Equal Rights Party
Equal Rights Party
United States 1836
On 15 September 1836, 93 delegates from throughout the state of New York convened in the western town of Utica and unanimously resolved "to institute a political party separate and distinct from all existing parties or factions in this State." With this declaration, the Equal Rights Party proclaimed its independent political existence. The party proceeded to ratify a Declaration of Rights enunciating its views on several key issues of political economy and nominated candidates for governor and lieutenant governor for the upcoming election. The Utica convention concluded by issuing an "Address to the People" of New York, which echoed the sentiments of the Declaration of Rights and outlined the party's positions on several specific issues particularly salient for the state's working classes. With these actions, the Equal Rights Party—for its brief period of existence—became the political instrument by which a significant portion of New York's laborers were able to leave an imprint upon the state's political landscape.
- 1812: The War of 1812, sparked by U.S. reactions to oppres sive British maritime practices undertaken in the wake of the wars against Napoleon, begins in June. It lasts until December 1814.
- 1820: In the Missouri Compromise, Missouri is admitted to the Union as a slave state, but slavery is prohibited in all portions of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30' N.
- 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
- 1833: British Parliament passes the Slavery Abolition Act, giving freedom to all slaves throughout the British Empire.
- 1834: American inventor Cyrus H. McCormick patents his reaper, a horse-drawn machine for harvesting wheat.
- 1836: Boer farmers embark on their "Great Trek" into the hinterlands of South Africa, forming the enclaves of Natal, Transvaal, and the Orange Free State.
- 1836: In Texas's war of independence with Mexico, the defenders of the Alamo, among them Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, are killed in a siege. Later that year, Texas wins the Battle of San Jacinto and secures its independence.
- 1836: Charles Dickens publishes the earliest installments of The Pickwick Papers, his first novel.
- 1837: An Illinois mob slays abolitionist publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy.
- 1842: In Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, British reformer Edwin Chadwick draws attention to the squalor in the nation's mill town slums, and shows that working people have a much higher incidence of disease than do the middle and upper classes.
- 1846: American inventor Elias Howe patents his sewing machine.
- 1848: Discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California starts a gold rush, which brings a tremendous influx of settlers—and spells the beginning of the end for California's Native Americans.
Event and Its Context
Background: The Workingmen's Movement
The movement to organize a politically distinct "Workingmen's Party" rose in New York City during the spring of 1829. A mass meeting of "mechanics and others" convened on 23 April to protest against employers who violated the tacit agreement with workers to hold to a 10-hour workday. Among the resolutions approved was a call for another meeting to contemplate a broader array of working men's concerns. Over 6,000 attended this larger gathering, and from it issued the formal actions to lay the foundations for the proposed Workingmen's Party. A "Committee of Fifty" was appointed to create the framework for the new organization, and it issued its report and statement of principles for the Workingmen's Party on 19 October 1829. On 23 October the Workingmen's Party held a formal convention, during which the members nominated a slate of candidates for the state's General Assembly.
Despite these seemingly auspicious beginnings amid a groundswell of support from New York's workers, the Workingmen's Party was from its inception plagued by factionalism that would fragment the organization within a few months after its founding. The party was able to retain its cohesiveness in the 1829 election, during which it polled approximately 6,000 out of the 21,000 votes cast in the city and saw one of its candidates elected to the General Assembly. Shortly afterward, though, it split along three distinct lines. Out of a contentious December meeting emerged three competing factions, divided by distinct ideological differences, all laying claim to the mantle of the Workingmen's Party. This schism meant that the 1830 elections suffered conflicting claims for workers' loyalty, and the result was a cacophony of rival candidates who all performed dismally at the polls. Despite earlier arguments of the party's leaders that cooperation with the political establishment was the surest way to undermine the separate agenda and goals of the Workingmen's movement, most New York City workers returned to the fold of the Democratic Party after the 1830 elections, given the lack of a legitimate alternative. Thus, the Workingmen's Party as a formal political organization perished less than two years after its founding.
The broader principles and issues that had inspired the formation of the Workingmen's Party would persist, however, and this larger movement found new organizational form in the 1830s. By the middle of the decade, the General Trades' Union (GTU) of New York City encompassed more than 50 smaller workingmen's organizations. The GTU organized collective action among its member groups in support of a number of important issues for the city's workers, chief among them the drive for a 10-hour day. The preferred tactic was the strike, or the "turn-out." In the mid-1830s the major cities of the eastern seaboard saw an abundance of "turn-outs" by workingmen's groups for the 10-hour day. The workers of New York kept pace with their brethren from other cities, and the GTU took the lead in the local battles over the issue.
