Twenty years prior to The Communist Manifesto, the Working Men’s Party (“Workies” colloquially) proposed some incredibly revolutionary ideas in New York City, such as the abolition of private property, universal suffrage, and universal public education. Sean Wilentz, in his epic study Chants Democratic, analyzes the causes, context, and consequences of these critical labor groups. Wilentz rejects the notion that the Workies were a Marxist phenomenon of the proletariat uniting against the oppressive bourgeois. He instead argues that worker groups and their leaders were not “class conscious” of exactly who or what they represented. (15) Were they the party of all working men, or just unskilled urban laborers who rejected capitalism and revivalism? Wilentz portrays how the workingmen’s inability to establish a clear identity of their political goals and base made them susceptible to interference and coercion from the major political parties in the early 1830s.
Wilentz describes how, around 1825, the great “artisan republic” crafted by the Founders had collapsed “gradually but decisively” under the weight of modern capitalism. (145) A new entrepreneurial class, with (then-defunct) Federalist leanings, rose up to claim their foothold in the city. As thoroughly described in The Shopkeeper’s Millennium, these businessmen fueled the religious revivals of the 1820s. As a result, as Michael Lamoreaux pointed out, they “imposed a sense of religion on the poor of their community because they believed a void of morality existed”. The entrepreneurs and businessmen now became the spiritual as well as the economic protectors of the working classes, who were either too incompetent or too drunk to establish a decent code of conduct. Many workers undoubtedly resented this new form of bourgeois condescension onto their lives and chose instead to form political societies based on their own interests.
Wilentz’s description of the Working Men’s leadership is simply fascinating; the party was a hodgepodge of French Jacobins, Painite deists, Owenite Utopians, and even women, such as Frances Wright, who was “the first woman of importance to ascend a lecture platform in the United States.” (182) The party’s figurehead was a agrarian socialist named Thomas Skidmore, whose The Rights of Man to Property!, added a socialist spin to the work of Thomas Paine. Wilentz utilizes the worker-friendly newspapers of New York as primary sources for the events and philosophies of the Workies, such as the Radical, the Working Man’s Advocate, the Free Enquirer, and the Sentinel (205). The party, steadfast in its progressivism, reached into territory uncovered by neither Clayites nor Jacksonians: equal distribution of private property, universal suffrage regardless of race, freethinking independence from religious institutions, and public education. At first, the party experienced surprising local successes, with candidates receiving over six thousand votes in the race for State Senate. (199) However, the party’s working-class unity was soon to falter.
By the turn of 1830, Wilentz reveals how the Workies lack of class-consciousness came back to haunt them. In what Wilentz calls “The Coup”, a coalition of urban workers and Tammany Democrats brought down the agrarian Skidmore from power in a scene worthy of the 1917 Russian Duma. The Democrats then “co-opted” the issues of the Working Men’s Party for their own, effectively sealing former Workies inside their bubble. (202) The party’s newspapers, individually allied with a certain faction of the party, also turned on Skidmore, leaving him without public vindication. Wilentz describes the political coercion and the downfall of Skidmore as rather tragic; the united working class, the only true threat to the two-party system, had been subjugated by coercion and deceit. For years to come, the Tammany political machine would dominate the city using the same tactics displayed against the Workies to consolidate their power in an unrivaled fashion. For now, the great socialist vision of urban America would have to wait.