Chapter One

For Once in Common Front

MAY 1, 1865–MAY 1,1867

THE FIRST OF MAY was by custom a day of hope that marked the coming of spring, a day when children danced and twirled streamers around a May-pole. But in 1865 it was the gloomiest day Chicago had ever seen. For on that occasion “the merry May pole gaily wreathed for the holiday festivities of exuberant life” yielded its place to the “funeral catafalque draped with Death’s sad relics.” So wrote Abraham Lincoln’s friend and ally Joseph Medill in the Chicago Tribune that morning of the day when the multitudes would assemble “to do honor to the great and good King of men,” severed from his people when he was “slain so ruthlessly.”1

In the dark hours of the early morning, crowds gathered all along the Illinois Central tracks on the lakeside. A light rain fell as the funeral train entered Chicago that morning; it hissed to a stop at Michigan Avenue and 12th Street, where 36,000 citizens had gathered to meet it. An honor guard loaded the presidential coffin onto an elaborate horse-drawn hearse, and citizens formed in military rank behind it. A group of thirty-six “maidens dressed in white” surrounded the carriage as it passed through an imposing Gothic arch dedicated to the “Martyr for Justice.” After each young woman placed a red rose on the president’s coffin, the carriage pulled away, followed by the column of Chicagoans who marched four abreast up Michigan Avenue toward the courthouse, where their martyred president’s remains would lie in state. The procession grew to 50,000 as it moved slowly up the lakeside. Along the way twice that many people lined the streets. From all over the Northwest they came—by train, in wagons and buggies and on horseback, all united in silent grief. “In the line of march and looking on, sharing something in common,” Carl Sandburg wrote, were native-born Yankees and foreign-born Catholics, blacks and whites, German Lutherans and German Jews—all “for once in common front.”2

Up Michigan Avenue they trod in rhythm to the sound of drums beating in solemn tribute to Lincoln’s memory, expressing, as the Tribune put it, “the devotion with which all classes looked up to him.” A military band led the funeral procession of five divisions: first came the Board of Education and 5,000 schoolchildren, and then military officers and enlisted men, the combat troops of the Grand Army of the Republic led by the Old Batteries of the Chicago Light Artillery, whose cannon had laid siege to Atlanta. The black-coated men of the Board of Trade headed the next division, which also featured groups from various ethnic lodges, including 200 of the Turner gymnasts dressed in white linen. Contingents of workingmen followed, paying their respects to a president who said he was not ashamed that he had once been “a hired laborer, mauling rails, on a flatboat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son!” Nearly 300 members from the Journeymen Stonecutters’ Association walked behind a banner with two sides, one reading IN UNION THERE IS STRENGTH and the other proclaiming WE UNITE TO PROTECT NOT TO INJURE.3

All through that night of May 1 and well into the next day, mourners stood in the mud and drizzle waiting to file through the courthouse for a last look at the man whose storied path to the White House had so often passed through their city. On May 2, after 125,000 people had gazed upon the face of their departed president, his coffin was escorted to St. Louis Depot on Canal Street by another elaborately organized procession led by a chorus of 250 Germans singing dirges. Lincoln’s corpse was placed inside its specially built car, and at 9:30 a.m. the funeral train pulled out of the terminal carrying Illinois’s “noblest son” to his final destination in Springfield, leaving behind a city whose people he had unified in life and, far more so, in death.4

After its journey through the cornfields and little prairie towns Lincoln had visited as a lawyer and campaigner, the funeral train arrived in Springfield. The president’s body was buried the next day in Oak Ridge Cemetery, where the eulogist recalled the late Civil War as a momentous “contest for human freedom . . . not for this Republic merely, not for the Union simply, but to decide whether the people, as a people, were destined . . . to be subject to tyrants or aristocrats or class rule of any kind.”5

Leading Illinois Republicans who gathered at Lincoln’s grave on May 4, 1865, rejoiced that free labor had triumphed over the slave system in that great war now won. They believed a new nation had emerged from the bloody conflict, new because now all of its people were “wholly free.” The “four million bondsmen the martyred emancipator had liberated” were, said the Tribune, a living epistle to Lincoln’s immortality.6 But were all the people now wholly free?


