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Tag: "Gilded Age"

This Day in Labor History: January 6, 1909

[ 7 ] January 6, 2017 |

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On January 6, 1909, oral arguments before the Supreme Court concluded in the case of Moyer v. Peabody. The decision by the Court on January 18 gave official approval for the state militia or National Guard imprisoning people without the benefit of habeas corpus during a time of insurrection, the definition of which was of course left vague. This was one of many anti-worker Supreme Court decisions of the Gilded Age that made it extremely difficult for unions to operate with any sort of effectiveness.

In 1902, the Western Federation of Miners was organizing mill workers in Colorado City, Colorado. One company placed a spy among the organizers. This led the employer to fire 42 union members. Tensions rose at the mill and in February 1903, the WFM called a strike. Colorado governor James Peabody was an anti-union extremist who would use any method to eliminate the WFM, which had outraged employers in 1894 with an overwhelming victory in the state’s mines. Throughout Colorado that year, several strikes took place. Peabody worked with employers and private detective agencies such as the Baldwin-Felts, Thiel Agency, and of course the Pinkertons. Peabody called out the Colorado militia in response to the Colorado City strike, leading miners in Telluride and Cripple Creek to walk off their jobs. Mass arrests of strikers began that fall. Among those arrested was Charles Moyer, president of the WFM. Moyer had done nothing more than travel to Telluride to support the strike and sign a poster denouncing the mass arrests. He was then arrested for desecrating the American flag. This ridiculous charge allowed him to be released the next day, but he was immediately rearrested without any charges.

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The strike was soon crushed by Colorado and Peabody’s forces, but Moyer fought the obviously unconstitutional arrest he faced. He petitioned for a write of habeas corpus to a Colorado court. He received it but the Colorado attorney general refused to honor it. He appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled that his constitutional rights had not been violated by his arrest for supporting a strike. He then appealed to the U.S. District Court based in Missouri. These judges overturned the state court and granted him the writ once again on July 5, 1904. This finally forced Peabody to let Moyer out of jail. Moyer wanted full exoneration so he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It eventually accepted it, with oral arguments taking place on January 5 and 6, 1909. By this time, Moyer had survived the framing of he and Big Bill Haywood for the 1905 murder of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, thanks to the extremely shoddy case and the defense skills of Clarence Darrow leading to the rare court victory for unions during these horrible years.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision for the unanimous court. The decision completely ignored whether the strike was an insurrection. It gave the governor complete discretion in making this determination, effectively saying that if the governor called out the National Guard, there was in fact an insurrection. He wrote, “But it is familiar that what is due process of law depends on circumstances. It varies with the subject-matter and the necessities of the situation.” And while it makes some sense for law to have limited flexibility dependent upon the particulars of a given situation, in this situation Holmes was giving employers and their bought politicians carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to labor unions. So long as there was an insurrection, then the governor could call out the state militia or National Guard and have them act accordingly. He left open the possibility than an exceedingly lengthy time behind bars might be open to another challenge but that was not what Moyer was after. This decision also avoided any of the sticky constitutional questions–since the states cannot declare war, can the executive of a state declare a state of war to exist? But as was common for Holmes, he found ways to exclude ideological or racial minorities from full citizenship; unfortunately, he was frequently joined in the Gilded Age Supreme Court by his colleagues.

Holmes’ decision in Moyer v. Peabody helped to radicalize the labor movement, especially in areas that had already seen the iron fist of state violence. With Holmes giving governors the right to use violence at will, moderate unionists had a harder time telling workers that capitalism might work for them. The Industrial Workers of the World would build their case for radical syndicalism upon this point, up to the point where the IWW was itself crushed by massive state-sanctioned violence, including the government allowing employers to do what they wanted to unions and with government crushing workers defending themselves against that violence.

The case was so shoddy that the Court largely ignored it. In 1932, it revisited the ability of a governor to unilaterally decide to call a strike an insurrection, when in Sterling v. Constanin, it decided that the governor of Texas doing the same as Peabody was not constitutional. That is until 9/11. Then the Bush administration was all over it because of the possibility to justify indefinite detention whenever the government declares a state of insurrection. It was heavily discussed in the 2004 case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and remains an extremely threatening decision to workers today as Republicans seek to return the nation to the Lochner years. And the Moyer v. Peabody years as well.

Although Charles Moyer eventually broke from Haywood and the IWW, he remained deeply involved in union politics for many years. He was in Hancock, Michigan when the Italian Hall disaster took place in 1913 and rallied the WFM in nearby Calumet to take care of their own, although this had the effect of telling impoverished survivors to not take much needed charity. While in Calumet, he was beaten and deported from the town while bleeding from his wounds. The state did nothing to find who did this to him. He continued to lead the former WFM, now Mine, Mill, until 1926, dying in obscurity and largely forgotten in 1929.

This is the 206th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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This Day in Labor History: December 19, 1907

[ 11 ] December 19, 2016 |

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On December 19, 1907, the Darr Mine near Smithton, Pennsylvania, caught fire and exploded. 239 people died, many of them children. This was the largest workplace disaster in Pennsylvania history.

