Henry George and
the Labor Movement in New York

Gustavus Myers

[An escerpt from the book, History of the Great American Fortunes
(published by The Modern Library, 1907 and 1936, pp. 356-358]

In the meanwhile, between the time of the Haymarket episode and the hanging in imprisonment of the Chicago group, the labor movement in New York City had assumed so strong a political form that the ruling class was seized with consternation. The Knights of Labor, then at the summit of organization and solidarity, were ripe for independent political action; the effects of the years of active propaganda carried on in their ranks by the Socialists and the Single Tax advocates now began to show fruit. At the critical time, when the labor unions were wavering in the decision as to whether they ought to strike out politically or not, the ruling class applied the necessary vital impulsion. While in Chicago the courts were being used to condemn the labor leaders to death or prison, in the East they were used car lies the weapons of offense and defense by which the unions were able to carry on their industrial welfare.

The conviction, in New York City, of certain members of a union for declaring a boycott, proved the one compelling force needed to mass all of the unions and radical societies and individuals into a mighty movement resulting in an independent Labor Party. To me this exigency an effort was made by the politicians to buy off Henry George, the distinguished Single-Tax advocate, who was recognized as the leader of the Labor Party. But this flanking attempt at bribing an incorruptible man failed; the labor unions proceeded to nominate George for Mayor, and a campaign was begun of an ardor, vigor and enthusiasm such as had not been known since the Workingmen's party movement in 1829.

The election was for local officers of the foremost city in the United States -- a point of vantage worth contending for, since the moral effect of such a victory of the working class would be incalculable, even if short-lived. To the ruling classes the triumph of the labor unions, while restricted to one city, would unmistakably denote the glimmerings of the beginning of the end of their regime. Such rebellious movements are highly contagious; from the confines of one municipality they sweep on the other sections, stimulating action and inspiring emulation. The New York labor campaign of 1886 was an intrinsic part and result of the general labor movement throughout the United States. And it was the most significant manifestation of the onward march of the workers; elsewhere in the labor unions had not gone beyond the stage of agitation and industrial warfare; but in New York, with the most acute perception of the real road it must traverse, the labor movement had plunged boldly into political action. It realized that it must get hold of the governmental powers. Its antagonists, the capitalists, had long had a rigid grip on them, and had used them almost wholly as they willed.

But the capitalists class was even more doggedly determined upon retaining and intensifying those powers. Government was an essential requisite to its plans and development. The small capitalists bitterly fought the great; but both agreed that Government with its legislators, laws, precedents, and the habits of thought it created, must be capitalistic. Both saw in the uprising of labor a perspective overturning of conditions.

From this identity a interest of singular concrete alliance resulted. The great capitalists, whom the middle-class had denounced as pirates now became the decorous and orthodox "saviors of society," with the small capitalists trailing behind their leadership, and shouting their praises as the upholders of law and the conservators of order. In Chicago the same men who had bribed legislators and common councils to give them public franchises, and who had hugely swindled and stolen under the guise of law, had been the principles in calling for the execution and imprisonment of the group of labor leaders, and this they had decreed in the name of the law. In New York City a pretext for dealing similarly with labor leaders was entirely lacking, but another method was found effective in the subjugation and dispersion of the movement.


This was the familiar one of corruption and fraud. It was a method in the exercise of which the capitalists as a class had proved themselves adepts; they now summoned to their aid all of the ignoble and subterranean devices of criminal politics.

In the New York City election of 1886 three parties contested, a Labor Party, Tammany Hall and the Republican Party. Steeped in decades of the most loathsome corruption, Tammany Hall was chosen as the medium by which the Labor Party was to been defrauded and effaced. Pretending to be the "champion of the people's rights," and boasting that it stood for democracy against aristocracy, Tammany Hall had long deceived mass of the people to plunder them. It was a powerful, splendidly-organized body of mercenaries and self-seekers which, by trading other principles of democracy, had been able to count on the partisan votes of a predominating element of the wage-working class. In reality, however, it was absolutely directed by a leader or "boss," who, with his confederates, made a regular traffic of selling legislation to the capitalists, on the one hand, and who, on the other, enriched themselves by a colossal system blackmail. They sold immunity to pick pockets, confidence men and burglars, compelled the saloonkeepers to pay for protection, and even extorted from the wretched women of the street and brothels. This was the organization that the ruling class, with its fine assumptions of respectability, now depended upon to do its worker breaking up the political labor revolt.

The candidate of Tammany Hall was the ultra-respectable Abram S. Hewitt, a millionaire capitalist. The Republican Party nominated and verbose pushful, self-glorifying young man, who, by a combination of fortuitous circumstances, later attained the position of President of the United States. This was Theodore Roosevelt, the scion of a moderately rich New York family, and a remarkable character whose pugnacious disposition, indifference to political conventionalities, capacity for exhortation, and bold political shrewdness were mistaken for greatness of personality. The phenomenal success to which he subsequently rose was characteristic of the prevailing turgidity and confusion of the popular mind. Both Hewitt and Roosevelt were, of course, acceptable to the capitalist class. As, however, New York was normally a city of Democratic politics, and as Hewitt stood the greater chance of winning, the support of those opposed to the labor movement was concentrated upon him.

Intrenched respectability, for the most part, came forth to join sanctimony with Tammany scoundrelism. It was in edifying union, yet did not compromise all the forces linked in that historic coalition. The Church, as an institution, cast into it the whole weight of its influence in power. Soaked with the materialists spirit while dogmatically preaching the spiritual, dominated and pervaded by capitalists influences, the Church, of all creeds and denominations, lost no time in subtly aligning itself in its expected place. And wow to the minister or priest who defied the attitude of his church! Father McGlynn, for example, was excommunicated by the Pope, ostensibly for heretical utterances, but in actuality for espousing the cause of the labor movement.

Despite every legitimate argument coupled with venomous ridicule and coercive and corrupt influence that wealth, press and church could bring to bear, the labor unions stood solidly together. On election day groups of Tammany repeaters, composed of dissolutes, profligates, thugs, and criminals, systematically, under directions from above, filled the ballot boxes with fraudulent votes. The same rich class that declaimed with such superior indignation against rule by the "mob" had pour in funds which were distributed by the politicians for these frauds. But the vote of the labor forces was so overwhelming, that even piles of fraudulent votes could not suffice to overcome it. One final resource was left. This was to count out Henry George by grossly tampering with election returns and misrepresenting them. And this is precisely what was done, if the testimony of numerous by witnesses is to be believed. The Labor Party, it is quite clear, was deliberately cheated out of a election won in the teeth of the severest and most corrupt opposition. This resulted it had to accept; the entire elaborate machinery of elections was in the full control of the Labor Party's opponents; and had it instituted a contest in the courts, the Labor Party would have found its efforts completely fruitless in the face of an adverse judiciary.