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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Morris Iron Works

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia was in many ways the vanguard of the American labor movement. It was here that the first labor strike was executed in 1786. In 1806, the Philadelphia Mayor’s Court ruled that striking cordwainers were guilty of conspiring to force a wage increase. And in 1828, Philadelphia’s Working Men’s Party became the nation’s first labor party. As industrialization increased, workers were subjected to grueling workdays that could exceed fourteen hours for coal heavers. The Working Men’s Party campaigned for the rights of the working class by running reform candidates in the city’s elections. Their platform was not limited to labor policy, but extended to other concerns of the city’s poor. Though they were destroyed by factionalism after just three years, many of their platforms were passed shortly after their demise, including free public school for all children, the elimination of debtor’s prisons, and a ten-hour workday.

Advertisement for The Mechanics' Free Press

Google Books

In the wake of a failed 1827 carpenters strike, William Heighton rallied journeymen in the city to form the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations (MUTA), the first citywide coalition of trade associations in the United States. MUTA formed the Working Men’s Party the next year to lobby for a ten-hour workday, elimination of debtors prisons, free public education, and other workers’ rights issues. Heighton promoted the association and its ideals with the Mechanics’ Free Press, a periodical geared towards the working class and one of the first publications of its kind in the nation. The Mechanics’ Free Press lasted only three years but inspired similar periodicals in other cities. This advertisement was printed in an 1828 issue of The Reformer, a religious journal also printed in Philadelphia.

Debtor's Apartment at Moyamensing Prison

Library of Congress

One of the Working Men’s Party platforms was the elimination of debtors prisons. Debtors prisons had been in use in the United States since the colonial era, and some of the city’s most prominent members of society found themselves behind bars at Philadelphia’s Prune Street Prison, including founding father and banker Robert Morris. After the War of 1812, the debtors prison population grew immensely, mostly poor and working-class citizens who could not afford a simple debt. This photograph is of the “Debtors Apartment” at Moyamensing Prison at the intersection of Passyunk Avenue and Eleventh and Reed Streets. Construction was begun in 1832, but no debtors were imprisoned here. Through the efforts of activist organizations like the Working Men’s Party, debtors prisons were eliminated in the state in 1833, two years before Moyamensing Prison was completed. The Debtors Apartment was instead used as a women’s wing. It was closed in 1963 and demolished five years later.

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Related Reading

Bernstein, Leonard. “The Working People of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the General Strike of 1835.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 74, No.3 (July 1950): 322-39.

Davis, Susan G. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Foster, A. Kristen. “Moral Visions and Material Ambitions: Republican Culture, the Market Economy, and the Loss of an Ideal in Philadelphia, 1776–1836.” Ph.D. Dissertation. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2001.

Laurie, Bruce. Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

Pessen, Edward. “The Ideology of Stephen Simpson, Upperclass Champion of the Early Philadelphia Workingmen’s Movement.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4 (October, 1955): 328–40.

Salinger, Sharon V. “Artisans, Journeymen, and the Transformation of Labor in Late Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1 (January 1983): 62-84.

Schultz, Ronald. The Republic of Labor: Philadelphia Artisans and the Politics of Class, 1720 – 1830. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Shelton, Cynthia J. The Mills of Manayunk: Industrialization and Social Conflict in the Philadelphia Region, 1787 – 1837. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Sullivan, William. “Philadelphia Labor During the Jackson Era.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 15, No. 4 (October, 1948), 305–20.

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