The Darr mine, located southeast of Pittsburgh, was typical of the Appalachian mining country during the early twentieth century. The workforce was a polyglot group of workers from around Europe. While native born Americans made up a percentage of the workforce, many were from Europe, particularly from what are today Greece, Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Italy. Smithton was a small town that developed around coal mining and related industries like coking. The workers there faced similar terrible conditions to miners around the region. Long days meant that workers only saw the light most of the year on Sundays. Pay was low and workers had little control over their lives

About 400 workers labored in the Darr mine under unsafe working conditions that put workers lives at risk every day. As this series has explored in detail, coal mining was an incredibly dangerous profession. A mere few days earlier, the nearby Naomi mine had exploded, killing 34 workers. Many of the unemployed workers from that mine quickly found jobs at the Darr, unfortunately as it turned out.

At about 11:30 a.m. on December 19, 1907, the Darr mine exploded. It absolutely destroyed everything and everyone in the mine. The report of the Pennsylvania Department of Mines in the aftermath noted, “Persons in the vicinity of the mine describe the explosion as an awful rumbling followed by a loud report and a concussion that shook the nearby buildings and was felt within a radius of several miles…. The explosion had been so terrific in its force that the inspectors were convinced upon a superficial investigation that it would be impossible for any of the entombed workers to be rescued alive.”

The official cause of the explosion was that miners had entered a location that the fire marshal had cordoned off the previous day while carrying open lamps. In fact, it’s hard to know just what happened. But in any case, 239 miners died, the worst mining disaster in Pennsylvania history. The only reason more workers did not die was that the Greek miners took the day off to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas. Otherwise, the death toll likely would have cleared 400. Over half the dead were native English speakers, an unusual occurrence during this period, more typical of 19th century mines, although again, this is in part because the sizable population of Greeks had all taken the day off. Town residents rushed to the mine, but there was not much they could do except dig out the bodies, a process that took days. One worker survived, a miner named Joseph Mapleton who was near the entrance. He had only minor injuries and took place in the failed rescue attempt that followed.

Of course, many challenged blaming the miners for the explosion. Some blamed the lack of inspections, others the general lack of safety and specifically the lack of ventilation. One theory was an accidental dynamite blast. But in any case, the fundamental reason was that early 20th century mine owners simply did not care about workplace safety. Nor did they have any reason to as they rarely if ever suffered any meaningful consequences if workers died on the job. This was the Gilded Age after all and employers could do almost anything they wanted to their employees. Wage slaves indeed. The coal company did ban the head lamps in the mine. But they were not held liable for the deaths. In fact, nothing meaningful happened because of these deaths. Critics of mine safety did issue a report that was deeply critical of the lack of ventilation in the mine, as well as most mines throughout the bituminous country, but again, nothing concrete came of it. Later experimentation showed high levels of damp in the mine, even after the explosion.

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The temporary morgue for the dead miners

As was so typical of the many coal mining disasters of this period, a couple of hundred dead workers didn’t change many hearts, even as it slowly led to reforms. Rural Pennsylvania was far away from centers of power and wealthy people didn’t much care about people they couldn’t see. It would take Triangle to start getting Americans to take workplace safety seriously, but it would take a whole lot more than that to create even moderately effectively regulations for coal mine safety. Even in the very recent past, negligent employers such as Don Blankenship have murdered workers.

The Darr fire was simply one incident in the deadliest month in U.S. mining history. In December 1907, over 3000 miners died on the job. Darr was only the second largest single incident, as over 300 miners died in the Monongah mine in West Virginia on December 6. Many more died in ones and twos and by the dozens, thousands of workers in one industry perished in one terrible month.

Ultimately, this region of Pennsylvania would see many of the worst events in American labor history, from the Homestead strike outside of Pittsburgh to the Donora Smog of 1947, where U.S. Steel murdered people through pollution a mere 15 miles west of the Darr mine site.

This is the 202nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 13, 1887

[ 8 ] August 13, 2016 |

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On August 13, 1887, leathermakers in Newark, New Jersey, locked out their employees as a strategy to crush the Knights of Labor. This lockout would demonstrate the lengths to which American employers would go in order to ensure their shops remained union-free, a significant departure from the accommodations made by European employers, a difference that still resonates in the American labor movement today.

Newark has become a major industrial center by the 1880s and unlike many cities, hosted a wide number of industries. One of the largest was the leather industry. This was exceedingly odious labor. As a noxious industry, leather production was banished to the outskirts of cities going back to colonial New England. Two centuries of technological advancement had not significantly decreased the odiousness of this work. By the late nineteenth century, as was happening with laborers around the country, skilled workers were increasingly replaced by unskilled, often immigrant labor, laboring in mass-scale industrial operations. Newark was also a strong union town and a Knights of Labor local began there in 1879, as the Panic of 1873 subsided. The leather workers do not seem to have been involved in its early days. The first specifically leather-based Knights hall opened in 1883. After 1884, the Knights grew rapidly in Newark, as they did throughout the country. Strikes abounded. More than twice as many strikes took place in Newark in 1886 than did between 1881 and 1885. Half of the strikes were over employers backsliding from agreements they had made to stop earlier strikes. Leather worker struck over other issues, including an end to piecework and for higher wages.

