Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Patrick Grubbs

General Trades Union Strike (1835)

The first general strike in the United States occurred in Philadelphia in 1835 when the short-lived General Trades' Union (GTU) of the City and County of Philadelphia led a citywide general strike to demand a ten-hour workday. The successful action set a precedent followed by other labor organizations in the nation later in the nineteenth century.

[caption id="attachment_25988" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white advertisement for the Morris Iron Works. Top image shows the interior of a factory with a foreman speaking to workers at machines, lower image depicts a worker operating a large smelter. Life was difficult for working-class men in the early nineteenth century. Workdays were long and wages were slim, and they labored under the constant threat of imprisonment for minor debts. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The GTU strike occurred after several failed attempts to organize working people through the creation of a Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations and a Working Men’s Party. In 1833 Philadelphia labor leaders met in hopes of reigniting the city’s nascent labor movement, and they created the GTU the following spring. The GTU, which broke barriers as one of the first labor organizations to accept unskilled workers, became the most remarkable citywide union of its time.  

The strike began as an impromptu affair in late May 1835 when coal heavers of the Schuylkill docks went on strike for a ten-hour day. As they paraded down the streets of the city on June 3, cordwainers, carpenters, and other tradesmen followed with the shouts of “We are all day laborers!” Throughout the week leaders of the GTU used labor presses, posters, and parades complete with drum and fife corps demanding a ten-hour day, to rally Philadelphia workers to join their brethren in the fight. By June 10 over forty trades and nearly twenty thousand workers, including city employees, joined the strike. Shortly after city workers struck, the Common Council announced that workers employed under the authority of the City Corporation would be granted a ten-hour day. By the end of June, most laborers received the concessions they asked for, and membership in the GTU soared.

[caption id="attachment_25995" align="alignright" width="234"]Portrait of John Swift, Mayor of Philadelphia during the General Trades Union Strike. John Swift, mayor of Philadelphia during the General Trades Union strike of 1836, set high bails for arrested strikers but failed to break the strike. (New York Public Library)[/caption]

With this initial success, worker solidarity expanded to include unskilled workers, traditionally omitted from unionizing efforts. In the spring of 1836 Schuylkill dockers clashed with coal merchants when they sought a wage advance from their employers. When dockers struck, merchants won the assistance of Mayor John Swift (1790-1873), who had eight day laborers arrested and set their bail at an exceedingly high rate of $2,500 in hopes of breaking the strike. Swift’s plan backfired, however, as the high bail made martyrs of those arrested. The GTU came to their aid, admitted the dockers into the organization, and helped fund their defense, which proved successful when they were acquitted of both breaching the peace and of charges of conspiracy.

GTU power helped to organize the city’s labor and gained the workers of Philadelphia the ten-hour day. Every strike funded and supported by the GTU in the seven months following the general strike ended in victory for the workers, including that of the unskilled dockers. But the organization met a sad end. Many who joined the union left once concessions were made. Workers also faced a backlash from employers who formed masters associations to defeat striking workers. By 1837 only thirty unions remained, down from fifty-one in 1836. That year the first effects of the Panic of 1837 were felt by city workers, and within a year the organization was dead.

While the GTU of Philadelphia proved short-lived, its significance to organized labor movements reached into the next century. The General Strike of 1835, the nation’s first general strike, proved successful and was employed by other American labor movements in the postbellum years, most notably in St. Louis in 1877 and throughout the nation in 1919. By admitting unskilled dockers into their union, the GTU of Philadelphia set a precedent not replicated until after the Civil War when it became a primary objective of the Knights of Labor. Together, the general strike and the inclusion of unskilled laborers in unions ultimately proved effective for organized labor during another dire period for American workers: the Great Depression.

Patrick Grubbs is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who is writing his dissertation entitled “The Duty of the State: Policing the State of Pennsylvania from the Coal and Iron Police to the Establishment of the Pennsylvania State Police Force, 1866–1905.” He has been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011.

Railroad Strike of 1877

The first nationwide strike in the United States occurred in the summer of 1877 as rail workers and their supporters throughout the nation protested conditions under corporate control. While Philadelphia largely escaped the turmoil that erupted in other cities as authorities worked vigorously to quash labor opposition, the city’s National Guard regiment nonetheless became entangled at the center of Pittsburgh’s violent confrontations.

[caption id="attachment_25549" align="alignright" width="285"]Black and gray illustration depicting Robert Ammon sitting at a table, reading a document, surrounded by several men. This 1877 sketch by John Donaghy depicts leader Robert Ammon directing the actions of the Trainmen’s Union. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The leading causes of this strike lay in the Panic of 1873, which brought massive unemployment, exposed the lack of safeguards against unemployment and support for relief for the poor, and brought attention to the concentration of power in corporate hands. When workers were presented with a 10 percent wage reduction in June and July 1877 on top of those horrible conditions, they struck. Starting on July 16, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began in Martinsburg, West Virginia, spread quickly throughout the nation, and reached Pennsylvania on July 19. That morning workers in Pittsburgh struck against reduced wages and the institution of “doubleheading,” the practice of doubling the number of rail cars without increasing work staff.

The morning of July 19 two brakemen and one flagman refused to go on a doubleheader. Throughout the day workers refused to couple train cars, seized switches, and swarmed the tracks, preventing any freight trains from leaving the city. The company appealed to the mayor and sheriff for assistance, but both proved ineffective at dispersing the strikers. The local regiment of the National Guard mustered into duty on the morning of July 20, but only 250 of the 326 men reported for duty. Lacking sufficient force to meet the emergency, adjutant general and Philadelphia native James Latta (1839–1922) telegraphed Major General Robert M. Brinton (1843-85), commander of the First Division of the National Guard in Philadelphia, for assistance. The next day, six hundred Philadelphia militiamen left for Pittsburgh.

[caption id="attachment_25550" align="alignright" width="285"]Black and gray illustration of building with smoke billowing into the air. Mangled railroad tracks and broken wheels and axels are visible in the foreground. This 1877 illustration depicts flames and thick smoke rising from a Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse at Pittsburgh. Strikers set fire to the roundhouse in an attempt to “burn out” Philadelphia militiamen who had taken refuge inside the building. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The arrival of the Philadelphia militiamen turned the relatively peaceful strike in Pittsburgh into a scene of violence and disorder. Pennsylvania Railroad officials attempted to resume freight traffic and ordered the troops to suppress any resistance. When protesters threw stones and other missiles at troops, the Philadelphia “Dark Blues” opened fire, killing over twenty people, including one woman and three small children. The outraged strikers and their sympathizers spent the rest of July 21 burning all the Pennsylvania Railroad property they could. The following day, troops clashed again with protesters, leaving an additional twenty-three dead, including three members of the First Division. The Philadelphia troops ultimately escaped the city and returned to Philadelphia, but their presence and actions in Pittsburgh drew significant criticism from a subsequent investigation.

By way of contrast, the city of Philadelphia served as a model of law and order during the Great Railroad Strike. Alerted to the trouble in Pittsburgh, Thomas A. Scott (1823–81), president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, enlisted the help of Philadelphia Mayor William Stokley (1823 - 1902). Known both for personally leading troops against striking gas workers in 1872 and keeping Philadelphia safe during the Centennial celebration of 1876, Stokley responded quickly with the concentration of his 1,300-man police force in the vicinity of the West Philadelphia station, located one block from the present 30th Street Station. Responding to the reported violence in Pittsburgh, Stokley banned public meetings and suspended the citizens’ rights of assembly.

On Sunday July 22 a crowd of nearly five hundred people approached the West Philadelphia depot. As the Philadelphia troops had done in Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia police charged the crowd, but with nightsticks instead of bayonets. This show of force, and lack of fatalities, dispersed the crowd and restored order to city. Shaken by the incident, however, Scott wired Governor John F. Hartranft (1830-89) for additional troops, which arrived the following day. Together with an augmented local force, doubled in size once again by Stokley, these forces assured that freight trains would successfully leave the city on July 24.

