[In this week leading up to Labor Day, one of our most poorly understood national holidays, five posts AmericanStudying texts and moments related to work in America. For many many more, check out Erik Loomis’ ongoing This Day in Labor History series at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog!]
On revolutions, large and small, and a controversial moment in labor history.
One of the more eye-opening classes I took in college focused on 19th century European history, and specifically on the spate of revolutions and radical shifts in government and authority that dominated much of the century (particularly if it’s defined to include the end of the 18th century and so the French Revolution) for many European nations. Prominent European historian Eric Hobsbawn designated the first half of the century The Age of Revolution, as per the title of the relevant volume in his seminal multi-volume historical series, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962). But even though 1848 did represent a culmination, with numerous nations undergoing revolutions of one kind or another, the decades afterward likewise included at least one more major upheaval (the Paris Commune of 1871) and a number of smaller but still significant revolts and shifts as well. There were lots of reasons why both the details of these historical events and the class that highlighted them were eye-opening for me, but I suppose the most salient is the contrast with the United States, which, despite the newness and definite fragility of its government and identity, underwent no comparable revolutions or changes in its government over the same period (the Civil War would seem to be an obvious exception, but I think it’s different in kind from any of the European revolutions in question, not least because the Confederacy didn’t want to turn Washington into a new form of government but rather just to break entirely from the existing one).
This isn’t going to be one of those posts where I try to entirely flip that vision of our history; I don’t think there are any unknown 19th century American revolutions waiting to be remembered and narrated (there is the 1898 Wilmington coup d’etat, but I’m talking national revolutions). But I do think that using the lens of the European revolutions, particularly in their near-ubiquitous emphasis on issues of class and caste as a chief factor in both their causes and results, can provide a helpful way to analyze one of the most complex and, yes, revolutionary elements of American life in the second half of the 19th century: the labor movement, and specifically the profound challenges it offered to American identity and changes it eventually effected. For one thing, the labor movement—and the singular term is a misnomer, there were many different labor movements in the period, with each particular union and organization representing a distinct community and vision and set of goals; but in the interests of space, I’ll refer to it with the collective term—was perhaps the only 19th century American social movement that comprised in large part an extension of existing, outside (and mainly European) movements. That doesn’t mean that labor in America didn’t take on shapes and tones specific and unique to our national history and culture and identity, but it did mean that some of the particularly prominent labor-related events that took place here were instigated in part by—and so, potentially, blamed on—international forces and organizations.
Exemplifying both the international instigations and the potential blame was the Haymarket Affair of May 1886, a labor protest (in support of the eight hour workday, the institution of which many different labor organizations had worked to make standard beginning on May 1st of that year) that turned into one of the more violent and chaotic events in the post-Civil War era. The principal organizer of the May Day marches and subsequent strikes in Chicago was Albert Parsons, an anarchist and founder of the International Working People’s Association; when the May 4th rally in support of the striking workers was torn apart by violence, both in the form of a bomb thrown at police and in a subsequent exchange of gunfire, it was eight anarchist leaders (five of them German-born) who were arrested and charged with inciting the bombing. The trial itself was largely a sham, since the prosecution admitted that it could not link any of the eight directly to the bombing, but an effective one, with all eight defendants found guilty and seven given the death penalty (four were eventually executed and a fifth killed himself while awaiting execution). But more telling still were the many journalistic responses to the anarchists, the authors of which consistently sought not only to criticize the anarchists’ political perspectives and castigate the labor movement for its association with them, but also and just as overtly to define them as foreign, as an unwanted alien presence in America (and thus to define the trial as a necessary, if not necessarily legally sound, repelling of this invasion of violent foreign ideas).
The aftermath of Haymarket highlights, on the one hand, the absence of overt revolutions in America—this was perhaps the moment of most heightened visibility for political radicals in the period, and yet the anarchists did not overthrow and remake Chicago’s government (as did the Paris Communists for that brief period in 1870) or in any other explicit way shift the nation’s political identity. But on the other hand, the eight hour workday was indeed instituted, just as the era’s labor movements eventually succeeded in achieving virtually every other significant goal (from an end to child labor to the creation of the work week, from safety regulations to more fixed wages and contracts, among many other advances). So it’s perhaps more accurate to say that America’s 19th century revolutions were social and gradual rather than political and radical—that the true bombs, that is, didn’t blow up our nation so much as slowly but profoundly reshape it. Last labor post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other work-related texts or moments you’d share?