This description of a Washington D.C. Knights of Labor assembly hall in the late 1880s appeared in T. Fulton Gantt’s novel, Breaking the Chains: A Story of the Present Industrial Struggle,. It was was first published in 1887, in serial form, in The Lance, a labor newspaper in Salem, Oregon. Many other novels from this period addressed the problems of labor conflict and inequality, but Gantt was one of the very few to see unionization as the answer to the problems of working people. Although the Knights officially prohibited lawyers (“non-producers”) from membership, Gantt was both a member of the bar and the Knights. Gantt’s description, which presumably drew from his own experience in District Assembly 66 in Washington, D.C., conveyed a sense of the diverse social, political, and intellectual functions that the meeting hall played for its members, as well as the issues that animated their debates.
Two flights of narrow and well-worn stairs in the rear end of a business house, but a few steps from Pennsylvania avenue and several blocks from the Capitol, leads to what is now known among the initialed as Knights of Labor Hall. A few of the contractors suspect it to be a rendezvous of discontented workingmen. But the great public surging along Pennsylvania avenue, even the colossal statesmen of this metallic age included, little dream that the murmur of voices occasionally floating from the third story windows to the street below emanate from the faithful pioneers of labors greatest movement, even now challenging the wisdom and ability of a National Legislature that has for years given the toilers fair promises and the capitalists faithful legislation.
Yet here they are, this bright Sunday afternoon, and in the chests in anteroom and hall might be found the charters of seven or eight assemblies since the first struggle of L.A. 1644. Plasterers, carpenters, painters, tinners, plumbers, tailors, brickmakers, stone-cutters, &c., have been mingling together, making common cause of each other’s wrongs. The meeting is informal, the hall being thrown open Sundays as a sort of club room for the Knights. A number drop in, chat a few minutes and leave; but in these trying times, with the regularity of Sabbath, can be found a few determined men from the different trades, who come early and stay late. There is Myron Lesboh, cool and long-headed, one of the first in 1644, never daunted, saying but little, but always talking and contriving to make something substantial out of even defeat—a philosopher. His assembly has had the first fight and won the first victory for labor. From a possible $2 per day down to anything, a scale for $2.50 has been demanded and received for every decent plasterer in the City.
Jack Nolan, the original boycotter of the District, is here, and is known by every member of the order and nearly everybody else. His silvered head belies his vitality. No young man has yet been initiated in the order who can get up earlier, stay up longer, or do more work for the general good, for another trade, or in behalf of a suffering brother than this vigorous patriarch of the Knights. He was first educated in unionism as a boy in the old country. He has assisted at the birth and burial of many organizations, but his faith never faltered in agitation, organization, and education. His experience taught him that an amalgamation of all toilers would be irresistible, and although his trade already had an independent organization, he never rested until it was a part of the Knights of Labor. Jack had carefully read and studied the principles of the new order, and embraced it all, even opposition to strikes, with arbitration substituted. He had been in many strikes and had suffered more acutely than the bosses. His knowledge of occurrences in his native land had made him acquainted with the affair of Capt. Boycott and the farmers of Ireland, and he readily saw how effective the same weapon could be made in behalf of labor with proper combination. The Knights of Labor, organizing all toilers, with no reference to occupation, furnished the combination, and Jack Nolan soon found opportunity to test his “little arbitration persuader.”
A clothier and merchant tailor had misused his employees, Jack asked his assembly to formally declare a boycott. The boys couldn’t see what a boycott could do. They had been educated that the only resource was the strike; but our old Trojan explained how they belonged to the Knights of Labor, where “the injury of one was the concern of all”; how the workingmen of the District must have clothes, and how they patronized the obnoxious clothier. A united effort would end this patronage, and the offender’s pocket-book, the tenderest part of his person, would suffer infinitely more than by doing justice to his employees. His own assembly won. Jack, with a committee, visited the sister assemblies, advocating the new gospel of boycott until this weapon was put in operation by all. Jack’s prophecies were correct. The first boycott was an eminent success, and lasted but a few weeks, when the stubborn clothier successfully arbitrated and has since deserved the patronage of the working classes well enough to build the finest mercantile palace in the city.
And here is Alex Tenacit, not so often at these gatherings, but a wondrous tenacious and reliable fellow, his first care being the welfare of his assembly. He has been well tried and has always stood the test.
How can I describe Ernest Constance—a man who works at his trade ten hours daily and only takes the most meager portion of his own time for eating and sleeping, the remainder being devoted to the cause of labor. He talks but seldom, except in reporting the results of his work, but is always listened to with profound attention.
