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“A Healthy Public Opinion”: Terence V. Powderly Distances the Knights of Labor from the Haymarket Martyrs

by Terence Powderly

The Haymarket Affair, as it is known today, began on May 1, 1886 when a labor protester threw a bomb at police, killing one officer, and ended with the arrest of eight anarchist leaders, three of whom were executed and none of whom was ever linked to the bombing. Some labor organizations saw the executed men as martyrs and tried to rally support but in the end, the hanging of the Haymarket anarchists not only emboldened capitalists, it undercut labor unity. Knights of Labor leader Terence V. Powderly was desperate to distance his organization from the accused anarchists and maintain the order’s respectability. In this excerpt from his 1890 autobiography Powderly explained his decision three years earlier to keep mainstream labor out of the furor that surrounded the Haymarket Affair.

I know that it may seem to be an arbitrary act on my part to rule a motion out of order, and did I not have excellent reasons for doing so I never would have availed myself of the privilege conferred upon me by virtue of the office I hold. To properly explain my reasons it will be necessary for me to take you back to the 1st of May, 1886, when the trade unions of the United States were in a struggle for the establishment of the eight-hour system. On that day was stricken to the dust every hope that existed for the success of the strike then in progress, and those who inflicted the blow claim to be representatives of labor. I deny their claim to that position, even though they may be workingmen. They represented no legitimate labor society, and obeyed the counsels of the worst foe this Order has upon the face of the earth to-day.

We claim to be striving for the elevation of the human race through peaceful methods, and yet are asked to sue for mercy for men who scorn us and our methods—men who were not on the street at the Chicago Haymarket in obedience to any law, rule, resolution or command of any part of this Order; men who did not in any way represent the sentiment of this Order in placing themselves in the attitude of opposing the officers of the law, and who sneer at our every effort to accomplish results. Had these men been there on that day in obedience to the laws of this society, and had they been involved in a difficulty through their obedience to our laws, I would feel it to be my duty to defend them to the best of my ability under the law of the land, but in this case they were there to counsel methods that we do not approve of; and no matter though they have lost no opportunity to identify this Order with anarchy, it stands as a truth that there does not exist the slightest resemblance between the two.

I warned those who proposed to introduce that resolution that I would rule it out of order, and that it would do harm to the condemned men to have it go out that this body had refused to pass such a resolution. I stated to them that I knew the sentiment of the men who came here, the sentiment of the order that sent them, and, knowing what that sentiment was, a resolution that in any way would identify this Order with anarchy could not properly represent that sentiment. You are not here in your individual capacity to act as individuals, and you cannot take upon yourselves to express your own opinion and then ask the Order at large to indorse it, for you are stepping aside from the path that your constituents instructed you to walk in.

This organization, among other things, is endeavoring to create a healthy public opinion on the subject of labor. Each member is pledged to do that very thing. How can you go back to your homes and say that you have elevated the Order in the eyes of the public by catering to an element that defies public opinion and attempts to dragoon us into doing the same thing? The eyes of the world are turned toward this convention. For evil or good will the vote you are to cast on this question affect the entire Order, and extreme caution must characterize your action. The Richmond session passed a vote in favor of clemency, but in such a way that the Order could not be identified with the society to which these men belong, and yet thousands have gone from the Order because of it. I tell you the day has come for us to stamp anarchy out of the Order, root and branch. It has no abiding place among us, and we may as well face the issue here and now as later on and at another place. Every device known to the devil and his imps has been resorted to to throttle this Order in the hope that on its ruins would rise the strength of anarchy.

During the year that has passed I have learned what it means to occupy a position which is in opposition to anarchy. Slander, vilification, calumny and malice of the vilest kind have been the weapons of the anarchists of America because I would not admit that Albert R. Parsons was a true and loyal member of the Knights of Labor. That he was a member is true, but we have had many members who were not in sympathy with the aims and objects of the order, and who would subordinate the Order to the rule of some other society. We have members, too, who could leave the Order for the Order’s good at any moment. Albert R. Parsons never yet counseled violence in obedience to the laws of Knighthood. I am told that it is my duty to defend the reputation of Mr. Parsons because he is a member of the Order. Why was not the obligation as binding on him? I have never lisped a word to his detriment either in public or private before. This is the first time that I have spoken about him in connection with the Haymarket riot, and yet the adherents of that damnable doctrine were not content to have it so; they accused me of attacking him, that I might, in denying it, say something in his favor. Why did Powderly not defend Parsons through the press since he is a Knight, and an innocent one? is asked. It is not my business to defend every member who does not know enough to take care of himself, and if Parsons is such a man he deserves no defense at my hands; but Parsons is not an ignorant man, and knows what he is doing. When men violate the laws and precepts of Knighthood, then no member is required to defend them. When Knights of Labor break the laws of the land in which they live, they must stand before the law the same as other men stand and be tried for their offenses, and not for being Knights.

This resolution does not come over the seal of either Local or District Assembly. It does not bear the seal of approval of any recognized body of the Order, and represents merely the sentiment of a member of this body, and should not be adopted in such a way as to give it the appearance of having the approval of those who are not here to defend themselves and the Order against that hell-infected association that stands as a foe of the most malignant stamp to the honest laborer of this land. I hate the name of anarchy. Through its encroachments it has tarnished the name of socialism and caused men to believe that socialism and anarchy are one. They are striving to do the same by the Knights of Labor. This they did intentionally and with malice aforethought in pushing their infernal propaganda to the front.