As 1886 turned into 1887, the leatherworkers, skilled and unskilled and often in different Knights’ lodges, began to coordinate their strikes more effectively. Solidarity and a more concrete sense of class identity was building. This was important. It took time for the ideology of free labor republicanism to wear off in the face of endless drudgery and exploitation. Workers didn’t see themselves as that different from employers in the first twenty years after the Civil War. Slowly that began to change. The growth of the Knights was far from what Terence Powderly had envisioned and the growing direct action tactics of many lodges demonstrated that this ideological commitment to free labor had started to fade by the mid-1880s. This hardly meant that these Knights were radicals. It took time to give up old conceits. Despite the famous connections between Knights’ actions and the Haymarket Riot in 1886, the Knights had very little tolerance for radicals, and not only at the top. Newark Knights repeatedly stated the conservative nature of their actions. They largely believed in the American Dream and respected the small employers who had risen out of the working class. They saw a big difference between that person and John D. Rockefeller or Jay Gould.

By 1887, the Knights had begun to decline. In part this was about the backlash to Haymarket and in part it was due to divisions both within the Knights and between the Knights and other labor unions. The Knights really weren’t constructed to be a mass movement. But masses of workers around the nation still held to their Knights membership. Sensing weakness, the leather manufacturers banded together and struck back. The initial issue was that in June, they had agreed that workers could only tan a limit of forty hides in a day. They resented giving up any control over the shopfloor, which the agreement had also allowed. The manufacturers began to coordinate with each other. They selected one to violate the agreement, knowing workers would strike. When this happened, the employer imported strikebreakers while the other employers took over his orders and worked them in employer solidarity. The Knights lost.

This set the stage for the August lockout, where the leather owners sought to eliminate the Knights entirely. Given the cutthroat nature of American business competition (a scenario that would continue until the New Deal) it was almost as hard to get employers to cooperate as it was for workers to try and unionize. But the success in freeing one factory from the union convinced many skeptical owners to join the employers association. The bosses announced the lockout for August 1, but waited until August 13 as rhetoric rose between the two sides and the Knights debated on whether they should strike first. But the workers simply didn’t have the resources of the bosses, even pooled together as a union. Knights’ dues were very low and though the union said it could stay out for 3 months, it ran out of money almost immediately. The Knights tried to appeal to the small manufacturers in terms of the working-class and small employer solidarity at the heart of free labor ideology, but not a single one failed to honor the lockout. By the third week, the situation grew desperate. Internal tensions between the more radical German members and more conservative English and Irish members and rapidly dwindling funds destroyed the Knights. A few went back to their old jobs but most were not rehired. Shop stewards were blacklisted and many had to move from Newark to find work. The Knights were dead in the leather industry. Unions in Newark were pushed back significantly. At the start of 1887, there were 48 workers associations in the city. By the end of 1888, there were 12.

Ultimately, the Knights failed in Newark because employers would do anything to crush them. And this has been the primary problem of American unionism. It took remarkable government action during an unprecedented economic crisis to change this scenario in the New Deal and employers have resented it ever since. That is the fundamental problem organized labor has today. It’s not bad union leadership, a lack of union democracy, not enough organizing, or the other reasons union supporters and those who critique unions from the left usually provide. These are small factors, but the fundamental issue is that American employers will stop at nothing to eradicate unions. And that’s a very different circumstance that either Britain and France during the 1880s or, say, Germany today, where employers and unions routinely work together on management decisions, up to the point of encouraging unionization of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

This post is based on Kim Voss, The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. This is critical reading because it provides the direct comparison to employers in England and France that I didn’t have time to explore in this post.

This is the 186th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 40

[ 32 ] July 17, 2016 |

This is the grave of Mark Hanna.

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Mark Hanna was the premier Republican kingmaker of the Gilded Age. Most famous for his close association with William McKinley, Hanna became a major Cleveland businessmen in the years after the Civil War, getting involved in a wide variety of projects. A lifelong Republican and supporter of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Hanna turned to politics by 1880. In an era of convoluted political machinations in presidential politics, Hanna hoped to use his influence and power to launch Ohio politicians onto the national stage. This began in the fall of 1880 when Hanna did much to manage James Garfield’s presidential campaign, in particula convincing Ulysses S. Grant to come visit Garfield at his home in a sign of unity after a deeply fractured convention led to the rise of the darkhorse Garfield. Hanna didn’t even like Garfield that much because Hanna opposed civil service reform and liked the spoils system, but supporting Ohio politicians would be his key to power. Hanna then sought to make Ohio senator John Sherman president, beginning in 1884, even though he never actually met Sherman until 1885. When that failed and James Blaine received the Republican nomination, Sherman got Hanna appointed to the Union Pacific Railroad’s board of directors. In the Gilded Age, no inside dealing went unrewarded. If Hanna believed in anything other than power and Ohio, it was the power of capitalists to do whatever they wanted.

Hanna then moved on to work for William McKinley, having been impressed by him in 1888, when he actually suggested that Sherman step aside for the rising Ohioan. Sherman refused and Hanna continued working for him, but Benjamin Harrison received the nomination that year. Realizing that the next chance for an Ohioan president was in 1896 and that Sherman would be too old by then, Hanna put all his eggs in the McKinley basket. McKinley became governor of Ohio in 1891. Hanna insured Sherman’s reelection to the Senate the next year and Ohio Republicans were largely unified. Hanna then worked for the next four years to ensure McKinley’s nomination, dealing with other party bosses, planning campaign strategy, buying a home in the South to build connections with southern Republicans who could still play a major role in the convention. This was only partially successful, as many state level bosses wanted nothing to do with McKinley because he refused to allow them to control local patronage. But McKinley easily beat back any native son candidacies and became the nominee, thanks to Hanna’s work. It was Hanna’s finest hour. The Democratic press attacked Hanna as McKinley’s corporate master, but this charge did not stick enough to throw the election to William Jennings Bryan. Nor did it defeat Hanna’s groundbreaking fundraising campaign.