A number of factors saved Philadelphia from the fate of Pittsburgh and the handful of other cities where violence followed the strike. Unlike Pittsburgh, where the Pennsylvania Railroad drew widespread criticism for charging exorbitant rates, Philadelphia’s leadership maintained a favorable attitude towards the corporation. The city itself held 59,000 shares of Pennsylvania Railroad stock, worth nearly three million dollars and therefore had a vested interest in preventing destruction of its property.

More important, the combination of Stokley’s quick actions and the city’s show of force spared Philadelphia. While Pittsburgh Mayor William McCarthy (1820–1900) refused to appear before the crowd in his city, and ultimately left the city to care for his sick wife, Stokley returned from vacation and personally oversaw the efforts to prevent large-scale unrest. Stokley’s decision to increase the police force of Philadelphia to 1,300 men before the strike, and then to double that number as unrest unfolded, gave Philadelphia nearly twenty times the local forces than was available in Pittsburgh during the strike (a meager 120 men). The only fatality in the city during the nation’s great labor uprising occurred on July 26, as policemen attempted to break up a public meeting. Although criticized by labor advocates and defenders of civil liberties, Stokley received praise for his actions not only from Philadelphia newspapers, but also from the committee formed to investigate the strike and by Governor Hartranft in his 1878 annual address to the state.

By the end of August, the Great Railroad Strike had ended throughout the nation, primarily due to the increased presence of federal troops. Questions followed about the role, function, and efficiency of law enforcement agencies throughout Pennsylvania during the strike, including that of the National Guard. Ultimately, while Philadelphia’s First Division received harsh criticism for its actions in Pittsburgh, Stokley set an example for the state and nation on how best to combat civilian unrest.

Patrick Grubbs is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who is writing his dissertation entitled “The Duty of the State: Policing the State of Pennsylvania from the Coal and Iron Police to the Establishment of the Pennsylvania State Police Force, 1866 – 1905.” He has been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011.

Working Men’s Party

The Working Men’s Party of Philadelphia emerged in 1828 out of discontent with societal and workplace changes since the turn of the century. It formed out of the workingmen’s movement of the late 1820s and sought broad reforms. Although short-lived, the effort contributed significantly to injecting politics with working-class issues, many of which became prominent in the city and state over the next decade.

[caption id="attachment_24495" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white advertisement for the Morris Iron Works. Top image shows the interior of a factory with a foreman speaking to workers at machines, lower image depicts a worker operating a large smelter. Life was difficult for working-class men in the early nineteenth century. Workdays were long and wages were slim, and they labored under the constant threat of imprisonment for minor debts. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, workers struggled to maintain a living wage as master artisans and entrepreneurs, seeking to expand production to meet the demands of expanded markets, instituted division of labor and lowered wages. Even as the twelve-hour day, or longer, became standard, workers faced the specter of imprisonment for debt, which in many cases occurred over trivial amounts of money. Workers also bridled at an education system that consisted of private and charity schools, which offered only limited opportunities for their children. Politically, Philadelphia also proved to be unfavorable for workers, as an 1806 Cordwainer’s Trial judgment prohibited them from organizing for higher wages and few politicians proved to be advocates for the workingman.

As discontent grew into the late 1820s, workers drew on Revolutionary era ideals to argue that increased disparities of wealth and power contradicted the nation’s founding principles. Opposition initially centered on the extended hours of the workday, which workers contended not only damaged their health, but hindered their ability to properly educate themselves on issues they had a right to vote on. Citing those concerns, carpenters went on strike for a ten-hour day in the summer of 1827. When the strike proved unsuccessful, labor leader William Heighton (1800-73) rallied journeymen to form the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations (MUTA), the nation’s first citywide coalition of local unions.

Recognizing how trades unions and journeymen societies had failed to secure working-class interests, Heighton turned to politics. At a January 1828 meeting of MUTA, Heighton presented a resolution for the creation of the Working Men’s Party. Officially formed on August 11 as the nation’s first labor party, the party platform called for a ten-hour workday, free public education, abolition of imprisonment for debt and the use of prison labor, militia reform, the creation of a mechanic’s lien law, a cheaper legal system, and a more equitable tax system.

[caption id="attachment_24496" align="alignright" width="291"]an article advertising the publication of the Mechanics' Free Press in 1829. The Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations, the organization that led to the creation of the Working Men's Party, published the Mechanics' Free Press. One of the first periodicals aimed at the working class, it helped organize the city's laboring class. (Google Books)[/caption]

During the 1828 election, Working Men’s candidates appeared on both city and county ballots for positions on the city councils and state legislature. A majority of these candidates ran on joint tickets with both the National Republican and Democratic parties. Only those joint-ticket, labor-endorsed candidates won, as the eight candidates who ran solely on the Working Men’s Party ticket were defeated. Heighton attributed this poor showing to the complications of nascent political movements and hoped for a better outcome in 1829. However, despite its limited impact at the polls, the party could take some solace in that both major parties printed election bills with the words “From Six to Six,” the slogan for the ten-hour workday (including one hour off for lunch and one for dinner). Issues important to the working class had become part of the political discussion in Philadelphia.

Following the 1828 election, party ward and district clubs formed in hopes of gaining further support. Organizers in Southwark formed the first men’s political club, the Working Men’s Republican Political Association, in January 1829. To demonstrate the party’s independence and attempt to prevent fusion with the other parties, Working Men candidates were chosen by city and county conventions before the other parties held their conventions. That year the Working Men’s Party reached the highest point in its existence with the election of twenty of its fifty-four candidates, including those for sheriff and county commissioner. Although all of the successful candidates ran on joint tickets, their success gave labor-endorsed candidates the balance of power in Philadelphia.

Success proved temporary, however, as the Working Men’s Party quickly lost traction. Democrats, who claimed sole interest in the workingmen, acted to split the Working Men’s Party into factions. As the election of 1830 approached, members of the organization fiercely debated whether their candidates for the fall election should be workingmen, or “tried friends” of the movement, such as former banker and newspaper editor Stephen Simpson (1789-1854). As internal discord increased, both the National Republican and Democratic parties took aim at their constituents by adopting items from their platform, such as free public schools, abolishment of imprisonment for debt, and support for the ten-hour movement. Increasingly members of the Working Men’s Party threw their support to the more established and better funded parties.

[caption id="attachment_24493" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a prison building modeled after a Greek temple, in a state of severe decay after being closed for several years. A short wrought iron gate surrounds it. Though it was never used as such, Moyamensing Prison's Debtor's Apartment was originally intended to hold people imprisoned for failure to pay debts. Pennsylvania outlawed debtors prisons in 1833 after years of public opposition from groups like the Working Men's Party. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Stung by the party’s poor performance in 1830, Heighton blamed the apathy of his fellow workers, and he left the city for good. In 1831 the Working Men’s Party failed to offer a single candidate for election. America’s first labor party was dead. However, the issues raised by the party lived on and the movement that started in 1827 began to achieve results in the 1830s. In 1833 Pennsylvania abolished imprisonment for debt. The following year the state passed the Free School Act of 1834, which offered primary education to every child without the necessity of publicly declaring their poor financial status. In 1835 the Philadelphia Common Council announced that workers employed by the city would be granted a ten-hour day.

The Working Men’s movement of Philadelphia was more than simply an attempt by workers to gain better wages and hours. Infused with the ideals of economic, social, and political equality, its causes spread throughout the Northeast to cities such New York and Boston with the introduction of free public schools, the end of imprisonment for debt, and the fight for a shorter week.

Patrick Grubbs is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who is writing his dissertation entitled “The Duty of the State: Policing the State of Pennsylvania from the Coal and Iron Police to the Establishment of the Pennsylvania State Police Force, 1866 – 1905.” He has been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011.

