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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2019

Richard Schneirov*
Indiana State University


Samuel Gompers's address at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago is typically remembered for its invocation, “we want ‘more.’” This essay views Gompers's address in its broader context as a window into the Gilded Age labor movement and America's crisis of the 1890s. Gompers's thinking can be understood in terms of two sets of contradictory discourses or antinomies: labor republicanism as distinguished from socialism and apocalyptic change as distinguished from evolutionary development. Rather than someone who rationalized the interests of a narrow stratum of craft workers, Gompers emerges from this analysis as a serious and complex thinker who sought to bridge and contain divergent discourses and political tendencies within the broader labor movement for which he was the spokesperson.

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Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2019 

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1 The description is from an 1891 interview in The Samuel Gompers Papers, Vol. 3: Unrest and Depression, 1891–1893, eds. Kaufman, Stuart B. and Albert, Peter J. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 42Google Scholar.

2 Schneirov, Richard, Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1865–97 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press 1998), 332–33Google Scholar.

3 For an example of the former position, see Laslett, John, “Samuel Gompers and the Rise of American Business Unionism” in Labor Leaders in America, eds. Dubofsky, Melvyn and Van Tine, Warren (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 6288Google Scholar; and for the latter, see Glickman, Lawrence, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; and Currarino, Rosanne, “The Politics of ‘More’: The Labor Question and the Idea of Economic Liberty in Industrial America,” Journal of American History 93 (June 2006): 1736CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Sklar, Martin J., The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890–1916 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 2–4, 10–13, 16–17, 2023CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Livingston, James, Pragmatism and Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 84118Google Scholar; Schneirov, Richard, “Thoughts on Periodizing the Gilded Age: Capital Accumulation, Society, and Politics, 1873–1898,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5 (July 2006): 189224CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Currarino, Rosanne, The Labor Question in America: Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012)Google Scholar.

5 Two groups of historians view Gilded Age capitalism as under serious challenge. The first group, cited in note 4, views capitalism as internally challenged, economically in crisis, and unable to secure hegemony over other social groups. The second group emphasizes Gilded Age capitalists as under siege from without, by Populist producers, rebellious unskilled workers, or by a radical middle class; see Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Robert D. Johnson, The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon (Princeton. NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003); Shelton Stromquist, Re-inventing “The People”: The Progressive Movement, The Class Problem, and The Origins of Modern Liberalism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

6 “The Economic Basis of Imperialism” in The United States in the Orient (1900; Port Washington NY: Kennikat Press, 1971), 9; See also Sklar, Corporate Reconstruction, 20–33, 43–47; Gordon, David M., Edwards, Richard, and Reich, Michael, Segmented Work, Divided Workers: The Historical Transformation of Labor in the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 94–99, 101–3Google Scholar; Livingston, James, Origins of Federal Reserve System: Money, Class and Corporate Capitalism, 1890–1913 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 4967Google Scholar.

7 Montgomery, David, “Strikes in Nineteenth-Century America,” Social Science History 4 (Winter 1980): 81104CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Roemer, Kenneth M., The Obsolete Necessity: America in Utopia Writings, 1888–1900 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1976), 171–78Google Scholar; Schneirov, Matthew, The Dream of a New Social Order: Popular Magazines in America, 1893–1914 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 163–74Google Scholar; Smith, Carl S., Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Jaher, Frederick Cople, Doubters and Dissenters: Cataclysmic Thought in America, 1885–1918 (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964)Google Scholar; Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 298–301.

9 Hereafter, all pages cited in the text in parentheses are from Samuel Gompers, “What Does Labor Want?” Gompers Papers, Vol. 3, 388–96. Gompers's address is appended to this article.