Hanna did not want a Cabinet position in return for all his work, thinking it would be seen as a corrupt bargain. So McKinley asked John Sherman to be Secretary of State. He agreed and Hanna won his position in the Senate. Hanna continued to advise McKinley closely from the Senate, even though he opposed the Spanish-American War, he also made sure McKinley got his declaration of war from the Senate. Although Hanna was horrified when Theodore Roosevelt won the VP slot in 1900 and even more horrified when he became president upon McKinley’s assassination, Hanna and Roosevelt came to a working relationship. Hanna strongly considered running for the Republican nomination in 1904 against Roosevelt. J.P. Morgan said he would fund Hanna’s campaign. But Hanna’s health was rapidly declining and he died on February 15, 1904.

Mark Hanna is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio.

This Day in Labor History: June 22, 1896

[ 11 ] June 22, 2016 |

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On June 22, 1896, mine owners in Leadville, Colorado agreed to lock out their unionized miners, presenting a united front against unionism. This action would spur one of the largest battles between unions and employers in the 1890s, one that typically would be ended by the Colorado militia’s use as a private army of the employers.

Silver was discovered in Leadville in the 1870s, eventually making it one of the nation’s leading mining towns. In its first years, Leadville mines were generally unconsolidated, owned by the people who staked the claim. This did not change until the early 1890s, when capitalists began investing in the silver mines. Taking control of the city, the culture of mining in Leadville changed almost overnight. The Panic of 1893, the worst economic depression in the nation’s history to that time, shook the silver industry. Prices plummeted. Mine owners slashed wages from $3 a day to $2.50. By 1896, about one-third of the miners were still only earning that reduced rate. Those were poverty wages for a very dangerous job.

Miners organized with the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM, formed out of the bitter 1892 Coeur d’Alene strike, sought the industrial organization of hard rock miners. Local 33, also known as Cloud City Miners Union, formed in Leadville. From its formation in 1893, the WFM had demanded the 8-hour day. Yet in Leadville, many miners were working 12-hour days. The CCMU, as its first demand, wanted the restoration of the $3 day for all miners at a time when the mine owners were building luxury homes for themselves, even if the economy had not fully recovered by 1896. They presented this demand to the mine owners on May 26, 1896. All the owners rejected the demand. On June 19, the WFM tried again. Again, the owners rejected it. That night, the union decided that all workers making $2.50 should strike. Several mines shut down the next day when their workforce walked off the job.

The mine owners responded by seeking to crush the WFM in Leadville entirely. On June 22, it responded to the strike by locking out all miners. The owners quickly imported strikebreakers to run their mines. They also hired Pinkertons and Thiel agents to infiltrate the union and spy on the strikers. Both sides refused to compromise with the other. The union was unaware of how closely the mine owners were working together and believed if they could just get one to cave, the others would follow. One minority owner of a mine did cave and reopened with a higher wage. When his partners took him to court, the court ruled it had to pay the $3 wage. So when the state deputy labor commissioner offered to arbitrate the case, the union refused, thinking victory was right around the corner. The WFM’s aggressive action disturbed the American Federation of Labor. The AFL did not call other unions out in support, which often happened in strikes of this time, even if the supportive unions might settle themselves for small raises. The Leadville WFM local was largely on its own, although other WFM locals did contribute financial help.

On August 13, the owners tried to cut a deal, saying they would raise the wage to $3 when the price of silver rose to 75 cents an ounce. It was not at that time 75 cents. But given that the majority of the striking miners were making the $3 wage already, there was some effort to end the strike. However, the WFM leadership wanted to hold out for victory. Before you think such demands were unrealistic or that the union should have compromised, understand that in 1894, the WFM had won probably the single greatest union victory of the decade in the Cripple Creek strike. Believing the union’s credibility was at stake and hoping to organize throughout the West, another victory at Leadville would have really solidified the union’s position and power.

Some of the mines began to build fortifications around them, preparing to reopen and crush the strike with force if necessary. This led the WFM to take the offensive. On September 21, fifty armed miners attacked the Coronado and Emmett mines. They set the Coronado mine on fire by dropping dynamite into it, causing $50,000 worth of damage. A gun battle ensued with the twenty armed strikebreakers at the mines. Four union members were killed. In response, Colorado governor Albert McIntire, who had previously refused mine owners’ requests to use the state militia as a private police force, promptly changed his mind. The mines reopened under military guard. Eugene Debs came to Leadville to try and negotiate a solution, but could not. Low-level violence continued through the winter. Strikebreakers surrounded one striker outside his house and murdered him while a policeman shot another. Given that the Leadville police chief hated the strikers, it’s surprising there were not more deaths. The WFM caved on March 9, 1897 after half the workers had already given up and returned to work. Those workers not on the blacklist went back under the old wage system.

