Category Archives: New York City

A float for the Women's Auxiliary Typographical Union in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.

The Birth of Labor Day

The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882.

Back in the late nineteenth century  Labor Day meant something more than a three-day weekend and the unofficial end of summer.  This unique holiday was first celebrated on September 5, 1882. On that day  thousands of workers in New York City risked getting fired for taking an unauthorized day off to participate in festivities honoring honest toil and the rights of labor.  This first commemoration of Labor Day testified to labor’s rising power and unity in the Gilded Age and its sense that both were necessary to withstand the growing power of capital.

The Labor Day holiday originated with the Central Labor Union (CLU), a local labor federation formed in January 1882 to promote the interests of workers in the New York area.  The CLU immediately became a formidable force, staging protest rallies, lobbying state legislators, and organizing strikes and boycotts.  By August membership in the organization boomed to fifty-six unions representing 80,000 workers.

A float for the Women’s Auxiliary Typographical Union in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.

But CLU activists wanted to do more than simply increase membership and win strikes.  They wanted to build worker solidarity in the face of jarring changes being wrought by the industrial revolution.  Gilded Age workers were alarmed by the growing power of employers — from local building contractors to national corporations like Western Union — over their employees.  With political leaders wedded to laissez faire economics, employers were free to increase hours, slash wages, and fire workers at will.  Equally disconcerting was the growing gap between rich and poor, a disparity made shockingly clear by the emergence of millionaire industrialists and financiers with names like Gould, Stanford, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Carnegie.

These developments, noted labor leaders, called into question the future of the American republic.  “Economical servitude degrades political liberties to a farce,” announced the CLU constitution.  “Men who are bound to follow the dictates of factory lords, that they may earn a livelihood, are not free.  … [A]s the power of combined and centralized capital increases, the political liberties of the toiling masses become more and more illusory.”  CLU activists believed the establishment of a day celebrating the honest worker, the foundation of the republic, would open their eyes and compel them to reclaim their dissipating rights.  As John Swinton, editor of the city’s only labor paper wrote, “Whatever enlarges labor’s sense of its power hastens the day of its emancipation.”

The precise identity of the CLU leader who in May 1882 first proposed the idea of establishing Labor Day remains a mystery.  Some accounts say it was Peter “P. J.” McGuire, General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (and future co-founder of the AFL), who proposed the idea.  Others argue that it was another man with a similar last name, machinist Matthew Maguire.  Official bragging rights to the title of “Father of Labor Day” aside, both men played key roles in promoting and organizing the original holiday.

Labor Day in Detroit, 1942

After months of preparation the chosen day – Tuesday September 5, 1882 – finally arrived.   Optimism among the organizers ran high, but no one knew how many workers would turn out.  Few could expect their employers to grant them a day off and many feared getting fired and blacklisted for labor union activity.  When William G. McCabe, the parade’s first Grand Marshall and popular member of Local No. 6 of the International Typographers Union, arrived an hour before the parade’s start, the situation looked grim.  Only a few dozen workers stood milling about City Hall Park.

To the relief of McCabe and other organizers, some 400 men and a brass band had assembled by the time the parade touched off at 10:00 a.m.  Initially, the small group of marchers faced ridicule from bystanders and interruptions in the line of march because policemen refused to stop traffic at intersections.  As the parade continued north up Broadway, however, it swelled in size as union after union fell into line from side streets.  Soon the jeers turned into cheers as the spectacle of labor solidarity grew more impressive.

Marchers held aloft signs that spoke both to their pride as workers and the fear that they were losing political power and economic standing in the republic:

To the Workers Should Belong All Wealth

Labor Built this Republic. Labor Shall Rule It

Less Work and More Pay

Strike with the Ballot

Don’t Smoke Cigars without the Union Label

Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work

Many wore their traditional work uniforms and aprons and walked behind wagons displaying their handiwork.  Others dressed in their holiday best for the occasion.

Midway through the parade, the throng passed a reviewing stand at Union Square.  Among the many dignitaries was Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, the most powerful labor organization in the nation.

