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National Trades' Union

National Trades' Union

United States 1834


Even before the United States' first true labor strike in 1786, unionism developed in the ranks of journeymen. Low wages and unreasonable hours, among other complaints, were common problems. To combat this, one of the workers' greatest weapons was the ability to strike with the support of their union. In addition to support during a strike, union representatives negotiated with the employers for better conditions. The early results of such action were usually far from positive. Employers mounted heavy resistance to unions, and legislation often favored their position. As unionism became more prevalent, employers began to band together to combat the trade societies. Until the late 1820s, because of the fear of employer reprisal, employees kept their union memberships private, and trade unions operated as virtual secret societies.

Despite the opposition, trade unions established themselves in the labor force and began making headway for improvements. Legislative changes encouraged union membership, and enrollments grew tremendously. One of the most important developments, however, was the establishment of national trade unions. It became apparent that an effective unification of the numerous trade unions would provide them with greater strength against their centralized opposition. A significant step toward solidarity came in August 1834 with the formation of the National Trades' Union (NTU): the first national labor union in United States history. Headed by John Commerford, the NTU played a vital role in the establishment of a 10-hour workday for navy yard workers. The NTU engaged in research and open discussion of labor issues. It pushed for social changes to better the lives of working men and women, including the establishment of public libraries. The organization became a victim of difficult times and did not survive a period of economic turmoil called the "panic of 1837."


  • 1811: Worst earthquakes in U.S. history occur near New Madrid, Missouri, greatly altering the topography of a million-square-mile region.
  • 1816: American Colonization Society is formed, in an attempt to ease racial tensions by sending freed slaves to Africa.
  • 1821: Mexico declares independence from Spain.
  • 1826: Friction or "Lucifer" matches are invented in England.
  • 1830: Mormon Church is founded by Joseph Smith.
  • 1834: British mathematician Charles Babbage completes drawings for the "analytic engine," a forerunner of the modern computer that he never builds.
  • 1835: American inventor and painter Samuel F. B. Morse constructs an experimental version of his telegraph, and American inventor Samuel Colt patents his revolver.
  • 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.
  • 1837: Coronation of Queen Victoria takes place in England.
  • 1842: Scientific and technological advances include the development of ether and artificial fertilizer; the identification of the Doppler effect (by Austrian physicist Christian Johann Doppler); the foundation of biochemistry as a discipline; and the coining of the word dinosaur.
  • 1846: The United States declares war on Mexico and adds California and New Mexico to the Union.
  • 1848: Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, launches the women's suffrage movement.

Event and Its Context

The Roots of Trade Unionism

According to Florence Peterson in her book American Labor Unions, "The earliest labor organizations . . . were established in the skilled handicraft trades. The first organizations of labor in [the United States] appeared among the carpenters, shoemakers, printers, and tailors in the East Coast cities during the 1790s." Indeed, the first official labor strike occurred in 1786 when Philadelphia printers protested for a minimum wage of $6 a week. The country's second labor strike occurred five years later when carpenters in Philadelphia protested for a 10-hour workday. The growth of unionism in the trade community proceeded quickly between 1790 and 1820, despite strong opposition from employers, the master-craftsmen (or "masters"). The strongest and most durable unions were in the printing and shoemaking industries.

The growth of unionism in the trades is significant in light of the fact that workers in industries such as cotton and textiles suffered far worse conditions. By the turn of the nineteenth century, journeymen had far better working conditions than most laborers in the United States, relatively speaking. Even so, long hours and low wages remained the norm. What differentiated the journeymen from other laborers was their experience and education. As "skilled" laborers, they could expect and essentially demand higher wages and better working conditions. The economic climate, however, hindered them greatly.

One major factor in the growth of unionism came near the turn of the century. Mechanization had become prevalent in the production of goods. This, in turn, increased competition in the marketplace, and small masters were forced to cut production costs, including wages, to survive. This trend made it more difficult and expensive for journeymen to establish their own businesses. Thus, highly skilled journeymen were unable to rise to the master class and became trapped in a "wage" position. Over the years, the division between journeymen and masters continued to broaden. This division increased as the number of semi-skilled journeymen expanded in the printing and building industries, allowing employers to hire workers for lower wages. It became obvious to trade laborers that something needed to be done.

