city. The “first and pressing necessity,” wrote a contemporary historian of Irish Philadelphia, “was employment,” and while the diversified economy of the Quaker City offered a long roster of artisan work and industrial jobs, the debilitating legacy of peasant life consigned them to the lower end of the occupational hierarchy.39 Lacking skills and industrial experience, most scavenged for work as casual laborers or put together crude carts and wheelbarrows in hopes of working as carters and teamsters. For every Irish laborer and carter there was a skilled worker, or at least an individual who identified himself as such. The bulk of these were actually semiskilled workers in the shoe and clothing trades and hand loom weavers whose vocations hardly qualified as skilled at all. Most such “artisans” worked at home as cottagers rather than in manufactories or factories. Factory workers were still in the minority among the Irish.40
Strangers in an unfamiliar environment, the Irish preferred to live in close proximity to family and friends. But Philadelphia’s unique housing stock discouraged rigid ghettoization and ethnic clustering. Row homes spread across the face of the city and shanties tucked away behind thoroughfares awaited the famine Irish. Those unable to find housing in the old Irish districts settled in the western fringe of the city and in the suburbs, where the extension of row-house construction dispersed them in every direction, and mixed peoples of all nationalities, in uneasy togetherness.41
If integration and dispersal distinguished the settlement of the Irish, cohesion and segregation typified their religious and social life.42 This, too, was a recent development. Prior to the forties, Catholic institutions were as anemic and remote in Philadelphia as they were in Ireland. As late as 1838, there was no Catholic hospital or parochial school system, only one asylum (St. Joseph’s which had been built in 1797), and just six churches—five of them in the old port far from the newer Irish neighborhoods. Irish Catholics in the northern districts did not have a church until 1833, when St. Michael’s opened its doors, and their counterparts in the south, one of the oldest Catholic communities in the county, had no parish at all. Catholic children who did seek an education used the public school system; the needy relied on public charity or the benefactions of Protestant philanthropists; orphans were placed in Protestant homes or in Protestant-dominated asylums; and the church itself exercised precious little influence until the 1840s—with the sudden immigrant influx and the nativism controversy. Both developments made Catholics, the hierarchy in particular, more aware of themselves as a religious minority with their own interests, and goaded the diocese into an ambitious effort at building institutions. In the twelve years following 1838, Catholics constructed three orphans’ and widows’ asylums, four hospitals, and no less than thirteen churches, ten of which were located in the industrial suburbs.43
The quick assembly of this diocesan network modified Catholic Philadelphia in two ways. It segregated Catholic from Protestant in a web of Catholicity, and lifted the clergy into new prominence. Parish priests, commanding the same status as the evangelical ministry, combined the roles of political, spiritual, and community leader into one. They presided over every rite and ritual from birth to death, distributed charity to the infirm and the needy, dispensed advice to the forlorn. They also reunited recent arrivals with kin and loved ones, read and wrote letters for the illiterate, and, by their very presence, provided a symbolic link between the Old World and the New. Never before did Catholic clerks enjoy such authority in America.44
Church officials employed their newly found authority to solidify the willful segregation reflected in the church’s infrastructure. They used their pulpit and press to prod the laity into taking refuge from abusive Protestantism in the haven of diocesan institutions. Such clerics directed the sick and the homeless to Catholic hospitals and asylums. They implored parents to send their children to parish schools, and impressed them with the absolute necessity of instilling the faith in their offspring, even if this meant sacrificing readiness for the trades or for social improvement. One of them went so far as to condemn indenturing young boys to non-Catholic masters, for the paramount obligation of youths was to learn the “first principles of faith, religion . . . and then, if the condition of the poorer classes of youth is not bettered—if they do not continue attached to their faith . . . we have nothing to answer for in their regard.”45
