Subscribe via RSS Feed

This Day in Labor History: January 13, 1874

[ 17 ] January 13, 2014 |

On January 13, 1874, thousands of unemployed New Yorkers met in Tompkins Square Park to protest their unemployment and poverty. There, the police would beat them in the first large-scale state crackdown of the American white poor in the nation’s history.

The Panic of 1873 was the first of the post-Civil War economic collapses to throw the working class into desperation. Caused primarily by corrupt railroad financing, especially thanks to the notorious Jay Cooke, the Panic led to high unemployment throughout the 1870s and created the first explicitly class-based political actions in American history. By November 1873, 55 railroads had gone bankrupt, wages were slashed, unemployment jumped, and the American working class began realizing the impact of the unregulated capitalism suddenly transforming their country. Most Americans at this time lacked what we might consider a “class consciousness” or any real doubt that the growing economic system wouldn’t serve their interests as independent operators manfully thriving. But the Panic began to lead to the first meaningful questioning of how this system affected workers and while substantial and well-organized radical resistance would take some time to develop, the first stirrings of resistance are clear in the mid 1870s.



Political cartoon of the effects of the Panic of 1873 on New York. Frank Bellew, New York Daily Graphic, September 29, 1873

Some urban workers responded to the Panic by organizing into one of the first unemployed workers movements in American history (probably we can trace the very first stirrings of these types of movement to the economic problems of 1857). In New York, the Committee of Safety was formed, demanding public works projects to employ those who needed work and the mayor to meet with them about it. In the first days of 1874, a series of protests became increasingly larger. By January 8, over 1000 workers were meeting in Tompkins Square Park and the demands were growing, including for the 8-hour day.

Tompkins Square as a site of recreation for the poor, 1873

Already though, the nascent labor movement in New York was divided between “radicals” and “conservatives.” Some of the leaders of the Committee of Safety were socialists and other labor leaders in New York denounced them as “communists,” a term with a much less defined threat than the post-1917 period, but one that already meant un-American. A bricklayer named Patrick Dunn led a counter movement that denounced the Committee of Safety and launched his own movement with many of the same demands, culminating in a January 5 march to City Hall. The Iron Molders International Union also tarred the Committee of Safety with a similar brush, using the term “anarchist.” What this really meant to Americans in 1874 was “immigrant that questioned the fundamentals of American capitalism.” The leader of the Committee of Safety was Peter J. McGuire, later famous for being the founding figure and long-time president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which later became the most powerful union in the American Federation of Labor. McGuire called for a mass demonstration on January 13, urging the city to quit evicting unemployed tenants and instead to provide public aid. Many of the unemployed workers were immigrants and McGuire urged sympathy with their plight, a stance many native-born unionists were not willing to follow.

The forces of order across New York freaked out. Calling this the American version of the Paris Commune, newspaper editors and business owners called for the crushing of these workers. The mayor refused to meet, the police refused to allow them to march to City Hall, the governor refused to get involved. On January 13, over 8000 workers met at Tompkins Square. This was the largest political demonstration in New York history to that point. The protestors permit to meet had been revoked but no one told the protestors. Meanwhile, 1600 police officers gathered near the park.

At about 10 a.m., the police moved in and began savagely beating the protestors with clubs, while horse-mounted police cleared the streets. Samuel Gompers, still over a decade away from his ascension as a major American labor leader, remembered, “mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway.” 46 workers were arrested. Two men were charged with assault, one, a German named Christian Mayer, for hitting a policemen with a hammer. Most of the arrested workers were unemployed immigrants who could not afford bail. One, Justus Schwab, later became a leader of American anarchism.



The police clearing Tompkins Square

The suppression of the Tompkins Square protests undermined the unemployed workers movement in the city. Most of the city’s and nation’s newspapers lauded the police for purging the United States of its own version of the Paris Commune, beginning a long history of police and big newspaper editors joining to suppress the rights of workers. For much of the 19th century, the police response to Tompkins Square became a model. Pennsylvania law enforcement looking to suppress the Molly Maguires took lessons from it, while Chicago developed militias with the aim of cracking workers’ heads if need be; several of these were engaged in the violence of 1886 that culminated at Haymarket.

The Committee of Safety soon dissolved, attempting to form a political party which soon disappeared on its own. A socialist newspaper campaign convinced the governor of New York to pardon Mayer later in the year, but otherwise there was little public sympathy for the victims of Tompkins Square. In coming years, more class-based social movements would develop as the American working class tried to understand and fight back against this new world of big capitalism. Most notably, in 1877, the Great Railroad Strike would announce to the nation’s leaders that American workers would engage in mass organizing. But it would take over six more decades of economic boom and bust, the growth of class consciousness, and a series of left-leaning movements for working-class dignity before the government would finally become even minimally responsive to the needs of unemployed Americans.