The Leadville experience left the WFM deeply bitter. The union disaffiliated with the AFL after the federation refused to support it. The Leadville strike’s failure contributed significantly to that union’s radical phase that included its central role in forming the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, with WFM leader Big Bill Haywood eventually leading the new union. And while the WFM largely withdrew from the IWW after 1908 as more moderate leadership took over in the miners’ union, it retained it’s radical edge. The WFM eventually turned into the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers in 1916. More popularly known as Mine, Mill, it retained its radical edge and was one of the unions evicted from the CIO for its communist leadership in the late 1940s. It also led the famous Salt of the Earth strike in southern New Mexico.

Today, Leadville is one of the most fascinating and kind of scary places in the nation, with the mining legacy all over the landscape and the culture.

This is the 181st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 31, 1889

[ 18 ] May 31, 2016 |

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On May 31, 1889, the South Fork dam, on the land of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club above the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, collapsed during a heavy rainstorm. Over 2200 people died in the one of the worst disaster in American history. The Johnstown Flood is not only a horrible disaster but deeply reflective of class divisions during the Gilded Age and the complete lack of legal or moral responsibility the wealthy had toward the working class.

In 1840, the South Fork Dam was built on the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from the town of Johnstown, in order to stop the floods that frequently hit the mountainous area. Over time, the canal system that had spurred the original construction fell into disuse. The land where the dam was located was purchased by the steel capitalist Henry Clay Frick and a group of speculators, many of whom were connected to Carnegie Steel, for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. For convenience sake, Frick had the dam lowered in order to build a road across it and built a screen that built up debris behind it. The club opened in 1881. The dam frequently sprung leaks and was only patched with mud. People in Johnstown were concerned about the long-term stability of the dam but Frick and his friends did nothing. By 1889, the club had 61 members. They included Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon. This was the peak of the Gilded Age elite. Mellon of course would have a very long career, serving as the staunchly conservative Secretary of the Treasury under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. His policies contributed significantly to the development of the Great Depression.

By 1889, Johnstown was a big steel town of about 30,000 people. Like many Pennsylvania cities, it’s existence was largely based around the industry. The Cambria Iron Company began in Johnstown in 1852. The company was one of the nation’s most important early blast furnace steel works. By 1858, the company was the nation’s largest producer of rails for railroads and Johnstown grew rapidly. Like the rest of the region’s steel mill towns, after 1880, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe poured into Johnstown to take these incredibly difficult, hot, and deadly jobs in an industry with terrible working conditions. By 1889, the national importance of Johnstown was diminishing, as bigger cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland established much larger steel works and had access to significantly larger labor forces, but Cambria Iron Works was still a major industry player. The company controlled nearly everything in the town, from churches to libraries. It also did not allow for labor unions. Like other steel towns, the labor force frequently organized over these terrible conditions. After the Panic of 1873 began, the company began laying off workers, lowering wages, and paying workers in company store credit rather than cash. Workers responded by organizing a union called the Miners National Association. 400 workers joined. The company refused to recognize it. The company then simply shut down operations rather than deal with organized workers. The union quickly collapsed and the company hired everyone back on the condition that they sign a contract pledging never to join a union. The company received glorious praise from The New York Times, among other national publications, for taking such a strong stance against unions. By 1889, the Cambria Iron Works remained union free.

In late May 1889, a powerful storm began to develop over Nebraska and Kansas. It moved east and dumped rain on the mountains of Pennsylvania on the evening of May 30. The next morning, the lake behind the dam had risen precipitously. Johnstown began to flood. In some parts of town, the water rose to as high as 10 feet, trapping some people in their houses. But things got tremendously worse in the fourteen miles the water rushed downstream. Towns on the way were blown away, with 314 dead in the iron town of Woodvale.

When the dam collapsed, there was no way to let the people of Johnstown know in time to escape. The water behind the dam rushed forward at 40 miles an hour, wiping away everything in its path. It just completely wiped out the city. A total of 2209 died, one of the two largest single losses of life in American disasters to that date. 99 entire families were wiped out. The event received immediate national media coverage and relief poured into the city, starting with Clara Barton and quickly becoming a national effort. The Cambria Iron Works was relatively untouched by the flood and its steel production continued almost unabated.

Newspapers attacked Frick and the club members after the flood. The Chicago Herald ran an editorial titled, “Manslaughter or Murder.” It soon became obvious that the dam collapse was the direct responsibility of the club members, both for not maintaining it and for modifying it for their own pleasure, indifferent to the thousands of people below the dam. The club members offered a bit of relief to put themselves in a positive light. Andrew Carnegie donated $10,000. Henry Clay Frick had the club give some blankets.

After the flood, the survivors wanted compensation. But the laws of the Gilded Age allowed the rich to essentially do whatever they want. They could kill their own workers through terrible workplace safety conditions and the courts would find in favor of the companies. They could destroy farmland through the erosion or flooding they caused and the farmers would lose their suits in the name of progress. Given that Frick and the club leaders had adjusted the dam for their own convenience and didn’t maintain the dam effectively. The hunting club hired the preeminent law firm of Knox and Reed to defend them. Both men were club members and Pennsylvania elites; Philander Knox would go on to be Secretary of State in the administration of William Howard Taft. The lawsuits from the survivors were easily fended off by Knox and Reed. The survivors received nothing; Frick and his friends continued as if nothing happened. For them, nothing really had happened. The people of Johnstown didn’t matter.

Henry Clay Frick went on a few years later to manage the busting of the union at Homestead in 1892, becoming the most hated man in America.

