‘William H. Sylvis, the National Labor Union, and the First International’ by Morris Hillquit from History of Socialism in the United States. Funk & Wagnalls, New York. 1904.

From Hillquit’s ‘History of Socialism’ a sketch of the first great U.S. labor leader, and a link to the First International, the iron molder and founder of the National Labor Union William H. Sylvis.

‘William H. Sylvis, the National Labor Union, and the First International’ by Morris Hillquit from History of Socialism in the United States. Funk & Wagnalls, New York. 1904.

William H. Sylvis was born in the village of Armagh, Pennsylvania, on the 26th day of November, 1828, as the second son of a journeyman wagon-maker. His parents were too poor to give him any education, and at the age of eleven years he was hired out as some sort of domestic and general farm-hand to a certain Mr. Pawling, who first taught him the alphabet. At the age of eighteen he learned the trade of iron molding, and in 1857 he joined the Iron Molders’ Union of Philadelphia, which had then been recently organized. From that time on and until the day of his death, Sylvis was ever active in the trade-union movement. Wherever an enterprise or struggle of any magnitude was undertaken by working men of his trade, Sylvis was sure to be found in the front ranks of the movement, and his name is identified with almost every important phase of the trade-union history of that period.

In 1859 a national convention of iron molders was called on the suggestion of Sylvis, who was also the author of the address issued by the convention to the iron molders of the United States.

The address was a brief and pithy document, and a remarkable attestation of the keenness of intellect and eloquence of style of this humble working man with no educational advantages worth mentioning.

“In all countries,” is one of the remarks of the address, “and at all times, capital has been used by those possessing it to monopolize particular branches of business, until the vast and various industrial pursuits of the world have been brought under the immediate control of a comparatively small portion of mankind.”

And again:

“What position are we, the mechanics of America, to hold in society? Are we to receive an equivalent for our labor sufficient to maintain us in comparative independence and respectability, to procure the means with which to educate our children, and qualify them to play their part in the world’s drama; or must we be forced to bow the suppliant knee to wealth, and earn by unprofitable toil a life too void of solace to confirm the very claims that bind us to our doom?”

Sylvis was elected successively treasurer and president of the national union, and, after the organization had been considerably demoralized by the war excitement, the arduous task of reorganizing it also fell to his lot. “During this period,” relates his brother, “Sylvis wore clothes until they became quite threadbare, and he could wear them no longer; the shawl he wore to the day of his death was filled with little holes, burned there by the splashing of the molten iron from the ladles of molders in strange cities, whom he was beseeching to organize, and more than once he was compelled to beg a ride from place to place on an engine, because he had no money sufficient to pay his fare.”

The extraordinary efforts of Sylvis were crowned by success, and within a short time the Iron Molders’ National Union was one of the strongest and most prosperous labor organizations in the country.

Sylvis took an active and prominent part in the formation of the National Labor-Union, but sickness prevented him from attending the first convention of that body.

In the Chicago convention of 1867 he played a leading part. The question of the formation of an independent labor party was again broached by Sylvis, who advocated the measure with his customary logic and vigor, but the majority of the delegates were as yet not ready for so radical a step, and the proposition was voted down on a pretty close vote.

The subject of establishing official connections with the European International was also discussed, and strongly advocated by the president of the union, Jessup, and by Sylvis, who had already, on a previous occasion, expressed himself on the subject in the following language: “At this hour a struggle is going on in the Old World, the result of which will be the social and political emancipation of enslaved millions…Need I tell you that the interests of labor are identical throughout the world?…It is a matter of vital importance that an equilibrium of wages should be established throughout the world. Hence both our sympathies and interests are enlisted in favor of the great reform movement abroad. A victory to them will be a victory to us; and the news of their triumph shall be heard across the Atlantic; the working men of America will ring out shouts of triumph from Maine to California.”

The convention, however, decided not to join the International, and disposed of the subject by the adoption of the following resolution:

“Whereas, The efforts of the working classes in Europe to acquire political power, to improve their social conditions, and to emancipate themselves from the bondage under which they were and still are, are gratifying proof of the progress of justice, enlightenment, and civilization;

“Resolved, That the National Labor Convention hereby declares its sympathies, and promises its cooperation to the organized working men of Europe in their struggle against political and social injustice.”

The third convention of the National Labor-Union was held in New York in August, 1868. By this time the organization had largely grown in numbers, influence, and power, and a number of professional politicians had succeeded in gaining access to its councils.

But the leading spirit of the convention was Sylvis, and his pet idea—the establishment of an independent labor party —was at last realized; the National Reform Party was organized amid deafening cheers of the numerous delegates of the convention.

Sylvis was elected president of the organization, and it was he also who drafted its platform. The document was patterned after the Declaration of Independence; it dwelt at some length upon the rights of labor, and devoted much space to the discussion of monetary reforms in the sense of Kellog and the Greenback Party, under whose influence Sylvis had fallen.

A new and fruitful field of activity was now opened to Sylvis, who set himself to the task of building up the new party with his customary earnestness and vigor. Hardly a labor meeting of any significance was held anywhere in the country without a letter or circular being received from the indefatigable agitator and organizer.

