The years 1885-1888 were heady days for American labor. In September 1885, the Knights of Labor defeated Jay Gould's Southwest railway conglomerate. By the following June, the Knights of Labor had over 729,000 dues-paying members and perhaps a third as many informal members who proclaimed themselves Knights, despite the lack of a formal charter. The eight-hour agitation of May 1, 1886, went badly enough, but despite the arrest of eight Chicago anarchists, a renewed spirit of labor optimism and defiance prevailed. In November of the same year, Gilded Age elites were stung by third-party electoral victories in dozens of towns and cities across North America. That election saw Henry George outpoll Republican challenger Theodore Roosevelt for mayor of New York; thousands of workers believed George lost to Democrat Abram Hewitt because of fraud. The American Federation of Labor was born in December 1886, a symbol of the resurgence of trade unionism across America.
Labor kept up the pressure in 1887. According to Leon Fink, Knights of Labor candidates vied for office in 189 different locales in 1886-87, and they were active in 34 of the 38 states.(1) A Mulligan's stew of third parties - many flying the United Labor party of Henry George - challenged the stranglehold of Republican and Democratic elites. Strikes were numerous and often violent. Labor activity between 1885 and 1888 was so intense that historians have dubbed the period "The Great Upheaval."
But promise faded as quickly as it appeared. George attracted considerably less enthusiasm when he ran for secretary of state in 1887, and he did not run for another office until he made a second bid for the mayoralty of New York City in 1897, the year he died. By 1888, local third-party movements were in decline, as was the Knights of Labor organization.
Why did the powerful labor vote of 1886-87 decline markedly after 1888? And why did Henry George fail to resonate with labor voters in 1887? Why too did the United Labor party never coalesce into a unified national party, as the People's party would do in the 1890s? Traditional explanations have focused on repression and division. Both arguments have considerable merit. The fate of strikes from 1887 through the end of the century indicates a crystallizing capitalist class consciousness far in advance of its working class opponents. Capitalists such as Gould in the second Southwest strike, William Vanderbilt during the 1890 New York Central strike, and Andrew Carnegie during the 1892 Homestead Steel lockout offered no quarter in dealing with unions. Nor was labor united; deep divisions of ideology, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and skill fragmented the working class.(2) Yet one is left with questions of why the numerically superior working class was able to be divided so easily. Why wasn't a potential hero like Henry George able to bridge the gaps that divided workers, at least so far as ballot box politics went? If anything, brutal post-1886 capitalist repression ought to have solidified the labor vote.
Part of the reason lies in the fact that the Great Upheaval was more ephemeral than is often appreciated. This article looks at the relationship between the Gilded Age's largest labor union, the Knights of Labor, and its most visible third-party candidate, Henry George. It explores disagreements over land and protectionism, varied conceptions of politics, differing responses to the Haymarket affair, and religious disputes to assert that the Great Upheaval was more suggestive of the possibility of working-class solidarity than the culmination of long-evolving trends. It also examines the clash between George and the only other reformer with a higher public profile than his own during the 1880s, Terence V. Powderly.
Competing for Hearts and Minds
Many knights of labor knew George's great work, Progress and Poverty, before Terence Powderly recommended it to them in 1883. …