Workingmen's Party

views updated

Workingmen's Party

United States 1828


The Workingmen's Party was formed in Philadelphia in 1828. The organization's primary goal was to gain equality for the working man of America through political means. Branches soon began in New York and Boston. The major platform of the party was education for all and an end to the divisions between the rich and the poor. The party was not successful and disintegrated by 1832. The Workingmen's Party laid the groundwork for future political labor-based organizations.


  • 1803: German pharmacist Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Saturner isolates an opium derivative, to which he gives the name morphine.
  • 1808: First performances of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies.
  • 1813: Jane Austen publishes Pride and Prejudice.
  • 1818: British surgeon James Blundel performs the first successful blood transfusion.
  • 1823: U.S. President James Monroe establishes the Monroe Doctrine, whereby the United States warns European nations not to interfere in the political affairs of the Western Hemisphere.
  • 1826: Invention of friction or "Lucifer" matches in England.
  • 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
  • 1829: Greece wins its independence after a seven-year war with Turkey.
  • 1831: Unsuccessful Polish revolt against Russian rule.
  • 1834: American inventor Cyrus H. McCormick patents his reaper, a horse-drawn machine for harvesting wheat.
  • 1837: Coronation of Queen Victoria in England.
  • 1839: England launches the First Opium War against China. The war, which lasts three years, results in the British gaining a free hand to conduct a lucrative opium trade, despite opposition by the Chinese government.

Event and Its Context

The Party Begins

In 1827 in Philadelphia, carpenters went out on strike in an attempt to shorten their workday to 10 hours. Workers from other trades went out on strike in support of the carpenters. William Heighton was a shoemaker who had urged his colleagues to strike in support of the carpenters. He was instrumental in the formation later that year of the Mechanics Union of Trade Associations (MUTA), the first central labor body. One of MUTA's unifying themes was the disparity between the wealthy and the working poor. The organization's preamble focused on the evils of the capitalist system that allowed some to grow wealthy off of the backs of those who labored in abject poverty while working for the wealthy. The preamble suggested that, left unchecked, the disease of capitalism would eventually destroy those at the top as the market became flooded with too many products and too few consumers. The only way to circumvent such a disaster was to recognize the laborers and reward them with fair wages, fair hours, and the respect to which they were entitled.

In 1828 a political labor party appeared when MUTA supported the emergence of the "Republican Political Association of the Workingmen of the City of Philadelphia," otherwise known as the "Workingmen's Party." The focus of the Workingmen's Party was the advancement and enrichment of working men's work and private lives. The group included the unions of many individual groups such as bricklayers, painters, and journeymen.

Working-class men in 1828 did not have reason to hope for an advance in their socioeconomic standing. They found themselves at odds with legal statutes that enforced debtors' prisons. They were not able to obtain a reasonable education because there was no public school system to which they or their children might go. Technological advances brought about the rise of the factory system, which meant low wages and unsafe working conditions. The gap between the rich and the poor was growing rapidly. The men who formed and joined the Workingmen's Party sought to bring about change through political action.

The party wrote a statement expressing its demands. The Philadelphia party's newspaper, Mechanics Free Press, published the statement, which was, in format and title, the Declaration of Independence. This declaration, written by George Evans, a former member of MUTA and at that time a member of the Workingmen's Party, outlined the party's agreed-upon agenda. The overall goal was to raise the esteem in which these laborers were held. The agenda included the demand for a 10-hour day, universal male suffrage, the eradication of debtors' prisons, the end of the militia system, a lien law to protect them in the event of the death or bankruptcy of their employer, the end of all chartered monopolies, plus a strong commitment to the equal access of quality education regardless of financial means.

The Workingmen's Party had to fight for its political existence from the start. According to historian John Commons and colleagues in History of Labour in the United States, professional politicians and "legitimate" political machines tried to break up the party by attempting to prevent it meetings. When they could not prevent the meetings, the professional politicians tried to disband them. The meetings continued despite the politicians' best efforts.