The fatalism intimated in such counsel suffused Catholic teaching. Catholicism, it has been observed, gave “perfect expression” to the dejection that was the peasant experience and, one might add, to the insouciant morality of traditionalist culture. Church canon, firmly rooted in the notion of original sin and human depravity, underlined the hopelessness of redemption in this life and stressed “divine transcendence” in the next.46 It favored ritualistic devotion over emotional displays of piety, and discounted moral probity and social betterment as conditions or signs of grace.47 The few clerics who did advocate temperance denied any connection between self-perfection and salvation and the church itself raised its voice against prohibition, Sabbatarianism, and other coercive reforms favored by revivalists.48
Catholicism’s growing conservatism on cultural affairs also began to color its view of political economy. Clerics and journalists had consumed an ocean of ink in the early forties denouncing the attempts of Repealer Daniel O’Connell and American abolitionists to fuse their causes and enlist the Catholic masses.49 They succeeded in distancing themselves from abolitionist effusions and heading off the Repealer-Abolitionist marriage, but the specter of radicalism haunted church officials throughout the forties. It raised its ominous head in a dramatic way at the end of the decade, as revolution swept across Europe and threatened the temporal and spiritual power of Roman Catholicism. Such revolutionary spasms riveted the attention of American prelates on the Old World and ripened their inchoate political conservatism. Clerics and journalists, having fended off the romantic radicalism of abolitionism, now took up the cudgel against its secular and anticlerical counterparts. They tarred radical republicanism with the brush of “red revolution” and extrapolated the lessons of 1848 in Europe to the politics of their adopted city.50 They took a dim view of any tinkering with the established order or any form of collective action in redress of social injustice. Clerics insisted that the aggrieved resolve class conflict through “moral suasion.”51
Catholicism’s crusade against radicalism and for the loyalty of its laity had begun in earnest by the mid-forties. It did not penetrate the masses overnight, nor did lay Catholics follow church guidance to the letter. But it did begin the transformation of a traditional culture without an inherent antiradical bias into a conservative one with a pronounced antiradical edge.
This emphasis upon religious segregation and group cohesion had a secular dimension. The leisure-time activities of working-class Irish Catholics continued to revolve around street corners, public markets, taverns, and fire houses, but the resurgence of Irish Catholic consciousness and the concurrent flaring of nativism altered such mainstays of traditionalism. Bars and fire companies integrating immigrants and native-born Americans, though still extant in some neighborhoods, gave way to ethnic homogeneity. In Moyamensing, for example, Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant volunteers set up separate fire companies (the Moyamensing and Franklin Hose, respectively) and Irish Catholics in integrated companies found themselves at odds with nativist factions.52 At Southwark’s Weccacoe Engine Company in 1842, a heated feud pushed the Irish and sympathetic Americans to secede and organize their own group, the Weccacoe Hose.53 Four years later nativists in lower Southwark founded the Shiffler Hose, in honor of George Shiffler, the first native-born fatality of the Kensington riots.54 The repetition of this pattern in other suburbs produced a hornet’s nest of rival groups in a subculture already known for its social turbulence.