After moving up Fifth Avenue, past the opulent homes of Vanderbilt, Morgan, Gould and other recently-minted tycoons, the grand procession of 5,000 or more terminated at 42nd Street and Sixth Ave.  There participants boarded elevated trains – extra cars had been added to handle the anticipated crowds – for a short ride to Wendel’s Elm Park at West 92nd Street for a massive picnic.  Tickets for the event were just 25 cents and by late afternoon upwards of 25,000 workers and their families jammed the park to participate in the festivities and consume copious amounts of food and beer.  Members of individual craft unions gathered under banners put up throughout the park.  Several bands provided music, while speaker after speaker held forth from various stages and soapboxes.

Thrilled with the success of their first effort, CLU leaders staged a second Labor Day the following year and drew an even larger number of participants.  In 1884 the CLU officially designated the first Monday in September as the annual Labor Day, calling upon workers to “Leave your benches, leave your shops, join in the parade and attend the picnic.  A day spent with us is not lost.”  Upwards of 20,000 marched that year, including a contingent of African American workers (the first women marchers debuted in 1885).

With such an impressive start, the tradition of an annual Labor Day holiday quickly gained popularity across the country.  By 1886 Labor Day had become a national event.  Some 20,000 workers marched in Manhattan, and another 10,000 in Brooklyn, while 25,000 turned out in Chicago, 15,000 in Boston, 5,000 in Buffalo, and 4,000 in Washington, D.C.   Politicians took notice and in 1887 five states, including New York, passed laws making Labor Day a state holiday.  Seven years later – just a dozen years after the first celebration in New York — President Grover Cleveland signed into law a measure establishing Labor Day as a holiday for all federal workers.

Labor Day caught on so quickly among Gilded Age workers because unlike the traditional forms of labor activism (i.e., striking and picketing) or civic holidays commemorating victories in war, it drew together workers for the purposes of celebration. As P. J. McGuire later wrote of the parade,

No festival of martial glory of warrior’s renown is this; no pageant pomp of warlike conquest … attend this day.  … It is dedicated to Peace, Civilization and the triumphs of Industry.  It is a demonstration of fraternity and the harbinger of a better age – a more chivalrous time, when labor shall be best honored and well rewarded.

In the twentieth century, Labor Day parades grew into massive spectacles of pride and power.  The highpoint came 1961 when 200,000 workers processed up Fifth Avenue behind Grand Marshall Mayor Robert Wagner, passing on the reviewing stand dignitaries that included Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Jacob K. Javitts, and former President Harry S. Truman.  But the strength of organized labor demonstrated by that parade –union membership had just reached its historic highpoint with 39% of the American workforce – was already being eroded by the emergence of the service economy, globalization, and a political climate often hostile to unions.  By the late 1990s fewer than fifteen percent of American workers belonged to unions and Labor Day parades disappeared in many cities.  Or, as is the case in New York City, parades were moved to the weekend following Labor Day so as to avoid competing with the public’s desire for a final three-day weekend of recreation.

Still, it would be unwise to predict the Labor Day’s demotion to the status of Arbor Day or Flag Day.  Despite the fact that few Americans are even remotely aware of the struggle and spirit that laid the foundation of their current prosperity, comfort, and leisure, many of the issues that inspired the first Labor Day persist.  Public distrust of corporations has spiked in recent years as the result of scandals in accounting, campaign finance, and massive payouts to departing executives.  All the while, polls indicate that more and more Americans are worried about job security, health care costs, and pension funding.  Other workplace issues such as sexual harassment, discrimination, and family leave continue to attract attention.  Whether these concerns ultimately lead Americans to “Strike with the Ballot” remains to be seen.  In the meantime Labor Day will endure for the foreseeable future as an annual reminder of battles won and battles yet to be joined.

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Episode 016 The History of Women Seeking the White House – Convention Edition!


subscribe-buttonThis week, as the Democratic National Convention prepares to make history by nominating a woman for the presidency, In The Past Lane takes a close look at women who have sought the nation’s highest office. Here’s the lineup:
1) First, I bring you a short segment on a curious voting controversy that few people have ever heard of.
2) Next, I speak with historian Ellen Fitzpatrick about her terrific new book, The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency.
3) Finally, I speak with William Hazelgrove, author of a forthcoming book, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. Wait, does that mean the United States already had a woman president? Listen and learn!

