The Haymarket affair took place amid an outburst of independent labor political activity. One study has identified more than 100 local political tickets associated with the Knights of Labor between 1886 and 1888, from

In this pro-labor cartoon from 1888, a workingman rescues liberty from the stranglehold of monopolies and the pro-business major parties.

Anniston, Alabama, to Whitewater, Wisconsin. Their major aim was to end the use of public and private police forces and court injunctions against strikes and labor organizations. At least sixty achieved some kind of electoral success. In Kansas City, a coalition of black and Irish-American workers and middle-class voters elected Tom Hanna as mayor. He proceeded to side with unions rather than employers in industrial disputes.

The most celebrated labor campaign took place in New York City, where in 1886, somewhat to his own surprise, Henry George found himself thrust into the role of labor’s candidate for mayor. George’s aim in running was to bring attention to the single tax on land. The labor leaders who organized the United Labor Party had more immediate goals in mind, especially stopping the courts from barring strikes and jailing unionists for conspiracy. George ran a spirited campaign, speaking at factories, immigrant associations, and labor parades and rallies. A few days after the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, New Yorkers flocked to the polls to elect their mayor. Nearly 70,000 voted for George, who finished second, eclipsing the total of the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, and coming close to defeating Democrat Abram Hewitt.

In a political system that within living memory had witnessed the disappearance of the Whig Party, the rise and fall of the Know-Nothings, and the emergence of the Republicans, the events of 1886 suggested that labor might be on the verge of establishing itself as a permanent political force. In fact, that year marked the high point of the Knights of Labor. Facing increasing employer hostility and with a poorly organized structure that could not assimilate the great spurt in new members, the Knights soon declined. The major parties, moreover, proved remarkably resourceful in appealing to labor voters.

Thus, America’s Gilded Age witnessed deep and sometimes violent divisions over the definition of freedom in a rapidly industrializing society. The battle between upholders of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire, who saw freedom as the right of individuals to pursue their economic interests without outside restraint, and those who believed in collective efforts to create “industrial freedom” for ordinary Americans, would continue for many decades. In the early twentieth century, reformers would turn to new ways of addressing the social conditions of freedom and new means of increasing ordinary Americans’ political and economic liberty. But before this, in the 1890s, the nation would face its gravest crisis since the Civil War, and the boundaries of freedom would once again be redrawn.


1. The American economy thrived because of federal involvement, not the lack of it. How did the federal government actively promote industrial and agricultural development in this period?

2. Describe the importance of the nation’s railroads in the rise of America’s second industrial revolution.

3. How did the development of an urban, industrial society exacerbate inequalities in U.S. society and promote class violence?

4. Describe the involvement of American family farmers in the global economy after 1870 and its effects on their independence.

5. According to The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the era’s slogan was “Get rich, dishonestly if we can, honestly if we must.” Explain how this was true of the politics of the era.

6. How successfully did third parties lead movements for reform at the state level?

7. Explain how social thinkers misapplied Charles Darwin’s ideas to justify massive disparities in wealth and power and to deny government a role in equalizing opportunity.

8. How do the ideas of Henry George, Edward Bellamy and other authors conflict with Social Darwinism?

9. Compare William Graham Sumner’s comments in What Social Classes Owe to Each Other to those of the Federated Trades of the Pacific Coast’s “rewrite” of the Declaration of Independence. What two positions are laid out?


1. How would the elite differ from the urban and rural poor on the following questions: What social conditions make freedom possible, and what role should the government play in defining and protecting the liberties of its citizens?

2. How did Native American ideas of freedom differ from those of settlers and government officials in this period?

3. How did the creation of a poor population of factory workers threaten traditional American ideas about freedom, equality, and democracy?

4. Explain how the courts, by embracing Social Darwinism and a “negative” idea of freedom through the liberty of contract ideal, eroded the freedoms of workers and others.

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