Traditionalist culture took an even more ominous turn with the emergence of street gangs. Age-segregated and ethnically cohesive, they had various origins. The youth gangs consisted of adolescents who escaped the discipline of schools and waning apprenticeship, and evolved out of friendship networks and fire company “runners.”55 The adult gangs had several beginnings. Irish history supplied ample precedent for such groups. Rural Eire was thick with gang-like bands that chastised ravenous landlords, disciplined villagers resisting boycotts, and other types of retaliation. Eighteenth-century bands, such as the Hearts of Oak and White Boys, were canonized in Irish lore and their exploits in the name of justice surely lived on in the memory of Irish immigrants.56 But urban conditions also seem to have bred immigrant and native-born gangs. These developed out of bar and street-corner cliques, militia units returning from the Mexican War, and work groups that already involved gang labor on the waterfront and rivers. The originators of the ferocious Killers of Moyamensing, for example, were veterans of the Mexican fiasco, and the Schuylkill Rangers, a savage gang of boatmen, evidently grew out of crews on the Schuylkill.57
Gangs ran the gambit from loose groupings of companions to tight-knit paramilitary organizations hierarchically arranged with discrete chains of command and definite division of labor. Youth gangs often were no more than ephemeral cliques. Adult gangs, especially Irish outifts, remained intact for decades and were highly structured.58 A fictionalized account of the Killers tells of bizarre candlelight rituals and suggests a clear-cut internal hierarchy:
They were divided into three classes—beardless apprentice boys who after a hard day’s work were turned loose upon the street at night, by their masters and bosses. Young men of nineteen and twenty, who fond of excitement, had assumed the name and joined the gang for the mere fun of the thing, and who would either fight for a man or knock him down, just to keep their hand in; and fellows with countenances that reminded of the brute and devil well intermingled. These last were the smallest in number, but the most ferocious of the three.59
Highly organized and acutely aware of their cultural interests, nativist and Irish firemen and gang members constituted powerful voting blocs within their respective parties. On election day they would march to the polls and cast ballots for their favorite candidates. The rival groups supported different parties, but they were at one on some issues. Both, for example, opposed those urban reformers who had vainly sought to professionalize the fire department and who stepped up their law-and-order campaign following the bloodletting in Kensington. Largely in response to the Kensington riots and subsequent disorders, the reformers advanced a comprehensive reform platform. It included consolidation of the city and county into a single jurisdictional unit, professionalization of the police, and prohibitions on the production and marketing of liquor, in addition to replacing the volunteer firemen with paid workers.60 Some American Republican and Democratic politicians endorsed all or part of this program, but they were ineffectual. Neither party, including the otherwise moralistic American Republicans, dared endorse such measures for fear of alienating their traditionalist wings. Rather, both accommodated to traditionalist demands. Democrats winked at violations in liquor and gambling laws, and American Republicans enforced such laws selectively, if at all, prosecuting Democratic violators only.61
More often than not traditionalists were at war with one another. They created the wave of street crime that gripped the suburban districts after 1845, and turned streets into virtual battlegounds. As in the past, traditionalist violence was both expressive and purposive. Expressive acts included everything from youth gang skirmishes to full-scale riots between rival gangs and fire companies. These disorders differed from those of the past in their frequency and intensity. Firemen’s fights occurred routinely in the late forties and lost their playful quality once the participants armed themselves and sniped at one another or resorted to arson simply to avenge an insult, impress youthful novitiates, or vent antiethnic anger. The heavily Irish Weccacoe Hose Company, for example, passionately hated the nativist Weccacoe Engine Company, from which it had seceded in 1842. Weccacoe Hose men provoked a rash of street fights with their rivals, and routinely embarrassed them with the help of the Bouncers, a gang of neighborhood toughs who ran with the Weccacoes and bolstered them in a crisis.
In June 1844, on the eve of the Southwark riots, the Weccacoes and Bouncers resolved to deliver the coup de grace, and stole to the engine house under cover of darkness. Someone tipped off the engine men, however, and they greeted the Weccacoes with a fussilade of musket shot. The astonished conspirators beat a ragged retreat, dragging their wounded to Diehl’s tavern a few blocks away, and girded for another assault with firearms of their own. It was a frustrating evening. Watchmen aroused by the commotion of the first encounter followed the Weccacoes to the tavern, confiscated their weapons, and ordered them to disperse. The Weccacoes left for their homes wringing their hands in disappointment, and the engine men secured the protection of the Wayne Artillery, which stood guard outside their quarters for the next few evenings.62
The companies collided again and again in the following years, and on the night of February 4, 1850, the Weccacoes finally put the engine company out of commission. Four of them, led by shoemaker and company secretary Levi Fort, were completing the last leg of a weekend excursion to the neighborhood taverns. The drunken quartet first considered assaulting the nativist Shiffler Hose house, but settled on burning out their ancient enemies, the Weccacoe engine men. This time they executed their plan flawlessly. The arsonists divided into two groups. One pair broke into the engine house, tied the tender to a post to ensure its being conflagrated, and fled after igniting a pile of wood shavings. The other pilfered the spanner of the Southwark Fire Company, which had arrived to extinguish the blaze. Unable to open a plug, the Southwark had to wait for another company and by the time it appeared the fire consumed the first floor of the newly-erected, three-story building, causing over $2,000 in damages.63
Purposive or instrumental violence, which often shaded into expressive acts, resulted from the demographic patterns of the forties and from the desire of nativist and immigrant traditionalists to control the social composition of their neighborhoods. This contradiction between intense ethnic consciousness and heterogeneous settlement made these struggles exceptionally fierce, especially if they involved the Killers of Moyamensing.