The city's employers and wealthier classes argued that this wave of strikes portended social breakdown and economic chaos. The actions of the groups affiliated under the GTU, they argued, violated both individual employers' property rights and the laws of the state in that they constituted conspiracies geared toward unlawful restraint of free trade. The state's conservative judiciary agreed, making this logic the backbone of two significant decisions that struck a major blow at collective action by workers' organizations. New York's Supreme Court, in People v. Fisher (1835), declared that a Geneva cordwainers' society injured commerce by striking for higher wages. "Competition is the life of trade," the court asserted. Thus, the cordwainers had a right to refuse to work for certain wages, but once they undertook to prevent others from doing so they interfered with the free flow of trade. This momentous decision encouraged other employers to strike at workingmen's organizations through the judiciary. The climax of this legal crusade came the next year with the prosecution of a New York City society of journeymen tailors for conspiracy to restrain trade. The presiding judge in the trial gave such a strong antilabor charge to the jury, critics accused, that the verdict was virtually preordained. William Cullen Bryant, the editor of the New York Evening Post, editorialized that the tailors were found guilty "because they had determined not to work for the wages offered them! … If this is not Slavery, we have forgotten its definition." The efforts of the GTU mobilized the city's workers to protest the verdict at a June mass meeting during which the workingmen's organizations would align themselves with dissident members of the state's Democratic party organization to form a new political body.
Background: The Locofocos
By the mid-1830s the state's powerful Democratic Party was also wracked by internal dissent. Divided into the establishment "Tammany" wing (a reference to the control over party apparatus in New York City by the powerful "sachems" of Tammany Hall) and an "antimonopolist" faction, the party split shortly after the 1834 elections over the issue of legislative chartering of incorporations—especially banks. Following the lead of the national Democratic Party during President Andrew Jackson's "war" on the Bank of the United States, the antimonopolists of New York took exception to the state legislature's easy incorporation policies. Arguing that the actions of the mainstream Democrats who controlled the assembly essentially gave legislative sanction to a monopoly of state banks, most of which were unsound and engaged in dangerous speculative practices, the antimonopolists gathered enough support to be able to get Democratic candidates in the 1834 state elections to pledge their opposition to "monopoly" and the lax, corrupt incorporation practices of previous legislative sessions.
Once the elections were over, however, most of the victorious candidates promptly recanted these antimonopoly pledges. The antimonopolists of New York City concluded that stricter measures were necessary to prevent what they saw as rampant corruption and injurious policies issuing from Albany. At a party meeting at Tammany Hall on 29 October 1835, they sought to elect an antimonopolist to the chair and reclaim the state's Democratic Party by nominating a slate of antibank candidates for the upcoming election. Having received advance warning of this attempted insurgency, the Tammany leaders adjourned the meeting early and turned off the gas lamps upon exiting the building. Prepared for this eventuality, the insurgents lit torches with the new "locofoco" matches—thus the nickname bestowed on their movement. In the match-lit confines of Tammany, the Locofoco Democrats proceeded to nominate their antimonopoly candidates to oppose the Tammany Democrats. Their efforts produced about 4,000 votes in the city elections—somewhat disappointing results, but strong enough to convince locofoco leaders that enough support existed to take the next—and radical—step of forming a separate political party. At a meeting at the Military and Civic Hotel in December 1835, the Locofoco leadership—despairing of the mainstream Democratic Party's chances of ever adopting an antibank, antimonopoly platform—agreed to repudiate Tammany Hall's leadership and rename their movement the Equal Rights Party.
The Workingmen's movement and the Locofocos, already allied in principle, became allied in fact in June 1836. Considerable overlap already existed between the two, as several leaders in the GTU had been active in the antimonopoly movement. At the meeting of 13 June 1836, attended by over 27,000 New York City workers to protest the conviction of the journeymen tailors, members heartily approved resolutions to hold a statewide convention at Utica in September to nominate candidates who would overturn the policies of monopoly and the judicial restraint of workers' organizations. The Equal Rights Party, which had already formulated a statement of principles and a citywide organization, voted overwhelmingly to join the workingmen at Utica, as "the objects and measures" of the convention "must necessarily be founded upon the same reforms in government, as are urged by the anti-monopoly democracy."
