The late nineteenth century was a critical period for the labor movement in England, France, and the United States. The first stirrings of a working-class consciousness had occurred half a century earlier in the 1830s, but the organizational structures and conceptual categories that had developed in those years largely ignored less-skilled workers. This stance was becoming increasingly untenable in the closing decades of the nineteenth century as craftless workers grew to be a substantial proportion of the labor force. A few labor activists in each country recognized this fact and tried hard to convert their fellow craft workers to new, more inclusive organizations and identities. They also attempted to formulate arguments and union structures that would appeal to less-skilled workers. As they did so, activists were forced to confront the language and organizational forms of the 1830s: What was to be discarded? What borrowed? What transformed?
The labor movement that was remade in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, therefore, was profoundly shaped by what had come before. If we are to understand the Knights of Labor--what it achieved, what it wished for, and what it might have accomplished-- we must know something of the historical context in which it was formed. This chapter and the next two survey the ideological and organizational contours of the American labor movement from its first appearance in the 1830s through the mid-1880s, when the Knights successfully incorporated large numbers of less-skilled workers. It also