10 On the values, politics, and traditions of small-producer republicanism see Huston, James L., “The American Revolutionaries, the Political Economy of Aristocracy, and the American Concept of the Distribution of Wealth, 1765–1900,” American Historical Review 98 (Oct. 1993): 10791105CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schultz, Ronald, “The Small-Producer Tradition and the Moral Origins of Artisan Radicalism in Philadelphia, 1720–1810,” Past & Present 127 (May 1990): 84116CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hattam, Victoria, “Economic Visions and Political Strategies: American Labor and the State, 1865–1896,” Studies in American Political Development 4 (Spring 1990): 82129CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Goebel, Thomas, “The Political Economy of American Populism from Jackson to the New Deal,Studies in American Political Development 11 (Spring 1997): 109–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 There is a large literature on labor republicanism in the Gilded Age beginning with David Montgomery, “Labor and the Republic in Industrial America: 1860–1920,” Le Mouvement social 111 (Apr.–Jun. 1980): 201–15; most recently see Gourevitch, Alex, From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015)Google Scholar; O’Donnell, Edward T., Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015)Google Scholar. On the limits of republicanism as a paradigm for understanding labor history see Schneirov, Labor and Politics, 9–10, 237–40, 298–99; and Babb, Sarah, “A True American System of Finance: Frame Resonance in the U.S. Labor Movement, 1866–1896,” American Sociological Review 61 (Dec. 1996): 1033–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar; on the alliance that led to the ILU see Fones-Wolf, Kenneth, “Boston Eight Hour Men, New York Marxists and the Emergence of the International Labor Union: Prelude to the AFL,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 9 (Apr. 1981): 4759Google Scholar.

12 The ILU Declaration of Principles is reprinted in McNeill, George E., The Labor Movement: The Problem of To-Day (New York: M. W. Hazen, 1887), 161–62Google Scholar.

13 Gompers acknowledged his adherence to Steward's economic theories in 1883 testimony before a Senate committee; see Report of the Committee of the Senate upon the Relations between Labor and Capital, 5 vols, vol. I. (Washington, DC: GPO, 1885), 293–94Google Scholar.

14 Capital, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977 [1867]), chap. 33; The reliance of Gompers's thinking in large part on Marx is demonstrated in Kaufman, Stuart Bruce, Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor, 1848–1896 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973)Google Scholar; and Dick, William M., Labor and Socialism in America: The Gompers Era (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1972)Google Scholar. However, Gompers relied on other intellectuals as well; see Cotkin, George B., “The Spencerian and Comtian nexus in Gompers’ labor philosophy: The Impact of Non-Marxian Evolutionary Thought,” Labor History 20 (Fall 1979): 510–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Schneider, Dorothee, Trade Unions and Community: The German Working Class in New York City, 1870–1900 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 5059Google Scholar.

16 Report of the Senate Committee on Labor and Capital, I:336.

17 For a contemporary understanding of socialization see Ely, Richard T., Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society (New York: Chautauqua Press, 1903), 57–61, 63–64, 8799Google Scholar. On Marx and the socialization process, see Harrington, Michael, Socialism: Past and Future (New York: Penguin, 1989)Google Scholar, chap. 1; more generally see Haskell, Thomas L., The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth–Century Crisis of Authority (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 1115Google Scholar; Hays, Samuel P., “The New Organizational Society” in American Political History as Social Analysis: Essays by Samuel P. Hays (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980): 244–63Google Scholar; on the importance but relative absence of this category in the thinking of academics, see Livingston, James, Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (New York: Routledge, 2001), 5783Google Scholar.

18 For other expressions of support for the labor theory of value by Gompers, see Alexander Yard, “A Fair Days’ Work: “The Shorter Hours Movement, Labor Reformers, and American Political Culture, 1865–1913 (PhD diss., Washington University, 1994), 129–30 and for other labor leaders, 116–37. But Gompers and other labor leaders also endorsed a needs-based theory of value, measured by the standard of living. As Lawrence Glickman points out, the two strands coexisted in this period; see A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 3132Google Scholar.”

19 These terms can be seen as “floating signifiers”; see Phillips, Louise and Jorgensen, Marianne W., Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method (London, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2002), 3940CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Merrill, Michael, “’Capitalism’ and CapitalismHistory Teacher 27 (May 1994): 277–80Google Scholar.

