Spreading the Light in New York: 1880-1882

New York's radical network in 1880-1882

New York’s radical network in 1880-1882


In the early 1880s, there was what has been described as a ‘frenzied’ landscape in US politics, with the two main parties continuing to reestablish themselves in a battle for electoral dominance, and radical groups competing with them and also between themselves. Labor unions (and, increasingly, federations of them), ‘third’ parties, issues-based organizations, Clubs and Leagues, emerged and often declined, or at best fused with each other.

In New York, the radical political and labor leaders of this period involved themselves concurrently with a number of different organizations with varying sizes, structures and purposes. Multiple parallel membership of the organizations allowed individuals, and the collective informal network to which they belonged, to leverage different types of resources to engage in a wide variety of activities and events in support of some commonly held issues such as anti-monopoly, the eight hour day, political corruption, convict and Chinese labor and so on.

In this way different categories of organizations provided alternative mechanisms for agitation and organization. Some might have the capacity to hold large-scale meetings and parades; some might have direct impacts on the employment situation; others might provide for the education of workers which many believed was a precursor to effective agitation and change; others provided a strong sense of co0peration and identity for their members. The different social, psychological and political needs of radicals (as individuals or groups) was catered for in different ways by this range of organisational vehicles.

As a result, radical leaders were able, over an extended period of time, to pursue certain goals despite the apparent ineffectiveness and ephemerality of some of the organizations they established and ran. This blog looks at a significant group within the extended and tight-knit network of radicals that existed in New York in the period 1880-1882, and in particular their involvement with the Spread the Light movement which briefly unified the land reformers, anti-monopolists, labor unionists, and the Greenback Labor and Socialistic Labor parties.

It focuses specifically on the Brooklyn Spread the Light Club, an educational club providing weekly lectures. The leading members had multiple membership of radical organizations, and the club’s Hall was a base for a much more extended group of radicals. It was this group working from their Spread the Light Hall who in September 1882 were able to organize the huge parade and pic-nic that subsequently came to be seen as the first Labor Day parade.

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