Cordwainers Trial of 1806

Shoemaking, one of the most lucrative trades in Philadelphia during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, also proved to be one of the most contentious. Dissension within the trade worsened in the last decade of the eighteenth century and climaxed with the Philadelphia Cordwainers (shoemakers) Trial of 1806. This trial proved to be not only a contest between journeymen laborers against master shoemakers but also a trial of Federalist versus Jeffersonian ideals. The ultimate decision upheld Federalist notions of protection of property and firmly placed the United States on a course of enhanced industrial manufacturing through the use of wage labor. As such, it also proved to be one of the most significant trials in American labor history.

[caption id="attachment_24575" align="alignright" width="300"]Cover page of the Cordwainers Trial transcription. This volume contains the transcription by Thomas Lloyd of the Cordwainers Trial, officially titled The Trial of the Boot and Shoemakers of Philadelphia, on an Indictment for a Combination and Conspiracy to Raise their Wages. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Contention between journeymen shoemakers and their masters grew in the last decade of the nineteenth century, as in-migrating master craftsmen began promoting price competition, proposed higher pay rates, and lowered product quality. Both masters and journeymen fought the practice of underselling (marketing cheap goods), as it not only affected profits, but also wages. However, each side did so independently and with its own interests at stake, which foreshadowed the divergence that would take place between them. 

By 1792 journeymen societies grew throughout the city. In 1794 the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers of Philadelphia organized to protect wages, but more significantly to protect journeymen workers from “scab labor,” workers who agreed to work for lower wages. These societies proved effective, as workers received a wage increase in 1798, before a failed 1799 strike led to a general reduction. Soon, masters began to take orders for boots and shoes for the South. However, once orders flowed in, journeymen laid down their tools, demanding a wage increase for “export” products. This strike not only halted production, but ultimately forced masters to default on a number of orders.

Over the next five years, calm settled over the industry. Journeymen ultimately agreed to a reduction in piece work for export orders, as they initially viewed this as an opportunity for more work and believed the agreement to be temporary. However, by 1805 export work became regular and journeymen demanded not only that the reduced wages for export work be reversed, but also demanded higher rates for customized boots. The masters immediately declined, and in the fall of 1805 journeymen shoemakers initiated a strike that lasted nearly seven weeks. Master shoemakers took the matter to court, and on November 1, 1805, a Philadelphia grand jury indicted eight journeymen on charges of combination and criminal conspiracy to increase wages, bringing the strike to an abrupt end. 

The trial, officially known as The Commonwealth v. George Pullis, began March 2, 1806, in the Mayor’s Court and became a political contest between Federalist aristocracy and Jeffersonian democracy. Prosecutors, led by Federalists Jared Ingersoll (1749-1822) and Joseph Hopkinson (1770-1842), argued that journeymen societies not only hampered the shoemaking industry, but threatened the entire economy of the city. They cited English common law forbidding workers’ collusion in order to control the price of labor. They advised the jurors that allowing these societies to exist would set an example for other trades that might foment hostilities, violence, and potential civil war. The prosecution retorted that these societies were a menace to social stability and the public welfare.

The defense, led by Democratic-Republicans Caesar Augustus Rodney (1772-1824) and Walter Franklin (1773-1836), argued that workers had the right to organize and receive wages comparable to those of journeymen shoemakers in Baltimore and New York City. They contested the prosecution’s use of English common law, claiming that it no longer applied to Pennsylvania. Furthermore, they argued that no law existed in Pennsylvania that prohibited journeymen from organizing for wage increases. Using rhetoric drawn from the American Revolution, Rodney and Franklin asserted that the masters’ control over their laborers as a form of wage slavery comparable to the tyranny colonists had fought against.

[caption id="attachment_24602" align="alignright" width="195"]1850 song sheet urging Journeyman Cordwainers to once again push for a union. Following the 1842 Massachusetts Supreme Court trial of Commonwealth vs. Hunt permitting labor unions, the Journeymen Cordwainers of Philadelphia once again pushed for a union, seen here on this 1850 song sheet by John McIlvaine, urging journeymen cordwainers to join together and form a union like the craftsmen of the city. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

After both sides presented their case, Federalist Judge Moses Levy (1757-1826) used his charge to the jury to extol the ideals of a laissez-faire market and its ability to determine both prices and wages. He denounced the existence of journeymen societies, their use of strikes, and the artificial regulation this put on the market. Lastly, he instructed the jury to understand that a combination of workers, formed into a society in order to raise their wages, was illegal under common law. The next day the jury found the eight journeymen guilty and fined them eight dollars each.  

The Philadelphia Cordwainers Trial, or Conspiracy Trial, of 1806 as it was popularly known, had far-reaching implications for antebellum society and labor. It upheld the Federalist ideals of protecting property and legitimizing growth of American industry unrestrained by workers’ organizations. As for labor, the trial ultimately made any workers’ societies, or trade unions designed to control prices or wages, illegal in America. This decision held until the 1842 Massachusetts Supreme Court trial of Commonwealth vs. Hunt permitted labor unions to operate lawfully. The Pullis decision was the first of many court rulings against labor in Philadelphia in the first two decades of the nineteenth-century, a fact not lost on labor leaders of the city. Unfavorable courts became one of the primary reasons labor turned towards politics to solve their problems during the Jacksonian Era.

Patrick Grubbs is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who is writing his dissertation, titled “The Duty of the State: Policing the State of Pennsylvania from the Coal and Iron Police to the Establishment of the Pennsylvania State Police Force, 1866–1905.” He has been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011.

Shoemakers and Shoemaking

One of Philadelphia’s oldest occupations, shoemaking grew in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to become one of the city’s leading industries. During that period shoemakers in Philadelphia also became some of the leading figures in the city’s, and the nation’s, burgeoning labor movement. The methods and institutions that these leaders used throughout the nineteenth century made Philadelphia one of the nation’s most active labor centers, laying the foundation for labor organizing for years to come.

[caption id="attachment_25105" align="alignright" width="300"]>An advertisement for a Philadelphia Boot and Shoemaker is shown here, from 1875. The advertisement reads: “A. Smith, fashionable boot and shoe maker, No. 348 Girard Av., Phila. This advertisement for a Philadelphia boot and shoemaker is from 1875. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Known also as cordwainers, a term from the Middle Ages used to describe someone who worked with Spanish leather made at Cordova, Philadelphia shoemakers grew from only a handful in the 1680s to over three hundred by 1774. Demand rose in response to the preference among colonists not to rely on the arrival of European goods as their primary source for footwear. The trade continued to expand throughout the eighteenth century, and by the early 1770s Philadelphia became a center for shoemaking, not only for neighboring colonies, but also for the West Indies.

This reliance on domestic production brought increased social status to Philadelphia’s cordwainers, a position they fought hard to protect throughout the eighteenth century. Faced with outside competition, in 1718 master cordwainers and tailors presented a joint petition to the Common Council of Philadelphia, seeking to protect their crafts within the city. While the Council failed to sanction what would have constituted a guild, cordwainers succeeded in creating such a de facto status for themselves in 1760 with the establishment of the Cordwainers’ Fire Company. Firefighting was the organization’s primary objective, but its limited membership and benefits, limited to thirty craftsmen who had served a regular apprenticeship, and the special fund created to assist in the apprehension of runaway apprentices, served as a way to insulate and concentrate the master cordwainer community.

Shoemaking continued to be one of Philadelphia’s most populous and lucrative trades throughout the eighteenth century. The craft not only contained the largest number of apprentices of any trade throughout the city, but also made up one the largest units during the 1788 Grand Federal Procession, with over three hundred participants. Due in part to expanding markets and building from ideals that began with their fire company, in 1789 master cordwainers formed a society designed to regulate their business and to protect their craft. The main objective was to prevent shoemakers within the city from advertising their prices in pamphlets or newspapers or selling their goods at public markets. The collective interest of master cordwainers now carried beyond the Revolutionary era as they sought to control competition in the market and to prevent the underselling of goods.

