The Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. The holy trinity of the American political tradition.
In the beginning was the word, the sacred text celebrating the end of arbitrary colonial government and the creation of a constitutional republic. Then there was the redemptive war, a punishment for the original sin of slavery and whose reward was the Union reborn. The new United States declared the primacy of the national state, declared free labor the foundation of its economy, and established national citizenship. Finally, the third deed put a human face on the capitalism that the Civil War unleashed.
This, anyhow, is how the standard undergraduate syllabus is arranged. It is how publishing houses organize their books; it is how the typical historical survey punctuates the American story. To be sure, other moments, like the Civil Rights Movement and the Reagan revolution get honorable mentions.
But they receive their meaning primarily as decorative fabric stretched across the tripartite scaffolding: the Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. We are supposed to believe that there is nothing to remember in those historical voids. If we go looking, all that we will discover is a series of errors, like Jim Crow, that we have since corrected.
How then to think about the fall of 1887, when a small group of labor organizers connected to the Knights of Labor, started agitating among sugar cane workers deep in the Louisiana bayou?
In August, the Knights started talking to the mostly black cane-cutters who were now working for their former slave masters. They promised higher wages, an end to payment in “scrip” rather than money, and even the hope of running a plantation “on the co-operative plan” instead of under the thumb of a boss. By September thousands had joined the Knights, by October they were ready to stop working if the local planters refused to raise wages, by the first of November they were on strike.
Three weeks later they were slaughtered. With the aid of a judge and state militia leader, white vigilantes disarmed the strikers, corralled them into the town of Thibodaux, Louisiana and unleashed a three-day orgy of violence. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes historian Rebecca Scott, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.”
Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the nigger or the white man? For the next fifty years. . . .”
Where does an event like this fit in our national history? Who were the Knights? What was their vision of society? What was the threat they posed?
These are questions we cannot answer by reference to the “holy trinity” narrative. That is because between Reconstruction and Jim Crow was a forgotten time in which the emancipation of slaves inspired a further movement to emancipate workers from the domination of the labor market. It was a moment of promise and of danger — the promise of freedom, the danger of challenges to class power.
If we want to understand our history, rather than just congratulate ourselves about it, we have to abandon the prevailing, comforting narrative of progress that carefully extrudes those moments that do not fit with America’s national image as a self-correcting liberal democracy.
Looking back at forgotten labor struggles is therefore not just an exercise in setting the record straight, it is an exercise in emancipating our own thinking from attempts to discipline and control it. Reconstruction and its aftermath is an especially fertile period because it is when the language of liberty began to take new form, but had not yet been thinned out into the libertarian discourses that we know today.
The Promise of Reconstruction
The Civil War saw the largest, uncompensated expropriation of property in American history: the abolition of slavery. Nullifying slave owners’ property in persons meant returning personhood to the slaves. It also extinguished roughly half the value of all Southern assets, which in today’s prices amounts to roughly $3 trillion.
This expropriation was followed by “Reconstruction,” a period of constitutional dictatorship maintained by the North’s military occupation of the South. The purpose of occupation was not only to ensure orderly return of the South to the Union, nor just to secure passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, but also to coercively guarantee the freedom of former slaves against those who would resist it.
There was no extending of economic, civil, and political rights to former slaves without a period of coercion against the ancien regime. When communists today propose such measures it is denounced as the most horrible violation of the democratic spirit and personal liberty. But here, at the heart of our own history, is forced expropriation of one class to emancipate another.
And there is more. Reconstruction inaugurated a struggle over how to define the freedom in whose name the North fought. Abolition was just the beginning. What followed was the question of emancipation.
This might sound odd: didn’t the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments abolish slavery, establish due process, and guarantee national citizenship? That would have been news to former slaves. They had been famously promised, as a part of their emancipation, “forty acres and a mule.” And not just them. In fact, in the Morrill Land Grant and Homestead Acts of 1862, the state had affirmed the idea that a fully free citizen was someone who had access to a piece of land — some share of the means of production — so that they did not have to be dependent on another.
Lincoln himself had declared, prior to the war, that free labor was not the same as wage labor: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while . . . [This] is free labor.” The promise of American freedom was that everyone might enjoy this full independence.
More to the point, former slaves had learned that their emancipation was not something done to them but something they seized for themselves — they no longer had to ask for permission from a master. The connection between emancipation, independence, and self-assertion was found in the organization of black militias for the protection of civil rights, their seizure of land, and the working of this land individually or in self-directed labor companies.
Consider, for instance, these words from former slaves on Edisto Island, South Carolina, who occupied abandoned plantations and then were commanded, by a Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner, to return the land to former masters:
General we want Homestead’s; we were promised Homestead’s by the government . . . [without them] we are left in a more unpleasant condition than our former . . . we are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon.