Ellen Fitzpatrick - The Highest Glass CeilingFurther Reading

Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed; Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition 40th Edition (2010)

Ellen Fitzpatrick, The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency (Harvard University Press, 2016)

William Hazelgrove, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson (forthcoming, Regnery History, October 2016)

Myra MacPherson, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age (2014)

Hazelgrove - Madam President cover copyPatricia L. Schmidt, Margaret Chase Smith: Beyond Convention (1996)

Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith (1999)

Gloria Steinem, The Woman Who Ran For President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull (1995)

Barbara Winslow, Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change (2013)

Dinesh Sharma, “America’s Exceptional Lack of a Female President,” The New Republic, May 12, 2016

Pew Research Survey – Despite progress, U.S. still lags many nations in women leaders

Music

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy, JayGMusic.com)

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Jason Shaw, River Meditation (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

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Episode 012 The History of Gay Liberation in US History

June is Pride Month in the US, so in this episode we examine the history of the gay rights struggle.
subscribe-buttonHere’s the lineup:
1) a short piece on the notion of “hidden history.”
2) an interview with Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, an organization that has played a key role in getting historical landmark status for the famous Stonewall Inn.
3) an interview with historian Jim Downs about his extraordinary new book, Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016).

Episode 012 notes and credits

Further reading about the history of the Gay Rights Movement in US History

Jim Downs Stand by Me bookcoverMichael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States

David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution

Jim Downs, Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016).

Music for This Episode:

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy, JayGMusic.com)

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “On The Street” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

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Episode 011 Scandal! In American History


subscribe-buttonWho doesn’t love a good scandal (so long as it doesn’t involve them)? This week at In The Past Lane we examine the important — and often positive — role scandals have played in American history. Here’s the lineup:
1) a short segment on the role of scandals in US history
2) an interview with historian Daniel Czitrom about his new book, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal That Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford U Press, 2016). We talk about the famous 1894 Lexow Commission investigation into allegations of widespread corruption involving the political machine Tammany Hall and the New York City Police Dept. Dan also draws important links to key issues confronting American society in 2016 – police violence and the origins of the so-called “blue wall of silence” and voting suppression efforts.
3) a look at the scandal in the meatpacking industry triggered by the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s famous novel, The Jungle.

Episode 011 notes and credits

Further reading about the history of Scandals in American History

Daniel Czitrom book cover copy: The Gilded Age Police Scandal That Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford U Press, 2016)

Andy Hughes, A History of Political Scandals: Sex, Sleaze and Spin (2014)

George C. Kohn, The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal (2001)

Laton McCartney, The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country (Random House, 2009)

Mitchell Zuckoff, Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend (Random House, 2006)

Andrew Burt, “The 1826 Kidnapping, Allegedly by a Cabal of Freemasons, That Changed American Politics Forever,” Slate.com May 15, 2015

Music for This Episode:

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy, JayGMusic.com)

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “On The Street” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Womb, “I Hope That It Hurts” (Free Music Archive)

 

Hercules mulligan title card

Hercules Mulligan, Patriot Mentor and Spymaster

Who wITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)as Hercules Mulligan? Well, he certainly was a man with one of the great names in American history. Hercules Mulligan – you can’t make up a name like that. But beyond that great name, Hercules Mulligan has existed as a mere footnote for the last 200+ years of American history. That is, until about a year ago when, “Hamilton, The Musical,” opened on Broadway. The show, which has gone on to become one of the biggest hits in recent Broadway history, chronicles the life of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. It features well-known figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but also people lost to history like Hercules Mulligan. He played a key role in the life of Hamilton, and served as one of Washington’s most important spies during the American Revolution.

Mulligan was born in County Antrim, in northern Ireland in 1740. Six years later, he emigrated with his family to colonial New York City. His father was a wealthy merchant, so Hercules enjoyed a comfortable life and received a very good education. By the mid 1760s, he was himself a prosperous businessman, operating a shop that sold cloth and custom tailored suits.

By the mid 1760s, Hercules Mulligan had also joined the Sons of Liberty. This early Patriot group had formed in 1765 to resist the Stamp Act—you know, the whole, “No taxation without representation” thing. The year 1765 was just the beginning of a decade of turmoil over British policies and Mulligan remained active member of the Sons of Liberty.

In 1773, the same year as the Bostonhamilton logo Tea Party, Mulligan met a 16-year-old orphan from the British West Indies. His name was Alexander Hamilton. Mulligan offered to rent him a room while he studied at Kings College (the forerunner to Columbia University). When Hamilton wasn’t studying, he hung around Mulligan’s store and listened to him talk with his friends, many of them fellow Sons of Liberty, about British abuses and the need to resist them. Not surprisingly, Hamilton soon joined the Sons of Liberty.