President Lincoln’s funeral hearse passing beneath the arch at 12th Street in Chicago, May 1, 1865

IN THE YEARS after Lincoln’s death, emancipated slaves found many compelling reasons to question the meaning of their new freedom in the face of the reign of white terror that descended upon them. At the same time, for quite different reasons, workingmen, the very mechanics who benefited most from the free labor system Lincoln had extolled, began to doubt the nature of their liberty. A few months before the war ended, the nation’s most influential trade union leader, William H. Sylvis, came to Chicago and sounded an alarm that echoed in many labor newspapers in the closing months of the war. The president of the powerful Iron Molders’ International Union excoriated employers who took advantage of the war emergency to fatten their profits while keeping their employees on lean wages. When union workers protested with strikes, politicians called them traitors, soldiers drove them back to work, and many loyal union men were fired and blacklisted by their bosses in retaliation. How, Sylvis asked, could a republic at war with the principle of slavery make it a felony for a workingman to exercise his right to protest, a right President Lincoln had once celebrated as the emblem of free labor? “What would it profit us, as a nation,” the labor leader wondered, if the Union and its Constitution were preserved but essential republican principles were violated? If the “greasy mechanics and horny-handed sons of toil” who elected Abe Lincoln became slaves to work instead of self-educated citizens and producers, what would become of the Republic?7

Sylvis told his iron molders that tyranny was based upon ignorance compounded by “long hours, low wages and few privileges,” while liberty was founded on education and free association among workingmen. Only when wage earners united could they achieve individual competence and independence. Only then would they exercise a voice in determining their share of the increased wealth and the expanded freedom that would come to the nation after the war. 8

America had never produced a labor leader as intelligent, articulate and effective as William Sylvis. Born in western Pennsylvania to parents in humble circumstances, young William was let out as a servant to a wealthy neighbor who sent him to school and gave him the key to a good library. Later, after helping in his father’s wagon shop, Sylvis apprenticed himself to a local iron foundry owner, a master craftsman who taught his young helper the ancient arts of smelting and smithing and the methods of making molten iron flow into wooden molds to shape the iron products he had designed. After he married, the young molder moved to Philadelphia to ply his trade, but he found it a struggle working long hours every day to provide for his family and failing to rise above the level of manual laborer.9

William Sylvis found another way to raise himself up. He became secretary of his local union in 1859, and then two years later secretary of the new National Union of Iron Molders. By this time Sylvis had decided that mechanics were losing their independence and respectability because certain owners monopolized branches of industry and used their power to reduce wages. The rugged individualist was no match against these men who used money and political clout to advance themselves at the expense of their employees. “Single-handed, we can accomplish nothing,” he wrote, “but united there is no power of wrong we may not openly defy.” 10

In these years before the Civil War, however, prospects for a united labor movement were bleak. Only a few unions, like those of printers, machinists and locomotive engineers, had created national organizations. Most trade unions functioned within local settings where they had been formed by craftsmen who still dreamed of being masters and proprietors of their own shops and employers of their own helpers. These artisans often used radical language to denounce the merchant capitalists, bankers and monopolists, the “purse proud aristocrats” and “blood sucking parasites” who lived off the honest producers. Yet antebellum labor unionists, even radicals, tended to be craft-conscious more than class-conscious, barring females and free blacks from their associations and turning their backs on the women, children and immigrant “wage slaves” who toiled in factories. 11

Before 1860 common laborers and factory workers rarely formed lasting unions, and when they took concerted action, it was usually to resist wage cuts rather than to force employers to recognize their organizations. Their strikes were often ritualistic protests that rarely involved violent conflicts.12 The one cause that brought diverse groups of workers together was the campaign to shorten the workday to ten hours. Initiated by journeymen carpenters and women textile workers in 1835, the crusade gained thousands of adherents in northern shops and factories and then faded in the 1850s. Middle-class reformers and politicians took up the cause and lobbied for ten-hour laws in legislative halls, but their moderate arguments for shorter hours failed to produce effective laws. At the onset of the Civil War the ten-hour movement was dead.

When northern artisans and mechanics left the shops to join the federal armed forces in 1861, trade unions all but disappeared. The largest group of Union soldiers consisted of farmers, but as more and more troops were conscripted, workingmen constituted a growing proportion of the northern armed forces, so that by the end of the war 421 of every 1,000 soldiers who served in the northern ranks were wage workers, as compared to 35 of every 1,000 who listed business and commercial occupations. With their sons, brothers, cousins and neighbors dying on southern battlefields, those mechanics who remained at work fashioning and feeding the Union war machine found themselves working shorthanded and toiling harder than ever for greenback wages that could not keep up with astounding increases in the cost of fuel, rent and foodstuffs.13