This is the 178th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 33

[ 76 ] May 29, 2016 |

This is the tomb of James Garfield:

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Garfield grew up in Ohio, raised by his widowed mother. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts, moved back to Ohio and entered politics as a Republican. He served in the Ohio state senate from 1859-61 and then volunteered for the Union Army during the Civil War. He rapidly rose to the rank of major general, fighting at Shiloh, among other battles. However, his war service ended in late 1863 when he was elected to Congress in 1862; nearly a year between the election and the start of the next legislative session was the norm at that time. In that year, he also fought effectively at the Battle of Chickamauga. After he left for Washington, he became a protege of Salmon Chase and aligned himself with abolitionists who felt that Lincoln was moving too slow on slavery, particularly in following Thaddeus Stevens’ advice to confiscate the lands of treasonous plantation owners and redistribute them to their former slaves. In the early years of Reconstruction, Garfield continued his alliance with the radical Republicans, hoping to impeach Andrew Johnson and being shocked and angry when that failed.

But by 1870, Garfield was rapidly moving toward a more conservative position. While he supported the 15th Amendment, he did not support the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, critical to Grant’s suppression of the KKK, because he worried about the effect upon habeas corpus. He became a classically Gilded Age hard money supporter, deriding greenbacks.

Like other politicians of the period, Garfield also had shady financial morals. He was caught up in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Although it did not seem that he directly accepted Union Pacific money, he certainly was aware of the scandal and was personally offered money. At the very least, he knew about the entire scandal as a powerful congressmen and did nothing at all about it. This did not hurt him in the future. He got himself elected to the Senate with the support of the state’s powerful senator John Sherman and quickly became a dark horse for the Republican nomination in 1880. Ulysses S. Grant, who was actively seeking a third term after taking four years off, James Blaine, and John Sherman were the early favorites. When none of the three could win a majority of delegates, support began to move toward Garfield. He won election that fall over Winfield Scott Hancock. Horatio Alger wrote his campaign biography; you already know what Alger emphasized in it.

The major issue Garfield faced as president was the division between the two factions of the party, a division made clear to him as Grant’s supporters refused to support him until the very end. This of course would help lead to his assassination by the disgruntled office seeker Charles Guiteau in 1881. Some have claimed Garfield would have made a good civil rights president, but I am skeptical. He would have been good for African-Americans on patronage and he did propose some educational programs, but the general feeling within the Republican Party for aggressive action to protect black rights in the South was very low in 1881. Even if he had survived the full four years, it’s unlikely any bill would have passed for him to sign and probably not likely that he would have spent much political capital on it, although I guess we will never know.

Garfield’s tomb is big enough but it’s the inside that is really amazing. 1881 was Peak Gilded Age. Money was flowing and Garfield was part of that monied elite by this time. His policies had helped make a lot of wealthy people wealthier. So they went all out for Garfield. I visited the grave before and have been inside, but when I visited this March, the inside was closed. But these pictures other took will do.

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Here is the statue of Garfield inside the tomb, with the sun reflecting on the glorious man, reminding us all of his awesomeness. In the background, you can see the ornnateness of the entire thing, which includes up to the high rotunda. That’s even better seen here:

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Here is the actual grave:

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James Garfield is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio.

Andrew Carnegie: Tycoon Medievalism

[ 87 ] May 10, 2016 |

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Something that drives me really crazy is when people today cite Andrew Carnegie as a good capitalist because he gave away a bunch of money to build libraries. People saw through this at the time. Approximately half of Pennsylvania towns he offered libraries to rejected them because they didn’t want his blood money. Carnegie was an awful person who used his philanthropy to justify his own rapacious and murderous behavior. We should be able to see through this today and look at him as some model for the wealthy of the present. We should also know more about him. This is a good short piece on Carnegie and Gilded Age philanthropy:

Kathleen Davis calls the philosophy behind his philanthropy “tycoon medievalism.” There was something feudalistic and paternalistic in Carnegie, but also something new in the way he redistributed wealth extracted from the earth and from laborers, thousands of them children, towards his own lasting fame. Davis argues that he “institutionalized philanthropy and thereby established an impersonal, self-perpetuating mechanism for redistributing capital into symbolic capital.” The famous music hall, the many libraries, the continuing work of the Foundation, the symbolic capital, all have done a remarkable job of obscuring the man’s ruthless accumulation of economic capital and, of course, political power.

Carnegie believed that sharing wealth through wages was foolish, since it would be wasted on “indulgence of appetite,” not the perpetuation of the race. In “The Gospel of Wealth” (1889) Carnegie wrote, “While the law of [of competition] may sometimes be hard for the individual, it is best for the race.” He meant, of course, the white Anglo-Saxon race. It was the mission of men like himself to direct the progress of the race by spending for them as he saw fit. Money on the poor in either wages or charity was wasted, but monuments with his name on them showed his beneficence and guiding hand.

Davis argues that Carnegie’s wealth allowed him to perpetuate his self-serving beliefs and the bogus racial science of the day. She reminds us that this kind of philanthropy is a profoundly undemocratic form of social restructuring. Carnegie avowed that economic inequality was necessary and good for the world as he saw it. The fact that inequality is a root cause of authoritarianism wouldn’t have bothered him, since he was at the top of the heap.