Without land they were forced to work for former masters, or some other masters, for a pittance. To be formally free but possess no land was to find oneself “in a more unpleasant condition,” since in principle one might even find oneself homeless, in even more abject dependence on an employer. The promise of land, whether worked individually or collectively, was that one would no longer work under the arbitrary command of another.
Here was a possible meaning of Reconstruction: all forms of economic dependence are incompatible with free citizenship. In the name of freedom, being without property and dependent on employers was a condition that also had to be abolished. Free people had a right to some share of the means of production — be it land or some other productive property. They even had a right to take it from those who opposed this equal freedom.
One expropriation would follow another and, as those same former slaves put it, each should enjoy the protection of the state. What made such ideas so dangerous was that they were not exclusive to the South. Northerners who fought in the name of this freedom or who supported the Northern cause also believed they had a right to property, to a full and equal freedom.
It is not hard to see how such ideas could unify workers in the North and the South and turn Reconstruction into a radical project of reform, one wholly consistent with, even motivated by, American ideals of freedom. That is just what happened, but what did it look like? Here is where the Knights of Labor, who preserved the free labor ideals of Reconstruction well past its official conclusion, matter so much.
The Red Banditti
The Knights of Labor first formed in 1869 and grew, by the 1880s, into the first national labor association ever to organize unskilled black workers together with whites on a mass basis — an effort not meaningfully duplicated in the United States for another fifty years. Their founding documents said they had come together “for the purpose of organizing and directing the power of the industrial masses.”
Casting their concerns in a familiar, post–Civil War idiom, they asked, “Is there a workshop where obedience is not demanded — not to the difficulties or qualities of the labor to be performed — but to the caprice of he who pays the wages of his servants?” They called the new wage labor “wage slavery” and they wanted “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.”
To advance their mission, the Knights established assemblies everywhere from the male-dominated mines of rural Pennsylvania to the mostly women-employing garment factories of New York to the railroads of Denver.
The Knights’ expansion into the American South began in 1886 at their general assembly meeting in Richmond, Virginia. In a conspicuous show of racial solidarity, a black worker named Frank Ferrell took the stage to introduce the Knights’ leader, Terence V. Powderly, before Powderly’s opening address. To defend his controversial decision to have a black Knight introduce him, Powderly wrote “in the field of labor and American citizenship we recognize no line of race, creed, politics or color.”
After the general assembly the Knights spread throughout Southern states like South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana, setting up cooperatives, organizing local assemblies, and agitating for a new political order.
They enjoyed initial success in Louisiana. One district assembly in the Bayou region claimed 5,000 black members, more than forty local assemblies were spread across planter country, and the membership included some of the most influential local leaders from the headier days of Reconstruction. These were some of the same leaders who had served in politics, drilled self-defense militias, and organized labor companies in the 1870s, prior to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.
A spirit of self-assertion not seen for over a decade blew through the cane fields. The plantocracy knew it. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self-organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti’.”
But the Knights brushed aside these warnings. Just four hundred miles away, near Birmingham, Alabama, the Knights had already founded cooperative settlements, including a collectively managed iron foundry and cigar works. They hoped to reproduce such efforts in Louisiana, starting in the cane fields. If planters would not raise wages and pay in proper currency rather than useless scrip, the Knights were ready to call a strike. The planters refused and the workers struck.
But it was not to be. First the Louisiana state militia showed up, sporting the same Gatling guns that had, only a few decades before, been used for the first time in the North’s fight against the South. The militia broke the strike and forced thousands of defenseless strikers and their families into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. A group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” organized by the same judge that had declared martial law, then took over and went on their three-day killing spree.
The Knights’ influence was broken. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred — it was easy to forget it had ever been possible for cane cutters.
The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many such instances over the course of Southern history. In each instance, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy.
In this case, however, it is worth recalling that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, usually overlooked, language of freedom. This was that same conception of liberty that led former slaves during Reconstruction to refuse to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. It was the same idea of emancipation that motivated them to seize land and work it in “labor companies,” to organize their own militias, to vote as they wished, to hold local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was momentarily suppressed and its end appeared to spell the defeat of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean.
When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana speaking the language of freedom, they not only revived old hopes for self-organization and economic independence, but also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom.
Former slaves were now modern workers and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage laborers everywhere. They sought a reconstruction not just of the South but of the entire country.
This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the trans-racial language of making all workers into their own bosses, scared Northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. Indeed, if we see the Thibodaux massacre only as a story of Southern racism, we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the planter class and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority.
After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold they were met with a violence not all that different from that of Louisiana’s “Peace and Order Committee.” Throughout the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Knights faced violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with the police, state militia, and federal troops.
Indeed, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. Perhaps the most famous was the Haymarket incident in Chicago, in May 1886, when workers and police died during marches for an eight-hour working day.
