National Civic Federation

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National Civic Federation

United States 1900


The roots of the National Civic Federation (NCF) are found in the response to the Panic of 1893, with its massive unemployment and social dislocation. Late in 1893 in Chicago, Illinois, William T. Stead, an English evangelical clergyman and editor with a local following, and Ralph Montgomery Easley, an energetic young newspaperman, founded a civic federation. By 1894 the Chicago Civic Federation (CCF), aimed at improving municipal government, ameliorating social evils and slums, and relieving the poor, had focused on industrial conciliation. Its tripartite board of conciliation, comprised of representatives of business, labor, and the professions, unsuccessfully attempted to mediate the Pullman Strike of 1894; the board concluded that legal reform was needed and determined to work for the passage of an industrial arbitration law. The CCF sponsored conferences on issues such as industrial arbitration, primary elections, foreign policy, and the trust question. The early activities of the CCF presaged those of the National Civic Federation (NCF), which Easley organized in 1900. The NCF played a significant role from 1900 to 1916 in bringing representatives of American capital and labor together and in serving as a clearinghouse for ideas of reform that aimed at preserving the social order while addressing social problems engendered by industrial capitalism.


  • 1880: Completed Cologne Cathedral, begun 634 years earlier, with twin spires 515 feet (157 m) high, is the tallest structure in the world, and will remain so until 1889, when it is surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. (The previous record for the world's tallest structure lasted much longer-for about 4,430 years following the building of Cheops's Great Pyramid in c. 2550 B.C.)
  • 1885: Sudanese capital of Khartoum falls to forces under the Mahdi Mohammed Ahmed, whose forces massacre British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon and his garrison just before a British relief expedition reaches the city.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1893: Wall Street stock prices plummet on 5 May, precipitating a market collapse on 27 June. In the wake of this debacle, some 600 banks and 15,000 other businesses fail. The nationwide depression will last for four more years.
  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish-American War. As a result, Cuba gains it independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.
  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1900: Commonwealth of Australia is established.
  • 1900: The first zeppelin is test-flown.
  • 1900: Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams.
  • 1900: German physicist Max Planck develops Planck's constant, a cornerstone of quantum theory.
  • 1903: Henry Ford establishes the Ford Motor Company.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1910: Neon lighting is introduced.

Event and Its Context

The NCF was headquartered in New York City and conceived as its purpose "to organize the best brains of the nation in an educational movement seeking the solution of some of the great problems related to social and industrial progress." Its National Committee on Conciliation and Arbitration, also founded in 1900, declared its purpose to be "to enter into active service in the cause of peace and harmony in the industrial world" and to prevent ". . . those most threatening of all industrial disturbances, the strike and the lock-out."

Holding the highest regard for "harmony in the industrial world" and cross-class collaboration, the NCF favored conservative leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and their acceptance of industrial capitalism. The NCF opposed radicalism, socialism, and after 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and others pursuing the politics of class conflict. An NCF statement, published in 1905, attacked both the individualistic hostility toward labor expressed by employer associations, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, and the revolutionary objectives of socialists. The document asserted, "The division of the people into classes is against the spirit of democratic institutions." The NCF dedicated itself "to prevent the . . . revolution threatened by extremists and to promote industrial peace." Easley worked successfully to encompass within the NCF both top labor leaders, like Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, and John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers (UMW), and important business leaders, such as the industrialist Republican powerhouse and Ohio senator, Marcus Alonzo Hanna, and the New York banker, urban railway (subway) magnate, and conservative Democrat, August Belmont.

Early Years: Industrial Conciliation and Trade Agreements

Hanna, the first president of the NCF, was proud of his willingness to negotiate with unions at his own coal and iron businesses and was active in the field of industrial conciliation. Hanna's term marked the high water mark of NCF conciliation efforts and sponsorship of industry-wide trade agreements between employer associations and AFL unions. Such agreements did expand following his presidency, but the NCF and AFL unions soon encountered limitations to this growth.

Employers preferred to negotiate with conservative national union officers rather than often intractable and militant local union representatives, but only if they were able to maintain discipline over the rank and file on the shop floor. When national union leaders were unable to exert such control, employers repudiated trade agreements with alacrity. Perhaps the best example of this was the contract between the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the National Metal Trades Association after a successful strike in Chicago metalworking shops in 1900 won laborers the nine-hour workday. In the Murray Hill Agreement, named for the New York hotel in which it was negotiated, the IAM agreed to halt the myriad practices machinists employed to limit production, and not to insist on the closed shop, in return for the shortened workday. When metal trades employers found to their consternation that the Murray Hill Agreement spurred worker militancy in the shops, rather than contained it, they declared war. Murray Hill became a dead letter after a protracted IAM strike in 1901, and in historian David Montgomery's words, "soon practically the entire business world [became convinced] of the folly of the NCF philosophy of business relations."

Later Civic Federation Activities

With the death of Hanna in 1904, the presidency of the NCF passed to the less union-friendly August Belmont. This signaled a change in NCF policy away from promoting industry-wide trade agreements and focusing more on other social problems. Conservative labor leaders still found value in the NCF's conciliation and safety work, however, and they used its mediation capabilities up until its role in this area was supplanted by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service after 1914. The NCF turned to researching and reporting on issues related to immigration, utility regulation, women, and most especially what was often referred to as "the trust question." NCF goals were consistent throughout: to reform the social order while preserving it—molding traditional, individualistic, American liberalism and reverence for the rights of private property to fit the social conditions wrought by the new and expanding industrial capitalism. Government was seen as a positive agency for change so long as the values of individualism and self-sufficiency were retained, though the economy had placed the actual achievement of such goals beyond the reach of most people.