Early Trade Unions

In response to the trade industry's labor problems, journeymen began forming unions. These "trade societies," as they were called at the time, gathered wage earners together into organized groups. Striking became their weapon of choice. When employees expressed dissatisfaction with their working conditions, a union representative would relay the membership's demands to the employer, and if they were not met, a strike typically took place. The unions used members' dues to maintain the workers during strikes.

One problem created by trade societies involved the increased separation between journeymen and masters, as well as between journeymen and semiskilled laborers. Most labor groups refused membership to masters in the belief that an employer's interests were in opposition to those of the journeymen. In addition, apprentices were barred from union membership because employers could easily replace trained journeymen with semiskilled and women laborers. As such, workers were required to finish their apprenticeship before they could join unions or work in union shops. This separation proved a disservice to the union's goals. Masters experienced deep bitterness against union involvement in their shops. This stemmed from wage disputes and from limitations placed on their businesses by the unions, including the limitation of apprentice hiring and the formation of "closed shops." Employers formed their own masters' associations to combat the trade societies, both through the courts and negative campaigning.

The early trade societies soon found themselves facing an unsympathetic community. Although most strikes were peaceful, violent protests such as the 1806 Philadelphia shoemakers strike gained the trade societies a bad reputation. The beatings of strikebreakers or "scabs" and the property damage caused by strikers did little to improve their public image. Criminal conspiracy trials held between 1806 and 1815 against "closed shops" typically found for the employers rather than the trade societies.

The end of the Napoleonic era marked another setback when foreign products began to flood the U.S. marketplace after trade embargoes were lifted. Competition among employers became fierce. The depression effectively ended trade unionism, and journeymen's societies only survived by uniting together. In many ways, this period provided unionists with the concept of joint unions and began the idea of national representation. The brief depression also foreshadowed how the Panic of 1837 would affect future trade unions.

Birth of the NTU

By 1820 the depression's hold on the nation had faded. Almost immediately, journeymen once more engaged in union activities. By that time a democratic movement had begun to overtake the nation. Unions were forming in all industries, not only in the trades. Labor publications such as Robert Owen's Free Inquiry and New York's Workingman's Advocate helped fuel the flames of unionism. By 1827 the American labor movement had truly begun. That same year several trade organizations united to form a citywide union in Philadelphia, also known as the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations. This attempted federation of trade societies was the first in the United States, if not the world. The trend of unifying local trade associations was repeated in several U.S. cities between 1827 and 1837.

In addition to demands for wage increases and a 10-hour workday, unions sought social changes and legislative changes affecting workers' rights. For example, laborers required liens on their work for wages and the establishment of free public schools. Other goals included the abolishment of conspiracy statutes that interfered with cooperative effort and collective bargaining and changes to the compulsory militia service (non-attendance could result in fines and imprisonment). The practice of imprisonment for debt became a key issue for unions. Citizens in debt could face jail time, even for shockingly small debts. In his book A History of Trade Unionism in the United States, Selig Perlman cited "an astounding case of a widow whose husband had lost his life in a fire while attempting to save the property of the man who later caused her imprisonment for a debt of 68 cents." He further explained, "In 1829 . . . about 75,000 persons were annually imprisoned for debt in the United States."

By 1829 the timing for such changes was right as the United States entered the Jacksonian era, also known as the "Age of the Common Man." President Andrew Jackson felt that the government should be for all the people, rather than the elite. The government became more sympathetic to the plight of journeymen and the trade societies. Over the next few years, workers won several victories, including the abolition of debtors' prison, free public schooling, a mechanics' lien law, and positive changes to labor conditions. One of the most important accomplishments was overcoming solidarity issues and combining the numerous trades toward the common good. On 14 August 1833 the first true "trades' union" organized in New York City. Several cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., followed New York's example in the ensuing months, forming their own trade unions. It soon became common for other trades to lend their support when a specific trade group, such as carpenters, went on strike.