The Voice of the Party

Philadelphia's Mechanics Free Press newspaper was started by labor activist William Heighton as a way to circumvent the politics of the major city press at the time and provide a voice for the working-class man. The Press became a vehicle for the critique of the city's corrupt political, social, and moral views toward the working class. The paper also served as a call to arms to mobilize the city's entire working-class population to vote as a bloc for candidates who were committed to helping working men achieve their goals. The paper demanded that the rich and powerful come to terms with the working men of the city, who were on the rise and seeking equal treatment in all arenas. It reiterated the agenda as set forth in the Workingmen's Declaration of Independence.

Politically, Philadelphia was at odds with itself. The Federalists' had a strong hold, and the Republicans were split into two factions, the Adamites and Jacksonians. The Federalist-Adamite group was heading toward a single political faction known as the Federal-Republican Party. The members of this party were predominantly lawyers and aristocrats; in 1828 the party controlled the city of Philadelphia. The other faction, the Jacksonians, whose members were predominantly bank managers and office managers, controlled Philadelphia County. In 1828 the Workingmen's Party nominated one ticket for the city and one for the county. Only eight of all of those nominated were from the Workingmen's ticket alone; the rest were from the other two parties. Most of the Workingmen's candidates were working men themselves. Thus they earned the nickname Workies.

The Workingmen's Party campaigned vigorously and spread its message via the press. Although none of the strictly Workingmen's candidates won, the Federalist and Jackson nominees who were on the Workingmen's ticket won 300 to 600 more votes than those who were not on the Workingmen's ticket. In 1829 the Workingmen's Party achieved tremendous success in the election after it combined with the anti-Jackson faction.

In 1829 the party organized clubs and urged all laborers to take necessary steps to ensure that they could vote legally. They named the candidates that they endorsed early and won 20 seats in the election that year.

New York Chapter

In 1829 a New York Workingmen's Party appeared and held its first meeting on 19 October. In the meeting, members decided to follow in Philadelphia's footsteps and run Workingmen's candidates on a separate political ticket. The agenda for the New York branch of the party was similar to Philadelphia's, even down to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. New York's Working Man's Advocate, which emulated the format and tone of the Philadelphia Mechanics Free Press, published the declaration with an added paragraph to address specifically the problems of working men in New York. The key difference in New York was that there the mechanics had already earned the right to a 10-hour day.

The New York branch sought to gain equal access to land for all men, no matter their income. They also sought direct election of mayors, compensation for jurors and witnesses, civil service reform, the end of capital punishment, free trade, and a pension for veterans of the Revolutionary War.

The Advocate published a piece by the Workingmen's Party on 31 October 1829 that went beyond the concepts put forth in the Declaration by specifically outlining the detailed workings of the party. The article explained the motivations behind the formation of the Association of Working Men. It promised to name and hold responsible those who were the cause of the working men's oppression and outlined in detail how this would be done. The article reiterated the party's commitment to promoting a system of public education and discussed the party's decision to stay out of all religious matters. Religion, according to this article, was to be between men and their makers.

In the spring of 1829 some New York companies threatened to revoke the 10-hour day that had been granted to machinists because of a sluggish economy. Thomas Skidmore, a city machinist and labor activist, provoked machinists throughout the city to organize large demonstrations whose sole purpose was to tell employers that the laborers would not give up their 10-hour day. At the end of this short-lived struggle, the laborers maintained their 10-hour day. The association appointed a committee of 50 men to help the laborers maintain this right.

Skidmore assumed the helm of the "Committee of Fifty," and with the 10-hour workday intact, they turned their heads to other issues. Skidmore's solution to the inequities visited upon working men was to see that every working man had access to land ownership. As it was, the financially well-off had a monopoly on land, and working men rarely owned any. Joseph G. Rayback, in A History of American Labor, asserted that the Committee of Fifty was the reason that the New York Workingmen's Party turned to politics to address its needs in the 1829 election.

The party wanted to see its representatives elected in every office, including in the state legislature in Albany, and to make itself known to as many people and political parties as possible, in an effort to see to the rise of the working man. The party had great success in the fall election of 1829. Every candidate on the Workingmen's ticket, according to Rayback in A History of Labor, received a minimum of 6,000 of the 21,000 votes that were cast.