As president of the UMW, John Mitchell made extensive use of the NCF's conciliation staff to curtail sympathy strikes and the spontaneous rank-and-file militancy such strikes bred within his own union. In 1908 he left his post in the UMW to become a full-time officer of the NCF's Trade Agreement Department. Here he quickly became frustrated with employer resistance to unionization and commitment to the open shop. His "highly ideological support" for the "labor peace movement" naturally attracted the attention of socialists, radicals, and militants within the ranks of labor, not least within his own union. In 1911 the UMW's convention passed a resolution prohibiting union members from belonging to the NCF, and Mitchell, forced to choose, resigned his position with the NCF. This watershed event marked the growing antagonism between the NCF's efforts to quell class conflict and those in organized labor who desired to subdue not the conflict engendered by the workings of the capitalist economy, but the egregious wrongs they perceived it to inflict on the working class. The UMW was not alone in proscribing members from affiliating with the NCF.

The NCF in a Time of War and Revolution

With the onset of the Woodrow Wilson administration (1913) and the passage of the legislation embodying his "New Freedom" reforms, the NCF's focus gradually shifted once again. During World War I the NCF concerned itself first with military preparedness issues, and after the United States entered the war in April 1917 on the side of the Allies, it supported the prosecution of the war to the fullest extent possible.

Even before the war the NCF's Woman's Department, coordinated by Gertrude S. Beeks, who later became the wife of Ralph Easley, covertly infiltrated the Consumer's League to report on the activities of suffragists and socialists who were active in that organization. This activity increased as the nation moved toward war, and Gompers, having eschewed his former labor pacifism, became increasingly concerned with the peace agitation and activities of socialists, the IWW, pacifists, and actual German agents, believing them to be cultivating strikes and sabotage in American industry. Together with Easley he procured the services of onetime New York City chief of police Theodore Bingham, who assisted the NCF in forming an espionage bureau. The agents of this bureau infiltrated pacifist organizations, attended labor conferences, interviewed union officials, and on at least one occasion persuaded such an individual to cease all peace work. The NCF's extensive subversive activities files were likely made available to the Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army in 1917.

With the end of World War I, the coming of the Russian Revolution and the rise of bolshevism, and the establishment of an international Communist Party movement, the NCF moved to the forefront of professional anticommunist and antiradical organizations. Its heyday as a prominent reform organization seeking to bring together labor and capital and ameliorate social conditions while preserving the social order quickly passed. By the time Easley died, nearly penniless, in 1939, he had become a severe critic of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Although his wife attempted to carry on his work until her own death in 1944, the NCF was well on its way to oblivion. The vehement anticommunism for which it stood, however, lived on in such NCF-affiliated labor leaders as Matthew Woll, and this political tradition was carried forward and further developed by leaders of the AFL, and subsequently the AFL-CIO, such as George Meany and Lane Kirkland.

Key Players

Easley, Ralph Montgomery (1856-1939): Founding member and moving spirit behind the National Civic Federation, Easley began his career as a teacher and newspaperman in Hutchinson, Kansas. As an organizer and promoter of the NCF he worked to foster labor-management cooperation, produce NCF publications, and oppose radical movements. He became a confidant of Samuel Gompers.

Hanna, Marcus Alonzo (1837-1904): Businessman, senator from Ohio, and Republican Party architect of William McKinley's successful presidential campaigns of 1896 and 1900, Hanna served until his death as the first president of the NCF. He prided himself on his willingness to negotiate with unions in his own enterprises and encouraged other employers to do the same.

Mitchell, John (1870-1919): Mitchell worked as a coal miner and joined the Knights of Labor in 1885 and the United Mine Workers of America in 1890. He held a number of offices in the UMW, including its presidency from 1899 to 1908. Known for his leadership of the 1902 Pennsylvania Anthracite Strike, Mitchell went on to work as chairman of the NCF's trades agreement department from 1908 to 1911, and then to serve on public bodies dealing with labor relations in both New York City and the state of New York.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Industrial Workers of the World; Panic of 1893; Pullman Strike.



Croly, Herbert D. Marcus Alonzo Hanna. New York:Chelsea House, 1912, 1983.

Cyphers, Christoper J. The National Civic Federation and the Making of a New Liberalism, 1900-1915. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002.

Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume III: The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor, 1900-1909. New York: International Publishers, 1964.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1925, 1926.

Green, Marguerite. The National Civic Federation and the American Labor Movement, 1900-1925. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1956.

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Ramirez, Bruno. When Workers Fight. Westport, CT:Greenwood Press, 1978.


Tompkins, Stephen G. "In 1917, Spy Target Was Black America," The Commercial Appeal, Memphis (Tennessee), 21 March 1993.

Additional Resources

Easley, Ralph M., and Gertrude S. Beeks. "Papers." Papers, Rare Book, and Manuscript Division, New York Public Library, New York City.

Hanna, Marcus Alonzo. Labor and Capital. Springfield, OH:Chautauqua Press, 1902[?]. Pamphlet Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.

Nack, David. "The American Federation of Labor Confronts Revolution in Russia and Early Soviet Government, 1905 to 1928: Origins of Labor's Cold War." Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 1999.

National Civic Federation 1905. Pamphlet Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.

National Civic Federation. Pamphlet Collection (1900-1944). Library of Congress, Washington, DC

National Civic Federation. "Papers." Papers, Rare Book, and Manuscript Division, New York Public Library, New York City.

—David Nack

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