The story of a committee of tinners waiting on a millionaire brewer, who treated them with contempt and insult, and the failure of arbitration, as he told it in simple language that carried with it the conviction or truth, awakened such a storm of indignation among the united toilers that the terrible boycott leaped from its scabbard almost unbidden. How he met and confounded the arrogant brewer before a meeting of business men in a three-minute speech, and how that brewer surrendered at discretion, will be long remembered by the friends Brother Constance has served so long and well.
Joseph Farwell is also a member of this group—a young-man fully awake to the life-work before him. It was only necessary for him to be instructed in the principles and purposes of the Knights of Labor to become its enthusiastic advocate. His union was already organized, but was brought into the fold an entire body. Joe soars along on that higher plane of the K. of L. (together with his brothers here mentioned) that precludes anything like harmonious affiliation with either of the old political parties. His labors since joining the order have been unremitting, and he has been rewarded with positions of the greatest trust. He is in for life, and fully expects to live long enough to shout “Victory.”
And last, but not least, is that sturdy, indefatigable, never-surrender champion Lucien Denmar, who stood in the first ranks when the movement started, stands there now, and will be found there as long as life lasts. He is not a talker either, but what a worker! An organizer, he is never idle, and not only himself, but all his friends, whose name is legion, wish that he were rich enough to devote his entire time to his great work. It is surmised that some bosses wish him all the delights of paradise if he would only emigrate.
There are others, just as good and true men as those described, but space is limited, and the pleasure of mentioning them must be resisted. All these men are among the most proficient mechanics of their various trades and never want for work.
But no; there is one more present at this gathering in whom we are especially interested, although he is as yet scarcely known as a Knight of Labor. Mr. Harry Wallace, the friend and fellow-student of Miss Maud Simpson, has lately joined, and avails himself of every opportunity to become familiar with the principles and purposes of this movement. From his early youth he has been busy storing his mind with such brain food as happened to be within reach. Of the practical association of men, together for the betterment of their condition, he knew nothing farther than might be learned from a study of Charles Reade’s celebrated novel, “Put Yourself in His Place,” and of course his opinion of trade unions were [was] not favorable. In fact, he thought little or nothing about them until the request of Miss Maud Simpson had led him to making inquiries. He was not long in learning that the very best men of his trade were members of the new order, and he naturally argued that these men would not remain in an organization that was bad. He also learned that rum-sellers, gamblers, and like objectionable characters were rigidly barred from membership. It promised well, and deserving further investigation, he joined the order, fully determined to master the labor question from the stand-point of the people most interested—the toilers themselves. These Sunday gatherings brought him in contact with the leading and most earnest men of the different trades, and while he seldom said anything, much was learned from the discussion always going on of different trade difficulties and the general objects and welfare of the order at large. He was much surprised at the familiarity of these men with the affairs of each other’s trades. Each talked of the other’s difficulties as though they were of their own trade. The chief topic of conversation today was of a formal boycott declared by the painters, and indorsed by all the other assemblies.
Wallace asked Jack Nolan to explain fully the origin of this boycott.
“The fact is,” said Nolan, “that this steamboat company we are boycotting first boycotted us. They blacklisted our entire assembly of painters; wouldn’t give us work, and went to some trouble to get non-union men to paint the very boats they want us to ride on, and now we have concluded that we won’t ride on their boats and shall tell everybody else why we don’t patronize them.”
“But do you think, Mr. Nolan, there are enough of us to seriously damage this steamboat company?”
“Why, my dear boy, we expect to grow; these cheap excursions down the river are about all we wage-earners have, and this boycott wasn’t put on for a day. You will hear of and obey it as long as you live unless the steamboat outfit surrenders. We have been laughed at for attacking a company so rich, but, my dear fellow, as Knights of Labor, we know that the concern got rich on the 25 and 50 cent fares just such fellows as you and I have been giving them. Suppose only a few hundred of us go on other boats this season—say one hundred—ten trips each; that would be one thousand trips at say 50 cents. That would take from their trade this season $500. We double that next season; that would be $1,000; next season make it $2,000, then $4,000, and so on. Wouldn’t they feel it? Well, this estimate is the very smallest that could be made, and don’t you forget it, two seasons' and probably less work will bring this big company to reason. Ah, my boy, this boycotting will do more for arbitration within the next year or two than strikes have done in a century. Why, we can boycott and live. We used to strike and starve.”
“But, is there nothing for this organization to do but keep on boycotting or striking? Is there hope of peace?”