The strong showing of support for the Workingmen's Party at the polls had an effect on professional politics of the time. Seeing the number of votes to be gained and the strength of this segment of voters, some of the professional politicians began to incorporate labor concerns into their own platforms, most specifically the fight for a 10-hour day. Jacksonian Democrats, popular among Workingmen's Party members, were the most likely to embrace the needs and concerns of labor. The Mechanics Free Press reported that both of the major political parties placed signs on their carriages that read, "The Working Man's Ticket," in an attempt to capture the labor vote.

The success of labor candidates is credited by author Edward Pessen, in an article written for the fall 1963 edition of Labor History, as being part of a shift in voting habits of people who formerly had voted for the Republican Party. After this election, the party split into three separate factions. The Sentinel or Advocate wing came to embrace the Democratic platform and was absorbed into the Jacksonian organization after a resounding defeat in the 1830 elections. Men who were not of the working class infiltrated the party to gain political advantage, yet they had no commitment to the working man once elected. This was one reason that the party began to splinter.

Another reason for the development of factions was that party leadership was split on an appropriate direction for the union. Skidmore, agrarian and believer that equal access to land would solve the inequities of the working men's lives, pushed for land reform as a singular platform. In his 1829 publication The Rights of Man to Property, he argued for a new constitution that would allow the state to take back all personal property and redistribute it on an egalitarian basis. Without land, he argued, the poor owned only one thing: their own labor. Skidmore compared this labor to slavery. He went on to warn that technology was creating labor-saving devices and processes that could eventually lead to the working man's extinction, if all he owned was indeed his own labor. Using the steam engine as an example, Skidmore claimed that it was not the device itself that would injure the poor, but the lack of receiving any benefit from it that hurt them. The problem, in essence, was that the minority controlled the majority of resources. Life would not be fair to workers until the day that all of the resources had been redistributed to everyone over the age of majority.

Members of the Workingmen's Party were not interested in long-range solutions. With support for Skidmore's ideas being so low, he and a few others separated from the group and began the Equal Rights Party.

Henry Evans and Robert Dale Owens were both strong proponents of equal access to education as being the way out of poverty for the working class. Evans and Owens hoped to see the state take custody of children by sending them to boarding schools where they would receive not only education but food and clothing as well. This, they believed, would give the children a step up in the world. Fanny Wright, a feminist and education advocate, was also involved with the Evans and Owens faction. Noah Cook and Henry G. Guyon both preached about a public school system that would keep families intact and yet allow children to receive a decent education. These two trains of thought led to further disintegration among the proeducation faction specifically and the Workingmen's Party as a whole.

Another factor working against the Workingmen's Party was the harassment of people by organizations such as the Tammany Hall political machine. Other "legitimate" politicians and newspapers as well painted the party as group of no-goods just looking to stir up trouble and laughed at the concerns of party members. The nay-sayers targeted individual leaders, such as Fanny Wright, who had run a commune called Nashoba, which was devoted to racial and sexual equality and was ripe for the nasty innuendos and accusations of the "legitimate" press. All of this had a demoralizing effect on the party and hindered the ability of the membership to remain solid.

Other States Come Aboard

The Boston Advocate of September 1830 and the Boston Courier of 11 and 28 August 1830 stated that a Workingmen's Party meeting was held in Boston in the summer of 1830. This meeting raised candidates to be run on behalf of the party, as they had in New York and Philadelphia. The articles described the men in attendance as coming from work and looking every bit the part of a working man.

In New London, Connecticut, three Workingmen's candidates were elected to the state legislature in 1830. That year, Workingmen's Party candidates also carried the day in Newark, New Jersey. Similar groups became active in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Ohio towns. Scholars disagree on which groups were actually offshoots of the Philadelphia party and which groups were formed with goals that were not directly political.

In the end, the Workingmen's Party, committed to change through political candidates, disintegrated as the Federalist and Democratic parties along with the major newspapers of the day set out to destroy them. This did not mean that the working class did not achieve any gains. In Philadelphia, laborers saw the passage of an act guaranteeing a 10-hour day. By 1834 Pennsylvania began experimenting with public educational facilities that would be open to people from all socioeconomic groups and eliminated jail time for debtors. The party newspapers served to help advance the goals of the working class by shaping public policy and uniting the workers.