What a role model.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 29

[ 43 ] May 1, 2016 |

This is the grave of John D. Rockefeller.

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I hardly need to explain to you all who Rockefeller was. The wealthiest man in American history in real money, the Standard Oil monopolist took over 90% of the American oil industry using methods both legal and nefarious, as Ida Tarbell famously exposed. A Baptist prig who combined his fundamentalist Protestantism with Social Darwinism to justify his own disgusting actions, we can all take comfort in the fact that Rockefeller suffered from a condition later in life that made him lose all his hair, looking like the shriveled troll on the outside that he was on the inside. Like many of his monopolist contemporaries, Rockefeller loved to combine public statements about morality with private doings that showed no moral compass at all except the insatiable desire for ever-greater profit.

What I really love here though is that beneath the obelisk is the actual resting place of Rockefeller and various family members (though not his famous sons and grandsons). But there is nothing growing out of Rockefeller’s actual resting place.

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I am hoping that this lack of growth can be explained by one of two things. First, Rockefeller’s putrescent corpse is so filled with bile and evil that it is the equivalent of salting the Earth and nothing will ever grow above it again. The second option is that the soil is turning acidic from people leaving liquid offerings. At least we can hold on to this dream, whatever the actual circumstances.

John D. Rockefeller is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio.

The Debate on the New Gilded Age

[ 63 ] February 13, 2016 |

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I have pushed the New Gilded Age as a way to understand 21st century America and what it is reverting to for several years now. I think it is an apt comparison on many levels, with growing income inequality, corporate control over American society and politics, crushing unions, growing racial violence, etc. That said, obviously the metaphor has its limitations. No two periods are exactly the same or even that close to the same, especially when we are talking about 125 years ago. The differences are always going to be greater than the similarities. Yet reminding people of the similarities has significant value in both helping people understand what the heck is happening in the world around them and to help people learn about the past and how it is useful to them.

What’s interesting to me is how many people are now commenting on the New Gilded Age metaphor is a number of ways. Some of these are pretty worthless, such as saying that capitalists lost the Gilded Age. Oh, OK.

A couple of more useful discussions. First, the historian Heath Carter, arguing we are not in a new Gilded Age That’s because in the Gilded Age, Americans fought like hell against income inequality and today, the most prominent ideology actually supports the wealthy and doesn’t challenge capitalism much at all:

But whatever the similarities between the days of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt and those of Gates, Buffett, and Bezos, there is this fundamental difference: Our late-nineteenth century forebears were less inclined to give economic inequality their “amen.” In the face of the Gilded Age’s notorious disparities, working people built movements that challenged the underlying structures of industrial capitalism, contributing along the way to an unprecedented, nationwide ferment regarding the shape of a moral economy—and it is on these crucial fronts that the analogy to our own time falls apart.

The late-nineteenth century was continually rocked by working-class unrest. Outraged at the seeming injustice of the emerging industrial order, working people experimented with new forms of solidarity, organizing trade unions, craft federations, and big-tent alliances such as the Knights of Labor. To be sure, the early American labor movement was seriously hampered by the racism, ethnocentrism, and chauvinism that were pervasive in its own ranks, but even still, it succeeded, among other things, in making “the labor question” the defining issue of the era. It no doubt helped that, for two months in the spring of 1871, radicalized workers seized control of Paris, appearing to confirm Karl Marx’s insistence that a proletarian revolution was taking shape in the wings. In the United States, an aghast elite followed the news in France and for decades thereafter entertained nightmares of a similar movement rising up in its very midst.

American workers kept the dream alive by taking repeatedly to the streets, which in countless Gilded Age cities and towns were transformed often into industrial battlegrounds. It took the combined powers of local militia, the National Guard, and the U.S. Army to quash the railroad strikes of 1877, which swept across the industrializing North like wildfire during that violent summer. The “Great Upheaval” of the mid-1880s saw more than a million workers surge into the upstart Knights of Labor, who were behind many of the 1,436 separate work stoppages (involving 407,000 workers) that unfolded in 1886 alone. That same year a bomb exploded at an anarchist-led rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, provoking consternation and alarm across the industrializing world and catalyzing, within a matter of hours, a fierce backlash against working-class movements of all kinds. Yet less than a decade later workers once more mounted an arresting demonstration of their strength, powering a sympathetic strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company that brought the nation’s vaunted rail system grinding to a halt until, finally, the federal government intervened legally and militarily to derail the uprising.

Moreover, he sees support among working people for both Trump and Clinton as a depressing sign in workers’ own acquiescence for their own disempowerment. Of course, there was plenty of that in the Gilded Age, particularly for Trump’s anti-immigrant positions. After all, Chinese exclusion was a movement coming from the white working class, not elites. And what about Sanders? Carter is moderately hopeful:

The major exception to the prevailing rule, of course, is Clinton’s Democratic colleague, Bernie Sanders, who has traveled the country doggedly making his case that “the issue of wealth and income inequality is the moral issue of our time.” Sanders’ throwback message has galvanized many thousands on the left. He battled Clinton to a “virtual tie” in the Iowa caucuses and appears poised for a resounding victory in New Hampshire. But polls show that a number of key Democratic constituencies, including, notably, nonwhite, working-class voters, continue to prefer Clinton. Unless Sanders can find a way to make deeper inroads into the American mainstream—and fast—the course of the 2016 election will only underscore how constricted the contours of not just political debate but also moral imagination have become. In these vital regards, our profoundly inegalitarian era compares unfavorably with the late-nineteenth century. And in that sense, ironically, the notion of a new Gilded Age is simply too good to be true.