William Sylvis was well aware of these conditions when he became his union’s national president in 1863. And so, as the War Between the States raged on, he decided it was time to bring the union back to the foundries, even if he had to do it single-handedly. He was thirty-six years old by then, “a medium-sized man, strongly built, of florid complexion, light beard and moustache, and a face and eyes beaming with intelligence,” wrote one reporter. Still lean from his days at the forge, he drove himself mercilessly, giving speech after speech in a passionate style of oratory. That year he visited more than 100 foundries and organized many new locals. He wore the same suit until it became threadbare, and the scarf he wore was filled with little holes burned in it by the splashing of molten iron.14

With tenacity and boundless energy, William Sylvis rebuilt the Molders’ Union into the strongest in the country, creating the first effectively administered national labor organization in history, with a dues-collection system, a real treasury and a strike fund. “From a mere pigmy, our union has grown in one short year to be a giant,” he reported, “like a mighty oak with branches stretching out in every direction.”15

By 1865, when Sylvis addressed his national convention in Chicago, he reported that nearly all the foundry owners in the nation had agreed to employ only molders who held a union card. One of the strongest local unions of iron molders flourished at Chicago’s premier manufacturing plant, the farm reaper works owned and operated by Cyrus and Leander McCormick. Their employees struck four times for wage increases in 1863 and 1864, and won each time. Plant managers reported feeling powerless to resist the well-organized molders.16 When the Civil War ended, Sylvis’s molders constituted the vanguard of what promised to become the nation’s first coordinated union movement, a new army of labor. Trade union officers like Sylvis were painfully aware, however, that powerful forces had already been mobilized to block their advance.

DURING THE WAR the iron molders and other trade unionists encountered new employers’ associations formed to resist any union demands for wage increases or reduced hours; these groups usually succeeded in destroying the fledgling labor unions by imposing lockouts and breaking strikes. Once they gained the upper hand, united employers fired and blacklisted union men and demanded that those who returned to work sign “yellow-dog contracts” promising not to rejoin the union. This coordinated opposition from employers frightened Sylvis and convinced him that a violent collision between labor and capital was coming. He concluded that union workers needed a national labor federation “to protect the rights of mechanics from being trammeled throughout the length and breadth of the land.”17

In charting a new course for the postbellum era, William Sylvis needed the help of a good navigator. He found one in Andrew C. Cameron of Chicago, the editor of a feisty labor newspaper called the Working-man’s Advocate. Cameron had already been a combatant in early skirmishes with employers that broke out in Chicago while the Civil War still raged. He had come to America from Scotland as a young printer’s apprentice, having learned the trade from his father in Berwick-on-Tweed, a historic center of Scottish resistance to English rule. He grew up during a time when the North Country was awash with a great mass movement for a People’s Charter that would democratize the English Parliament and legalize universal manhood suffrage. The Chartist movement left a legacy that many English and Scottish workers carried to America: a tradition of questioning the new industrialism and of proposing checks on the free play of the market—all this based on an outlook with a “dangerous tenet: that production must be, not for profit, but for use.”18

After securing a position as a printer for the Chicago Times in 1860, Cameron emerged as the leader of a wartime strike against the paper’s imperious publisher, Wilbur F. Storey, who had dismissed his union printers in order to hire cheaper hands.19 Unable to state their case in the city’s daily papers, the strikers formed their own opposition newspaper, the Workingman’s Advocate, “devoted exclusively to the interests of the producing classes,” and asked Andrew Cameron to be its editor. It was a task he performed with all the “vim and independence characteristic of a Scotch Covenanter who hated tyranny and oppression from what ever source.”20

Cameron shared William Sylvis’s concerns about the high-handed behavior of certain offensive employers during the Civil War.21 As he saw it, greedy monopolists ignored worker sacrifices at home and on the field of battle while taking advantage of the war to freeze wages and pad their pockets with federal contracts as they cornered markets and fleeced their men. This behavior, he wrote in the Workingman’s Advocate, had produced in Chicago and elsewhere a “general dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs” and a yearning to expand the boundaries of freedom for the mechanic and the laborer. Sylvis and Cameron believed that Lincoln’s ideal notion of an equal partnership between labor and capital had died with the martyred president. They also thought that workingmen who depended on wages paid by an employer no longer believed they could raise themselves up and become self-made men, as the Illinois rail-splitter had done. The wage system itself had created two distinct and antagonistic classes now locked in what seemed like an “irrepressible conflict.” And so, as peace finally came to a war-torn nation, Cameron believed that “another battle was announcing itself.”22


William H. Sylvis

There was a way to prevent the violent collision of labor and capital the labor leaders feared, a way for workers to gain more equally from “the privileges and blessings of those free institutions” they defended “by their manhood on many a bloody field of battle.” The way forward could be paved by a powerful movement capable of winning a historic victory: legislation reducing the sunup-to-sundown workday to a humane length of eight hours. This achievement would be the first step toward what Sylvis called the “social emancipation” of working people.23