One of the largest and most brutish gangs in Philadelphia County, the Killers had a following of at least three hundred.64 They were also buttressed by the notorious Moyamensing Hose Company, which they had infiltrated and then taken over, and by local residents. They ruled over east Moyamensing, a growing Irish enclave adjacent to the Black ghetto and standing between an area claimed by the Irish Protestant Franklin Hose Company and the Stingers to the west, and by the Shiffler gang and Hose Company to the east. The Killers had beaten these enemies into submission by the late forties, and as one observer stated, established “perfect supremacy” over east Moyamensing.65 Unwanted residents lived there in great peril and no gang or fire company thereafter ventured into this community. The calm of dominance bored the Killers and so they carried the fight to their enemies. Their favorite tactic was to set a fire in nearby Southwark to lure out and then ambush the Shifflers. Fighting escalated with each encounter and by the summer of 1849 both sides answered alarms equipped with pistols and rifles or duck guns.66 Firearms were standard equipment in January 1850. The Killers torched a carpenter’s shop near the Shiffler Hose house at Fifth and Wharton Streets, took cover behind a gravel heap in an adjacent storage yard, and opened fire on the unsuspecting nativists pulling their carriage to the blaze. The hail of shot repelled the Shifflers, but they were suddenly reinforced by late arrivals who returned the Killers’ fire and wounded at least six of them.67 Four months later the Killers ignited a rope walk in the same area, and left for Moyamensing to assemble additional allies. Their strategy backfired miserably. The Shifflers arrived first and planned a counterattack while flames enveloped the building. They hid in narrow alleys lining the Killers’ route and fired on the advancing crowd, seriously injuring four, as well as two bystanders, and putting the rest to flight. These bloody encounters ended a five-year war of attrition.68
The Killers were just as active on their western flank. Here they confronted the Franklin Hose and the Stingers, Irish Protestant foes, and routed them in harrowing gang wars involving shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat.69 Their feud finally came to a head on the weekend of June 16, 1849, following successive ambushes on the part of the Killers, which inflicted heavy damages on the Franklins and pricked their manliness. The Franklins girded to square accounts and, it was said, they rallied the neighborhood with posters reading:
Notice—The Millerites of Moyamensing, from ten years old and upwards, are requested to meet this evening, on business. The Western division will meet in the market house, in Eleventh Street, and the Eastern will meet at Eighth and Fitzwater Streets.
Those having guns or pistols will bring them along; those not having these useful weapons are requested to bring as many brickbats and stones as they can carry. The police and watchmen will be on the ground to see fair play. Hurrah! Franklin! Go it, Moya!70
The denoument was equal to its billing. The press referred to it as “one of the most terrific riots that has taken place in Philadelphia since the miserable riot of 1844.”71 There is no reason to doubt this assessment. The fighting began when the Killers and Moyamensings, victims of their own tactics, rushed to a blaze set by the Franklins in west Moyamensing and stepped into a trap. Armed Franklin men, gang members, and community partisans attacked, and the sides exchanged gunfire and missiles for nearly an hour. When the fighting stopped, one Franklin lay dead; and four, perhaps as many as ten, from both camps lay bleeding from gunshot wounds.72
The Killers’ hostility transcended ethnic lines. Racial antagonism was renewed as traditional tensions between the Irish and neighboring Blacks heated up in the second half of the forties, and erupted into riots in 1849. In August the Killers marched to the California House, a popular Afro-American gambling room and tavern, and shot up its facade. The Blacks evidently expected the charge and drove off the assailants with a timely volley. Five Killers were wounded, but their comrades regrouped outside the ghetto and mounted another charge that was equally unsuccessful. It also alerted the authorities, who, in a rare display of rigor and equality, arrested rival leaders and confiscated the Blacks’ arms. The watch occupied the area for the remainder of the week and thwarted still another foray of the indefatigable Killers.73 A fragile calm prevailed. It would be shattered within two months.