Well, first of all the Sanders campaign is shifting the terrain in the Democratic primary pretty quickly so this might look more optimistic pretty quick. Second, I think one area where the New Gilded Age metaphor works pretty well is that in the early part of that period, Americans simply didn’t understand what to do about a rapidly transforming capitalism that showed all of its lies about shared wealth and relative equality to a shocked public. All sorts of short-lived movements popped up ranging from Coxey’s Army to Greenbackism to Bellamyism to the Single Tax. Occupy is something akin to that. And maybe so is the Sanders campaign. I am a bit more optimistic than Carter that Americans do know something terrible is happening to them and they don’t understand what to do yet. But they are trying to figure it out. What that leads to in the future, I have no idea.

Michael Lansing, another historian, has his own thoughts on the New Gilded Age, seeing it different than Carter because people are trying to do something about the problems. I do think he overplays it though by relying on the New Hampshire primary as a particularly meaningful moment.

The results of Tuesday night’s New Hampshire primary signal a sea change in the American electorate. They breathe new life into the Gilded Age analogy. Stolid Granite State voters, known for their moderation, chose a different path. This isn’t about voters picking outsiders to send to Washington, D.C. Nor is it about anti-elitism. Reporters who tout a growing anger in the electorate miss the point. Here’s the deeper meaning of the results: American voters now believe they are living in a second Gilded Age. And like Americans in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, they want to do something about it. This shift has the potential to transform our nation’s politics.

On the one hand, Americans reeling from hard times turn to Donald Trump. This nativist and nationalist billionaire trades on his celebrity to flout political norms and belie his embodied elitism. Longstanding powers in the Republican Party shudder at the thought of him as the endorsed candidate of the GOP. And yet what seemed like a joke last summer now strikes terror in boardrooms and within the Beltway.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, touts a platform that echoes the one created by the late 19th-century Populists. It focuses tightly on the redistribution of wealth and separating corporate wealth from our political process. His tight focus on economic inequity and his longstanding record make it easy for him to stay on message. Rejecting Super-PAC money, he has defied the odds and is on the verge of stretching his primary race deep into March.

Again, maybe so. I am really hesitant at looking at one particular moment that just happened as predicative of a future or a sign of a major change. I’ve seen too many historians make this error, writing essays claiming that the Wisconsin protests show that public sector unionism is on the rise or that the Chicago Teachers Union strikes demonstrates the return of labor to a new activist phase. None of that seems to be the case at all just a couple of years later. But who knows. New Hampshire is a sign of something at the very least–that a lot of Americans aren’t real happy with the pro-corporate policies that have dominated both parties for four decades or more. Whether that dissatisfaction manifests itself primarily in left-wing populism or right-wing populism remains to be seen.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 17

[ 11 ] February 11, 2016 |

This is the grave of William Clark, copper capitalist and Gilded Age plutocrat.

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I have discussed Clark before. He was a miner turned capitalist in Montana who became one of Montana’s three Copper Kings. He’s remarkable not so much for that, but for being the personification of Gilded Age corruption. Clark really wanted to be a senator. Of course, in the 1890s, senators were chosen by state legislatures. So he did what any Gilded Age capitalist who wanted to be a senator would do. He bribed them. Supposedly, he later said, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.” This was no doubt true. But he was so corrupt that even the Senate, where there was no shortage of open corruption, would not seat him. He became for Mark Twain, the single symbol of the corruption of the period. He later still returned to the Senate, this time not so openly buying people off. He served a term. All of this inspired the 17th Amendment, which some of the right oppose today, being totally fine with rich people subverting democracy and buying off state legislators to control the Senate. None of this affected his massive wealth of course, as the grave above demonstrates.

William Clark is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 15

[ 30 ] February 4, 2016 |

This is the grave of William “Boss” Tweed

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I hardly need to provide a biography of the man whose name is synonymous throughout the United States with political corruption. Tweed, the child of Quakers like another paragon of virtue in American history named Richard Nixon, became a machine man from a youth, where he became a volunteer firefighter known for his ax-wielding violence against competing firefighting companies. He rose fast in the Democratic machine in New York and served a term in Congress in the 1850s. Then he realized where real power was located. By 1863, he controlled Tammany Hall and used it for massive personal profit, patronage, and corruption. Of course, as the U.S. was preparing for the Gilded Age with all its corruption, Tweed worked with men such as Jay Gould and Jim Fiske to rip off Cornelius Vanderbilt through the law, for which Tweed was repaid with massive amounts of stock. After 1869, Tweed controlled all politics in New York and stole left and right from every public project he approved, at least $25 million and probably significantly more. His downfall was quite swift; by 1871, he was out of power, he was on trial in 1873, and he died in prison in 1878, after once escaping to Spain aboard a Spanish ship and after he agreed to reveal the inner workings of his ring to his old enemy and now New York governor Samuel Tilden in exchange for release, which Tilden immediately reneged upon.

There is a small bar surrounding the gravesite. There is a gate in the front. I did what any visitor should do. I opened the gate, walked in, and left a nickel on Tweed’s tombstone.

Boss Tweed is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

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