This concept of trade unity was taken one step further only a year later. Impressed with the successes gained by citywide trade unions, the General Trades' Union of New York invited delegates from several cities to meet to discuss the concept of a nationally based trade union. In late August 1834 representatives from Boston, Brooklyn, Newark, New York, Philadelphia, and Poughkeepsie attended the proposed labor convention. According to Philip Foner in his book History of the Labor Movement in the United States, delegates believed that "the rights of each [trade union member] would be sustained by every workingman in the country, whose aggregate wealth and power would be able to resist the most formidable apposition." At the convention's conclusion, the delegates had founded the NTU, America's first national labor organization. Ely Moore, a congressional labor candidate and editor of the labor paper National Trades' Union, became president of the organization. In addition, John Commerford, a journeyman chairmaker, headed the new federation of city trade unions.


Success came quickly for the NTU, and by 1836 its affiliation had grown to 300,000 members. The NTU began organizing committees to discuss and plan labor reforms such as the first trade union program for women. These discussions expanded during annual conventions. For example, during its 1835 convention, the NTU passed a resolution that pushed for a national uniform wage policy with the right to engage in a general strike should employers unify against the movement. The NTU also urged its affiliations to campaign for the establishment of public libraries, perhaps one of the first such movements in the United States. The organization's national voice remained strong in the U.S. government as it prompted reforms in public education, factory legislation, and prison labor. Formed from the ranks of NTU, the Workingmen's Party became the world's first labor-oriented political party.

One of the NTU's greatest successes involved the 10-hour day legislation for government workers. The NTU formed a committee to collect data and research the problem of extended hours. According to Foner, the NTU tried to prove that "violent and unremitting bodily exertion for 12 or 14 hours a day, while it is exceedingly injurious to the health of the employed, [was] accompanied with no particular advantage to the employer." Essentially, a 12-hour employee would only accomplish the same amount of work as a 10-hour employee because of sheer exhaustion; thus the extra work hours served no purpose. In 1835 the NTU's representative, New York Representative Ely Moore, presented the committee's findings to Congress. The response was less than cordial: the matter was deemed unworthy of legislation. Undaunted, the NTU pushed forward. In 1836 a navy yard strike in Philadelphia gained the attention of President Jackson. Having previously supported Jackson's fight with the United States Bank, the NTU called in a favor and appealed to the president to enact a 10-hour system.

After reviewing the data collected by the NTU committee, Jackson established a 10-hour workday for government employees. However, the enactment applied only to the areas affected by the strike and those with existing trade unions. Outside of these areas, 12-hour and 14-hour workdays continued. Unsatisfied, the NTU continued to pressure the president to extend his enactment on a national level. It took another four years and another president before the 10-hour workday was established for government work on 31 March 1840. However, despite its role in achieving this monumental labor reform, the NTU would not be able to enjoy the victory. Like almost all trade unions, the NTU no longer existed in 1840, having become one of the many victims of the panic of 1837.

The Panic of 1837

Even as the NTU and other trade unions grew in strength, the chain of events culminating in their downfall had already begun. By 1837 the United States plunged into a deep depression. These troubled times crippled trade unions, and few survived the economic woes.

The reasons for the panic of 1837 were many, but chief among them was Jackson's "war" on the Bank of the United States. According to William Sumner in The Forgotten Man, "The chief purposes of which the Bank of the United States had been founded in 1816 were to provide a sound and uniform paper currency convertible with specie [money in coin], of uniform value throughout the Union, and to act as fiscal agent for the government." Unfortunately, from its inception in 1816 up to 1823, the bank's operations were wholly inefficient and, in some cases, illegal. Fortunately, in 1823, Nicholas Biddle took over as the bank's president. Under his guidance and over the next five years, the bank regained its efficiency and stability. However, this would not soothe President Jackson's animosity for the bank. This resentment stemmed from Jackson's belief that the bank was unconstitutional and working for the upper classes at the expense of the working class. Despite strong opposition, Jackson's first attack removed all government deposits and distributed them among the state banks. Even after this action caused confusion and turmoil in the industrial sector, Jackson continued his attacks on the bank. When Biddle attempted to renew its charter four years ahead of schedule, Jackson went so far as to use one of his vetoes to crush the bank once and for all. Despite Biddle's best efforts, the Bank of the United States expired in 1836.