The Master-Journeyman Relationship

Traditionally the relationship between the master, who owned the shops, oversaw production, and trained their workers and journeymen, graduated apprentices who labored for wages under nominal supervision with the aspiration of obtaining master status, was one of mutual obligation and respect. Contention between masters and journeymen was not overtly apparent by the early 1790s. For example, in 1791 when a pair of outsiders set up shop in Philadelphia, advertised their prices in city newspapers, and attempted to undersell established cordwainers, both masters and journeymen fought their presence. However, while the masters and journeymen both challenged underselling, which affected both profits and wages, they did so as separate entities, showing early signs of dissension within the craft.

[caption id="attachment_25113" align="alignright" width="300"]Illustration by Alice Barber Stephens depicts men in a busy corner of the shoemakers room at the Philadelphia Almshouse during the 1870s. Men work in a corner of the shoemakers room at the Philadelphia Almshouse during the 1870s in this illustration by Alice Barber Stephens. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

That dissension increased throughout the 1790s as journeymen societies grew within the craft. Once master artisans moved away from the workbench and sought markets outside of Philadelphia, journeymen saw their chances of reaching master status dwindling. Increasingly they viewed their goals within the craft as different from those of the masters.

It was during this period that the shoemaking process began to change. No longer was the product produced by a lone artisan. Mechanization did not impact the shoe industry until the mid-nineteenth-century, but increasingly owners used division of labor and outwork, sending parts of the shoe to be manufactured at home in an effort to increase the pace of production. Master shoemakers, such as John Bedford, began to produce for the larger market, instead of the community and aspired to gain increasing profits, not just competence. Bedford originally owned a small shop located at the corner of Gratzmere and Second Street. As his business grew, he moved his shop to the corner of Ingles and Second Street. Ultimately, he obtained a patent ironbound shoe store and warehouse at Market Street near Ninth Street and began to take orders for boots and shoes in the South. However, when Bedford returned from Charleston with an order of over $4,000, journeymen laid down their tools as they demanded a wage increase for the products to be produced for export. This strike not only halted production, but ultimately forced Bedford to default on a number of orders.

As journeymen societies grew throughout the 1790s they were increasingly successful at gaining wage increases and preventing ”scab workers,” those who agreed to work for lower wages, from entering the trade. In 1799 more than one hundred journeymen walked out when master cordwainers attempted to reduce their wages. The journeymen returned to their benches quickly, however, after an agreement between the two parties reduced the rate deduction to half its original size. Calm existed between the two groups for a half decade but their next clash proved to be one of the most significant moments in nineteenth-century labor history.

A Demand for Higher Wages

In the fall of 1805 journeymen laborers demanded a wage increase not only for export goods, especially those produced for southern markets, but also for the production of expensive boots, which took longer to make. The master cordwainers quickly rejected their petitions. The nearly seven-week strike that followed proved unsuccessful for journeymen shoemakers, as they were ultimately forced to return to their benches at the previous rate. The strike officially came to an end when master cordwainers, including John Bedford, tired of the constant dissension within their craft, took the issue to court. In November 1805 eight journeymen shoemakers were indicted by a Philadelphia grand jury on charges of combining and conspiring to raise wages.

The trial that began the following spring, known as The Commonwealth v. George Pullis, proved to be one of the most influential labor trials in the nineteenth-century. Master cordwainers argued that journeymen societies had formed illegal combinations designed to exact wage increases from employers. More importantly, they argued that the presence of these institutions was a threat to the social and economic stability not only of the city, but also of Pennsylvania as a whole. Due in large part to the presence of Federalist Judge Moses Levy (1757-1826), who proved sympathetic to the master cordwainers, the eight journeymen were ultimately found guilty of illegal combination and conspiracy and were each fined eight dollars. This court case ultimately established a precedent that outlawed collective action by laborers, such as labor unions, and was cited in similar cases throughout the industrial Northeast over the next thirty-five years. The precedent was not overturned until 1842.

Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, shoemaking continued to be one of the most populous professions within the city, while it also provided some of most influential labor leaders in Philadelphia’s history. As the link between master artisans and journeymen devolved into a relationship between business owners and wage earners, conflict within the trade revived. In 1827, cordwainer William Heighton (1800-73) began publishing the Mechanics' Free Press, one of the nation’s first labor papers, and helped establish the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations (MUTA). In 1828 MUTA leaders, including cordwainer William English, formed a political organization known as the Working Men’s Party to fight for workers’ rights. English continued his work on behalf of Philadelphia laborers by founding the Trades’ Union of Pennsylvania and Mechanic’s Union of Philadelphia in August and November 1833, respectively.

Labor Momentum Ebbs Then Grows

[caption id="attachment_25108" align="alignright" width="178"]An 1889 advertisement for John Mundell & Co's solar tip shoes shows a man with beaming sun face tipping his hat to a group of children. An 1889 advertisement for John Mundell & Co.'s solar tip shoes shows a man with beaming sun face tipping his hat to a group of children, for whom the story shoes were intended. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

From the Panic of 1837 through the end of the Civil War, labor movements throughout the city and nation lost momentum. Economic depression, nativist politics, and the secession crisis distracted many laborers from the fight for workers’ rights. However, during the last four decades of the nineteenth century shoemakers once again led Philadelphia’s labor movement.

Primary in that stage of organizing was shoemaker Thomas Phillips (1833–1916), who arrived in Philadelphia in 1852 and immediately became active in the city’s labor movement. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s Phillips took the lead in organizing the city’s shoemakers, pushing for an eight-hour day and the establishment of cooperatives. In 1869 he helped establish the Philadelphia lodge of the Knights of St. Crispin, a craft union that began in Milwaukee in 1867. In the early 1870s he became the first shoemaker to join the Knights of Labor and established Local Assembly 64 of that order, the first assembly of shoemakers in Philadelphia. In the late 1880s a rift developed between shoemakers and the Knights of Labor when it refused to support an 1887 strike. The following year Phillips orchestrated the shoemakers’ exit from the organization, becoming the same year the first general president of the newly created Boot and Shoe Workers’ International Labor Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor. Phillips grew disgruntled with the lack of support he received as general president, including the organization’s unwillingness to pay his expenses for trips required by the union, and he left the labor movement altogether in 1890.

Shoemaking had one of the longest and most active histories of any trade within the city of Philadelphia. While the trade itself flourished throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the labor strife and the labor leaders that emerged from the trade proved to have a lasting impact on this period of Philadelphia’s labor history. From the conspiracy trial of 1806 through the end of the nineteenth century, shoemakers led the fight for workers’ rights, not only in the city, but throughout the nation.

Patrick Grubbs is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who is writing his dissertation entitled “The Duty of the State: Policing the State of Pennsylvania from the Coal and Iron Police to the Establishment of the Pennsylvania State Police Force, 1866–1905.” He has been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011.

Trade Unions (1820s and 1830s)

As industrialization began changing the nature of work and society in the United States during the 1820s and 1830s, workers concerned with their low wages, long hours, and the growing power of employers organized to fight for what they believed to be the true ideals of the republic. During this period, Philadelphia workers organized trade unions and supported one of the most spectacular and successful labor demonstrations in the antebellum period, the General Strike of 1835. Although short-lived, their actions had a lasting impact on not only Philadelphia but also the nation.

[caption id="attachment_24137" align="alignright" width="291"]A short news piece announcing the publication of The Mechanics' Free Press This notice promoted the first newspaper to be printed specifically for the working class, the Mechanics' Free Press, originating in Philadelphia. It was printed for three years and influenced a number of similar publications. (Google Books)[/caption]

In the latter half of the 1820s social and economic changes within the United States created a degree of anxiety among free male workers. Questions arose over the direction of the nation, including whether the country had veered away from its founders’ true intentions. Numerous reform organizations attempted to address these concerns, including labor organizations. By the summer of 1827, journeymen in Philadelphia formed the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations (MUTA), which became the nation’s first citywide coalition of local unions. The guiding force for MUTA was the belief that the growing power and corruption of business owners and entrepreneurs was increasingly destroying the fabric of the republic. One of the association’s most pressing issues was the movement for a ten-hour work day.