A book published in 1831, Stephen Simpson's The Working Man's Manual, contained rhetoric about the great importance of education that went back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome in an effort to make his argument that education, above all else, was the answer to the dilemma of the working man.

In New York, by 1832, the Workingman's Party was virtually laid to rest when former members distanced themselves from the party and an overwhelming number of working men voted for the Democratic candidate, Andrew Jackson.

Key Players

Evans, George Henry (1805-1856): Evans was born in England and immigrated to New York as a teenager. He became an activist during the depression of 1819. An advocate of the free-soil movement, Evans became active in 1829 in the Working Man's Party. He started the party newspaper, The Working Man's Advocate.

Jackson, Andrew (1767-1845): President of the United States (1829-1837). While Jackson was in office, the one American political party separated into two, the Democratic Republicans (Democrats) and the Republicans or Whigs. Many members of the Workingmen's Party deserted it to support Jackson and the Democrats, who came to be seen as friendly to labor.

Owens, Robert Dale (1771-1858): Owens opened the Institute for the Formation of Character, a school that offered free education to all members of the community. He was a strong advocate of a public education system that would educate everyone and thus change society for the betterment of all. He was actively involved in the New York Workingman's Party.

Wright, Fanny (1795-1852): Wright was a Scottish woman who became enamored with America and bought 2,000 acres of land in Tennessee, where she began a community called Nashoba. Devoted to ending slavery, universal suffrage, socialism, and free education for everyone, Wright worked with many people including Robert Dale Owens. Owens and Wright both became involved in the New York Workingmen's Party. Wright was elected to the New York Assembly on the Workingman's ticket.

See also: Mechanics Union of Trade Associations; Ten-hour Day Movement.



Commons, John R., David J. Saposs, Helen L. Sumner, E. B.Mittelman, H. E. Hoagland, John B. Andrews, and Selig Perlman. History of Labour in the United States, Vol. 1. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921.

Hugins, Walter Edward. Jacksonian Democracy and the Working Class: A Study of the New York Workingmen's Movement, 1829-1837. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.

Rayback, Joseph G. A History of American Labor. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.

Sorge, Friederich A. Friedrich A. Sorge's Labor Movements in the United States: A History of the American Working Class from Colonial Times to 1890. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Tyler, Gus. The Labor Revolution: Trade Unions in a New America. New York: The Viking Press, 1966.


Garrison, Frank. "To Unionists, 'Scab' Is Truly a Four Letter Word." BMWE Journal 106, no. 9 (October 1997).

Pessen, Edward. "The Workingmen's Movement of the Jacksonian Era." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43, no. 3 (December 1956): 428-443.


Hieghton, William. "Memorial on the U.S. Congress: On the Land Question." Lause's Links. Mechanics' Free Press, 25 October 1828, p. 1, cols. 3, 4 [cited 12 September 2002]. 6460/doct/830PWland.html.

Illinois Labor History Society. "The Working Man's Declaration of Independence" [cited 20 September 2002]. <>.

IWB Online. "Andrew Jackson and the Origins of Democracy." 23 September 1996 [cited 2 September 2002]. <>.

Kelling, Karla. "The Labor and Radical Press 1820-Present:An Overview and Bibliography" [cited 20 September 2002]. <>.

The National Archives Learning Curve. "Fannie Wright"[cited 12 September 2002]. http:// .

Oberlin College Web site. "Preamble to the Mechanics Union of Trade Association" [cited 12 September 2002]. MechanicsUnion.html.

San Diego State University's College of Education."Organization by Workingmen of an Association for the Protection of Industry and for the Promotion of National Education, 1829." Working Man's Advocate, 31 October 1829 [cited 20 September 2002].

Skidmore, Thomas. "The Rights of Man to Property."Lauses's Links [cited 21 September 2002]. http:// Park/Quad/6460/doct/ 829RMP.html.

—Beth Emmerling