October brought election day. Most wage earners passed this traditional holiday relaxing from work, some attending picnics and patriotic parades. The Killers decided to punish the Blacks. Setting fire to a barrel of tar mounted on a wagon, they crashed the mobile torch into the California House, stormed the tavern, and ripped out its gas fittings. The escaping gas triggered a raging fire that attracted two volunteer units, neither of which could reach the scene. A contingent of Killers, strategically stationed a few blocks away, intercepted the volunteers and fired on them, slaying two, wounding many more, and repulsing the remainder. Those at the California House fought off the watch and pommeled the Blacks, while the fire spread to adjacent homes and stores. By midnight, three hours after the fire was set, the area was chaotic—with the Killers fighting Blacks, watchmen, and still more firemen, who had fought their way through and hastened to douse the blaze. The flames and violence then trailed off, but peace was not restored or the fire brought under control until two o’clock, when four militia companies arrived to curb the remaining combatants and protect the volunteers. By this time over thirty buildings were burned out, at least four men (two Blacks and two firemen) lay dead, and over a dozen were seriously wounded.74
Like the interethnic strife between white traditionalists, the California House riots defy easy categorization. Racism, as we have seen, traditionally ran high in Irish Philadelphia and, clearly, set the Irish against the Blacks. In observing that the Irish swore revenge against the “nagurs” and targeted the California House because the proprietor, a Black man or mulatto, had recently married a white woman, presumably of Irish extraction, contemporaries recognized the racist and hense expressive feature of these brawls.75 The classic fantasy of racists, the interracial marriage was, to the Irish, sufficient cause for riot.
Other evidence also points to continuity between this riot and previous race wars. The flood of Irish immigrants in the late forties could only aggravate the chronic competition for jobs and housing that lay behind the early clashes. This side of the race question occurred to an observer who wrote in the aftermath of the 1849 affair that “there may be and undoubtedly is, a direct competition between them as to labor we all know. The wharves and new buildings attest to this fact, in the person of our stevedores and hod carriers as does all places of labor; and when a few years ago we saw none but Blacks, we now see nothing but Irish.”76 Such a perception, as Theodore Hershberg has shown, is mirrored in the quantitative sources, which record a sharp decline in the number of Black hod carriers (98 to 28) and stevedores (58 to 27) in the three years preceding and following the California House riot.77 This encounter, it would seem, served the instrumental end of further dislodging Blacks from unskilled jobs prized by the Irish.
Irish gangs not only drove Blacks out of jobs, they also served as surrogate unions. This phenomenon was not altogether new. Vigilance committees policed cottager communities in the strikes of the early forties. Such committees, however, were not gangs. Rather, they were cliques and work groups operating within the weavers’ union and pressed into service during standouts. By the end of the forties, however, formal gangs apparently assumed functions previously assigned to unions. They controlled access to work, negotiated with employers, and enforced unity in strikes. River boatmen, for example, regulated admission into their ranks through the Schuylkill Rangers, and Port Richmond dockers protected their job rights with a gang.78 The dockers’ gang had negotiated a bargain with the coal merchants in the winter of 1850–1851 that raised wages to $1.25 a day and permitted the merchants to scale down the rate to $1.00 in slack times. But when the employers exercised this option in early February without consulting their workers, the coal heavers walked off their jobs on the docks, and got ready for the expected trouble with strikebreakers. They positioned themselves along the waterfront, a maneuver that frightened local property-owners into requesting police protection. Police Marshal Keyser raised a posse and marched to the waterfront where he addressed a crowd of 600 to 800 snarling dockers and youths. He exhorted them to disperse, but drew such jeers as “To hell with the Keyser” and, from a band of feisty traditionalists, a suitable “Ye can’t take us!”79 Keyser then read the riot act, gave the crowd a minute to break ranks and, seeing no movement, ordered his men to move in. A melee followed in which the posse, fighting with dockers struggling to protect their leaders, managed to arrest a total of fourteen.