“Harry, you are yet young in this order, and you are not yet up in its principals. When its broad foundations were laid by Uriah Stevens the boycott was not thought of. It was arbitration—a fair settlement by disinterested persons of all disputes between labor and capital. Here in Washington we learned very soon that, no matter how square we acted, they wouldn’t arbitrate. We had learned a lesson from the Irish and introduced the boycott as an ‘arbitration persuader,’ and so far it has worked like a charm. But we look forward to establishment of the principles of arbitration, when the fight will be shifted from the field of force and violence, such as is brought about by strikes, to the field of peaceful adjudication. The time will come when the profits of the employer of labor will be as well known as the wages of the employee. When that time comes and man’s pay is fixed in proportion to what he creates for the employer, and kept there by peaceful, quiet arbitration, the boycott will be a thing of the past. But, my boy, that is not all of the Knights of Labor. They go farther and expect to accomplish more. Establishing arbitration will dispose of these continued irritating fights now the result of the competitive wage system, and give us more leisure to work out a solution of the labor problem—the great problem that includes all the other problems on earth. Why, my dear sir, we hope eventually to establish the principles of a new political economy which shall teach ‘That to be the best government wherein an injury to the meanest citizen shall be the immediate concern of all.’ We are fighting the brutal doctrines of that old school of economy which is enslaving men and women all over the world. You must read some of the old writers—say Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ and Ricardo, learn something of the idiotic and sacrilegious doctrines of Malthus, and then read Henry George.”
Harry Wallace began to comprehend that the work before him was almost stupendous, and he now understood why the Knights of Labor insisted so persistently on education. It began to dawn on him that the intelligent labor of this country was preparing itself for a revolutionary struggle the weapons of which would not be engines of war and destruction, but the more peaceful ones of argument and appeals to the justice and reason of the great public. He began to feel that in a country like ours, where the people were sovereign, there was much to be hoped for through “agitation, organization, and education.” Several hours later Mr. Wallace and Miss Simpson were strolling along one of Washington’s popular driveways toward the woods.
“Ah, Maud,” he proceeded to say, "this labor organization in which you are so much interested, and to which I now belong, is far beyond what either of us dreamed, and as yet I feel that I know little or nothing of its philosophy. I thought it was merely all organization or rather combination to keep up or increase the wages of its members; but I am informed and begin to see that they have a much higher purpose. Of course the control of wages is an immediate benefit, and many belong who think of nothing else; but the originator of the order and the long-headed men who follow his teachings closely hope at least to sow the seeds of a complete revolution in our present systems of political economy. Why, the men I met today seem to take hold of this matter as a life-work. Old men, who hope for no substantial benefits themselves, talk of the coming generations. Now I know little or nothing about this new political economy more than in a general way, but I gather that it is in direct opposition to a proposition I read the other day in Frank Leslie’s Weekly, and have been thinking of ever since.“
”What is it?“
”The paper said editorially ‘that there was just so much labor to be done in this world; that there were two ways of having it done. First, by the slavedriver’s lash, and second, by keeping before labor the immediate prospect of want.’ The first has been abolished, so that the second must prevail.“
”Was it stated so blunt and brutal?“
”Why, Harry, if this statement be true, we are all driven by fear. But it is not true. Hope is a greater incentive to exertion than fear. Why, there is my employer for instance, who works harder perhaps than any clerk he has and I know he doesn’t do it from fear of want. He hopes to have the greatest dry goods establishment in this city. For myself, if it were not for the hope of something better I should certainly give up in despair. Do you really think these men who write such things believe them?“
”Yes; some of them do. A great many wealthy people learn to think so. It seems the gulf between the rich and poor has been widening rapidly since the war, and the rich have been educating themselves up to the idea that they are a superior race, while we are growing nearer and nearer the beasts of burden that have to be driven.“
”Well, I guess, Mr. Wallace, you and I can do no better than to make this subject our study and utilize all the reading matter on the subject you can find in your extensive library. We can find out what the old writers say, and then read Henry George’s ‘Progress and Poverty.’ Father has a copy. We are so vitally interested that no time' should be lost."
It was thus these two young people wandered through the woods adjoining the city this pleasant Sunday afternoon, unconsciously enjoying the beauties of nature while discussing questions of the most vital importance to themselves, their fellow-workingmen and women, and to the very life of this second great Republic in the history of the world—the very questions the people, mostly their own class, had elected something like 500 men from year to year to solve, but which were never solved. Possibly a majority of the national legislators knew less of these problems than the young students pursuing their first preliminary investigations.
Source: T. Fulton Gantt, Breaking the Chains: A Story of the Present Industrial Struggle, published serially in The Lance (Salem, Oregon, 1887). Reprinted in Mary C. Grimes, ed., The Knights in Fiction: Two Labor Novels of the 1880s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 39–46.