In 1828 MUTA members formed a political organization, the Working Men’s Party, to fight for workers’ rights. The “Workies” polled well in Philadelphia in 1828 and 1829, but internal strife, conservative attacks, and political co-optation by city Democrats who made “workingman issues,” such as debtor relief and militia reform, part of their party platform, brought an end to the political organization by 1831. Its demise left the labor movement in Philadelphia weak, and the collapse of party politics left a bitter taste in the mouths of labor leaders.

Also in 1827, cordwainer William Heighton (1800-73) began publishing the Mechanics Free Press, one of the nation’s first labor papers, though it lasted just three years. Still, the labor movement of Philadelphia continued to use trade presses throughout the next decade to give voice to the plight of the workingman, focusing on such issues as debtor relief, militia reform, and public education reform.

Conditions Deteriorate

[caption id="attachment_24138" align="alignright" width="300"]A political cartoon depicting Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren fighting a serpent with 20 heads. The heads are of bankers including Nicholas Biddle. Massive inflation caused by President Andrew Jackson pulling federal funds out of the Second Bank of the United States brought new trade unions into creation. This 1836 political cartoon satirizes the battle between Jackson and the bankers. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Conditions for American laborers continued to deteriorate in the first years of the 1830s. A war on the Second Bank of the United States waged by President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) brought a deluge of paper money into the market, issued by a score of state banks, which led to massive inflation. In workplaces, division of labor and increased shop rules and regulations implemented by employers reduced both job security and autonomy to an all-time low. The combination of these forces brought resurgence to trade unionism. Veteran MUTA leaders, such as cordwainer William English, rebuilt Philadelphia’s trade organizations in 1833 by founding the Trades’ Union of Pennsylvania in August, followed by the Mechanic’s Union of Philadelphia in November.

In April 1834, after workers from nine trades in New York City combined to create a General Trades’ Union, labor leaders of Philadelphia organized the parallel General Trades’ Union (GTU) of the City and County of Philadelphia. Structured loosely like the federal government, the organization consisted of five executive officers elected semiannually and a bicameral legislature. Each affiliate union selected delegates to the GTU and had proportionate representation within the assembly, which met weekly and voted on admission of prospective affiliates. Determined not to follow the path of the earlier Working Men’s Party, the GTU steered clear from politics and instead focused on workshop grievances, especially the ten-hour day.

[caption id="attachment_24140" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the Merchants' Exchange building showing Greek-style columns on a large front portico. Hundreds of striking workers filled the Merchants' Exchange building at Third and Walnuts Streets after the strike began in late May 1835. An estimated twenty thousand people joined the protest by the end of the week. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The era’s most impressive and successful general strike followed in 1835. In late May coal heavers at the Schuylkill docks walked off their jobs to protest long hours. Determined to prevent strike-breakers from unloading cargo, nearly three hundred coal heavers paraded on June 3. They were soon joined by cordwainers, carpenters, and other laborers throughout the city who eventually entered and filled the Merchants’ Exchange at Third and Walnut Streets. By the end of the week, more than twenty trades and nearly twenty thousand workers (estimated) were striking, inspired in part by the increasing trade unionism of the city and also by the “Ten-Hour Circular” published by Boston carpenter Seth Luther (1795-1863) during the earlier Boston Carpenters’ Strike.


Led by artisans, such as hand loom weaver John Ferral, workers paraded through the streets of the city accompanied by fife and drum corps and held rallies in Independence Square. They carried banners emblazed with the words “From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals.” By June 10 the general strike had essentially shut down the city. Within days, the Common Council announced that workers employed by the city would be granted a ten-hour day. Master carpenters and employing cordwainers soon followed suit. By the end of the month, the ten-hour day, and in many cases increased wages, were granted to workers throughout Philadelphia. In the wake of the strike, interest in trade unionism increased and membership in the GTU soared from roughly two thousand in seventeen affiliates to nearly ten thousand from fifty affiliates.

[caption id="attachment_24136" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white vignetted illustration of Mayor John Smith Mayor John Swift was leader of the pro-business Whig party. When the trade unions attempted a second strike in 1836, he had twelve of the strikers arrested. (New York Public Library)[/caption]

Solidarity Rises, Then Falls

Trade union solidarity within Philadelphia carried over into 1836. Numerous strikes by such groups as bookbinders and hand loom weavers received guidance and economic support from the GTU. The Philadelphia GTU also became the first trades union in the nation to admit unskilled workers. This occurred in the spring of 1836 when Schuylkill dockers went on strike against coal merchants, who denied them a wage increase. The merchants ultimately won support from Mayor John Swift (1790-1873), who had twelve of the strikers arrested and set their bail at an exceedingly high $2,500. The GTU quickly supported the dockers, admitted them into the organization, and twice paid for their defense in court. The courts ultimately acquitted the workers on charges of breach of peace and conspiracy in restraint of trade.

By the latter half of 1836 the GTU, and trade unionism as whole, began to experience the internal divisiveness that tends to disrupt burgeoning movements. Conflicts over cooperative production, or worker-owned shops, and jurisdictional disputes among affiliates weakened the unity of the GTU. However, the organization’s demise came with the economic Panic of 1837. Trades unions throughout the city lost ground as inflation and unemployment quickened. As unemployment increased workers took whatever jobs that became available; and a staggering number of affiliate trade unions resigned from the GTU Assembly. By 1838, as many of these affiliate unions transitioned into becoming benevolent societies, the main body of the GTU had disappeared, and ultimately the organization dissolved.

Although relatively brief in duration, the labor movement that began in 1827 and climaxed with the General Strike of 1835 brought dramatic long-term changes to the city of Philadelphia. Demands made by laborers during this period raised wider interest in working and living conditions throughout the city, sparked labor presses, and impacted city, state, and national legislation, including the end of imprisonment for debt, Pennsylvania’s Free School Act of 1834, and Ten-Hour Executive Order of 1840 issued by President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862). The General Strike of 1835 and the Philadelphia GTU constituted one of most democratic, yet radical, movements of the Jacksonian Era.

Patrick Grubbs is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who is writing his dissertation entitled “The Duty of the State: Policing the State of Pennsylvania from the Coal and Iron Police to the Establishment of the Pennsylvania State Police Force, 1866–1905.” He has been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011.

Artisans

As skilled laborers who hand-crafted their goods on a per-customer basis, artisans played a central role in the formation of Philadelphia’s prerevolutionary economy: producing essential goods and services and providing social stability within households composed not just of immediate family but also of journeymen and apprentices. American independence brought artisans new economic opportunities as the city expanded and new markets emerged. With the maturing of a market economy, however, artisans, and journeymen in particular, faced the loss of both social and economic status as the economy that supported such work became more volatile and contentious.

[caption id="attachment_24224" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of tourists taking a photo on Elfreth's Alley, a narrow cobblestone and brick street lined with restored eighteenth and nineteenth century row homes. Elfreth's Alley was once home to a small community of artisans, who often operated workshops in the front rooms of their homes. One of these workshops has been recreated in the Elfreth's Alley Museum House. (Photograph by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

During the early colonial period, up until the mid-1760s, the town economy of Philadelphia built on the contributions of artisans and entrepreneurs. Artisan shops produced shoes, soap, wagons, clothes and food for the town, while also laying bricks and constructing buildings. By 1745, master artisans made up 48 percent of the total population of Philadelphia, highlighting their significance to the burgeoning town. For artisans of this period, the home and workshop were very often in the same building or at the least in close proximity. In some cases, master artisans labored alone to complete specific orders for their customers, but in many cases they relied on the work of indentured servants, slaves, and a few skilled journeymen to assist in the completion of their tasks. Master artisans were respected throughout the city, due in large part to the vital goods they provided the community, but also for the independence of their craft.