Pretending to be advanced thinkers, they drive men from the labor movement by their wild and foolish mouthings whenever they congregate, and they usually congregate where beer flows freely. They shout for the blood of the aristocracy, but will turn from blood to beer in a twinkling. I have no use for any of the brood, but am satisfied to leave them alone if they will attend to their own business and let this Order alone. They have aimed to capture this Order, and I can submit the proofs [here the documents were presented and read]. I have here also the expose of the various groups of anarchists of this country, and from them will read something of the aims of these mighty men of progress who would bring the greatest good to the greatest number by exterminating two-thirds of humanity to begin with. Possibly that is their method of conferring good.

No act of the anarchists ever laid a stone upon a stone in the building of this Order. Their every effort was against it, and those who have stood in the front, and have taken the sneers, insults and ridicule of press, pulpit and orator in defense of our principles, always have had the opposition of these devils to contend with also. I cannot talk coolly when I contemplate the damage they have done us, and then reflect that we are asked to identify ourselves with them even in this slight degree. Had the anarchists their way this body would not be in existence to-day to ask assistance from. How do you know that the condemned men want your sympathy? Have they asked you to go on your knees in supplication in seeking executive clemency for them? I think not, and, if they are made of the stuff that I think they are, they will fling back in your teeth the resolution you would pass. I give the men who are in the prison cell at Chicago credit for being sincere in believing that they did right. They feel that they have struggled for a principle, and feeling that way they should be, and no doubt are, willing to die for that principle.

Why, if I had done as they did, and stood in their place, I would die before I would sue for mercy. I would never cringe before a governor, or any other man, in a whine for clemency. I would take the consequences, let them be what they would. We may sympathize with them as much as we please, but our sympathies are due first to the Order that sent us here, and it were better that seven times seven men hang than to hang the millstone of odium around the standard of this Order in affiliating in any way with this element of destruction. If these men hang you may charge it to the actions of their friends [who have] strengthen[ed] the strands of the rope by their insane mouthings...

Be consistent and disband as soon as you pass this resolution, for you will have no further use of any kind for another General Assembly. You have imposed upon your General Master Workman the task of defending the Order from the attacks of its enemies, and he feels that he is entitled to at least a small share of the credit for giving the Order its present standing. He has to the best of his ability defended the Order, but its friends will place in the hands of its enemies the strongest weapon that was ever raised against it if they pass this resolution. Of what avail for me to go before the public and assert that we are a law-abiding set of men and women? What will it avail for me to strive to make public opinion for the Order when, with one short resolution, you sweep away every vestige of the good that has been done, for, mark it, the press stands ready to denounce us far and wide the moment we do this thing?

This resolution is artfully worded. Its sinister motive is to place us in the attitude of supporters of anarchy rather than sympathizers with men in distress, and it should be defeated by a tremendous majority. It is asserted that this does not amount to anything, and that it is not the intention to identify the Order at large with these men. No more barefaced lie was ever told. That resolution would never be offered if we did not represent so large a constituency, and if it passes twenty-four hours won’t roll over your heads until you see anarchists all over the land shouting that if these men are hanged the Knights of Labor will take revenge at the polls and elsewhere. In passing that resolution you place the collar of anarchy around your necks, and no future act of ours can take It off. If you sympathize with these unfortunate men, why do you lack the manhood to sign a petition for the commutation of their sentence, as individuals, and stand upon your own manhood, instead of sneaking behind the reputation and character of this great Order, which owes everything it has gained to having nothing to do with the anarchists? Pass this vote if you will, but I swear that I will not be bound by any resolution that is contrary to the best interests of the Order. You cannot pass a resolution to muzzle me, and I will not remain silent after the adjournment of this convention if it becomes necessary to defend the Order from unjust assaults as a result of the action taken.

As an Order we are striving for the establishment of justice for industry. We are attempting to remove unjust laws from the statutes, and are doing what we can to better the condition of humanity. At every step we have to fight the opposition of capital, which of itself is sufficient to tax our energies to the utmost; but at every step we are handicapped by the unwarrantable and impertinent interference of these blatant, shallow-pated men, who affect to believe that they know all that is worth knowing about the conditions of labor, and who arrogate to themselves the right to speak for labor at all times and under all circumstances. That they are mouth-pieces is true, but they only speak for themselves, and do that in such a way as to alarm the community and arouse it to such a pitch of excitement that it insists upon the passage of restrictive legislation, which, unfortunately, does not reach the men whose rash language calls for its passage. Its effects are visited upon innocent ones who had no hand, act or part in formenting the discord which preceded the passage of the unjust laws.

Our greatest trouble has always been caused by extremists who, without shadow of authority, attempted to voice the sentiments of this Order; and from this day forward I am determined that no sniveling anarchist will speak for me, and if he attempts it under shadow of this organization, then he or I must leave the Order, for I will not attempt to guide the affairs of a society that is so lacking in manhood as to allow the very worst element of the community to make use of the prestige it has gained to promote the vilest of schemes against society. I have never known a day when these creatures were not ready to stab us to the heart when our faces were turned toward the enemy of labor.

It is high time for us to assert our manhood before these men throttle it, For Parsons and the other condemned men let there be mercy. I have no grudge against them. In fact, I would never trouble my head about them were it not for the welfare of this Order. Let us as individuals express our sorrow for their unhappy plight, if we will; but as an Order we have no right to do so. It is not the individuals who are in prison at Chicago that I speak against. It is the hellish doctrine which found vent on the streets of Chicago, and which, unfortunately for themselves, they have been identified with. No, I do not hate these men, I pity them; but for anarchy I have nothing but hatred, and if I could I would forever wipe from the face of the earth the last vestige of its doubledamned presence, and in doing so would feel that the best act of my life, in the interest of labor, had been performed.

Source: Terence V. Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor, 1859–1889 (Philadelphia: T.V. Powderly, 1890).

See Also:"His Act is Doublely Despicable": Albert Parsons Responds to His Condemnation by Terence V. Powderly