In 1775 Hamilton penned a widely read article highly critical of Great Britain’s increasingly harsh treatment of the colonies. Two months later, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. Sixteen months after that, the British invaded New York with a massive army and armada of 300 ships. In the ensuing Battle of Long Island in August 1776, George Washington and his Continental Army barely escaped capture and destruction. From that point until the end of the war, New York City remained under British occupation and it became a key center of military planning for the British.

As the war progressed, George Washington recognized the importance of establishing an intelligence network in New York to acquire information on British military plans. Accordingly, he put in place a network of spies that came to be known as the Culper Ring. And one of its most important members was Hercules Mulligan. In all likelihood, it was Hamilton—now an officer in Washington’s army—who recommended him.

Now, it’s important to point out that spying was dangerous business. In September 1776, the British caught Nathan Hale spying in the New York area and hanged him in Manhattan, not far from Mulligan’s home. So Mulligan and the other Culper Ring spies had to be very careful.

Fortunately for Hercules Mulligan, his business put him in an ideal position to gather information without arousing suspicion. His shop had to become very popular among colonial elites before the war, and during the military occupation it proved equally popular among British officers who were convinced that Mulligan was a Loyalist. In those days, tailoring shops were kind of like barbershops or coffee shops where customers hung out and talked freely about news and gossip. So while Mulligan went about his business of selling cloth and measuring, tailoring, and fitting British officers into their new suits, he listened for loose talk of military plans. Whenever he obtained important information about troop movements or changes in overall strategy, he passed it on to George Washington.

Hercules mulligan in hamilton copy

Hercules Mulligan (second from left) in “Hamilton, The Musical”

As Hercules Mulligan in “Hamilton” puts it:

A tailor spyin’ on the British government!
I take their measurements, information and then I smuggle it…
To my brother’s revolutionary covenant
I’m runnin’ with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin’ it!
See, that’s what happens when you up against the ruffians
We in the shit now, somebody gotta shovel it!
Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction
When you knock me down I get the fuck back up again!

In one crucial instance, Mulligan heard of a British plot to capture George Washington. He passed on the information, allowing Washington to change his plans and foil the plot. Needless to say, had Washington been captured, the Patriot cause would have been doomed.

Mulligan played his role of tailor/spy perfectly for the whole war. But as the conflict came to an end, he had a big problem. He had performed so convincingly as a Loyalist, that most New Yorkers were convinced that he WAS a Loyalist. This was not a good position in which to be in the early 1780s. Loyalists were being driven from the colonies by angry Patriots. Some were tarred and feathered and a few were even killed.

General George Washington arrives with Governor Clinton and troops in New York on November 26, 1783 as the defeated British evacuated the city.

General George Washington arrives with Governor Clinton and troops in New York on November 26, 1783 as the defeated British evacuated the city.

Fortunately for Mulligan, none other than George Washington came to his aid. On November 26, 1783, General Washington triumphantly processed into New York City as the last British ships departed. As he reached Lower Manhattan, he stopped at the home of Hercules Mulligan. The two enjoyed a breakfast together after which Washington publicly praised Mulligan as, “A true friend of liberty.” No one threatened Hercules Mulligan again after that!

Mulligan, unlike the ill-fated Hamilton, went on to enjoy a long and prosperous life in the years that followed. He died in New York in 1825 at the age of 85. Then he faded into historical obscurity—but not permanently.

Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton helped rescue Hercules Mulligan from historical obscurity.

Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton helped rescue Hercules Mulligan from historical obscurity.

In 2004, Ron Chernow published a best-selling biography of Alexander Hamilton. In it, he related the role Mulligan played in Hamilton’s early life and his role as a spy in the Revolutionary War. And this is the book Lin-Manuel Miranda read that inspired him to create, “Hamilton, the Musical.” Miranda has said in interviews that he was drawn to Mulligan both for his unique name and for the important role he played in Hamilton’s life.

So there you have it. The incredible story of the great Irish spy helped win the American Revolution. Who knew?

 

 

 

Further reading:

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004)

Michael O’Brien, Hercules Mulligan: Confidential Correspondent of General Washington (1937)