Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflicts in Gilded Age Social Movement

By Cohen, Bruce | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflicts in Gilded Age Social Movement


Cohen, Bruce, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Robert E. Weir, Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflict in Gilded Age Social Movement, Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

This is the second book Rob Weir has written about the Knights of Labor. The first book, Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor, remains the foremost work on the cultural origins and development of the Knights. This is a very different work, for Weir focuses on the internal strife that contributed to the demise of America's foremost labor organization in the Gilded Age. He attempts this assignment in a book whose text covers only about 175 pages.

Certainly Weir believes that the KOL could not integrate its various strands that he depicts as "revolutionary, resistance, and reform." Each chapter deals with a different aspect of what he calls the Knights "internal conflict." The Home Club machinations the B & B Affair, the exile of the KOL's most gifted leader Joseph Buchanan, the failure of the bureaucratic Charles Litchman as well as that of local leaders, such as Henry Sharpe, John Brophy and Daniel Hines, to understand the nature of the labor organization/social movement. Weir adds sexism to this story of internal conflict in a chapter discussing Leonora Barry. Finally he argues that although Terence Powderly may have been bigger than life equally to his supporters and opponents, Powderly's own lack of leadership at critical times may have contributed to his overthrow by unprincipled opponents such as John Hayes and James Sovereign,

Yes the Knights grew, peaked, and declined on Powderly's watch, but Weir argues that the organization/movement's inability to synthesize differing objectives such as cooperation and trade unionism was a more serious factor in its decline. However the author's case could be stronger if he focused more on critical policy decisions made in 1886 and 1887. …

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