[caption id="attachment_24227" align="alignright" width="212"]A black and white illustration of an early nineteenth century shoemaker cutting leather. Behind him, finished shoes dry on a clothes line and are displayed in compartments along the wall. In the eighteenth century, becoming a master artisan took many years of training and practice. Apprentices began their education young, graduated to journeymen wage workers, and could only be considered masters after displaying a very high skill level in their trade. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

By the end of the Seven Years’ War (1754-63) the labor market had changed dramatically to favor free laborers over indentured servants, whose availability had declined. Typically, then, master artisans owned the shop, ordered supplies, supervised the workers, and continued to work alongside his employees, including apprentices and journeymen. Apprentices were traditionally teenagers who spent three to seven years learning their craft under their masters, from whom they could expect room, board, and education. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one they would be promoted to journeymen status, given a set of tools, a suit, and a wage. Journeymen were skilled workers who performed their work with little interference from the master and received pay by the day or by piece. Tradesmen viewed this system of labor as a type of fluid hierarchy in which apprentices would someday climb the artisanal ladder, from journeymen to master and proprietor of their own shops.

Masters, Journeymen, Apprentices

The relationship between master artisans, journeyman, and apprentices was initially built on mutual respect, and master artisans took a paternal role over their laborers. Work was performed at a casual pace and on a per customer basis. Workers wore leather aprons, shared workbenches, and worked with hand tools to construct their goods. The workday was long, traditionally twelve to fourteen hours, but consisted of morning breaks for coffee and beer, a lunch break in the early afternoon, and a late afternoon break for a snack. Overall, artisans within Philadelphia strove for “competence,” the ability to provide enough money to support their families and save a little for the future, but few master artisans were actually able to reach this level of economic comfort.

[caption id="attachment_24225" align="alignright" width="300"]The front page of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser with two prominent skull and crossbones printed on it, one where the normal header would be and one in the upper left corner. Article text announces that the newspaper is folding due to the cost of the Stamp Act. After the Seven Years' War, Britain began to tax the colonies directly with acts like the Stamp Act of 1765, satirized with a skull-and-crossbones stamp in this Philadelphia-based newspaper from that year. The boycotts spawned by these acts increased demand for colonial artisans' goods. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The end of the Seven Years’ War also brought implementation of imperial acts by Britain on the colonies. These acts served as a blessing for many struggling Philadelphia artisans because many of them did not tax home-produced goods. As Philadelphians used the policies of nonimportation, or the boycotting of British goods, in the years leading up to the American Revolution, the purchase of home-produced goods brought increased business to Philadelphia artisans. Nonimportation pitted artisans against merchants who benefited from Atlantic trade with Britain, but these differences were largely cast aside once war broke out. During the War for Independence, Philadelphia artisans enjoyed a period of production with little competition. This did not last long, for when the war ended and Atlantic trading resumed, artisans found themselves once again competing against foreign goods. During the postrevolutionary years, they joined merchants in seeking a stronger central government that would protect the nation’s domestic industries.

Dramatic Shifts After the Revolution

The postrevolutionary years also brought dramatic shifts to the relationship between master artisans, journeymen, and apprentices. By the 1780s masters no longer signed contracts with apprentices promising tools, clothes, or an education, but instead replaced these items with monetary compensation. Masters refrained from teaching apprentices the art of the craft and instead tended to rely on them as simple wage laborers. The increased presence of under-trained workers within their craft angered many journeymen, as did other changes within their labor environment. As work customs changed to meet new market obligations, such as fewer breaks, more oversight, less autonomy at work, and decreased wages, journeymen perceived their interests diverging from that of their masters, and they began to doubt their ability to climb the artisanal ladder. Such changes strained the relationship between masters and journeymen. Perceiving master artisans as no longer producing for a community, fulfilling their paternal obligations, or striving to reach “competence,” journeymen came to view their master’s intentions as a threat to the social and economic order of society and at odds with the true and moral intentions of labor.

[caption id="attachment_24226" align="alignright" width="300"]A color illustration of Carpenter's Hall, a two-story red brick Georgian-style meeting hall topped by a white cupola and a large American flag. It is surrounded by a wall and the area around it is still forested. Carpenters' Hall was built for the Carpenters' Company, an artisan guild and the oldest extant trade guild in the nation. Shortly after it opened in 1774, it was the headquarters of the First Continental Congress. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The first sign of dissension emerged in 1786 during one of the nation’s first strikes—the first recorded strike in Philadelphia’s history—as journeymen printers went on strike against employers refusing to pay a weekly rate of six dollars. Further divisions became apparent during the 1788 Federal Procession, which honored the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, when at least two trades marched in separate companies, one of master artisans and one of journeymen. By the 1790s early labor disputes between these two groups sprung up in a number of crafts, including carpenters in 1791 and cabinetmakers in 1795. Tensions between these two groups continued after the turn of the century as revolutions in transportation, communication, and industrialization greatly expanded the market economy well beyond Philadelphia, giving priority, in the eyes of journeymen, to the market over the moral intentions of craft labor.

While artisans played a significant role in crafting Philadelphia’s colonial and pre-Revolutionary economic and social history, divisiveness within artisanal ranks also played a large role in shaping Philadelphia’s post-Revolutionary history. As markets continued to expand throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the divide between master artisans and journeymen grew. Many master artisans left the workshop and became simply business owners, merchants, and entrepreneurs. Journeymen continued to toil in the workplace, but it was as wage laborers, and work was most likely performed at a machine and no longer at a workbench. As friction between these two developed into the 1820s journeymen laborers responded with the formation of trades unions and political parties to fight their cause, which set up a nearly thirty-year period of labor and class unrest within Philadelphia.


Patrick Grubbs is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who is writing his dissertation entitled “The Duty of the State: Policing the State of Pennsylvania from the Coal and Iron Police to the Establishment of the Pennsylvania State Police Force, 1866 – 1905.” He has been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011.

Riots (1830s and 1840s)

In the 1830s and 1840s, as social and economic tensions arose from early industrialization and from a population that was at once growing rapidly and becoming more racially and religiously diverse, Philadelphia experienced a sharp increase in disorder that it was unprepared to handle. The fragmentation of Philadelphia County into numerous municipalities and the absence of a professional police department allowed demonstrations to escalate into full-scale riots. The city’s inability to quell those riots ultimately led to consolidating twenty-nine jurisdictions into one municipality and creating one the nation’s earliest modern police forces.

During these two decades, industrialization and surging immigration brought increased labor competition and ethnically mixed settlement patterns to the city. The population more than doubled from 161,410 to 388,721 and spilled beyond the original city limits (from South to Vine Streets between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers) in all directions, which put a strain on the city not designed to accommodate such rapid growth. The increasing number of black residents and the rise of abolitionism in the early 1830s added to the tension. The black population in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs more than doubled in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, from 6,880 in 1800 to 15,624 in 1830. Coinciding, but not caused by this growth, was the increase in the abolitionist movement.

[caption id="attachment_17092" align="alignright" width="300"]In this dramatic illustration of the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, firefighters douse nearby buildings but do not attempt to extinguish the blaze. (Library Company of Philadelphia) In this dramatic illustration of the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, firefighters douse nearby buildings but do not attempt to extinguish the blaze. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

These factors combined to create a volatile environment that finally boiled over in the summer of 1834. On August 11, 1834, white and black citizens quarreled over seats on a merry-go-round known as the “flying horses” near Seventh and South Streets. The next evening, as rumors spread that black residents had insulted whites, fighting resulted in the destruction of the carousel. Later that night a group of whites assembled just outside the Moyamensing quarter, which had a significant portion of black residents, and moved into the community smashing black residents’ taverns, homes, and furniture. Philadelphia constables and watchmen, called in to assist the helpless watchmen of Moyamensing, successfully broke up the mob and arrested nearly twenty rioters. However, destruction continued over the next two days as white mobs tore down a black church in Southwark, sacked the First African Presbyterian Church, destroyed more than thirty black homes, and beat any black citizen in their path. Despite more than forty arrests and the mayor’s attempt to prevent violence, the undermanned constabulary and underprepared city could do little to prevent the devastation. Minor skirmishes continued over the next few days, but Philadelphia’s first widespread race riot ended on August 14, 1834.