The arrests did not appreciably deflect the course of the strike. Gang members patrolled the docks and the community for an entire week. They harassed would-be scabs looking for work at the job site or seeking quarters at local boarding houses. About fifty German strikebreakers worked under police protection by the end of the week, but they were a thin workforce, at best, and no substitue for the hundreds of coal heavers that usually unloaded the barges at Port Richmond. In the end, the gang seems to have overcome the police and the merchants.80
Traditionalist consciousness and behavior thus displayed elements of continuity and discontinuity with the past. One thread of continuity was the intense race consciousness and antipathy to Blacks that pitted Irish traditionalists against Afro-Americans in brutal riots, just as it had done throughout the previous decades. Another thread was class consciousness, the same “us-them, we-they” mentality that had set traditionalists against employers during the thirties. In certain economic contexts their class consciousness could align them with cultural foes in opposition to capital. Irish Catholic textile operatives, for example, allied with the revivalist majority in the ten-hour movement at Manayunk in the late forties, and this is not really surprising. The grind of the mills was anathema to these neophyte industrial workers fresh from precommercial society. As one of them put it, Americans “work too hard”; the possibility of easing mill drudgery outweighed Irish revivalist abominations.81
Yet comparatively few Irish immigrants sweated over machinery in the dreary textile mills. The vast number toiled as unskilled laborers and cottagers, and with the exception of the coal heavers, little was heard from them in the second half of the forties. Even the hand loom weavers, who had staged popular strikes a decade before, lapsed into quiescence. Moyamensing loom tenders tried to advance their rates in February 1846. They inaugurated a standout with great fanfare, marching through the district with banners flying and soliciting support along the way, but eventually had to concede defeat and call off the strike.82 Their newly arrived countrymen refused to leave the looms, just as Irish tailors and shoemakers, as we shall see, turned a deaf ear to the strike clarion of radicals.
Irish stillness at the workplace was a departure from the past. It was a reflection in part of the singular experiences of the famine generation, the leading traditionalist group, in the Old World and in the New. As Stephan Thernstrom observes, the famine Irish had known the depths of destitution in Ireland and they arrived in the United States with woefully modest expectations that were satisfied with relative ease.83 Their subsistence outlook took the bite out of the poverty they tasted in the Quaker City, and their concentrating in outwork insulated them from the regimen of modernizing production. In addition, these immigrants developed a new sense of ethnic identity as a result of militant nativism and the resurgence of Roman Catholicism in the second part of the forties. This emergent ethnic consciousness coincident with the nativist upsurge fueled the firemen’s riots in which Irish Catholic traditionalists and their nativist foes took turns butchering one another in the city streets. More than this, it accented cultural issues and paved the way for new leadership within the Irish Catholic community. Church officials and ethnic politicians supplanted John Ferral and other radicals who had spoken out for the cultural and the economic interests of the Irish masses and had simultaneously agitated radicalism. The new leadership, drawn as it was from the church and from Irish middle class, specialized in the politics of ethnicity and economic conservatism. They held down class conflict and poisoned radicalism’s rapport with their followers.
Ironically, both revivalists and traditionalists raised essentially the same demands at the workplace: they limited themselves to “bread and butter” issues. It was the radicals who called for more sweeping change, and they, too, did not wholly resemble their predecessors.
*Some material in this chapter has been adapted from “Fire Companies and Gangs in Southwark: The 1840s,” in The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-class Life, 1790–1940, ed. Allen F. Davis and Mark H. Haller (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973), with permission of the publisher.