Meanwhile, numerous state banks that had been given government monies from the Bank of the United States began engaging in "wildcat" activities. The banks flooded the market with paper money and engaged in unregulated land speculation often involving federal lands. The import of foreign products, paid for with credit, increased drastically. New banks, with the same wildcat intentions, sprang up everywhere. Concerned about the growing trend of paper money being distributed without proper specie to back it, Jackson issued his infamous Specie Circular on 11 July 1836. The executive order required that the payment of federal land be made with only gold and silver. Although well intended, the Specie Circular threw the money market into a tailspin. Banks called in loans, and investors hurried to exchange paper money for hard currency. Already unsettled by the collapse of the Bank of the United States, which had held vast credit with Europe, foreign banks called in their loans as well. Foreign merchants, especially those in England, refused to export products without guaranteed payment in hard currency. Suddenly, hard currency virtually disappeared. In response, banks began calling in more loans from their customers just to survive. Caught between the banks and foreign creditors, businesses floundered. Things came to a head on 10 May 1837 when the New York banks suspended specie. This trend spread like wildfire throughout most of the nation. Over 300 banks completely failed and closed forever.

Financial panic and widespread bankruptcy ensued. Inflation swept through the United States, and wages were nearly cut in half. Unemployment soared to staggering levels. According to Reginald McGrane in his book The Panic of 1837, "Six thousand masons and carpenters and other workmen connected with building had been discharged" during 1837 just in New York City. One-third of American workers were unemployed by the fall of 1837, and the majority of others had only part-time work. Even those who kept their jobs were still plunged into dire financial straits. Hundreds of thousands worried about surviving the rapidly approaching winter.

Trade unions, local and national, quickly collapsed during the resulting depression. Among those to fade away was the NTU. The first blow of the panic struck the trade unions financially. Workers hardly had the money to feed themselves, let alone to pay union dues. Without these funds, the unions crumbled. The second and perhaps more deadly blow struck their bargaining power. For years, the strike was the unions' greatest threat. During the panic, tens of thousands of workers were eager to take any job they could get. Employers slashed wages by 30 and 50 percent, and workers did not complain. Those who did were easily replaced by the masses of unemployed laborers. Strikes essentially doomed the protesters to losing their jobs. In addition, with little or no income, the unions could do little to support their members during a strike. Their power had completely vanished. The trade unions and the NTU disappeared.

Trade Unionism After the Panic of 1837

Trade unionism continued to suffer during the mid-nineteenth century, troubled by the Panic's economic fallout and the Civil War. It would not be until the "Greenback" period of 1862 to 1879 that a true labor movement would begin again. During its short existence, however, the NTU had proven that the concept of national trade unions could work. That belief brought life to several national trade unions during the 1850s and 1860s, including the National Labor Union in 1866. The principles set by early trade unionists would live on, despite setbacks like the panic of 1837.

Key Players

Biddle, Nicholas (1786-1844): An American financier from Philadelphia, Biddle became the president of the Bank of the United States. The battle between his bank and the Jackson administration was one of the contributing factors to the Panic of 1837.

Commerford, John: A journeyman who specialized in chair and cabinet making, Commerford headed the National Trades' Union in 1834.

Jackson, Andrew (1767-1845): Born in Waxhaw, South Carolina, Jackson served as the United States' seventh president between 1829 and 1837. President Jackson's economic policies of the period contributed to the Panic of 1837.

Moore, Ely (1798-1860): Moore served as editor of the National Trades Union, a labor newspaper that perhaps inspired the naming of the NTU. During his presidency of the NTU, Moore also served as a New York representative in Congress, a position he used to help improve labor relations.

Van Buren, Martin (1782-1862): Vice president during the1833-1837 period of the Jackson administration, Van Buren became the United States' eighth president in 1837. Because the Panic of 1837 began at the start of his administration, Van Buren was blamed for it, albeit unfairly. Van Buren's poor political response only enflamed the issue.

See also: Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations; National Labor Union; Ten-hour Day Movement; Workingmen's Party (1828).



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—Lee Ann Paradise

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