“The organization of a new party—a working man’s party —for the purpose of getting control of Congress and the several State legislatures, is a huge work, but it can and must be done.” He proclaimed in one of his circulars, “We have been the tools of professional politicians of all parties long enough; let us now cut loose from all party ties, and organize a working man’s party founded upon honesty, economy, and equal rights and privileges of all men.”

And in another circular:

“Our people are being divided into two classes—the rich and the poor, the producers and the non-producers.

“The working people of our nation, white and black, male and female, are sinking to a condition of serfdom. Even now a slavery exists in our land worse than ever existed under the old slave system.”

Since the organization of the Labor Reform Party, Sylvis had been in correspondence with leading members of the European International, and had strongly developed in the direction of modern socialism: In a letter to the General Council at about that time he wrote:

“Our aim is a common one—it is the war between poverty and riches. Our last war has resulted in the development of an infamous moneyed aristocracy. This money power is rapidly consuming the power of the people. We are combating it, and hope to be victorious.” And the General Council of the International was not slow in responding to these advances. In May, 1869, it addressed an open letter to the National Labor-Union, of which we quote the following portion:

“In our address of felicitation to Mr. Lincoln on the occasion of his reelection to the presidency of the United States, we expressed our conviction that the civil war will prove as important to the progress of the working class as the War of the Rebellion had been for the progress of the bourgeoisie.

“And actually the victorious termination of the antislavery war has inaugurated a new epoch in the annals of the working class. In the United States an independent labor movement has since sprung into life, which is not being viewed with much favor by the old parties and the professional politicians.”

The address was followed by a formal request to the National Labor-Union to send delegates to the next convention of the International, to be held at Basle in 1869.

Another connecting link between the National Labor-Union and the European Socialist movement were the German labor organizations of the United States.

Already, in 1866, a number of German trade-unions in the city of New York had organized a central body under the name “Arbeiter Union” (Working-Men’s Union), and two years later the organization commenced the publication of a paper under the same title, Arbeiter Union, which gradually acquired much influence in the German labor movement. 

When the Labor Reform Party was organized, the Arbeiter Union supported it, but at the same time it published reports of the proceedings of the International, and by degrees fell under the influence of socialism. Especially was that the case when the editorial charge of the paper was assumed by Dr. Adolph Douai.

Douai had a very eventful career behind him. Born in Altenburg, Germany, in 1819, he received an excellent education, and devoted himself to his chosen vocation, that of teaching. He took an active part in the revolution of 1848, was captured, tried, and imprisoned, and in 1852 he emigrated to Texas. He founded a small paper in San Antonio, which was written, set, printed, and distributed by him without any outside help, so that he was often compelled to work 100 hours a week. The paper was devoted to the cause of abolition, and its editor was, on that account, often subjected to persecutions and ill treatment by the mob. After three years of struggle, Douai was compelled to leave San Antonio, but the negro population of Texas always bore him a grateful memory for his devotion to their cause, and in 1868 he received a newspaper with the following announcement printed in bold type at the head of the first column:


“This paper, edited and set by negroes, is being printed on the same press from which Dr. Douai for the first time advocated the emancipation of the negroes in Texas. Let this serve him as a token of gratitude of the colored race that they preserve the memory of his efforts for their freedom.”

During the following ten years Douai again took up his interrupted pedagogic labors in Boston, Hoboken, and New York, until he was elected to the editorship of the Arbeiter Union in.4858. Later on, Douai became one of the leading exponents of Marxian socialism in the United States, and was one of the most valued members of the editorial staff of the New Yorker Volkszeitung from 1878 to 1888. The Arbeiter Union, however, was only his debut in the practice labor movement, and his views were not yet quite clear on all points.

His support of the platform of the National Labor Party and advocacy of the principles of the International at one and the same time were frequently criticized as inconsistent; but be that as it may, his paper contributed materially to the establishment of friendly relations between the two movements, and these relations were strengthened still further when the General German Working-Men’s Association joined the National Labor-Union in February, 1869.

The fourth convention of the National Labor-Union and Labor Reform Party thus approached with every prospect of a definite union being established between that body and the International, but the progress of the tendency in that direction was suddenly checked by an unexpected event—on the 27th day of July, 1869, Sylvis died after a brief illness.

Ordinarily the life or death of a single individual matters little in a great social or political movement, but at a time when a young movement has arrived at the critical point of the parting of the ways, and the masses are uneducated and inexperienced, and easily led into any direction, the loss of a clear-minded, energetic, and honest leader is a great blow. And such was undoubtedly the effect of Sylvis’s death on the further career of the American Labor-Union. That the International fully appreciated the loss is evidenced by the memorial of the General Council, which concluded with these words:

“That the American labor movement does not depend on the life of a single individual is certain, but not less certain is the fact that the loss sustained by the present labor convention through the death of Sylvis can not be compensated. The eyes of all were turned on Sylvis, who, as a general of the proletarian army, had an experience of ten years outside of his great abilities—and Sylvis is dead.”

The premature death of its leader proved fatal to the progress of the National Labor-Union.

PDF of full book: https://archive.org/download/historyofsociali0000hill_y1y7/historyofsociali0000hill_y1y7.pdf

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