Anti-abolition sentiment and racial tensions did not dissipate over the next four years. In fact they grew worse because of the rise of the national abolition movement, the Panic of 1837, and the Pennsylvania State Constitution of 1838, which rescinded the free black vote. While the new constitution may have placated the white population, it added resolve to the fight for black rights and further intensified the racial discord of the city and its surrounding suburbs.  Abolitionists within the city, not deterred, constructed a meeting hall known as Pennsylvania Hall on Sixth Street near Franklin Square.  It opened on Monday May 14, 1838, with national abolitionist leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79), Maria Chapman (1806-85), and the Grimke sisters in attendance. The opening day went off with little disturbance, but by Tuesday night notices spread throughout the city to protest in front of Pennsylvania Hall. By Wednesday night a mob gathered outside the building and broke windows as Angelina Grimke (1805-79) spoke to a predominately female audience inside. Although the meeting abruptly ended and the Thursday program was canceled, it was not enough to save the hall. Late Thursday evening a crowd of nearly three thousand gathered in front and set the structure ablaze. After only four days of operation, Pennsylvania Hall burned to the ground as firemen refused to fight the fire and instead focused on protecting neighboring structures.

Over the next four years the city and nation suffered a severe business depression marked by widespread unemployment. Although Philadelphia remained relatively calm, economic, racial, and religious tensions simmered. The political and jurisdiction fragmentation of the city and its surrounding districts did little to deflate or combat those tensions. Increased job competition among ethnic and racial groups, in particular between Irish and black workers, brought intermittent fighting that exploded into a full-scale riot in August 1842. As a black  temperance society began a parade on August 1 to promote temperance and celebrate Jamaican Emancipation Day, a flag they carried depicting a slave breaking his chains and the rising sun of freedom was misinterpreted and offended white, in particular Irish, bystanders. As the parade reached the public market near Lombard and Sixth Streets, a melee quickly ensued, the parade broke up, and black marchers were chased throughout the city. By the end of the day a mob torched an abolitionist meeting hall and the Second African Presbyterian Church on St. Mary’s Street. The Lombard Street Riot continued for two more days and caused many black citizens to flee the city. As the sheriff and deputized citizens attempted to subdue the mob, the predominately Irish rioters turned against them, and public order was only restored after the mayor called out seven militia companies with more than one thousand troops. This clash with law enforcement officials stigmatized the Irish in Philadelphia and set the stage for the next large-scale riots in antebellum Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_17186" align="alignright" width="239"]Illustrated sheet music cover glorifying the nativist cause, produced shortly after the bloody anti-Catholic riots in Kensington, Philadelphia, of May 1844. This image shows an illustrated sheet music cover glorifying the nativist cause, produced shortly after the bloody anti-Catholic riots in Kensington, Philadelphia, of May 1844. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Over the next two years the rise of Nativist and Protestant sentiment combined with the sharp increase in Irish Catholic immigration brought tensions to a fever pitch in the spring of 1844. Beginning as a contest over Catholic resistance to the reading of the Protestant King James Bible in public schools, unrest boiled into the streets in May 1844. On the evening of Friday, May 3, a Nativist organization known as the American Republican Association called for a meeting in the Kensington district that Catholic hecklers swiftly interrupted. The organization called for another meeting in the same area the following Monday and this, too, was disrupted by Irish bystanders. However, this disruption proved more violent as gunshots were exchanged and a riot ensued. Nativists converged on the heavily Irish Kensington district over the next three days and burned more than thirty buildings, including a Catholic school and St. Augustine’s Catholic Church at Fourth and Vine Streets. Order was restored to the area only after the all the county militia companies were called into Kensington.

While these actions cooled temperaments in May, they did not bring peace to the city for long. By July anti-Catholic sentiment boiled over again, resulting in the Southwark Riots. On Sunday, July 7, cannons fired by a Nativist mob bombarded militia units protecting a Catholic church. The militia responded with gunfire and fighting between the militia and the crowd continued throughout the day. The rioting stopped the next day as the governor ordered surrounding militia units into Philadelphia to quell the fighting in Southwark.

Explosive and destructive incidents of rioting occurred in multiple urban centers in the United States during the 1830s and 1840s, including Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. While these riots brought destruction and death to Philadelphia, they also produced positive changes. Such violent events fueled discussion about consolidating the twenty-nine jurisdictions of Philadelphia County into the one municipality, patrolled by a unified police force. This political consolidation was completed in 1854 followed by a professional police force in 1855, one of the first modern police forces in the nation. Structural changes such as these helped Philadelphia join several European cities in ushering in the modern city.

Patrick Grubbs is an advanced Ph.D. student at Lehigh University and is writing his dissertation entitled “Bringing Order to the State: How Order Triumphed in Pennsylvania.” He has also been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania History there since 2011.

Fries Rebellion

In 1798, while Philadelphia served as capital of the United States, a new federal tax and the Alien and Sedition Acts sparked resistance in rural Bucks, Montgomery, and Northampton Counties of Pennsylvania. The reputed ringleader John Fries (1750-1818) was twice convicted of treason but received a presidential pardon. Beyond local disruption, the rebellion played a national role in helping to fracture the Federalist Party and contributed to the first (and only) impeachment of a Supreme Court justice, Samuel Chase (1741–1811).

[caption id="attachment_16506" align="alignright" width="257"]A painted portrait of President John Adams President John Adams approved both the House Tax Law and the Alien and Sedition Acts that sparked the Fries Rebellion. Residents of Bucks, Montgomery, and Northampton Counties, especially German immigrants, felt the laws targeted them. (National Portrait Gallery)[/caption]

In response to growing tensions with France and confiscation of American ships, the Federalist administration of John Adams (1735-1826) expanded the American military to prepare for a potential war. To fund this expansion, on July 9, 1798, the Fifth Congress of the United States, meeting in Congress Hall, passed the House Tax Law, which imposed a direct tax on lands and dwelling houses. The Federalist government also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a set of four laws that curtailed the rights of immigrants and punished critics of the Federalist government.

Similar to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94, rural Pennsylvanians during the Fries Rebellion resisted federal legislation, resulting in mobilization of troops, imprisonment, and trial for treason in Philadelphia. In this case, the House Tax and Sedition laws angered many citizens in Northampton, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties, particularly the Germans, who viewed these acts as unconstitutional and designed to rob them of their property and liberty.

Resistance Commences

Resistance began in August 1798 less than fifty miles from Philadelphia, primarily in Northampton, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties, and increased through December with public denouncements of the acts and the erection of liberty poles. Through 1798, the rebels threatened violence against the tax assessors sent to these regions, but did little physical violence. In January 1799 the federal government issued arrest warrants for obstructing assessment of the House Tax. U.S. Marshal William Nichols left Philadelphia on February 25 to serve the warrants, which required resisters to appear for trial in Philadelphia. Nichols arrived in Northampton County on March 1, took twelve men into custody the next day, and served the remainder of his warrants over the next three days. He then retired on March 6 to his new headquarters and temporary jail for his prisoners, the Sun Inn in Bethlehem.

[caption id="attachment_16504" align="alignright" width="300"]An engraving of men raising a tall pole in protest, while others remove the likeness of King George III from a sign Liberty poles were popular symbols of protest during the American Revolution. They continued to be raised in the Early Republic era to invoke Revolutionary sentiment. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The next day nearly four hundred armed resisters entered Bethlehem in an attempt to free the prisoners. As the highest-ranking militia officer present, John Fries assumed command of the men. Once they reached the Sun Inn, Fries began negotiations with Nichols. As the negotiations dragged late into the day the uneasy crowd grew anxious. Nichols finally agreed to release the prisoners in order to calm the crowd and also to protect his deputies. In response to this event President Adams issued a proclamation from Philadelphia urging all insurgents to retire peacefully by March 18, 1799. The insurgents complied with Adams’ proclamation by March 18, but by that point Adams had already set the military into motion.