21 David Montgomery first asserted the moral universality of labor republicanism in “Labor and the Republic,” 18. See also, Forbath, William E., Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 18Google Scholar.

22 Rights of Labor, Nov. 29, 1890.

23 Kaufman, Samuel Gompers, 47–48, 50–55, 134–36, 195–202.

24 Steward, Ira, “A Reduction of Hours An Increase of Wages” and “The Power of the Cheaper Over the Dearer” in A Documentary History of American Industrial Society, eds. Commons, John R., Phillips, Ulrich B., Gilmore, Eugene A., Sumner, Helen L., and Andrews, John B (New York: Russell & Russell, 1958), 284301Google Scholar; and Steward, Ira, “Poverty,” Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor [Massachusetts] (Boston: Wright & Potter, State Printers, 1873), 411–39Google Scholar.

25 Currarino, The Labor Question, 93.

26 Yard, “A Fair Day's Work,” 77–85; Steward, “A Reduction of Hours,” 291, 295.

27 Quote from The Carpenter 13 (Sept. 1893), 9.

28 Hardman, J. B. S., “Union Objectives and Social Power” in American Labor Dynamics in the Light of Post-War Developments (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1928), 104–5Google Scholar. More generally, see Cobble, Dorothy Sue, “Pure and Simple Radicalism: Putting the Progressive Era AFL in Its Time” and responses in Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 10 (Winter 2013): 61–87, 111–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 On social democracy. see Kloppenberg, James T., Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), chap. 6, quote at 26Google Scholar; and Rodgers, Daniel T., Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge: Belknap, 1999)Google Scholar, esp. chaps 1 and 2.

30 Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory, 242.

31 Glickman, A Living Wage, 57–60; and Currarino, The Labor Question in America, 99–102; on the European version of social economy, see Rodgers's, Daniel T. discussion of the 1889 Paris Exposition in Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), 1120Google Scholar.

32 McNeill, Geo. E., The Eight Hour Primer: The Fact, Theory and the Argument. Eight Hour Series No. 1 (Washington, DC: AFL, 1889)Google Scholar; Gunton, George, The Economic and Social Importance of the Eight-Hour Movement, Eight-Hour Series No. 2 (Washington, DC: AFL, 1889)Google Scholar; Danryid, Lemuel, History and Philosophy of the Eight-Hour Movement Eight-Hour Series, No. 3 (Washington, DC: AFL, 1899), 8Google Scholar; Gunton, George, Principles of Social Economics, Inductively Considered and Practically Applied with Criticism on Current Theories (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1892), xGoogle Scholar.

33 Gay, Peter, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 123–30Google Scholar; Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 158; Samuel Gompers, “Revision or ‘Revolution,’” American Federationist (Aug. 1914): 649–50.

34 Kaufman, Gompers, 44; Yard, Alexander, “Coercive Government within a Minimal State: The Idea of Public Opinion in Gilded Age Labor Reform Culture,” Labor History 34 (Fall 1993): 443–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schneirov, Richard, “Political Cultures and the Role of the State in Labor's Republic: The View from Chicago, 1848–1877,” Labor History 32 (Summer 1991): 376400CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Fink, Gary M., “The Rejection of Voluntarism,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 26 (Jan. 1973): 805–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory, 285; Schneirov, RichardWilliam English Walling: Socialist and Labor Progressive,” introduction to William English Walling, American Labor and American Democracy (1926; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005)Google Scholar.

36 Each of these three remarkable intellectuals was sympathetic and close to the AFL. See William English Walling, American Labor and American Democracy, Hardman, “Union Objectives and Social Power,” 100–13; and Merrill, Michael, “Even Conservative Unions Have Revolutionary Effects: Frank Tannenbaum on the Labor Movement,” International Labor and Working-Class History 77 (Spring 2010): 115–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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