The inauguration of the eight-hour system would end the degradation of the endless workday. It would create new time for the kind of education workers needed to become more effective producers and more active citizens. Beyond this, self-education would allow workers to create a cooperative system of production that would eventually replace the current coercive system in which men were forced to sell their labor for wages. 24

All these ideas had been articulated by the founder of the movement, a machinist from Massachusetts named Ira Steward. The self-taught Bay State mechanic had launched a wartime reform movement that infected masses of common people with a desire, a fever, for freedom and equality. Steward believed that the right of a free laborer to come and go as he pleased had been rendered “abstract” by a wage system that allowed employers to unilaterally set the terms of work, and then to collude among themselves to artificially limit wages and maintain long hours. Steward, an ardent abolitionist, rejoiced over the abolition of chattel slavery and then looked forward to the liberation of the wage earner, that “free” laborer who worked from sunup to sundown and instinctively felt that “something of slavery” still remained and that “something of freedom” was yet to come.25

In 1866, Steward’s followers established eight-hour leagues across the land as workers organized huge public meetings and labor processions. That year workingmen celebrated the Fourth of July in Chicago and other northern cities by singing Civil War–era tunes like “John Brown’s Body” with new words composed by eight-hour men.26 This postwar insurgency impressed Karl Marx, who had followed Civil War events closely from England. In 1864 he helped create the International Workingmen’s Association in London, whose founders hoped to make the eight-hour day a rallying cry around the world. The association and its program failed to draw a significant response from workers in Europe. Instead it was from the United States that the “tocsin” of revolutionary change could be heard. “Out of the death of slavery, a new and vigorous life at once arose,” Marx wrote in Capital. “The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours agitation,” which ran, he said, with the speed of an express train from the Atlantic to the Pacific.27

The evangelical work of the eight-hour leagues produced “a grand revival of the labor movement,” as new organizations multiplied and isolated unions amalgamated, forming more than thirty new national trade unions and associations. In Chicago, a new Trades Assembly, led by Andrew Cameron, doubled in size to include twenty-four unions and 8,500 workers by the end of 1865. The city’s Eight-Hour League established itself in various working-class wards and laid the groundwork for an aggressive legislative campaign to make eight hours a “legal day’s work.” On May 2, 1866, one year after the city paid its respects to its deceased president, Cameron announced with great fanfare the convening in Chicago of the first statewide convention of the Grand Eight-Hour League. The mechanics and workingmen who attended the gathering resolved to make Illinois the first state to legislate the eight-hour system.28

In August of 1866, Cameron joined forces with William Sylvis and other trade union chiefs to found the National Labor Union, the first organization of its kind. Cameron’s Advocate became the union’s official organ and, after the organization’s second congress, he helped prepare a summary of its resolutions.29 The elegantly worded manifesto Cameron and four other workingmen drafted insisted that the eight-hour system was essential to the health and well-being of wage earners and their families and that workers themselves must take united action to win it. Their concerted effort must allow no distinction by race or nationality and “no separation of Jew or Gentile, Christian or Infidel.” The failure of earlier ten-hour laws demonstrated that well-meaning reformers could not exert the pressure needed to achieve this much-desired reform. Only workers themselves could hold state legislators accountable to their constituents.30

The vision of emancipation articulated by Cameron, Sylvis and the eight-hour men could be realized only if workers acted together as citizens to make the republican system of government work on their behalf. They would need to use the power of the national state to correct the abuses workingmen had suffered at the hands of judges who threw out shorter-hours laws and at the hands of employers who created “combinations” to limit their wages, set their hours and break their unions. Here was a bold, even audacious insistence that the Republic accede for the first time in history to a working-class demand. As a result, the call for the “eight-hour system” seemed to employers less like a proposal for reform and more like a demand for radical change in the political balance of power.

Before the Civil War, labor activists could not have imagined such a new order because they were for the most part disciples of Jefferson and Jackson, who feared government tyranny as much as overbearing monopoly. But after the emancipation and the beginnings of Reconstruction, they saw arising a new kind of national state, one powerful enough to eradicate slavery and construct a new democracy in its place.31 As a result, organized workers now looked to Washington with hopes of gaining their own liberation.