The Convention and Its Aftermath
The Declaration of Principles adopted by the Utica convention was actually the document framed by the Locofoco leadership the previous year. Although initially it was the statement of Democrats dissenting from the leadership of Tammany Hall, the issues it addressed underscored the confluence of ideologies between the Workingmen's movement and the Locofoco insurgency. The declaration pledged the Equal Rights Party to "unqualified hostility to bank notes and paper money as a circulating medium" exploited by speculators at the expense of the working classes, opposition to "any and all monopolies by legislation," and a warning that "vested rights, or prerogatives by legislation" were "usurpations of the people's sovereign rights" (a direct attack on the judicial doctrines employed against striking workers such as the journeymen tailors).
After the convention adjourned, however, this confluence became divergence. Seeking above all to dislodge the Tammany Democrats from their positions of power within the state government, Locofoco elements of the Equal Rights Party threw their support to candidates of the newly emergent Whigs in addition to the candidates nominated at Utica. Although this strategy dealt the Tammany Democrats a severe blow in the 1836 election, it also fractured the Equal Rights Party by leaving its candidates relatively unsupported. The Equal Rights gubernatorial ticket of Isaac Smith and Moses Jaques received fewer than 4,000 votes statewide. Many of the party's supporters blamed the defeat of its independent nominees on their supporters' shortsighted collusion with the Whigs and an abandonment of Equal Rights principles. Further blows to the party came the following year, in the midst of the Panic of 1837. In a February meeting in Central Park, called to protest conditions of acute economic distress of the New York workers, the Equal Rights speaker blamed the "monstrous banking system" for the depression and argued that "as the currency expands, the loaf contracts." As if to underscore the relevance of this metaphor, members of the crowd urged the looting of warehoused flour, one of the commodities that was in particularly short supply that winter. The riot that followed seemed to discredit fatally the Equal Rights Party as a group of dangerous radicals (despite the fact that not one person arrested during the riot had any connection to the party). Ironically, however, just as the party's organization and reputation crumbled, the larger ideas of the Utica platform were vindicated. With the election of Martin Van Buren to the presidency and the subsequent Panic of 1837, many of the Equal Rights Party's principles found official expression in the hard-money and independent treasury policies of the Van Buren administration. Though the Equal Rights/Locofoco movement seemed to have been defeated in the wake of the flour riots, in actuality, it essentially co-opted the Democratic Party establishment. What seemed on the surface to be a short-lived explosion of worker-based radicalism was actually a more sustained movement that altered the channels of national politics substantially.
Byrdsall, Fitzwilliam: One of the earliest active members among the antimonopoly Democrats, Byrdsall quickly became a leader of the Equal Rights movement in the early stages of its organization. He was elected recording secretary of the Equal Rights Party. His history of the party, though clearly biased, is the most thorough primary account of the movement.
Commerford, John (1853-1932): Newspaper editor and prominent leader of the 1830s labor movement in New York City, Commerford served as the second president of the city's General Trades' Union, succeeding Ely Moore. Commerford, especially in the columns of his newspaper, The Union, advocated the alliance between the workingmen and the Locofoco insurgency that was endorsed at the Utica convention as the most promising way to meet the reform agenda demanded by labor.
Ming, Alexander: Ming was a New York printer and antimonopoly Democrat until his 1835 defection from the Tammany organization. A prominent member of the Locofoco insurgency and key supporter of the move to create a separate political party, Ming was the Equal Rights Party's candidate for Mayor of New York City in the 1835 election.
Byrdsall, Fitzwilliam. The History of the Loco-Foco or Equal Rights Party. Its Movements, Conventions and Proceedings. With Short Characteristic Sketches of Its Prominent Men. New York: Clement and Packard, 1842.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. Boston:Little, Brown, and Company, 1945.
Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Proceedings of the Convention of Mechanics, Farmers, and Working-Men of the State of New-York. n.p. 1836.
Fox, Dixon Ryan. The Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York, 1801-1840. New York: Columbia University Press, 1919.
Pessen, Edward. Most Uncommon Jacksonians: The Radical Leaders of the Early Labor Movement. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1967.
Degler, Carl. "The Locofocos: Urban 'Agrarians'." Journal of Economic History 16 (1956): 322-333.
—Kevin M. Gannon