This would not be the last time Tompkins Square found itself the point of police violence, as in 1988, the people who hung out in the park, now a space for punks, youth cultures, and the homeless were angry about gentrification and a 1 a.m. curfew battled police.

This is the 89th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Comments (17)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Major Kong says:

    I don’t see how we could have had a major recession/depression in the 1870s.

    We had the gold standard, there was no Federal Reserve, no welfare, no Keynesian Economics (he wasn’t even born yet), no income tax.

    Obviously this is liberal revisionist history. The 1870s were a time of great prosperity for all.

  2. LeeEsq says:

    Besides the American political system, the other great factor working against working class politics in the United States were the various non-class based divides in American society.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      As has always been the case.

      • LeeEsq says:

        Yep. Its been native-born against immigrant, Protestant against non-Protestant (particularly Catholics), and whites against non-whites (especially African-Americans) from the get go. The rich often exploited these non-class divides but many times they really didn’t have to do any work. They just had to set back to let the divisions do the work for them.

        The same issues manifest in different ways into the other European-derived countries in the Americas, Oceania, and of course South Africa. There are differences created by local conditions. The social conditions in Latin American colonies were more inherently and obviously hierarchical than they were in the British colonies that became the United States. This provided a more fertile base for class-consiousness.

        • DrDick says:

          Divide and conquer has been a winning strategy for American plutocrats from the founding of the republic.

          • LeeEsq says:

            My reading of history is that the plutocrats have been generally a lot less active in cultivating the divides to call this a strategy. In the South you had obvious examples of divide cultivation but generally it seems a more of a passive advantage than anything else.

            I also have a sense that a lot of the plutocrates sincerely believed in these non-class based divisions to. The Protestant WASPs really did thing that their Protestantism made them better than Catholics and Jews. The rich whites were generally just as passionately racist as the working and middle class whites.

  3. David W. says:

    Off topic, but not really:

    Law change would permit longer work week

    MADISON — Wisconsin’s retail and factory workers would no longer be required to get a day off each week, under a bill proposed by Republicans in both houses.

    West Bend Senator Glenn Grothman and Beaver Dam Republican Mark Born are seeking co-sponsors for the measure. They said the state’s largest business group first suggested the change, after noticing that federal law does not require what the state mandates — at least 24 hours off for each seven-day week.

    The bill’s authors say it would let employees volunteer for a seventh day each week, so they could make a little extra money and their companies can boost production.

    Democrats and labor leaders say bosses would pressure their workers into volunteering — and the employees might have to go along or get fired.

    Grothman says he’s never heard of that happening, and he wonders why Democrats want to hold back employees who want extra money.

    Well, I know it happened to me and believe me, we knew if we didn’t “volunteer” it would be detrimental to our continued employment. Welcome back to the Gilded Age!

  4. JL says:

    Blargh. This makes me especially sad today, as I’m already remembering police who club people in the head at protests thanks to the fact that jury selection for the NATO 3 trial starts today, thereby bringing up all my memories of those protests.

    Not sure if I’ve been in Tompkins Square Park itself, but there was a (small but somewhat brutal in terms of police response) anticapitalist march last May Day that went all over the East Village. I should make a point of visiting the park next time I’m in NYC. The Wikipedia page suggests that it’s been the site of all sorts of protests and riots over the years.

    • N__B says:

      There’s little evidence of the past in the park itself.

      It’s one of the less appealing small parks around: if the Parkies suggested renovations, they’d face a shitstorm, so it’s stuck in Robert Moses-era design.

  5. [...] of workers fell into poverty. The search for wealth led to wide-scale corruption that both caused economic collapses and bought off politicians all the way up to Grant’s [...]

  6. [...] January 8, 1811–German Coast slave rebellion begins in Louisiana. January 13, 1874–Tompkins Square Riot. January 14, 1888–Publication of Looking Backward. January 15, 1915–Ralph Chaplin writes [...]

  7. [...] of organizing was seen by the plutocrats as the coming of a revolution that would kill them all. See the response to the Tompkins Square unemployment marches, which the rich saw as Paris Commune coming to America. Perhaps not coincidentally, with every [...]

  8. [...] of organizing was seen by the plutocrats as the coming of a revolution that would kill them all. See the response to the Tompkins Square unemployment marches, which the rich saw as the Paris Commune coming to America. Similarly, with every funeral, every [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Switch to our mobile site