In 1866, Andrew Cameron used his growing influence as editor of the Advocate and organizer of the Eight-Hour League to launch a nonpartisan lobbying campaign for a state law to reduce the length of the working day. While Democrats and Republicans fought bitterly in the state capitol over other issues, Eight-Hour League activists energetically worked the legislative halls in Springfield, seeking a legal limit to the workday. Cameron refused to pin his hopes on either the Republicans or the Democrats and directed his activists to work both sides of the aisle. His strategy worked, as bipartisan support for a shorter-hours bill materialized. On March 2, 1867, the Republican governor of Illinois, Richard J. Oglesby, signed the nation’s first eight-hour law, to take effect on May 1.32

Chicago workers expressed their unbounded joy at a packed lakefront rally on March 30 that they had organized to “ratify” the law and to display their newfound power. Governor Oglesby spoke to them and invoked his days as a young carpenter and a friend of Abraham Lincoln, who, as president, had sympathized with the mechanics’ plight during the Civil War. A popular personality in Illinois, “Uncle Dick” Oglesby had invented the “rail-splitter” image for Lincoln during his first presidential campaign. Four years later the two men ran on the same ticket in the fateful wartime election of 1864. Oglesby, a war hero with a Minié ball lodged in his chest, ran for governor that year and courageously stood by the president, defending his Emancipation Proclamation and facing down racist Democrats as he did. In April of 1865, Oglesby was at Lincoln’s bedside as he lay dying, and on May 1 he was on the funeral train that carried his friend’s body to Chicago. Now, just two years later, Oglesby stood before a Chicago crowd and declared that eight hours of work was enough to ask of workingmen and that eight hours of freedom during the day was “none too long for study and recreation.” 33

Oglesby then introduced the state’s new attorney general, Robert Green Ingersoll, who was also a decorated colonel in the Union army and a devoted Lincoln man. Like the governor, the young lawyer was a Radical Republican who supported forceful measures to reconstruct and reform the Confederate states. Ingersoll was a rare character in American politics then, a freethinker who opposed the influence of religion in civic life. Like many Radical Republicans in 1867, he had warmly supported the eight-hour day, even though the party’s business supporters opposed it. Indeed, Ingersoll outdid Governor Oglesby in his endorsement of the cause, evoking lusty cheers from the assembled workers when he proclaimed that the workday should be even less than eight hours so that wage earners could “educate themselves until they become the equals in all respects of any class.”34

A Chicago labor activist who witnessed this occasion believed that it marked a new beginning for his city. “In this great emporium, to all outside appearances devoted to the interests of commerce and middle men, it was a sublime spectacle; this clasping of fraternal hands, between the laborer and the highest officers of the State, over the heads of defiant capitalists . . . ,” the writer observed. “Our State is full of rail splitters turned statesmen, and they have proved . . . to be the strongest and toughest timber ever used in the construction of national councils.” 35 Here was a pregnant moment in American political history, when the dream of universal freedom created a bond between Republicans like Richard Oglesby who were determined to reconstruct the South and labor reformers like Andrew Cameron, set to make the nation’s wage workers truly free.

The advocates of the eight-hour system believed that the American economy was capable of expanding infinitely to benefit all productive citizens. Their own political economist, Ira Steward, rejected the prevailing theory, which held that at any given time there was a fund of fixed size from which each dollar a capitalist paid in wages meant a corresponding cut in profits. Few economists of the era thought of wages as elastic, able to rise with profits as productivity improved. Steward argued, however, that workers themselves cultivated tastes and desires that required a higher standard of living, whereas “men who labored incessantly” were “robbed of all ambition to ask for anything more than will satisfy their bodily necessities.” 36 If the great Republic could guarantee a producer the free time required to become an educated citizen who expected a decent income, a worker could climb out of poverty to gain independence and self-respect.

The eight-hour day would benefit employer and worker alike by creating more leisure and stimulating the desire for more consumption, and thus the need for higher wages. And so, the advocates believed, this one reform would lift all boats on a swelling ocean of prosperity and calm the rough waves of class conflict. Some businessmen accused the eight-hour men of being “levelers” who wanted the state to confiscate private property. But this was a canard, Andrew Cameron replied. Why would the labor movement want to destroy capital, he asked, when labor was “the sole creator of capital” and when worker and employer shared a common interest in producing and marketing goods for their mutual benefit?37

Nowhere in America did the dream of mutual gains seem more possible than it did in Chicago after the Civil War, a place where the demand for labor seemed insatiable and where the prospects for prosperity seemed unlimited. It was the city of self-made men who started out wearing overalls and using tools and ended up wearing silk suits and high hats. It was a city that would, its promoters promised, become a paradise for workers and speculators. 38

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!