But even before Haymarket, in Chicago no less than the bayou, capitalist overlords had been baying for blood. “Load Your Guns, They Will Be Needed Tomorrow to Shoot Communists,” read one Chicago Times headline from 1875, responding to a possible demonstration of socialists and reformers against the city’s half-hearted efforts to address poverty. Republican Chicago was a hotbed of bourgeois financing of labor repression. In 1877, a business group called the Citizens Association responded to strike riots by raising $28,000, which they used to buy rifles, cannons, cavalry equipment, and a Gatling gun.
In 1886, after the famous Haymarket incident, an organization of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen raised $300,000 in private donations to buy land and equipment for a fort and an armory located near the city. In Haymarket, and numerous other strikes, capital got what it paid for.
Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with capital, its private guards, spies and “provocative agents,” a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion blurred into a haze.
What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses? It was nothing less than the promise of the Civil War itself. Or, put more precisely, it was a particular interpretation of the ideal of republican liberty that free-labor abolitionists so frequently invoked before and during the Civil War. It was the ideal that all citizens should live in an economy in which they determine their fate rather than find themselves subject to the arbitrary will of another.
The language the Knights used was shot through with the antislavery ideal. William H. Seward’s famous abolitionist line that there is an “irrepressible conflict” between Northern freedom and Southern slavery was echoed in the Knights’ own slogan that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” Whether Southern agricultural worker, Northern shoemaker, or Western switchman, wage-laborers were propertyless and therefore dependent, seeking the same kind of freedom as the freed slaves of Edisto Island.
Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found equally applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana or the shoe factories of Massachusetts. The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. This ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists, and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee.
Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was, according to the Knights, the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence.
While these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause — one that had its roots deep in the critique of slavery itself. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent postwar labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.”
The Revolution Betrayed
Northern Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction of the South when the industrialists, merchants, and financiers that made up the heart of the party started to fear that workers were taking the promise of emancipation too seriously. A few of the most radical Republicans were won over to elements of labor reform, perhaps most famously Wendell Phillips. But by 1877, the bourgeois heart of the Republican Party was beating a different pulse.
Violent railroad strikes in 1873–74 foreshadowed the Great Strike of 1877, which not only paralyzed the country but briefly witnessed workers taking over St. Louis and running the railroads themselves — cooperatively, without bosses. They were quickly brought to heel by a mixture of armed guards, local police, and the newly reformed National Guard. Indeed, the National Guard was created out of the compromise of 1877, in which federal troops would no longer be allowed to enforce domestic law — as they did during Reconstruction — but with an exemption written in for cases of “insurrection,” namely, strikes.
Republicans had lost the heart for Reconstruction of the South because they were losing control of its meaning. The constitutional dictatorship that Northern leaders had imposed on the South had lost its charm, especially as freed slaves demanded redistribution of property, or, as in cases like Edisto Island, just seized that property themselves. Employers worried they now needed armed forces back home, to control workers, rather than bringing the former Confederacy to heel. Strikebreaking looked like a much better use for federal troops and state militia than helping redistribute property in the name of emancipation.
It was time to proclaim former slaves free, close up shop, and turn to making money.
Those former slave-owning planters now looked like less threatening, even useful, allies in the project of disciplining labor. And, in any case, for the Northern investors in US wartime debt, it was time to get freed blacks back onto plantations, picking cotton, so that it could be sold on international markets. After all, an influx of foreign exchange was needed to help put the dollar back on the gold standard, stabilize the currency, and allow them to cash in.
It was well and good to have freed the slaves but enough was enough. The limits of bourgeois universalism had been reached. It was time for Northern capitalists to make a deal, end Reconstruction, and get back to the business of making money.
Work Left Unfinished
Official Reconstruction might have been bargained away in the halls of Congress but, as the Knights of Labor reminds us, the ideals of Reconstruction had not been put to rest. Rather they had been nationalized and radicalized.
In fact, the Knights were not even the most dangerous of those who sought to extend the new freedom into the industrial economy. After all, they rejected revolutionary violence. Yet even their vision of an alternative future had to be suppressed. Their demand for an egalitarian economy, of nationalized public utilities like telegraphs and railroads, and built around producers’ cooperatives was still considered far too dangerous to the emerging capitalist order.
The radicalization of the promise of freedom was not only why Reconstruction had to be ended but why a certain memory of that period has had to endure.
Emancipation had to be understood as abolition, abolition had to be understood as the end of just slavery, and Reconstruction had to be told as a purely Southern question. These days, the dominant story about the Civil War and Reconstruction is so powerful that some dismiss the very idea of freedom as conservative, or at least “bourgeois.” But it is worth remembering that Reconstruction ended not because freedom had been achieved but because it started to become dangerous.
The quest for independence had transcended the abolition of slavery and become a call for self-organization and the redistribution of property. One expropriation threatened to follow another. A proper reconstruction of America meant that the majority should seize its freedom, through its own efforts, by turning the economy into a reflection of the democratic ideal. That is not just an ideal worth remembering but one worth recovering.
Reconstruction matters because it is dangerous.