On March 22 the Philadelphia Aurora printed a notice from Secretary of War James McHenry (1753–1816) calling for Pennsylvania militia to assemble to put down the insurrection. In the same issue Aurora editor William Duane (1760–1835) severely criticized the Adams administration for its use of military force, a bold move when the Sedition Act was in place. The troops left Philadelphia on April 4 to quell the insurrection, meeting little resistance as they marched into Northampton County. They promptly arrested thirty-one insurgents, including John Fries, and returned to Philadelphia on April 20.

Fries and Two Others Face Trial

Fries and two others faced trial under the expanded definition of treason that Philadelphia lawyer William Rawle (1759–1836) put forth during the Whiskey Rebellion trials. Rawle, the lead prosecutor in the trial, had argued in 1795 that combining to defeat or resist a federal law was the equivalent of levying war against the United States and therefore was an act of treason. Fries’ trial began on April 30,1799, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Pennsylvania, which sat in City Hall (later known as Old City Hall, Fifth and Chestnut Streets). The jury convicted Fries of treason on May 9 and he was sentenced to death, but on May 17 a mistrial was declared when evidence surfaced that a juror had expressed a desire, before the trial began, to see Fries hang.

[caption id="attachment_16505" align="alignright" width="254"]A painted portrait of US Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase presided over the Fries Rebellion trials. Chase's controversial and partisan rulings, including finding John Fries guilty of treason and sentencing him to death, led to his impeachment in 1804. (National Portrait Gallery)[/caption]

The second trial opened on April 16, 1800, with Judge Richard Peters (1744-1828) and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase presiding. To expedite the trial Justice Chase issued a legal brief upholding the expanded definition of treason. The House of Representatives in 1804 cited Chase’s brief and actions during this trial among the articles of impeachment, of which the Senate acquitted him.

Fries was again found guilty of treason on April 25, 1800, and sentenced to hang on May 23. President Adams issued a presidential pardon for Fries and the two other men convicted of treason on May 21. This pardon was the last straw in a developing dispute between Adams and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), who wrote to colleagues that the pardon was the “most inexplicable part of Mr. Adams’ conduct.” When published, this letter created a schism in the Federalist Party, helping Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to defeat President Adams in the 1800 election. More generally, the harsh Federalist prosecution of the Fries insurgents and enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts encouraged Pennsylvania Germans and other voters to shift their allegiance to the Democratic-Republicans.  

Patrick Grubbs is an advanced Ph.D. student at Lehigh University and is currently writing his dissertation entitled “Bringing Order to the State: How Order Triumphed in Pennsylvania.” He has also been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania History there since 2011.

Whiskey Rebellion Trials

The first two convictions of Americans for federal treason in United States history occurred in Philadelphia in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising against the federal excise tax on whiskey that took place primarily in western Pennsylvania in 1791-94. Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital during this period and therefore was the city in which the excise legislation was passed, where President George Washington (1732-99) issued his proclamations against the rebels, and where the trials for a number of the rebels took place.

[caption id="attachment_16001" align="alignright" width="253"]A color portrait of US Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull The excise tax on domestic whiskey was penned by US Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in his first Tariff Bill. Hamilton felt the tax would be less oppressive than a land tax. (National Portrait Gallery)[/caption]

The Whiskey Rebellion developed after the First United States Congress, seated at Congress Hall at Sixth and Chestnut Streets, passed an excise tax on domestic whiskey on March 3, 1791. This legislation, pushed through Congress by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), was designed to help pay off state debts assumed by Congress in 1790. The law required citizens to register their stills and pay a tax to a federal commissioner within their region. Almost immediately, protests flared in areas such as North Carolina, Kentucky, and particularly western Pennsylvania. Citizens on the frontier protested because they had little money to pay the tax and had used whiskey to barter within their regions for decades. Secondly, they thought that the tax opened the door for government intrusion into their domestic lives, which they believed Americans had fought against during the American Revolution.

The first resistance to the excise tax in western Pennsylvania occurred in September 1791 when sixteen men assaulted an excise collector in Washington County by cutting his hair, tarring and feathering him, and leaving him in the woods. Protests continued through 1791, although they were not always violent. Citizens also organized mass meetings in July and September 1791 to draft petitions to Congress to repeal the tax. Western Pennsylvania then remained relatively peaceful until the fall of 1792, when John Neville (1731-1803), the regional supervisor for the collection of the federal excise tax, rented an office from a local man named William Faulkner. Within days, roughly twenty men ransacked Faulkner’s home and forced him to swear an oath to evict Neville, which he promptly did. Partly in response to this attack, but more importantly due to overall resistance to the excise tax, President Washington issued a proclamation condemning the excise resisters on September 15, 1792.

Despite this federal proclamation, resistance continued into 1793. The intensity appeared to fade by the beginning of 1794, in part because Congress passed an amendment to the law allowing distillers to sell whiskey to the army to help pay the excise tax. Another amendment adopted on June 5, 1794, allowed trials of excise cases to take place in state, as opposed to federal, courts–just one week after U.S. District Attorney William Rawle (1759-1836) obtained federal writs requiring more than sixty western distillers to appear in federal court in Philadelphia. When U.S. Marshal David Lenox (1753-1828) and the tax supervisor John Neville traveled from Philadelphia to western Pennsylvania with the writs, their presence reignited resistance. On July 16, a nearly twenty-five-minute gun battle at Neville’s home in Allegheny County resulted in the death of one resister. In reaction to this “murder,” an estimated five hundred resisters came back on July 17 to Neville’s house, defended now by ten soldiers from Fort Pitt, and another gun battle ensued. The resisters burned Neville’s home and captured Lenox, who somehow managed to escape with his life. He returned to Philadelphia, where Hamilton and Washington called for military force to suppress the rebellion.

[caption id="attachment_16002" align="aligncenter" width="478"]an 1880 illustration of Whiskey Rebels parading a tarred and feathered tax collector through town on a rail This 1880 illustration shows a dramatized version of the Whiskey Rebellion and the violence that was inflicted against tax collectors in western Pennsylvania. In it, a group of rebels forces a tarred and feathered tax collector to "ride the rail" through town while others cheer. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)[/caption]

As Washington prepared his 12,950-man army, drawn primarily from New Jersey and Pennsylvania state militia troops, citizens in Philadelphia and other cities including Hagerstown and Baltimore, Maryland, protested the use of military force against their countrymen. By the time troops reached western Pennsylvania in October 1794, most resisters gave in to the futility of opposing the federal forces. Washington’s army found little opposition and easily rounded up many potential resisters but not the supposed leaders of the rebellion, who had fled farther west. When the army marched back toward Philadelphia on November 19, only twenty suspects were in custody. When the army and the prisoners returned to Philadelphia by Christmas Day, the accused rebels were paraded through the city and down Broad Street as trophies.

Many of these prisoners languished in prison for nearly six months while they awaited federal trial for treason. Eventually, only ten of the accused whiskey rebels were tried for treason at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which sat in City Hall (later known as Old City Hall, Fifth and Chestnut Streets). Two of these ten men, John Mitchell and Philip Vigol (or Weigle), were convicted due in large part to William Rawle’s expanded definition of treason that combining to defeat or resist a federal law was the equivalent of levying war against the United States and therefore an act of treason. This set a precedent for treason that was used five years later in the aftermath of Fries’s Rebellion in Bucks County. Mitchell and Vigol were the first two Americans convicted of federal treason in American history. On November 2, 1795, Washington pardoned both Mitchell and Vigol after finding one to be a “simpleton” and the other to be “insane.” While these pardons unofficially ended the saga of the Whiskey Rebellion, the government’s use of military force to repress this “rebellion” and questions concerning the legitimacy of these “treasonous” acts remain controversial and are still debated among historians.

Patrick Grubbs is an advanced Ph.D. student at Lehigh University writing his dissertation entitled “Bringing Order to the State: How Order Triumphed in Pennsylvania.” He has also been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011.

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